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Some qualms with Universal Darwinism

In Discussion on February 7, 2010 by Pete Abram

The Hodgson article discussed Universal Darwinism and made some suggestions that I was not very comfortable with. The first is the claim that the laws of nature (physics) could possibly be evolving or have evolved. The obvious issue I have with this is that universes don’t really ‘survive’ or ‘die’ and there is no natural tendancy for universes to lean towards ‘survival’. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that changing the laws of nature would cause universes to ‘die’. If gravitational force, or the mass of a proton, or something like that were changed, it could very well be the case that matter does not form in a universe as it did in ours. There could be a universe with protons and neutrons floating around without bonding into atoms because of changes in strong force, sure. But this doesn’t mean that the universe would be ‘dead’ or cease to be. I find the claim that the laws of nature evolve to be quite implausible.

The other issue I had with the idea of Universal Darwinism is a qualm I also have with sociology. I’m sure some of you have heard my critique of sociology: “It’s the most statistically accurate and profound statement of the obvious known to man”. I feel somewhat similarly about Universal Darwinism. I see UD’s thesis as follows: stuff varies, the better stuff tends to outperform the worse stuff and thus outlast the worse stuff. How is this not painfully obvious? If a trait is better for survival, we shouldn’t be surprised if animals with that trait usually survive longer. Am I oversimplifying somehow? I can see how this type of thought can be apply to language, sociology, and so on, but I don’t know why we should call it Darwinism when it so drastically differs in methods of inheritance and causes of variation.

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9 Responses to “Some qualms with Universal Darwinism”

  1. Yes, I find this class interesting… This is a lot to mostly agree, but there are some differences….

    I have to say I essentially agree that ‘Universal Darwinism’ may be true, but only in the most trivial of senses. I would go further and suggest that while current economic conditions have the appearance of being more ‘Darwinian’ that other arrangements where there is more limited variance and selection, economics itself is not necessarily an open quasi-free market system where there is a process that eliminates some variants. This historical truth that we have not always existed under liberal economic conditions is something that seems like it could be overlooked by those presentist economists who might be a little too eager to claim that biological Darwinism and economic ‘Darwinism’ are all part of the same process.

    It seems much more sensible, in my view, to see Darwinism as one form of structural analysis grounded in biological studies. Presentist liberal economics would be another, with much more limited interest or utility to anything relevant to human knowledge or survival (yes, that was filled with unsupported editorial opinions). Machiavelli presented a deeply insightful structural analysis of power that has a similar ‘Darwinian’ framework. Machiavelli noted that the structure of state power was such that there would be individuals willing to do anything to take this power. Thus, if one has state power, if keeping such power is not one’s first concern, only luck or, as Machiavelli put it, the whims of fate will allow one to keep such power. Those willing to do anything to obtain and keep power will tend to have and keep power. Thus, the morally weakest elements of any society tend to rise to the top in any system of political power.

    Such structural analysis is in some small sense ‘Darwinian’ but not in the sense that it explains the economy of nature, only in the sense that it is a structural analysis. Contemporary economics, as an historical non-predictive analysis of how some capitalist enterprises have remained in business, and others have failed, might be of some utility, but such an analysis is not universal for all economic stages of human development. It is when one examines these other stages that the ‘Darwinian’ metaphors and analogies run into danger as we might universalize contemporary human organization, structures, and pathologies into universal human conditions or natures.

    Feudal economic conditions would only lend themselves to a limited ‘Darwinian’ analysis and demonstrate that the anal retentive acquisitive pathologies that are so successful in contemporary liberal economics are not a universal human orientation, but a human adaptation in altering behavior to provide for survival in different economic conditions. In a feudal economy, exchange was based upon a predetermined concept of fairness. Seeking greater pay or profit was considered deeply unChristian, greedy, and glutinous. Sins that would deliver one to Satan. Exchange was also based upon duty and mutual obligation. Guilds set prices as fair, trade was steadily controlled and regulated, and feudal lords and peasants exchanged mutual obligations as part of their economic production and distribution.

    Under such a system of production, it is not terribly insightful or interesting to look at those rare moments where the system filtered out the low amount of variance in economic alternatives, as one does in a liberal economy. The fellow who charges a different amount for his boots fails because the guild has him shut down and punished. The guild member who does not follow the proscribed plan for taking on apprentices is forced by the guild to comply. The greedy sinful merchants living on the margins of society and engage in long range commerce had a bit more freedom, but until economic conditions had sufficiently changed, as well as religious attitudes morphed to fit the new economic realities, not much of deep interest, in a ‘Darwinian’ sense went on here. If we had the historical data, one might be able to recreate how such a relatively stable feudal system was able to evolve all over Europe. This would require a structural analysis of the growing political, religious, and economic arrangements that, in my mind, go beyond the static thinking of presentist liberal economists.

    I suppose what I am saying here is that within any relatively open system with variety one might apply a structural analysis, as with Machiavelli or the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model (quick note on that below), or contemporary economics, but that such analysis is limited to the conditions of the moment under study, and if one is not aware of the highly variable nature of these structures (feudal economics are not so open, and while all political power structures tend to the worst, the exact nature those elements will take are shaped by the political and economic structures). I am tending to see the statistical method evolutionists as working in this limited time frame as liberal economists are, while Marx’s structural analysis of large scale economic development and the impacts of the means of production on human society as more akin to the large scale structural analysis of Darwin.

    Darwin provided a big picture and story. The structure of the world leads to evolution by natural selection, and this explains the contemporary economy of nature. Marx provided insights into the impact of growing and evolving economic conditions that explains the limits on the diversity forms and structures of society take, that is the economy of economics and politics (Marx’s predictive abilities and proposals for how to handle these insights were deeply flawed, but that is another argument not relevant to this point). Similarly, it seems from my vantage point, that statistical economics and biologists are each engaged in the same, extremely limited, work of questionable utility- analyzing the vagaries of the data in contemporary moments in the larger stories of economic or biological evolution.

    So, as long as we do not mistake contemporary conditions for universals, the limited application of analysis of open systems with variable but limited outcomes as some application of ‘evolutionary’ thinking is acceptable, is not terribly insightful or useful.

    As to the ‘Universal’ application of Darwinism to the idea that the ‘physical laws’ of the universe are evolving… I agree such speculation is a bit silly, but ultimately inoffensive and (unlikely, but) potentially correct. First, it could be that what we take to be the laws of physics are changing over time. This would not necessarily be because the actual laws of physics are changing, but only our limited understanding of them. There is another possibility that the laws were constantly changing, but I will get to that in a moment after I explain the metaphysical possibility of this arrangement.

    We first need to remember any ‘law’ of physics is only the current time tested theory of science to explain the phenomena. Thus, it could be that the phenomena we observe are not governed by anything resembling the laws as understood by humanity. Because humanity lives in such a relatively brief time span, it is quite likely that there are meta-laws at work that for any period of time have that appearance of having a different kind of regularity over short time frames, say a few billion years. If the perceived conditions and related laws regarding these phenomena change at imperceptible (on a human scale) rates, they could be governed by larger unknown metalaws of physics that govern the changes in these laws. There is no way of knowing for certain if the bend in space-time of a mass was the same trillions of years ago. Some nuance of how light works might be different now than it will be in trillions of years. Thus, the laws of physics (rather than our understanding of them) at the first level would be changing, while metalaws unknown to us were constant.

    Now, there is also no reason to limit these metal laws to constancy. They themselves may be of an unfolding nature that are not universal in different locations in time. They might not even be laws at all. Bounding or containing the universe by any ‘laws’ is contrary to the idea of universe- which is everything. If the universe is everything, in cannot have constraints- it cannot be limited or contained by something else. The universe cannot be built upon foundational blocks or laws because these would be other, constraining, and outside the universe. Thus, there can be no universal laws. So, in a sense, the idea that the ‘laws’ of physics might be unfolding or evolving is not so offensive.

    As one of many asides here, this does not invalidate science, necessarily, according to my neo-Hegelian friend whom I have taken much of the last paragraph’s ideas from. While the universe is not bound by laws, there is much that is simply not true. That is to say, science will be an infinite process of removing what we know to be wrong, forever approaching an unknowable and indeterminate core lack of truth to the universe. I know it is difficult to get one’s brain about. I have struggled with it for years.

    But, this discussion of universe, brings us back to the idea of ‘other’ universes being unfit for survival. This is of course nonsense in the strictest sense- the universe is UNI, there is only one. But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose the universe is composed of what is conventionally thought of as a multiverse. Thus our mutliverse is made up of a number of existences, planes, dimensions, alternate realities, parallels, or whatever science fiction term one wants to use (but none are technically universes if there are more than one). This multi-world (world meaning parallel or whatever) universe would either be governed by universal laws that determined what worlds could exist or not, (or exist for short periods of time in a natural selection process) or would be part of the unfolding lawless universe discussed above. By brining in the idea of multiple worlds, the problem of whether or not physics has evolving laws is only removed one level and had another added level of complexity. Thus, mutliverse or one world universe, the argument is still the same as to whether or not the ‘laws’ of physics are ‘evolving.’

    So, interesting ideas. I just think we need to be clear about their limitations. Maybe everyone here is clear on those limitations. My sense is liberal economists make the same mistakes most people do in universalizing contemporary economically successful pathologies for evolved universal human tendencies. Historians certainly have a long history of hysterically overreacting to their misunderstandings of scientific and philosophical concepts of limited application. This is all to say, I agree with Pete that the way things are being called ‘Darwinian’ is in a pretty trivial sense.

    First additional aside:
    Studies of political economy have also noted such structural filtering processes. In Herman and Chomsky’s study of the ‘free press’ of liberal republics, one finds market forces narrow the bounds of political discourse in the commercially owned press without any deliberate conspiracy to create a pro-state centrist liberal capitalist consensus. This really should not be much of a surprise as the large mass media is owned by a handful of large capitalist corporations, the media itself is funded by large corporations purchasing advertising, corporate and government interests have ready flak machines to complain when the press steps out of line and to provide press releases when the press wants to save money, the economic convenience of government sourcing, and the use of ideological filters, initially anti-communism, but now a bit more subtle. For a longer explanation in video form see:
    http://www.hulu.com/manufacturing-consent

    Second additional aside:
    Max Weber in his work did a great deal to explain how the acquisitive spirit developed from shifting religious dogmas found in protestant religions. It has been noted that in a feudal economy or while the feudal mentality persisted, raising wages reduced productivity. Under this mentality, one knew what they needed to live on. Thus, if one was paid more for the work done, one stopped once they made the same amount of money as they were used to. Taking any more was against God’s plan for their station in life, greedy, egotistical, or what not. Thus, if people are paid more than what they were the year before, they stop when they have what they previously made and stop working.

    Psychiatrist Erich Fromm has taken Weber and done more extensive studies. In his books ‘Man for Himself’ and ‘The Sane Society’ he explored the idea that there are human modes of organization that are more susceptible to producing human happiness than others, and that different forms of society can allow for pathological and unhealthy behavior to appear social and acceptable. He went further to suggest that in such insane societies, the more sensitive and healthy in a human sense, the more unhappy one would like be, while certain pathological behaviors would be entirely masked by the pathologies of the society itself. For Fromm, humanity was adaptable, but not infinitely adaptable, and that there was a way to organize human society that would optimize human happiness.

    From these positions he argued that liberal capitalism was not such a society and that it masked the pathologies of anal retentive acquisition as this unhappy and unhealthy mode of being was rewarded with social and economic success in the system. The sane society and a truly human society were to be found elsewhere. Fromm suggested that the ‘productive character structure’ was the orientation most suited to optimal happiness. He suggested that a society where people played active parts in producing both themselves and their society, rather than leaving the bulk of humanity as tools of the economic and political machines, spending vast portions of time simply obeying the commands of others, or pursuing profits for their own sake, would be best suited to this character structure.

    So, to relate this detailed aside to the main point, I see a danger in those who feel that ‘economics’ (and what they really mean is the rather new liberal capitalist economic structures and the structured ‘competition’ that goes on within it) is directly related to biological evolution is that they are perpetuating dangerous myths that ignore the realities of human history and deeper understandings as to the flexibility of humans to adapt themselves to irrational and unhealthy economic systems for survival, and mistake those flexibilities for some inherent nature being fulfilled by an economic system that is a relatively recent and transitory event in human history (to mildly over simplify either capitalism will destroy human civilization or it will allow us to eliminate the need for work all together, and its own foundational basis).

    Sorry for the typos, I need to eat and write my things for class. I already spent more time on this than I planned.

  2. @Pete:

    While I certainly agree that the “evolving universe” reference in Hodgson was ill-conceived (I did a “you can’t be serious” double-take), I think you’re missing the larger point with your second objection. Universal Darwinism is far from painfully obvious. I think there’s a misunderstanding regarding what, precisely, UD is. It’s not, as you say, “stuff varies, the better stuff tends to outperform the worse stuff and thus outlast the worse stuff.” Rather, if I understand UD correctly, it’s that for systems that have variation, differing survival chances, and some heritability mechanism (even a poorly constructed one), evolution happens. To bring in the Witt article, what you’re advancing as “Universal Darwinism” is better contained in one of the interpretations of evolution as a generic, generalized metaphor.

    To your point that you “don’t know why we should call it Darwinism when it so drastically differs in methods of inheritance and causes of variation,” I think that this is the beauty and power of UD; it’s able to take drastically different methods and causes, occurring at different ontological levels, and provide a theory that explains what’s at the core of these methods/causes. I’ll certainly grant that inheritance methods differ greatly, but this doesn’t change the fact that inheritance is taking place. It’s like making a mixtape; there are lots of drastically different ways that I can make one, with enormous differences in fidelity (use my computer, hold a magnet to a cassette tape, use my stereo, hold a microphone to speakers, use a CD, use a cassette, etc.), but what matters at the end of the day is that transmission/inheritance happened. The same holds true for variation.

    UD shifts the power of the theory from the mechanism by which variation, selection, and transmission occur to the fact that they occur. If what’s important is the fact that variation, selection, and transmission occur, we can ask ourselves, “What’s evolving?” And if genes are evolving, extragenetic biological information is evolving, non-genetic life on other worlds is evolving, economics is evolving, language is evolving, etc., then we’re left with the idea that (and André may have kittens over this) information is what’s evolving. Two hundred years ago, we were just starting to get our heads around “life maybe evolves sometimes and we can possibly explain it without God.” Now we have an idea that says “if it’s information, it’s evolving and using the same three key factors.” This is an incredibly powerful idea, and it differs greatly from “stuff varies, the better stuff tends to outperform the worse stuff and thus outlast the worse stuff.”

  3. @Todd,

    It seems that there’s a lot to say, so I’m trying to break this up by response. Also, there’s a lot to respond to, so apologies if my thoughts are looser than I would like them to be.

    I take your main points to be the following:
    *‘Universal Darwinism’ may be true, but only in the most trivial of senses.
    *If Darwinism appears true, it is because current economic frameworks appear more Darwinian than past frameworks and we fail to properly account for past frameworks.
    *Past frameworks do not provide a sufficiently Darwinian framework; limited variation was crushed immediately.
    *The purported link between economics and biological evolution is dangerous and ignores human history.
    (If I’m missing anything, I trust you’ll let me know)

    First, I fail to see how UD could only be “trivially true” (see my comments on the power of UD in my response to Pete). I would suggest that if UD were trivially true, [1] we would all take note of UD and move on with our lives and [2] there would be no disagreement in evolutionary economics (to pick one non-biological field totally at random) as to what was happening at a fundamental level. Neither of these things happens, precisely because UD makes a series of claims that have uncomfortable implications, seem false, etc.

    To your second point that current economic frameworks are more “Darwinian” than past frameworks, I think that you’re missing the point. Maybe a better way to think about different economic frameworks/systems/eras is to think about them as different environments or niches. Our current economic framework may seem more Darwinian because it appears to embrace greater variation, but embracing (or failing to embrace) variation is not the mark of a Darwinian structure. As Dawkins says in “Climbing Mount Improbable”, it may be that selection favors a variation rate of zero, since there are many more ways of getting worse at something than there are of getting better. More to the point, it seems (and I may be misreading you) that you have a background assumption that for UD to be true, variation would necessarily have to be positive. This is certainly not the case in general, but especially so in particularly stable niches like feudal economies. Charging less for boots is a variation that presents potential advantages (I sell more boots because mine are cheaper), but these are outweighed by disadvantages presented by the stable environment.

    Niches and environments in evolutionary contexts are neither good or bad, they just are; you seem to endorse this idea when you say that “anal retentive acquisitive pathologies that are so successful in contemporary liberal economics are not a universal human orientation, but a human adaptation in altering behavior to provide for survival in different economic conditions,” but if you endorse that idea, it makes it difficult to advance the argument that our economic environment is “more Darwinian” simply because it appears less stable.

    Finally, you argue that the purported link between economics and biological evolution is dangerous and ignores human history. Specifically, you say that advancing a Darwinian explanation perpetuates “dangerous myths that ignore the realities of human history and deeper understandings as to the flexibility of humans to adapt themselves to irrational and unhealthy economic systems for survival.” I would ask the following: what part of various adaptations to an “irrational and unhealthy system” where survival is on the line fails to conform to evolutionary thinking? I take the following to be true: [1] the environment is irrational (by which I take to mean that there is no sufficient rational explanation for why things are the way they are), [2] the environment is unhealthy (meaning that survival is on the line), and [3] there will be varying strategies on how to cope with challenges to survival.

    I think that [2] and [3] are the key points to your argument. Whether or not the system is rational or not may lead to wider/narrower variation, but it would otherwise have no impact on our considerations. If you’re willing to grant that our intentional, “artificial” actions are based on unintentional, natural selection-based factors, the leap to evolutionary thinking is fairly straightforward. If not, we still have selection (via [2]’s survival pressures) and variation (via [3]). All that is missing is a transmission method, and a sufficient method can be easily provided (conversation among fellow participants, group strategizing, observation, etc.). The flexibility that you claim requires deeper understanding proves to be a critical component for UD.

  4. Mr. Jake,

    As to the suggest our reaction would be different if UD was simply ‘trivially true’-

    The mistake of economists is one of perspective, and it is a mistake, in my thinking, to view UD as anything more than trivially true. It is because liberal economists are ideologically wedded to the idea that their favored economic system is ‘best’ for humanity because it is most suited to ‘human nature’ and the ‘natural world’ that such claims to being similar to Darwinism. I argue that only by taking a deeply ahistorical understanding of economic development can economics be at all seen as evolutionary in a Darwinian sense. That evolution has taken place as the means of production and the mode of organization of the social forces of humanity have changed over time is not in dispute. My argument is that liberal economics is limited to economic considerations of the present moment, and the greater economic structures that have changed over time for very different reasons are better studies with other tools than evolutionary models of the present economy.

    I agree that one could view different economic stages of human development as different niches, but my point was that the feudal system was so closed, as would Stalinist state capitalism, that there is no utility in applying UD views to the economic choices within the system. The point was to suggest that either UD is trivially true in very uninteresting ways, or not truly universal, especially in the economic sphere. I would suggest that the reason there is such controversy over the issue and some argue it is true is because of a mistaken universalization of present economic conditions (broadly speaking), which are barely over two hundred years old in the most developed parts of the world, and much more recent in other areas.

    The changes need not be positive, from a value standpoint. I would argue that as capitalism becomes more developed, the irrationalities of the system ultimately retard economic productivity and human freedom, as we are really beginning to see now (the outlawing of digital copying). Economic conditions are irrational in the sense that they are not rationally constructed by human conscious choices to be organized for the meeting of human needs and the production of greater human happiness. Liberal economics are irrational in that they are designed to produce profits for their own sake. 800 million people live in hunger at any time and 80 million people die each year from hunger because the system cannot make profits from feeding them. This is just one of the irrationalities of the liberal system. It selects out 80 million lives annually of those who could not compete well enough in the market to afford sustenance. That capitalism also produces greater amounts of free time in productive efficiency, while working constantly to eliminate our free time so that greater profits might be generated from the exploitation of this free time is another irrationality of the system. These things can all be causally explained with historical research and analysis, but examining how such an irrational system evolved from the more tightly controlled feudal system with Universal Darwinian Evolution in mind appears to me to be both trivially true and of limited intellectual utility.

    But, on the other hand, with a system as open as liberal economics, I can see a strong analogy between studying that with statistical methods and the limited study of biological evolution as gene counting within a largely unchanging environment. As these studies are limited to a particular time and place where there are particularly open systems, one is slightly misleading in calling such analysis as universal. Particularly closed systems have only marginal evolutionary moments and other approaches will bring greater understanding.

    To clarify as to: “Specifically, you say that advancing a Darwinian explanation perpetuates “dangerous myths that ignore the realities of human history and deeper understandings as to the flexibility of humans to adapt themselves to irrational and unhealthy economic systems for survival.””

    My point here is different that what you take it to be. My apologies for lack of clarity. Liberal economists have claimed that their rather recent economy is suited to and reflective of a deeper human nature. The general public often regards the human species as ‘greedy’ and ‘lazy’ despite the mountain of contrary evidence, both from psychology and history. The anal retentive acquisitive personality structure is one suited for economic success in a liberal economy, but not optimal for human happiness. In a feudal system a different personality structure would be more suited for optimal social success. The argument of Fromm is that human nature is suited to a productive character structure, but can accommodate itself to living lives not ideal to that character structure (flexibility in living is an adaption that has developed in humans). Thus certain social structures places humans in none optimal conditions for human happiness and allow pathologically unhealthy individuals to fit in better. As human social conditions can be rationally organized to meet human needs, the suggestion is that the economic and social structures be reorganized to meet human material and psychological needs for happiness.

    The liberal economist, to the contrary, falsely analogizes that the current liberal economic arrangements are reflective of human nature and the ideal system for human organization. With an ahistorical approach, it is generalized that because the current system is open and filled with competition, it reflects greater biological truths about human beings. This would be one form of the ontological monism approach that sees the process as connected. My point simply is that economics have been radically different and human psychology has been able to accommodate being flexible enough to live under such a closed system.

    If one examines such closed systems, and one such as feudalism that existed stably for such a long period of time, the Darwinian analogy is not as useful. That is for looking at the historical moment of feudalism. The system is closed. There is little opportunity for variation. Much different conclusion would be found if one was to try and generalize about ‘human nature’ that with a liberal system.

    Yes, I agree that different economic historical moments are like different evolutionary historical moments, but the statistical approach has more utility with open static systems and such analysis cannot be universalized. Looking at the gene counts on Mars over the past year has no utility or significance (assuming there is no life there). There is marginally more variance in these closed economic systems that have grown up, and in relatively closed conditions with little variance, other methods and approaches will provide much better understanding about human development and potential.

    To specifically address you points remaining two points- the environment is unhealthy in that it does not promote mental health and happiness. This differs greatly from survivability. Part of why humans are so good at surviving is that we suffer horrible conditions and keep going. Liberal economics is just another in a long line of such conditions. Thus, this unhealthy atmosphere is not necessarily a survival pressure in the Darwinian sense (except for those killed by the deeper irrationalities of the system). Of course there is transmission of behaviors, no argument there. It is why the pathologically unhealthy economically prosper in liberal economics.

    The point is that by mistakenly universalizing liberal economic conditions and making claims that they are based upon being accord with human nature is dangerously wrong and supports liberal biases that are not supported by a more historical understanding of human development. Economies and social arrangements are human built institutions and have altered over time. I suspect Universal Darwinian economists are not doing detailed analysis of economic conditions of feudal economics and trying to draw analogies to gene survivability. That is because the conditions for the analysis they like are not actually economically universal.

  5. I’m on board with Jake’s above responses but just wanted to add on top some of Hodgson’s responses to objections and views which seem similar or relevant to those raised by Todd and Pete.

    With regards to the objection that UD is trivial, I can somewhat share this initial intuition. But it seems that it might be best to say not that UD is trivial but that UD provides only a broad framework from which to understand complex systems which are subject to variation, selection, and inheritance (all broadly construed). This Hodgson fully agrees with. For Hodgson, UD is not meant to be a panacea which solves every problem of every science nor is it meant to replace or reduce other sciences. Hodgson freely admits that other sciences are crucial in filling in the blanks left by the UD framework and that only by filling in these blanks is a full explanation achieved. “Darwinism offers a theoretical framework and ontological precepts, rather than a detailed set of theoretical explanations for all phenomena… The evolutionary economist has to provide more specific, extensive, auxiliary theorist to fit inside, and be guided by, a more general Darwinian framework.” (277) This is all just to say that UD is not so much trivial as it is an essential, but incomplete explanation.

    This though leads into Todd’s objection that Darwinism is inapplicable to previous less liberal economic environments. I think Jake answered this objection quite well so I won’t add much except to say there does not seem to be a reason why UD as understood by Hodgson would not be flexible enough to accommodate the various specific forms of variation, selection, and inheritance of other economic conditions. I’m no economist but I’d be very surprised if there were not in fact models of less liberal economies (past or present) which try to explain their stability or instability under the framework of UD. In fact, Todd even informally explains the lack of variation of feudal economies by pointing out the high selection pressure in that environment.

    This though does lead to a bit of a worry I have. While I’m pretty much on board with UD, it’s general nature does seem to also make it difficult to disprove which would seem to be a serious problem. I’m not even sure how one would go about trying to disprove it.

  6. I’m with Leo and Jake (and Hodgson) on UD, but there’s no sense repeating what they’ve already said. I do want to say real quick that the evolving universe idea is not necessarily as crazy as it sounds on first blush. In fact, it’s an idea that can get thrown around in response to fine-tuning cosmological arguments for God’s existence. One way it can work if the universe is repeatedly expanding from, and contracting to, a singularity. Why does the universe have the laws that we observe? Because other laws produce unstable universes that “quickly” collapse, i.e. they don’t survive, i.e. are selected against.

    I don’t buy this, but it’s certainly not the craziest thing to come out of theoretical physics. As Hodgson says, it is taken seriously by the physicists.

  7. I would direct everyone to Randy’s comments in ‘Basic Questions about Hodgson’s Paper’. He is talking of market economies as being Darwinian. The conditions he explores there are not those within a feudal or state-capitalist (Stalinist) economy.

    While economic conditions themselves might evolve, this is not the kind of question one is examining when examining liberal economic ‘evolution’ at work, and this does not apply to feudal to state-capitalist economics. If one talks of either economics or people accommodating (adapting) themselves to feudalism and other restrictive systems, this is a very different question that the alleged stabilizing force of the ‘invisible’ hand of the market, and is ‘evolutionary’ in a different sense and to include it in the discussion is to make UD a trivial approach, in my view.

  8. Pete’s questions are really interesting. Obviously UD wants to make universal Darwinism as a very general doctrine. It seems to make sense when it is applied to different areas. However, as Leo said, if there is no way to refute universal Darwinism, then this theory does seem somehow trivial. In Witt’s paper, Witt says that it is yet unknown what contributions universal Darwinism has made.

    This interests me: UD defends for it while Witt is unsure about it. How do we assess this theory? If we cannot prove it when applying it to a specific area, does that mean that this theory is wrong, or just that we apply it wrongly? Further, is there any area that this theory is inapplicable?

  9. Like Josh, I’ve heard about the “evolving universes” idea before, but I think I can provide a bit more detail. First off, to respond to Todd’s point, by universe, I mean roughly the 4D spacetime lightcone we live in. For the alternate meaning of “universe” that means “everything that exists,” physicists and scifi types tend to use the term “omniverse.” This may be incorrect in your dialect of English, but that’s what the dialect of the relevant field has settled on.

    AFAIK, the “evolving universe” idea is not really a theory, so much as physicists engaging in some science fictional speculation. The idea is this: Let’s assume that every time a singularity forms, a new universe is created whose physical laws resemble the parent universe’s, but are slightly different. This gives you inheritance and variation. Universes that produce more singularities (black holes) will have more descendants. That gives a selection pressure towards physical laws that promote stellar formation, and as a side effect, intelligent life. However, AFAIK, there is simply no reason to think that the formation of a singularity will spawn a new universe, let alone that there is some sort of “descent with modification” going on. The apparent fine tunning of our universe could just as easily be explained by combining some random universe spawning process with the weak anthropomorphic principle. Josh is right that the “evolving universes” idea isn’t totally crazy, but it was a bit jarring to see such a speculative “theory” mentioned in Hodgson’s paper.

    As for UD itself, I don’t think it’s a scientific theory so much as a mission statement. If we see a set of conditions that match up with the assumptions of a generalized darwinian model (blind variation as opposed to random variation, retention as opposed to inheritance, and a fitness differential), then the darwinian model should apply. If these conditions don’t apply, then don’t try to apply the darwinian model. If we found an example of a case where darwinian assumptions are fulfilled, but the darwinian model doesn’t work…. that would be interesting.

    One thing I claimed back in the memetics thread is that you need to be very careful about what class of objects you pick as your gene-analogs. The class needs to be a natural kind. I would argue that memes are not a natural kind, so memetics qua memetics doesn’t work. The routines of neo-Schumpeterian evo-econ apparently are a natural kind, so neo-Schumpeterian evo-econ apparently works. (I take the neo-Schumpeterian model as an instance of U.D.) Because a given instance of U.D. needs to specify a narrow class of gene-analogs, I would predict that we won’t see an all-encompassing evolutionary economics so much as a whole bunch of very specific evolutionary models that work within certain fields within economics. Some fields of economic inquiry don’t fulfill the assumptions of the darwinian model, so U.D. won’t apply to those fields.

    One concern I have about U.D. is that it might be a solution in search of a problem. What does a darwinian model allow economists to do that their current models don’t?

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