2014-04-11

Order From Accidents

I shouldn't speak in generalities without empirical justification to back me up on my generalizing. So, I won't say that intellectuals have a tendency to assume order from accidents. Instead, I'll say that a certain kind of intellectual often falls into this sort of trap.

Two major examples come to mind: evolution and free markets.

Regarding evolution, we often here people reasoning back from what they see in current organisms (especially humans). This is such a prevalent error that I often wonder whether most people really do think that evolution has "motives." The way this works is that someone will take a physical feature - say, the comparatively smaller physical features of a woman versus a man - and construct an evolutionary theory for it.

Now, as a matter of pure fact, women are generally smaller than men. As a matter of pure science, is must be evolution that is "responsible" for this fact. But that's as much as we can say. Anyone who ventures any sort of theory about "evolutionary advantage" or human sexual behavior based on height, or any other such nonsense is just making stuff up.

We simply can't say that evolution happened the way it did "because _________." We can see what happened, but explaining the motives of nature is absurd. Genetic mutation is an accident. It doesn't happen for a reason. Once a mutation becomes prevalent, there may be some reason why it spreads more rapidly than other genetic varations, or there might not be. Not every genetic mutation need present any kind of evolutionary advantage, and there's no reason to assume that it does.

The stories we tell ourselves about evolution are mostly false. Evolution just happens over time. There are no "motives." Thousands of years after the fact, we honestly have no idea whether or how a particular mutation is/was "advantageous." It could have been an impotent accident that just spread. We don't know.

Some free market types also make a similar mistake regarding economics. This is especially prevalent among people who lean toward Hayek. There is a certain confirmation bias involved in assuming that an "institution" that has developed over time has reached its current state by virtue of the fact that the "institution" has an inherent value. It might, or it might not, but the mere fact that it exists and evolved over time tells us nothing about its merit as an institution. Nor does it tell us that the particular "institution" in question is the best way to solve a given problem, or that people couldn't design a better version of it themselves just by sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper.

Of course, the Hayek types recoil at the mere suggest that "emergent institutions" might well be inferior to one that was designed. In particular, libertarian types hate the idea that a central authority of some sort could ever design an effective institution. I will let these folks hum and haw a bit at what I'm saying, if they so choose. However, the burden rests with them to demonstrate that every "emergent institution" is superior to what someone might deliberately design and mandate. That's a tall order, and everyone knows it. Using the aetherous language of an "old Whig" won't change that fact.

In a way, I think both categories of thinkers are anthropomorphizing change. That's a bad idea. Change just happens, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. There is no God Hand. There is no motive.