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Science, Evolution, and Current Human Affairs


Two of my colleagues, Massimo Pigliucci and Larry Arnhart, have objected to my declaration that the invisible hand is dead. They also disagree with each other, giving the impression that scientists and evolutionists are no better at reaching a consensus than political spin doctors. Massimo's comments go beyond any particular policy issue and require a more general consideration of science, evolution, and current human affairs.

Science and Accountability: Accountability has arguably become the world's scarcest commodity. It seems that people can say whatever they want to achieve their short term goals, no matter what the consequences for others or society as a whole. Each falsehood is like removing a rivet from an airplane. Remove enough of them, and the airplane disintegrates in midair.

Science is a system designed to hold people accountable for their factual claims. When people function as scientists, they cannot say whatever they please. They must justify their claims in excruciating detail and pit them against counterclaims in a way that can be decided on the basis of empirical evidence. Every peer-reviewed scientific article is a cut gem of accountability.

Don't get me wrong. I am a hardened veteran of scientific wars, not a starry-eyed idealist. Scientific wars concern the same issues that have occupied philosophers and social theorists throughout history--and they are argued with the same passion. Scientific wars can last for decades and individual scientists can go to their graves without changing their minds. Entire communities of scientists can be misled by the assumptions of their cultures. Science begins with the same volatile mix that fuels all social discourse, but disciplines it in a way that leads to progress over the long term; the accumulation of trustworthy knowledge essential for our survival.

In a world that is starving for accountability, everyone needs to become bolder about asserting the values associated with science.

Evolution and Human Nature: Massimo Pigliucci is a bold evolutionary thinker but he is timid when it comes to our own species. He seems to think that evolutionary theories of human nature will forever remain speculative, compared to more solid bodies of knowledge emanating from fields such as economics and psychology. How do I disagree with Massimo? Let me count the ways.

First, my main argument against the invisible hand is based on fundamental evolutionary principles, not human evolution per se. If there is anything that we can say with confidence, it is that individual selfishness does not automatically lead to adaptive societies. Evolutionists have agreed upon this since the 1960's and it would be supremely naïve to claim otherwise. Adaptive societies in all species require special conditions that in human terms can be called regulation. The invisible hand metaphor is dead for this reason alone.

Second, I challenge Massimo's claim that our knowledge of human behavioral and psychological evolution must forever remain speculative. Would he make the same claim about astronomy, geology, and paleobiology? Past events leave traces in the present that can be pieced together to produce solid knowledge. Evolutionary psychological research is being reported in the most rigorously peer-reviewed journals. In an analysis of the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that I conducted, over 30% of the articles written between 2000-2004 were from an evolutionary perspective. If Massimo wishes to claim that evolutionary psychology is flimsy science, he should himself operate in scientific mode and provide evidence.

Third, all theories of human behavior require assumptions about an underlying human nature. Rational choice theory assumes that people act to maximize individual utilities. Radical behaviorism assumes that people learn according to the rules of operant conditioning. Adam Smith had a rich conception of human nature that he described in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. When we examine the assumptions of any particular theory, asking where the assumed propensities come from, the only plausible answer (barring creationism) is to provide an evolutionary account. People with different propensities were not among our ancestors. The minimalistic assumptions of rational choice theory and radical behaviorism turn out to be extraordinarily naïve in retrospect. They simply fail to explain the facts of human behavior. Human nature consists of a more complex set of propensities, which must be studied both empirically and theoretically. All roads lead to evolution when it comes to our theoretical understanding of human nature.

Finally, the naturalistic fallacy is often used to ward off evolutionary accounts of human nature in the same way that a cross is used to ward off vampires. I did not say that sustainable society is good because it evolved in our species. I define sustainable society as a moral virtue and seek to achieve it with the help of factual knowledge. This is standard moral reasoning, as someone with the pseudonym of thinkmonkey eloquently elaborates in a comment on Massimo's blog.

Darwinian Conservatism: Larry Arnhart, another bold evolutionary thinker, is happy to rush in where Massimo fears to tread. A political scientist by training, Larry's own political views are conservative and he seeks to provide an evolutionary justification for conservatism in his book Darwinian Conservatism and his blogs. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this, as long as he agrees to be held accountable by the rules of science. His sparring partners include the liberal philosopher Peter Singer, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and yours truly along with my former graduate student Ingrid Storm. Why should philosophers and spin doctors have all the fun? Rather than avoiding the topic, we should see what happens when all that passion becomes disciplined by the scientific process.

Unfortunately, Larry is so concerned with current events that he misconstrues my blog. He seems to think that I endorse everything he is against, such as centralized government and big bailouts. I made no such claims and never even used those words. Regulation need not require centralization and the bailout is unpopular precisely because it seems to reward rather than punishing the cheaters.

I am making a more general claim that the idea of unregulated social interactions leading to benign outcomes is dead, dead, dead. Much more work is required to determine what counts as smart vs. dumb regulation in any particular case, but at least we can reject the concept of no regulation, especially when it is presented dogmatically as a moral virtue. When Larry attends to my general claim, he seems to largely agree, noting that even Smith's nuanced view of human nature went beyond the invisible hand.

In retrospect, it is ironic that any scientist could seriously argue for the invisible hand, when science itself is so heavily regulated to insure accountability. I look forward to a future where the values of science are more forcefully asserted in public life and evolutionary theory is used unashamedly to address public policy issues. As a first step, I repeat: The invisible hand is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead.