I’m back after finishing the first draft of my next book, titled Evolving the City, which will be published by Little, Brown and is about how evolutionary theory can improve the quality of life in a practical sense. It is based on my own odyssey during the last four years trying to make a difference in my city of Binghamton, New York, and creating the Evolution Institute with my friend and co-director, Jerry Lieberman, who is also president of the Humanists of Florida Association.
Getting involved in real-world issues such as childhood education, risky adolescent behavior, and landlord-tenant relations was the best intellectual decision that I ever made.
Typically a negative tradeoff is imagined between basic and applied science. The pure scientist is interested in the fundamentals and may not care a rat’s ass about improving the human condition, yet the fundamentals turn out to be useful over the long run. In contrast, evolution is fundamentally about the relationship between organisms and their environments. It follows that the best basic scientific research on humans from an evolutionary perspective is on people in relation to their environments– from all walks of life, as they go about their daily lives–not college students in experiments that might be tidy but are divorced from all context. The same research is most relevant to improving the quality of life in a practical sense, resulting in a positive tradeoff between basic and applied science. See my recent academic article on prosociality at a city-wide scale for an example.
I’d like to make a few observations on this kind of research in general before returning to the relationship between economics and evolution. When I dive into a real-world issue such as childhood education or risky adolescent behavior, formal economic theory has little or nothing to do with it. Instead, some other theory or rationale is informing existing policy. Often it is not a formal theory at all but a much looser and poorly articulated set of expectations. Whatever it is that guides policy, two things can be said about it: 1) it has a surface logic (otherwise it just plain wouldn’t make sense); and 2) the actions that emerge from the policy have unforeseen consequences. Policies are like the wishes that are granted to people in folktales; in both cases, they can turn out differently than expected. The situation for policies is even worse than wishes in folk tales because most of the time we don’t associate the unforeseen consequences with the policies that cause them. We only notice the more direct intended effects and blissfully continue behaving in counterproductive ways.
Evolutionary theory provides an alternative set of expectations for viewing the policies that results in what I like to call the transformation of the obvious. Nothing is less obvious than the concept of obvious because so much depends upon background assumptions. Change the background assumptions and what previously seemed stupid, heretical, or invisible suddenly becomes common sense. The evolutionary perspective also results in insights that are new in every respect, but I’m especially intrigued by the insights that are obvious in retrospect.
Two examples will illustrate the transformation of the obvious. Mixed-age interactions are essential for education in hunter-gatherer and many other traditional societies. Older kids want to become adults (it’s the only game in town), younger kids want to be like older kids, and education takes place spontaneously as self-motivated play and practice with very little direct adult instruction. Mixed-age interactions also encourages nurturing over competitive social interactions. Nevertheless, age-segregation and direct adult instruction do have a surface logic and the unforeseen consequences are not easily traced to their cause. Once viewed through an evolutionary lens, richly supported by ethnographic evidence, both of which inform more systematic inquiry, the value of mixed-age interactions becomes obvious. We recall how much we enjoyed running around in mixed-age groups as kids. We notice the efficacy of student tutorship programs and teaching philosophies that have been promoting mixed-age interactions all along. There’s nothing new about the value of mixed-age interactions–but then why isn’t it more commonly practiced in the modern educational environment? See the video of Peter Gray’s presentation at the EI workshop and his blog on Psychology Today for more on this subject.
My second example involves the standard interpretation of risky adolescent behavior as pathological , which is often formalized as follows: child development takes place optimally in nurturing environments and becomes compromised in harsh environments, resulting in the expression of maladaptive behaviors. When viewed through an evolutionary lens, most risky adolescent behaviors make much better sense as adaptations to harsh environments. People have been living in harsh environments since before they were people. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t fall apart–they employ Plan B. Adaptations to harsh environments might indeed be bad for others and even the individual over the long term, but there might not be a long term in harsh environments. The EI workshop on risky adolescent behavior included numerous insights that were new in every respect, based on modern research in neurobiology, behavioral endocrinology, child development, and genetics, but the most important insight was the transformation of the obvious from the pathology model to the strategy model. As one observer at the workshop who had been working with troubled youth throughout his career exclaimed, never once had he asked the obvious question “what’s in it for the kids?” With the strategic model in mind, effective strategies for helping troubled youth emerge that were invisible before. See the video of the presentation by Bruce Ellis and others on the EI website for more on this subject.
These and many other examples that I have encountered illustrate the main theme of this post, which is that the limiting factor of cultural evolution is often not origin but spread. All ideas have an origination, just like genetic mutations, but whether they spread or not depends upon a multitude of factors. We shouldn’t be disappointed when we discover that an idea isn’t brand new. If it’s been struggling along for decades and centuries at a frequency of a few percent, then it’s new to make it common.
The fact that the world is full of ideas and practices that work but don’t spread seems surpassingly strange until we begin to think about it from a biological and cultural evolutionary perspective. Then it becomes clear that our capacity for cultural evolution evolved by genetic evolution and includes a sophisticated set of psychological mechanisms that we are only beginning to understand. Furthermore, these mechanisms are adapted to function within a certain range of environmental parameters and can malfunction outside the range, in the same way that our immune system can malfunction. This knowledge can be enormously relevant for tuning the parameters of cultural evolution so that successful ideas and practices spread.
I was inspired to write about this theme after reviewing the comments on the first three installments of this series, which are admirably constructive and informative. Major figures in the history of economics, such as Smith, Veblen, and Hayak are cited as people who have already had these ideas. The emphasis is on origin as if that’s all that counts. I cheerfully acknowledge that the major ideas I am discussing are not new–what’s new is a thorough examination of why they haven’t spread when they richly deserve to. In his comment on E&E III, Eric Hake writes:
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 there are other traditions, like Schumpeterian, that talk about evolution. Norms and the importance of culture is 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.
I admire Mr. Hake’s scholarly knowledge, which exceeds my own, but I respectfully suggest that he is under-thinking the question of why meritorious ideas don’t spread in economics or any other field of scholarly, scientific, and intellectual inquiry. Poor scholarship is not the whole story. The main point of the E&E series is to think about scientific and intellectual thought as a form of cultural evolution, complete with the equivalent of adaptive peaks that are already familiar in the context of biological evolution. The evolutionary lens can help us understand why good ideas don’t necessarily spread in academia or everyday life.