Saturday, July 27, 2013

David Sloan Wilson — A good social Darwinism [and much more]

Evolution has changed all we know about how humans behave, compete and co-operate. When will economics catch up?
Shreds neoclassical assumptions.

A good social Darwinism
David Sloan Wilson | Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology, Binghamton University
(h/t Gavin Kennedy at Adam Smith's Lost Legacy)

Links at the bottom of the article leads links to limited time (six months) download of papers from the Journal Of Economic Behavior & Organization and This View of Life. Here is the lead in from This View of Life:
Q: How many economists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Zero. The invisible hand will do it.

Making jokes about economics is fun and easy. The field’s nickname is the ‘dismal science’. Type ‘economic jokes’ into Google and you will see 19.5 million hits, far more than other fields, and almost as many as for political jokes. Economics is the field that people love to hate.

Improving economics is much harder than making jokes. In a special issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, more than two dozen scholars from around the world have written 13 articles with the important and difficult goal of making economics better.
The title of the special issue is “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy.” This is a relatively novel approach and deserves some discussion.

The standard economic paradigm is the neoclassical model. People know what makes them happy and are good at making decisions to accomplish their goals. Furthermore, neoclassical theory has been used to support free market policies by arguing that self-interested, rational actors lead to ‘optimal’ social outcomes, when optimal is defined in a particular way 

“People are rational and greed is good” would be a lay summary of neoclassical economics.
Just reading that sentence probably makes many people’s blood boil. The list of critics of neoclassical economic is long and distinguished. Within the citadels of economic power, however, only one critique has made significant inroads. This successful critique is the behavioral economic field founded by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and most forcefully advanced by Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago.
Professor Thaler sums up behavioral economics by saying that people are ‘nicer and dumber’ than economists assume.
The authors of the special issue of JEBO believe that evolutionary theory is required to improve economics. In 1973, the famous biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, wrote, “Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts-some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.”

Paraphrasing Dobzhanksy, we, the authors of these articles on economics and evolution, argue that economics without evolution is a pile of sundry facts-some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

Furthermore, these articles go beyond criticism to specific areas. In many cases, the authors have devoted decades to these topics, and are recognized global leaders. The techniques range from theoretical to experimental to simulation. The species covered include humans, non-human primates, and many other animals.
In order to make the issue accessible, This View of Life is pleased to provide short summaries of each article that link to the full-length articles, which the Evolution Institute has paid to make free online for a period of six months.


“Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy,” Special issue editors: David Sloan Wilson, John M. Gowdy, J. Barkley Rosser

This supplementary issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization is based on a collaborative project between the Evolution Institute and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center that started in 2009 with a NESCent catalysis meeting titled “The Nature of Regulation: How Evolution Can Inform the Regulation of Large-scale Human Social Interactions”. The meeting led to a 2-year project on integrating economic and evolutionary theory. This project used NESCent’s working group rubric to organize three workshops, whose participants were drawn from a larger advisory group. Other outputs of the project include a white paper submitted to the National Science Foundation and a final workshop titled“The Science-to-Narrative Chain”, which examines how to create a new public narrative based on the evolutionary paradigm.

Supplemental material can also be found at our online magazine: This View of Life

1)Wilson, D. S., Gowdy, J, Rosser, B. Jr. (2013). Rethinking Economics from an Evolutionary Perspective. An Editorial

2) Wilson, D. S., & Gowdy, J. (2013). Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy.

Role in issue: First lead article. Describes how evolution functions as a general theoretical framework in the biological sciences and considers four reasons why evolution might not add value to the study of human-related subjects.

3) Gowdy, J., Dollimore, D., Witt, U., & Wilson, D. S. (2013). Economic Cosmology and the Evolutionary Challenge.

Role in issue: Second lead article. Describes how modern disciplines such as economics and evolution reflect ancient cosmologies and how advances in evolutionary science can help economics overcome some of its outdated assumptions.

4) Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. (2013). Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups.

Role in issue: Shows how the design principles for the efficacy of common-pool resource groups, for which Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, can be generalized from an evolutionary perspective and used as a practical framework for improving the efficacy of real-world groups. Also serves as a tutorial for multilevel selection theory, which plays an important role in some of the other articles.

5) Witt, U., & Schwesinger, G. (2013). Phylogenetic footprints in organizational behavior.

Role in issue: Explains modern social organizations, including firms, as a product of biocultural co-evolution. The authors have backgrounds in economics, nicely complementing the article by Stoelhorst and Richerson.

6) Stoelhorst, J. W., & Richerson, P. J. (2013). A Naturalistic Theory of Economic Organizations.

Role in issue: Explains modern social organizations, including firms, as a product of biocultural co-evolution. The first author has a business school background and the second author is one of the major figures in cultural evolutionary theory, nicely complementing the article by Witt and Schwesinger

7) Manapat, M., Nowak, M., & Rand, D. (2003). Information, Irrationality and the Evolution of Trust.

Role in issue: Focuses on the important topic of trust and illustrates the role of analytical models in evolutionary science relevant to economics and public policy.

8) Wilson, J., Yan, L., & Hill, J. (2013). Costly information and the Evolution of Self-organization in a Small, Complex, Economy.

Role in issue: Describes a real-world application of the evolutionary perspective to an economic system and illustrates the role of computer simulation modeling from an evolutionary and complex systems perspective.

9) Gowdy, J., Rosser, B. Jr. & Roy, L. (2013). The Evolution of Hyperbolic Discounting: Implications for Truly Social Valuation of the Future.

Role in issue: Addresses a fundamental topic in economics and public policy from an integrated ultimate and proximate evolutionary perspective.

10) DeAngelo, G., & Brosnan, S. (2013). The Importance of Risk Tolerance and Knowledge when Considering the Evolution of Inequity Responses Across the Primates.

Role in issue: Focuses on the important subject of inequity responses and illustrates the importance of cross-species comparison, which is novel for much of the economic and policy literatures.

11) Burnham, T. (2013). Caveman Economics: Toward a neo-Darwinian Synthesis of Neoclassical and Behavioral Economics.

Role in issue: Focuses on the concept of mismatch, whereby genetic and cultural adaptations to previous environments become dysfunctional in current environments.

12) Johnson, D., Price, M., & Van Vugt, M. (2013). Darwin’s Invisible Hand: The Evolution of the Market Competition, Evolution, and the Firm.

Role in issue: Applies multilevel selection theory to the selection of behavioral and organizational practices within and among firms, reaching a different set of conclusions than standard economic views of the firm.

13) Mullins, D.A., Whitehouse, H. & Atkinson, Q. D., (2013). The Role of Writing and Record Keeping in the Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation.

Role in issue: Takes a long-term cultural evolutionary view on the structure of human social organizations as corporate units, with implications for current and future organizations.

14) Biglan, A., & Cody, C. (2013). Integrating the Human Sciences to Evolve Effective Policies.

Role in issue: Reviews the fields of public health, prevention science and applied behavioral analysis, which have a proven ability change behavioral and cultural practices in individuals, small groups, and large populations. Also emphasizes the importance of prosociality for promoting human welfare at all scales, which stands in contrast to the individual focus of orthodox economic theory. This article is important to underscore the fact that evolution functions as a general theoretical framework for all forms of policy, not just economics.

And a reminder that David Sloan Wilson wrote a thirteen part series on evolution and economics, "Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms" Series.

Evolutionary theory and evolutionary economics promise to be a large chunk of the emerging new paradigm of economics, along with monetary economics, energy economics, environmental economics, and ecological economics, along with the life and social sciences. Mechanism will be replaced by organicism, and atomism by general system theory, of which economist Kenneth Boulding was a founding developer and laid the groundwork.


WillORNG said...

People are nicer and more emotional than they are given credit (sic) for.. but is greed really rational?

Unknown said...

What makes my blood boil is people who hate greed but who defend a money system that rewards greed.

Not you, Tom.

Anonymous said...

I think an analogy is appropriate here: - imagine an ant-hill, busy, busy, busy. Most of the ants simply follow ant society protocols and behaviour - but maybe a few take the time to reflect on the nature of their existence and the wider world around them. Now imagine that the ant society is afflicted with the same problems of greed, power and murder prevalent in human society. The ant colony becomes extremely dysfuntional and everybody is suffering. All ants are responsible but no one ant is actually doing anything to fix the problems, (and all the so-called 'leader' ants have no more imagination than to implement the same tired old solutions that have been tried again and again, and failed again and again - for thousand of years, if you check ant annals). Obviously, ants are not the brightest stars in the firmament even though their folk-lore immodestly announces as much!

So what is the ants answer? 'Fix the society' is the mantra from their revered BOOK of SOLUTIONS. Every day they get up and chant 'fix the society, fix the society, fix the society ...'. Yeah right. How about fix the ants? I notice that 99.999% of the articles on ant web-sites for example, are all about fixing ant society! (This one too) ...

Some ants write articles about ant consciousness and evolution. Then there is ant religion and science. All carefully inscribed and revered in the ant Book of Solutions.

But what do ants really know about the whole of their existence, and the universe of which (for a nano-second) they are a tiny tiny tiny little particle: - of energy. (A particle which contains within itself - this is what infinite means - the Ocean of Energy from which it has sprung, nonetheless). Only one or two ever say: 'Truly - I do not know'. That is a firm stepping stone to stand on for an ant, if that is where one finds itself. And continue:

'Besides the mechanics of this crazy ant society, I do not know why I am here and I do not know who I am or what I am, or what I am really meant to do; but I would like to find out. I am more than just everything that happens to me each day; there is more to my existence than trudging in and out of this bloody anthill every day - building the anthill, thinking about ant psychology, philosophy, politics, economics; hypnotised by ant-media blaring crazy ant societal dysfuntion and disaster events at me every day. I actually have no idea how to cure all of these idiotic misbehaving miscreant predatory ants around me in the anthill: I can see they are enslaved by senseless greed, power and willingness to create murder and mayhem, and make others suffer. Maybe we need some sort of therapeutic aerial spray? Maybe we will have to wait for evolution to usher them out the door along with all the other dinasoaurs that had to go? I really don't know if they can be stopped - somehow I doubt it - not for a really long time at least? They act more like ants possessed by idiotic demons than just ordinary friendly ants doing their little bit in harmony with nature. Then there are ants, hypnotised by phantasy - dressing up, playing out roles, surrounded by baubles, VIP's - pretending they are something other than an ant? Pretending the anthill is something huge. And I can see just about everyone is hypnotised by the Book of Solutions. The anthill is more like an asylum - thanks ant(G.O.D.). for nature.

But the problem is in the ants - not the society. Plaster that all over the anthill if you want to send a message. Stop trying to 'fix the bloody society and go look in a mirror'.

It takes FOCUS. That much I know'.

Calgacus said...

When will economics catch up? When will biologists and other natural scientists realize the hoary pedigree and ancient wealth of these ideas?

Once-well-known was this guy's observation that the historical sequence of then-recent evolutionary thinking went: Logic/philosophy - Hegel; Economics [Worldly Philosophy] - Marx; and only then Natural Science - Darwin. And that this was the reverse of a naively logical sequence. Which, however, is what Wilson et al seem to (naively) posit.