Evolution for Everyone

The year was 2007. The event was the 118th annual meeting of the American Economic Association. The person was George A. Akerlof, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics and newly elected president of the AEA, who stepped up to the podium to deliver his presidential address titled “The Missing Motivation in Macroeconomics“. The missing motivation was norms.

Norms? Economists have been the primary advisors on public policy and they’re only newly considering a little thing called norms? This is the kind of disconnect between economic theory and reality that makes outsiders rub their eyes in disbelief.

Yet, it is important to resist the facile conclusion that economists are delusional as individuals. Most economists are very smart, very well informed, and very well-intentioned for the most part. We therefore have a mystery to solve that is far more interesting and consequential than mocking economists: What are the social and intellectual dynamics that cause smart, well-informed, and well-intentioned people to ignore something as manifestly important for our species as norms?

Akerlof offers a perceptive diagnosis in his address, which is published in the March 2007 issue of the American Economic Review. Evidently, the school of economic thought based on John Maynard Keynes was based on a commonsense view of human nature, or “their own introspection regarding how the various actors in the economy would behave,” as Akerlof puts it. Then something happened that I will let him describe in his own words:

But a new school of thought, based on classical economics, objected to the casual ways of these folks. New Classical critics of Keynesian economics insisted instead that these relations be derived from fundamentals. They said that macroeconomic relationships should be derived from profit-maximizing by firms and from utility-maximizing by consumers with economic arguments in their utility functions.

The new methodology had a profound effect on macroeconomics. Five separate neutrality results overturned aspects of macroeconomics that Keynesians had previously considered incontestable.

In other words, a formal body of mathematical theory became the new gold standard, trumping mere introspection. One can well imagine the glamour and authority of the new methodology, but in retrospect it can be seen as a profound mistake. It is important to go beyond introspection but a theorem-like body of mathematics isn’t right either. Is there a third alternative?

Every field of inquiry hits a complexity wall beyond which a theorem-like body of mathematics cannot go. For physics, it was the complexity revolution so ably recounted by James Gleik in his 1987 book Chaos: The Making of a New Science. Even the relatively simple problem of computing the mutual gravitational interactions of 3 masses in 3-dimensional space hits the complexity wall. In my field of evolution, population genetics theory hits the complexity wall with 3-locus models.

How can any field of inquiry progress beyond the complexity wall? Theory plays a role that is still essential but more humble, exploring small regions of the parameter space like a flashlight rather than trying to illuminate the entire world like the sun. Computer simulation models become an essential supplement to analytical models and need not be regarded as poor cousins. Theory becomes a refinement of intuition that needs to be constantly checked against empirical data to remain anchored to reality.

Economic theory is slowly going in this direction, as Eric Beinhocker (one of the conference participants) recounts in his 2006 book The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. A lot of the pushing comes from within the field, as we have seen in the case of Maurice Allais (see E&E II) and George Akerlof. The folks who award the Nobel Prize in economics seem especially eager to recognize the pushers, most recently Elinor Ostrom, whose work will be featured in a future installment. All this pushing from within the field signifies the existence of a nearly immovable object. Some deep thinking about the nature of paradigms and the inadequacy of a theorem-like body of mathematics for any field of inquiry might help to make the object more moveable.

There is more to the mystery of why core economic theory resists movement in the direction of common sense–Milton Friedman’s claim in 1953 that a theory can remain predictive even when its assumptions flagrantly depart from reality. Here is how Akerlof diagnoses the problem in his 2007 presidential address:

The omission of norms from macroeconomics, as well as from economics more generally, can be explained by economists’ adherence to positive economics. Friedman’s (1953) essay on positive economics describes the methodological implications of such belief. In particular, he says that economic theorists should strive for parsimonious modeling. According to Friedman, they should even forsake realistic assumptions in pursuit of such parsimony.

It is important to review Friedman’s reasoning in detail because it relies upon evolution. He presented three examples to illustrate how a theory can be predictive while flagrantly departing from reality. In the first example, the distribution of leaves on a tree can be predicted as if it is trying to maximize exposure to light, when mechanistically it is doing nothing of the sort. In the second example, the behavior of an expert billiards player can be predicted as if he is solving complex equations, when mechanistically he is doing nothing of the sort. In the third example, the behavior of a successful business firm can be predicted on the basis of profit maximization, even if the members of the firm don’t think of it that way. The firm might have become successful by a learning process similar to the second example or a process of selection among firms, similar to genetic selection among trees.

All three examples involve adaptations that evolve by variation-and-selection processes, whether genetic evolution, cultural evolution, or individual learning. The distinction between ultimate and proximate causation in evolutionary theory can help us see both the truth and falsehood of Friedman’s claim.

As every evolutionist knows, all traits that evolve by a variation and selection process require two complimentary explanations. First, why does a given trait exist, compared to many traits that could exist? Returning to Friedman’s first example, why do trees maximize the exposure of their leaves to light, when there is an infinitude of other ways that they could be configured? The answer to this question is based on what survives at the end of a variation-and-selection process (ultimate causation). Second, how does the trait exist in a mechanistic sense? The answer to this question is based on physical mechanisms, such as those that cause real leaves to be distributed on real trees (proximate causation).

Friedman is right that ultimate causation provides a powerful way to reason about the properties of organisms without any knowledge of proximate mechanisms. He is even right that bothering with proximate mechanisms can get in the way. Suppose that I am a desert biologist interested in animal coloration. I can confidently predict that many desert organisms will be the color of sand, whether they are insects, reptiles, or mammals. I don’t need to know anything about the physical makeup of the organisms, not even their genes. To the extent that proximate mechanisms result in heritable variation, that is the extent to which I can ignore them while concentrating on the shaping influence of selection. Bothering with the physical makeup of sandy colored insects tells me nothing about the physical makeup of sandy colored snakes. Evolutionists use this mode of reasoning all the time. It is part of what is sometimes called the adaptationist program.

Friedman is wrong that ultimate causation provides a justification for ignoring proximate causation in all respects. That claim would be a flagrant example of what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin criticized about adaptationism in their famous article titled “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Program“, which was published in 1979. This is one of the most widely discussed papers in modern evolutionary thought. Much of the debate centers on whether Gould and Lewontin created a straw man in their portrayal of evolutionists using adaptation as their only explanatory tool. Regardless of the answer to that question, Friedman’s position is every bit as extreme as Gould and Lewontin’s straw man portrayal.

Mature evolutionary research programs pay equal attention to proximate and ultimate causation, which mutually inform each other. No evolutionist in their right mind would claim that ultimate causation eliminates the need to understand proximate causation, other than in certain narrowly defined contexts. Yet, that was Friedman’s claim for the field of economics, which still has a firm grip as late as 2007, judging by Akerlof’s presidential address.

Future installments will demonstrate how evolutionists rely upon both proximate and ultimate causation, providing a model for economics and other theoretical frameworks that guide public policy. For the moment, here’s a bit of advice: If an object resists pushing after decades of effort, try going around it.

To be continued


  1. #1 Amplexus
    December 16, 2009

    See this is really interesting stuff with lots of brain stretching stuff. I’m currently an upper division undergraduate interested in pursuing evolutionary biology in grad school.

    The first mention in my school career of proximate and ultimate causes was in ethology and Tinbergen’s four questions.

    I think that unfortunately it is entirely possible to graduate summa cum laude with a biology degree from a top university having never been exposed to ultimate versus proximate explanations.

    Really it was animal behavior that I first heard that. Never in zoology(comparative anatomy) genetics , or ecology. Never once heard it . See I don’t even know if the campbell reece text mentions it when I took the more general or introductory classes either.

    Hell, I was never told that genomes evolve through gene duplications. There was one sentence uttered about transposons. But even their movement was described like the just plop themselves around for kicks. Even worse the classes make it seem like Mendelian characters/traits are the norm(they’re actually extremely rare)

    Gahh Evolution is so glossed over in undergraduate studies. I think unfortunately it probably has a lot to do with politics as well as the desire of a university to cater to people going into molecular biology/ biomedicine. It’s a shame really.

  2. #2 Evan
    December 16, 2009

    Keep this series of posts coming. I’m a novice when it comes to economics, but I’ve found them fascinating thus far. I’m intrigued by the idea of applying evolutionary reasoning to economics (or more broadly, I suppose, the reasoning of emergent properties).

    I like the idea of ultimate and proximate causes. This is the first time I’ve heard of this distinction. It seems like one of those handy ways of thinking that is so infrequently taught formally. I wonder if there might be other “causes” besides those two. For example, with respect to any organism’s behavior, one might include a developmental cause along with the ultimate cause of evolution and the proximate cause of the organism’s immediate form and stimuli.

  3. #3 David Sloan Wilson
    December 16, 2009

    I can’t resist replying to these first two comments. As Amplexus notes and Evan anticipates, Niko Tinbergen famously outlined four types of explanation, including development and phylogeny in addition to what I have called ultimate and proximate. These are known as “Tinbergen’s four questions”. As a historical note, Tinbergen won the Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine in 1973 and his brother Jan won the first Nobel Prize for economics in 1969.

    It is lamentable that such foundational concepts in evolutionary theory are largely absent from the college curriculum, even for the mechanistic branches of biology, as strange as that might seem. The programs that I run are designed to address this problem in various domains–EvoS for higher education, the Evolution Institute for public policy, the Binghamton Neighborhood Project for community-based research, and the Evolutionary Religious Studies website for the study of religion. See the side banner of my blog site for the links to these. The “beginner’s guide” available on the ERS website provides a tutorial that serves for other subjects as well.

  4. #4 Josh
    December 16, 2009

    I’m leery of the terminology of proximate and ultimate causes. Whether or not you intend it, “ultimate” cause is often taken to imply a teleology. Moreover, there is nothing particularly ultimate or final about it. As you may be aware, the “four questions” supposedly come from Aristotle’s four types of causes which I find to be quite muddled (though maybe cause is a questionable translation?). Explanations would seem a better word choice to me.

    In general I would say you fundamentally have a chain of “proximate” causes of indefinite length. E.g.- An animal’s coloration is due to the structure of its body; this was caused by some physical process of growth and development dictated by the actions of earlier cells, the environment ,etc; the behavior of the cells follows from their genes via molecular processes; the cells have those particular genes because they were carried by the fertilizing sperm/egg of the parents; etc., etc… This is a fundamental, deterministic chain of cause and effect. Obviously useful for specific cases, clearly impractical for many generalities.

    It’s easier to say, “it lives in the desert so it’s sand colored to hide from predators.” But this is really short hand for “its ancestors had variations in coloration and those which more closely matched the environment were harder to spot and thus more likely to survive and reproduce. Over time this process gradually favored a consistent coloration in this species, hence today they are sand colored and this is a member of that group.

    This latter is a powerful organizing statement, but it is not a cause per se. It’s really a statement about averages and expectations. It can’t be applied to the individual animal, for which the more precise statement is “it has this particular gene, either it mutated in this generation by some process or it was passed on through a chain of ancestors, all of whom survived until the passing.” It may not even be true for this animal or any particular ancestor that its coloration aided its survival.

    Speaking in terms of averages and aggregate behaviors is how we deal with going beyond the 3-body problem in physics (and believe me there are theorems). These methods are powerful not only because they can get some useful information out of intractably large problems, but because they are general. The principles of evolution , for example, apply to all species that vary and reproduce, even if we don’t understand all the details of their biology and history.
    The price of course is that one can’t make specific statements about where a particular molecule of air will be or what a given animal is doing right now.

    The results of the “averaging” approach are somewhat independent of the “proximate” chain since they can ignore some of the details and apply to broad classes of specific phenomena. But I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the average results are ultimately derived from the “proximate” causes and not vice versa. Hence, I dislike the phrase “ultimate cause”. Screed over.

    None of which is to detract from your point about the state of economics.

  5. #5 Guy
    December 18, 2009

    Hi All,

    I am an evolutionary biologist, so the ultimate/proximate distinction regarding causation is very familiar to me. In fact, I would push the notion of causation further into complexity and (perhaps unfortunately) ambiguity. My view is that there is always an unknowable and large number of valid levels of explanation for any phenomenon. It may be that a phenomenon has a primary level of explanation, and that particular questions about the phenomenon are best answered at particular levels, but explanatory validity can still be broadly distributed. Here is a silly thought experiment to illustrate what I mean. Take the phenomenon of a person picking up an apple. This can be validly explained in the following ways:

    – because the person was hungry
    – because the person likes apples
    – because the social norms of the community favor apple consumption
    – because evolution through human ancestry disposed them to like apples and to be able to digest them
    – because thermodynamics potentiates the extraction of free energy from the breakdown of large, energy-rich molecules in the apple, which can be used to build or maintain human tissues

    You could even validly argue that the apple moves upward, against the pull of gravity, because the molecules in human skin, and in the apple, are cohesively bonded to one another such that movement of the hand against the apple displaces the apple as a coherent object.

    All of these are true and valid explanations, and I think it would be false to argue that the validity of one excludes any of the others. I’m sure there are many other valid levels or perspectives of explanation for this and other phenomena. In my view, the proximate/ultimate distinction is like describing two ends of a spectrum of explanation that cut across temporal and/or spatial scales of processes impacting the phenomenon of interest. Even the idea of a spectrum, however, is insufficient to capture the different dimensions of logic that are introduced by different points of view.

    Lest all of this sounds to much like new age dribble, allowing for a multiplicity of valid explanations absolutely does not mean that all explanations are true or somehow equivalent. Every putative explanation still requires critical evaluation and is subject to rejection. My view does, however, suggest that the validity of one explanation does not in itself diminish the validity of alternative explanations. Indeed, appreciating the validity of multiple explanations simultaneously greatly enriches our understanding.

  6. #6 piker
    December 19, 2009

    Daniel Dennett, in Freedom Evolves, writing about causation, refers to a riddle demonstrating that circumstances will sometimes fail to pinpoint the “real” cause of an event, assuming there is such a one or proximate cause:
    “A case in point is the classic law school riddle: Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred, and wants him dead. During the night before Fred’s trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom’s intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the “water” will slowly run out. Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst. Who caused his death? ”

    Dennett argues that there aren’t any facts shown that will settle the issue. And even though I suspect there are facts shown above that do, I also more than suspect that this sort of “model” won’t account for the involvement of “facts” floating outside of our present abilities to glom onto.

  7. #7 BDNf
    December 19, 2009

    Mature evolutionary research programs pay equal attention to proximate and ultimate causation, which mutually inform each other. No evolutionist in their right mind would claim that ultimate causation eliminates the need to understand proximate causation, other than in certain narrowly defined contexts.

    I can’t speak on behalf of every evolutionist out there nor do I mean to be insulting towards some of them, but being a graduate student in evolutionary anthropology, I’ve often come across the opposite reaction when talking about higher mammals’ behavior, especially primates and, obviously, humans : proximate causes being so numerous and the interactions being so complex that it is impossible, or almost so, to say something worth of mention about the evolution of a particular behavior because said behavior could change given a different set of circumstances, implying therefore a kind of unlimited plasticity that is the result of evolution but is now kind of a given. Which relegates to being sad and sadistic strict deterministic those trying to find the origins of human behavior. I don’t really have an example at hand right now since it’s early Saturday morning, but one such example, even if it doesn’t pertain to behavior per se, could be the controversy surrounding some of the gender/sex issues, many of the more recent advocates for a biological sex continuum (molded on the “race” model) arguing there are so many developmental paths and that sex is the result of such a complex cascade of events it doesn’t really exist (of course I caricature, but when interpreted by many cultural or social anthropologists, that’s what it looks like).

    As far as I know, the only ones partly spared by this kind of accusation of being deterministic-blind-to-proximate-causes in the study of the evolutionary origins of human behavior are human behavioral ecologists since, as Hames write, “behavioral ecology is agnostic about the causative role of genes in the study of human behavioral variation” (Grafen’s phenotypic gambit) and since they don’t make any statement about this specific kind of cause, they are somewhat exonerated (in fact most of them are simply not read in anthropology classes even though they are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting).

  8. #8 Alan Kellogg
    December 21, 2009

    Now consider the role of human psychology in economic decisions, and how evolution has shaped it. For what is an iPhone but bling, and bling an expression of fitness?

  9. #9 bob koepp
    December 22, 2009

    I’m waiting for our host to expand a bit on this business of norms. I suppose that “positive economics” is the view that the _science_ of economics serves only epistemic norms; non-epistemic norms that influence economic behavior are treated within economic theory as descriptive variables (i.e., they are stripped of any objective normative force). And I suppose that for a non-positivist economics, epistemic norms would be subordinated to non-epistemic norms. In other words, truth would be valued only to the extent that it served some other sort of value, perhaps the creation of wealth, or the alleviation of poverty, or the fostering of equality, etc.

    Speaking for myself, I think that if economics is going to present itself as a science, it ought to go the positivist route. Provide the truth (as best we can discern it) about the various forms that systems of production and distribution can take and let people choose those that best promote the norms they cherish. Of course this doesn’t mean that economists should be nihilists — only that they should be excruciatingly careful to distinguish between the epistemic and the non-epistemic values informing any “advice” they might proffer.

  10. #10 Alex
    December 22, 2009

    One way to define causation, as taught in the epidemiology department at the Harvard School of Public Health, is with the counterfactual. In abstract terms, to determine if x causes y, imagine two realities where everything is the same up until the point where x occurs in one reality,and x does not occur in the other reality. If x is the sole cause of y, then y occurs in the reality where x occurs, and y does not occur in the reality where x does not occur. Of course, only one reality is real, the other being the counterfactual. Medical experimental and observational studies can be understood using this definition of causation. For example, an observational case control study will use controls to estimate the counterfactual, e.g., what would the rate of lung cancer be if smokers had not, in fact, smoked?

    So in response to piker, Tom, Dick and Harry all contributed to Fred’s death, since Fred would not have died of thirst only if all three of them had refrained from their actions.

    As Guy mentioned, causation can be examined at many different levels, not just proximal and ultimate, and different levels of causation are routinely examined in the medical literature, from molecular to pathophysiological to behavioral, to combat disease.

    I enjoyed reading this series, and look forward to the next installment.

  11. #11 piker
    December 22, 2009

    “So in response to piker, Tom, Dick and Harry all contributed to Fred’s death, since Fred would not have died of thirst only if all three of them had refrained from their actions.”

    Except that we can’t conclude that either, since if, for example, only two had refrained, we can’t know what else would have (from the viewpoint of the inevitable) taken their place in the time/space continuum to possibly save Fred’s arse.

  12. #12 piker
    December 22, 2009

    Let me add that the riddle can be answered by rephrasing the question. Note that the context of the question, who caused his death, was framed by the given that Fred died of thirst. Therefor if you ask, who caused him to die of thirst, the answer in terms of the most proximate cause will pop out at you.

  13. #13 Michael Nuwer
    January 20, 2010

    Thorstein Veblen the great American institutional economists based all of his writings on instincts, habits and norms. His writings should not be overlooked by interested readers.

    Thorstein Veblen
    “Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science”
    The Quarterly Journal of Economics
    Volume 12, 1898.


  14. #14 Michael Nuwer
    January 20, 2010

    Thorstein Veblen the great American institutional economists based all of his writings on instincts, habits and norms. His writings should not be overlooked by interested readers.

    Thorstein Veblen
    “Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science”
    The Quarterly Journal of Economics
    Volume 12, 1898.


  15. #15 Eric Hake
    February 1, 2010

    I was originally attracted to this post since it mentioned evolution and economics, and like the last comment, agree that some economists have been studying this for a long time. Some of them are called institutionalists, following in the tradition of Veblen, Commons, and Ayres, but their are other traditions, like Schumpeterian, that talk about evolution. Norms and the importance of culture and also not a great surprise to these economists. So, lots of previous people have written about this, extensively, for 100 years. Why is it considered new? Are the people that are writing about it now just not aware of the earlier traditions? A shame really, since it might be a lot easier to move the discipline forward without having to reinvent the wheel.

  16. #16 Mordecai
    February 5, 2010

    Interesting stuff. I have a few comments, but let me note first that my background is in mathematics and physics; I’ve maybe a junior undergraduate understanding of both economics and evolutionary biology, so feel free to take my comments as the uninformed blather that it is.

    Your comments certainly seem right on the details, but more broadly I’m puzzled by the manner in which you contextualize scientific models in very different fields. You speak in terms of ‘explanations’ and ‘reality,’ which I would imagine is fine for speaking about different models within evolutionary biology, and most of the less abstract natural sciences. But when trying to come to a coherent understanding of the current state of science across several disciplines, I’ve personally found that emphasis really belongs on the driving virtue of scientific explanations: a scientific model is good only when, and only to the extent that, it predicts what we observe of the natural world. Especially when it comes to abstract disciplines, the one thing that good scientific models have in common is predictive utility.

    Newtonian mechanics predicts rather well what we observe when it comes to the mechanics of objects on human scales at relatively slow speeds — it’s useful in that domain. This is the vast majority of what we observe as humans, so we still teach it to undergraduates — not just as a stepping stone to ‘truer’ models, but because it remains an extremely useful scientific model. When things start going faster, all right, we use special relativity instead; on very large scales we use general relativity instead; on very small scales we use quantum mechanics and quantum field theory instead. The transition to these other models is accompanied with a vast jump in utility there; but on human scales and human speeds their predictions are basically indistinguishable from good old Newtonian mechanics.

    So, as regards economics. The observations that we’re trying to predict in macroeconomics — beyond the very low grade observations we personally have interacting with the macroeconomy — come almost entirely from econometrics. They’re things like “GDP increased by 5.3% in the fourth quarter of 2009, but 4.3% of this was a bump in inventories;” or “this particular measure of unemployment increased from 9.3% to 9.5% in the fourth quarter of 2009.” When it comes to predicting such things, models that cram all the details we can think of into its personal mechanics — ones that “reflect reality” as accurately as possible, that go about simply characterizing the macroeconomy — are almost perfectly useless. What we really need are models that take current macroeconomic data and predict future macroeconomic data. Such models are going to be highly stylized, heavily mathematical, and assume away almost every interesting detail about how the humans involved actually work. And microeconomics isn’t going to be much better in terms of fundamentals. That is, useful economic models, in order to be useful on economic domains, are almost inevitably going to be useless on personal domains.

    So, “maximization of expected utility,” the mathematically tractable workhorse of modern economic models, fails to predict the behavior of actual people when confronted with the situation of the Allais paradox. Great. So we’ve found a situation in which expected utility doesn’t work on personal domains. One, this shouldn’t really surprise us — it’s clear to everyone except economists that expected utility vastly simplifies what goes on in the heads of actual humans. Two, this is almost completely irrelevant for the utility of economics. Questions about what humans actually do when confronted with choices like this properly belong to disciplines other than economics — this is one person confronted with a simple choice outside of a broader economic context. Economics applies itself to much broader questions with much more complicated emergent properties, where very harsh approximations become both necessary and desirable. That isn’t the case in the Allais paradox. When trying to understand the Allais paradox, you should really ask someone else, who will use models that are as incompatible with “maximization of expected utility” as quantum mechanics is with general relativity.

    Thus, my response to the three blog posts above: one, fine on details, but more broadly, why is this a problem? Economics does what it does. It doesn’t need to be integrable with what you do in order for it to make sense on its own domain. It’d be nice if we could integrate the models of economics with the models of other disciplines in a fashion that makes sense in proximate and ultimate ways — and we rather expect that we should be able to do this, given the amazing success we’ve had doing so in other areas of science — but this could take centuries, and we shouldn’t really worry that this seems hard right now.

    Two — and this is a question that really shows my ignorance, I think — why would we expect that useful models of human behavior, across a large number of disciplines, would involve evolution in an essential way? I would be astonished if we could integrate this into macroeconomic models — or indeed, any economic model of anything of interest — as anything other than unnecessary chaff. Perhaps I’m missing something big, as would be unsurprising given my background, but the motivation of your program strikes me as very odd.

    My own unenlightened suspicion, based on my own successes and failures in understanding humans and human behavior on my own time, is that we could more usefully understand human behavior across disciplines in a coherent way via a simple model of the mechanics of human emotion and emotional associations, and the manner in which both one’s emotional state and one’s emotional associations change over time, given certain stimuli. A sort of simplified coherent theory of human psychology, then adapted to more specific disciplines as required.

  17. #17 Bryan Bremner
    February 28, 2010

    Two comments:
    Comment 1 — The web site on page 377 of Evolution for Everyone is not on the University list, I found this through the dswilson link, not the dwilson link. If this was meant as a puzzle solving test, I passed and I don’t like puzzles. If it is an error, there should be a pointer to the existing link.

    Comment 2 — Regarding the submission by Guy | December 18, 2009 12:58 PM — This reminds me of the worm Oroborous– interesting but who really cares about it. It also reminds me late night philosophical discussions of what exactly a subroutine is (computer programming type). They exist at so many levels, and so many depths, that what they do is almost irrelevant to any discussion that is not within the same level or at a level one or two above or below the specific level. When I am busy discussing evolution or economics does it really make any sense to examine the exact behavior of the electrons that create the dot at the end of this sentence? What if the above mentioned dot is on a piece of laser printer paper, an ink-jet printer, an impact printer, a CRT tube, or a flat-screen display?

    I realize that this doesn’t SOLVE anything but it does point out that scientific explanations are only valid at their particular level. You also need a rough understanding of the levels immediately above and below to understand roughly what is going on. There is no absolute ultimate or proximate cause, there may be relatively absolute or proximate causes and they be useful to know — but that is all you are going to get.

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