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Darwin’s Genie: Misapplied Natural Selection Continues

Image credit: simisi1 via Pixabay.

Many remember the joke about the best way to open a can: “Assume a can opener.” Or the joke about what holds up the Earth, if the Earth is supported by a turtle: “It’s turtles all the way down.” We laugh at these vacuous explanations, but is not Darwinism like that? It’s a catch-all explanation for everything. Just assume it, and it will explain any data. Darwin may have defined it in terms of the origin of species, but today, natural selection is the Swiss Army knife applied in widely divergent fields. It can be used as a can opener, corkscrew, scraper, screwdriver, and even a dagger for defending itself against critics. Simply assume this can opener and the explanatory work is done. If not, there are more Swiss Army knives all the way down.

Serious papers have used natural selection to explain bacterial antibiotic resistance, human politics, and the multiverse. Any phenomenon that undergoes change but survives seems fair game for bringing out Darwin’s all-purpose explanatory pocket tool. Put another way, it’s like a demon. Maxwell’s demon was a thought experiment about a possible way to violate a natural law; even today, physicists argue about ways to test it. Natural selection is another occult force, complete with mystical “selection pressures” that can create eyes and wings by chance. This demon, too, makes possible violations of a natural law: the law of cause and effect. Natural selection could be called “Darwin’s demon” or, as the demon likes to portray itself, Darwin’s genie. It will fulfill its master’s every wish.

Historical Blunders

Critics of the Origin of Species immediately pounced on Darwin’s fallacious analogy of selective breeding with his new notion of natural selection. The former is done by people with minds acting with foresight toward a goal, they pointed out; the latter is supposed to be blind and unguided. Nevertheless, Darwin’s disciples ever since have played fast and loose with natural selection, applying it in situations where it doesn’t belong, without regard to any human intelligence involved. A recent example appeared a PNAS special issue about economics. In their introductory article to the series, Simon A. Levin and Andrew W. Lo praise Darwin as they repeat his blunder of flawed analogical reasoning.

We motivate this ambitious initiative with an analogyThe brilliant evolutionary insights of Darwin and others have revolutionized our understanding of the world. Darwin was impressed by the “tangled bank” of elaborate forms that emerged from the undirected processes of evolution to produce the complexity of the biological world. Through continuous innovation coupled with the deceptively simple filter known as natural selection, the characteristics of species and their interactions change in response to changing environments. However, evolution is not limited only to the biological world. Wherever the evolutionary forces of reproduction, variation, and selection exist — as they do in financial markets — evolutionary consequences will follow.[Emphasis added.]

Under the Bus

Never mind the traders, innovators, and theorists in the science of economics. They have been thrown under the bus. It’s natural selection all the way down. Intelligent choice by skilled people with free will responding as wisely as possible to rapidly changing market conditions is old hat. Entrepreneurship is gone. Economic theory by tenured professors like Thomas Sowell is gone. Everything now is Darwin’s demon at work, bringing enlightenment about the true nature of economics. People are just pawns of selection pressures. Economics is now like rafts in rapids without pilots. The luckiest will survive, and the genie will smile at an explanatory job well done.

Evolution is about short-term, relative optimality with respect to other participants in the system. In the biosphere, natural selection acts to improve reproductive success relative to the benchmark of other genomes, within and across species. Evolutionary change can thus be thought of in terms of differential fitness: that is, small differences in reproductive rates between individuals over time leading to large differences in populations.Even the very mechanisms of evolution — including those that generate new variation — are subject to constant modification. In the financial world, the evolutionary forces of mutation, recombination, reproduction, and selection often work on financial institutions and market participants through direct competition, finance “red in tooth and claw.” Financial concepts and strategies thus reproduce themselves through cultural transmission and adoption based on their success in the marketplace. These strategies undergo variation through financial innovation, analogous to mutation or genetic recombination in a biological system, but take place at the level of information and abstract thought in financial contexts. It is “survival of the richest.”

If evolution itself evolves, one doesn’t need people in this picture. One only needs “evolutionary forces” pushing objects around, be they molecules, cells, organisms, men or universes.

No Intelligence Allowed

The other papers in the series repeat the error. Their authors conjure up Darwin’s genie to create the appearance of scientific explanation for human endeavors.

In “Sunsetting as an adaptive strategy,” Roberta Romano and Simon Levin liken corporate decisions to discontinue products to apoptosis (programmed cell death). “Apoptosis, death, and extinction are part of a spectrum of responses but are essential features of the evolutionary play,” they explain gleefully as they discuss boardroom banter.

In “The landscape of innovation in bacteria, battleships, and beyond,” Burnham and Travisano compare Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE) with naval warfare. “The message from naval warfare and the LTEE is that competition fosters innovation,” they say with liberal applications of “selection” from the genie. No admirals allowed.

No Authors Allowed

In “How quantifying the shape of stories predicts their success,” Toubia, Berger, and Eliashberg justify that Darwinian bad habit, just-so storytelling. “Why are some narratives (e.g., movies) or other texts (e.g., academic papers) more successful than others?” they begin. Once again, it’s due to a “selection mechanism” acting silently behind the scenes. They fail to see what this does to their own hypothesis.

In “Social finance as cultural evolution, transmission bias, and market dynamics,” Akçay and Hirshleifer continue the game with Darwin’s genie. “In this paradigm, social transmission biases determine the evolution of financial traits in the investor population,” they say. “It considers an enriched set of cultural traits, both selection on traits and mutation pressure, and market equilibrium at different frequencies.”

In “Moonshots, investment booms, and selection bias in the transmission of cultural traits,” Hirshleifer joins Plotkin to apply natural selection to risk-taking in business. For once, they introduce cognitive reasoning into the mix:

We view adoption or rejection of the risky project as a cultural trait transmitted between firms. We employ the Price Equation to decompose this trait’s evolution into a component due to natural selection and a component due to mutation. Surprisingly, despite the central role of selection bias in the evolution of project choice in the model, the predominant source of cultural change in our context is not natural selection, but, rather, mutation pressure. The importance of mutation during transmission differs sharply from cultural evolutionary models with biased imitation, in which there is only natural selection. This feature of our analysis highlights the role of cognitive reasoning in the cultural evolution of risk-taking behaviors.

Cognitive reasoning cannot overcome the power of Darwin’s genie, however. “The Price Equation decomposes evolutionary change into selection and nonselection effects,” they explain. “The nonselection component is often called mutation pressure — the degree to which traits shift through the inheritance process instead of fitness-biased biased replication.” Thus, cognitive reasoning degenerates into a form of mutation pressure. Does that happen in the process of writing scientific papers, too?

In “Evolved attitudes to risk and the demand for equity,” Robson and Orr continue the use of terms natural selection, fitness, and survival to financial planning. Risk-taking and choice by real people with minds and values is the same kind of thing as the foraging strategies of cattle.

Design Advocates Beware

A theory this plastic makes any debate about Darwinism all but impossible to win. Tackle the genie here, and he will reappear over there. He can always outsmart the debater by shape-shifting into another form. Natural selection is a meaningless concept if the professors over in the Economics building are like evolving bacteria in a long-term evolution experiment. 

These papers give an appearance of erudition through an illusion of mathematical rigor (e.g., Robson and Orr speak of “Convex–Concave Ψ in Biology and Economics”) but what does natural selection really do to scientific explanation? If all human choice and action reduce to selection pressures acting on mindless objects, the intellectual world implodes. Even the writing of scientific papers about “evolutionary models of financial markets” becomes nothing more than a survival strategy.

The Last Laugh 

In his essay The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis warned that scientism is dehumanizing to science itself. The Darwinists are today’s Conditioners teaching the populace about the true nature of things. They view themselves as victors in the conquest of Nature, “explaining away” and “seeing through” human values, which are now “mere natural phenomena” like natural selection. 

This is not a victory, Lewis says, but a defeat. It is not conquering medieval magic, but embracing it. Lewis does not suppose that the Conditioners are bad men; “They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean.” 

The last laugh is for Darwin’s demon. He tricked them. He manifested himself as a genie of explanation. He promised to bring them enlightenment, the ability to see through the outward appearance of things to their true natures. He promised to explain away human values in natural terms.

But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.