Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Economy of Explanation


A thought:

Capitalism, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, produces economic efficiency not by design from above, but from innovation, investment, and self-interest from below. The ability of modern capitalism to invent, adapt, and prosper stands as dramatic testimony against those who would argue that complexity and efficiency cannot arise spontaneously, but must be planned into a system by a supervising authority. Charles Darwin would have loved it.

What impressed Darwin, as well as many others, about living things was how well-suited they are to their environments. Other naturalists could do no better than to attribute this to careful, centralized planning, but Darwin knew better. He supplemented his observations on natural systems with studies of the economic theories of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, whose work preceded his by a generation. From economics he gained one of the key insights of his theory: namely, that allowing individuals to struggle for personal gain helps to weed out inefficiencies and produces a balanced system that ultimately benefits society as a whole.

In a certain sense Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is unadulterated Adam Smith translated into the language of biology. The unthinking acts of individual organisms, seeking no more than survival and reproductive success, produce biological novelty just as surely as venture capitalists foster innovation.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century evolution has won the scientific argument just as surely as capitalism has won the economic one. Ironically, the critics of evolution, who otherwise fashion themselves as conservatives, are the ones who argue for central planning and design in the organization of living systems. By doing so they fail to acknowledge Smith's great lesson that the most intelligent design of all, whether in economics or biology, comes from having the wisdom to let nature work its course.

- Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul

At the beginning of the twenty-first century evolution has won the scientific argument just as surely as capitalism has won the economic one.

Most of today's successful economies are mixed economies. Countries have learned to take the best parts of socialism (e.g. universal health care, labor unions, welfare) and the best parts of capitalism (moderated by significant government regulations).

Similarly, evolution in the 21st century has melded Darwin's theory of natural selection with population genetics and random genetic drift (and other things) to produce modern evolutionary theory.

Miller is wrong on both counts. The winning strategies are a hybrid economy and a hybrid evolutionary theory.
Heh. I was wondering if someone would object on those grounds (remember that I don't post these things because I necessarily agree with them).

It's actually worse because, after all, the IDers only claim (officially) that some things are designed, just as some parts of the American economy are designed.

The basic point is valid, I think -- if it's awful to accept natural selection because it's cruel and leads to bad morals, then Smith's "invisible hand" must too. If "Darwinism" can't work, then our economy can't either. It was a good point Miller took too far.
I think the observation is useful, even though human economies and nature are not perfect analogies. IDists point to the "appearance of design" in complex systems as proof of design. Market economies are vastly complex and have the appearance of design in the masterful meshing of parts, yet it is obvious that there is no guiding intelligent agency other than the cumulative sum of millions of individual tiny decisions. So the analogy works as an accessible way to show that the appearance of design does not actually require a designer. I also enjoy the irony that the model for human social behavior that logically follows from an ID worldview is the top-down, centrally planned economy, which is anathema for most ID proponents.

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