Saturday, February 09, 2013

Groups or Individuals at the Core of Natural Selection?

David Sloan Wilson is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York.  He writes (8 February) in The European HERE
“The New Invisible Hand”
“The invisible hand does not exist - at least in its modern incarnation. A return to the original texts of Adam Smith and a look at the theory of evolution can help us craft a better metaphor for how markets actually function. Cooperation is as important as competition.
“Adam Smith famously observed that people neither intend to promote the public good nor know how much they are promoting it. Nevertheless, in pursuing their own selfish goals, they are led, as if by an invisible hand, to promote an end that was no part of their intention. Smith’s observation stands for one of the most fundamental questions in economics—the degree to which economies can run themselves without government intervention."
This is a long post by David Slpan Wilson.  I shall only discuss the first paragraph and I strongly recommend that you follow the link and read all of his post.  It is cogently written and contains many ideas that are worth your time. I am not so bothered with his take on the IH metaphor as I am with his on Natural Selection. 
My problem with David Sloan Wilson’s account is his juxtaposition of natural selection operating predominantly at the group level, not initially from the individual to the group.  
An individual reindeer experiences a unusually larger and stronger set of antlers (even minutely) that enables it to win more contests for females in its breeding lifetime than rival males.  It will tend to sire more progeny. This may pass on to most of its progeny larger and stronger antlers, with similar lifetime breeding outcomes for most of them. 
As its descendants become more numerous, each individual among them may have similar successes, spreading the breeding advantage to other generations.   The individual reindeer does not need to know the connection between its selected advantages over rivals without it.  It naturally carries on seeking female mates and contesting with male rivals.   Its selected characteristic continues blindly.   Whether its advantage in mate selection and its numerous progeny comes to dominate the group in that characteristic depends on many other factors.
 As natural selection is blind and may operate in other contexts with other males which have, or evolve, other rival advantages in their other characteristics, some of which may also be advantageously beneficial to rivals, it does not follow that the size characteristic alone, or any other specific characteristics evolving among individuals by natural selection, will ‘take over’ that group or the whole species of reindeers.  Natural selection is not tidy.   It operates naturally and over long time periods.  Alpha males do not necessarily sire entire generations until replaced by new alpha males.  Subordinate males also sire some progeny, as detailed observations of chimpanzee community’s show.
Secondly, David Sloan Wilson’s assertion that Smith’s  use of the IH metaphor “stands for one of the most fundamental questions in economics”, specifically “the degree to which economies can run themselves without government intervention” similarly is quite wrong, or incomplete at best.  Smith never said anything about an economy running itself “without government intervention”, nor about "an invisible hand" how "markets function".
He specifically was critical - ‘"violently” so - about “mercantile political economy” in which government's pursued policies that had serious affects of the running economies. He considered government pursued wholly wrong policies of intervention and not that the State had absolutely no role in human economies.  Smith was never an anarchist.  Governments he wrote had distinct roles in economies in defence, justice, public works, education, and regulations – and had had such roles since some humans left the forest and formed civil governments, and he expected such roles to continue.  He advised fundamental changes in the roles that 18th century governments chose to assume for contemporary economies.  Not the least for them to cease responding to the mercantile lobbying of “merchants and manufacturers” for legislative actions that sheltered embedded monopolies in non-competitive behaviours.     He preferred Natural Liberty – for all individuals in society, not just merchants – but this too was never an absolute pre-condition for “opulence”.   Smith described claims that everything had to change quickly as pure utopianism, commenting, sardonically that such claims by the French Physiocrats that this requirement was a precondition was empirically quite false.  If true, he added, no country in the world would ever have succeeded in producing some opulence. 
David Sloan Wilson writes: “In a sense, group-level selection is the invisible hand that winnows the tiny fraction of behaviors that work at the group level from the much larger set of behaviors that don’t work”.
Read quickly this seems reasonable and authoritative.  However, history of human societies and their economies shows a much more mixed picture.  Over the many millennia of pre-history and history, societies have come and gone, their detritus scattered across (and usually under) the landscape.  There is no ever “upward” tidy progression of human societies in a straight-line.  Blind Natural Selection among humans is not like that.   There is no “invisible hand” that “winnows” the behaviours that do not work to make way for those that do.  I shall say nothing on this occasion about the myths of the “invisible hand” as ascribed wrongly to Adam Smith (scroll through my many posts of the IH metaphor to see my arguemnts).
Human behaviour that “works” is not an uncontroversial subject.  Certainly, since the re-emergence of commercial society from the 15th century in north-western parts of Europe and its associated Enlightenment in ideas, of which Adam Smith played his part with the rest of his colleagues in the Edinburgh of his day, some tentative steps have taken place – again from individuals, or mall teams, to the group, not the other way round.  The growth in commerce, improved technologies, innovations across the manufacturing and social spectra, slow steps to liberty in the various political orders, and historically unprecedented increases in per capita incomes (from less than $1 to over $100 a day) for millions, if not billions, have transformed human groups and the individuals in them. 
Markets give societies a least worst means by which individuals can contribute to transforming societies at the large-group level at unprecedented rates.  States can either help of hinder these processes.


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