Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Emergent immoral genes

Nick Rowe linked to an interesting article on critiques of evolutionary biology, and I think it might have a relationship to emergent rational agents. But first, I think Nick is right to suggest replacing "evolutionary biology" with "economics"; this sentence is golden:
... something about [economics] makes it prone to the championing of ideas that are new but false or unimportant, or true and important, but already well studied under a different branding.
This almost exactly echoes Thomas Palley (via Simon Wren-Lewis) on MMT:
The criticism of MMT is not that it has produced nothing new. The criticism is that MMT is a mix of old and new, the old is correct and well understood, while the new is substantially wrong.
Anyway, there were a couple of quotes that caught my attention regarding morality and evolution:
[For some] natural selection causes problems, not only because it is mindless and amoral, but because it can seem downright immoral. For example, Saunders (2003) writes “there is a further danger, as well. Darwinist explanations inherently invoke selfishness and greed as the most important driving forces”. This isn’t true, and even Darwin’s own emphasis on “struggle” probably rests on a mistake (Lewens 2010), but there is a very weak sense in which natural selection involves competition, and there is a lot of research on “conflicts”.
While naturalistic, the theories superficially resemble a transcendental account of value (they provide criteria for judging behaviours as better or worse, without reference to anybody’s attitudes), but the values that they superficially endorse are unattractive (the imaginary motives of the imaginary agents are generally base), and in some accounts, the imaginary agents are not even humans. Anxieties can be real, even if they are baseless, and the aims of these critics are best viewed as therapeutic.
Pointing out the amorality of evolution and evolutionary agents is perfectly in line with the critique (e.g. here or here) that "Homo economicus" is totally unlike Homo sapiens in the sense that we are more cooperative or generous (more "moral") than the rational agents used in economic models. In evolution, we have the agents of evolution such as unicellular organisms or even genes acquiring (im)moral agendas despite the fact that they are incapable of actually having a moral philosophy.

We might instead view this the "agenda" of evolution as emergent from random exploration of the state space in the same way that selfish H. economicus can possibly emerge from exploration of the economic state space by perfectly moral H. sapiens or even C. capucinus. There are additional parallels in the concepts of evolutionary "fitness" and economic "efficiency" (optimality) that also could emerge from exploration of the state space.

The key point is that there is no reason to assume that human morality or the amorality of a strand of DNA won't give rise to an emergent immoral, but correct, theory at the macro scale. We might intuitively view optimizing behavior as selfishness, but there is no reason to apply that judgement to the substrate. That economics is understood in terms of emergent selfish agents does not mean humans are selfish ‒ or more importantly should be selfish ‒ anymore than we should ascribe moral theories to collections of Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen atoms in a strand of DNA.


PS While we may observe some process at the macro scale (like evolution, or macroeconomic fluctuations), we cannot be certain about (or more precisely, come up with a meaningful definition of) the underlying level of agents responsible for that process. Ascribing the unit of evolution to organisms (e.g. Darwin), genes (e.g. Dawkins), groups, or at multiple levels (e.g. Wilson) becomes something of a Sorites paradox. There is no "evolution" except at the macro scale ‒ agents just have behaviors of varying complexity. Likewise, there is no "recession" except at the macro scale ‒ agents just have behaviors of varying complexity.


  1. I think the analogy between economics and evolutionary biology breaks when one considers the different reactions of economists and evolutionary biologists to criticism.

    This may be extremely unfair to Prof. Rowe, but I doubt he could ever write something like this:

    Claims that evolutionary biology is flawed or importantly incomplete are as old as the field. The criticisms are characterized by their diversity at any given time (as seen in the laundry lists of ideas and observations that are championed by critics ...), and by their persistence over time (...); there are very strong similarities between the arguments of, say, mid-twentieth century critics (...), and critics writing over 50 years earlier (...), or 50 years later (...).

    This does not mean that the critics are wrong. Both the diversity and persistence of criticism might be explained by intransigence and lack of ambition in the field, by “the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of some of those who advocate [Darwinism]” (...), particularly in its “orthodox”, “ultra” or “hardline” forms (...) However, this explanation is not very plausible. Critics and “novel” findings of all kinds have never lacked attention in evolutionary biology, and this sprawling field could have no means of enforcing conformity to any of its tenets, even if it could agree on what they were.

    Economists, at least in my experience, seem constitutionally incapable of even imagining the possibility that they might be mistaken, as John Welch (an evolutionary biologist) does.

    That's not peculiar to Prof. Rowe: pretty much every single economist would be at least equally incapable. Some are probably a whole lot worse.

    There is something in economic debate that distinguishes economics from real sciences.

    B.L. Zebub

    1. I disagree with this framing.

      Here is Mark Thoma, for example. Here is Paul Krugman being practically post-Keynesian. The econoblogosphere just spent a couple months talking about Paul Romer's critique of macro.

      Even Nick Rowe thinks that the dominant paradigm in macro (NK DSGE) has some major failings.

      Sure, Eugene Fama and Edward Prescott seem to believe they are infallible -- or at least the market is infallible, we can only fail it -- but they aren't representative of economics as a whole. There are blowhards in every field (it even happens in evolutionary biology where David Sloan Wilson is more like Fama than Romer with regard to multi-level selection).

    2. I disagree with this framing.

      Frankly, I suppose I'm getting old and I haven't kept up to date with evolving language. I have no idea what "framing" means or what it has to do with what I wrote.

      Regardless, I am aware that some economists like Krugman and Romer have formulated criticisms of economics (I didn't know about Thoma or Rowe).

      I don't, however, think the criticism these people make actually counts.

      Just take a closer look at Thoma's article you linked to: he acknowledges that both microfounded and non-microfounded models have problems. That, I suppose, is what caught your eye. He is a critic.

      Fair enough.

      But what is the solution he proposes? Or, in his own words But what form should these new models take?

      Should we retain the micro-foundations approach, or return to modeling aggregate relationships as was done prior to the methodological revolution of the 1970s?

      His answer is that both should be kept:

      Thus, the approach to take depends critically on the question the researcher is asking. For some questions, the aggregate approach is best despite the criticism it has received in recent years from those using modern models, and we shouldn’t think of it as going backwards if we adopt this approach when it provides simple, fast, and accurate answers to our questions. The “correct” model to use is not an either/or decision, and macroeconomists should be open to both approaches as we try to improve our ability to understand the macro-economy, and provide policy advice when the economy experiences problems.

      I'd sum that up like this: yes, we've been doing things wrong, so let's do them better by doing the same things.

      Pretty much the same applies to Paul Krugman's article.


      In your previous post, criticising Skidelsky, you write:

      No, this is a category error. Examining things that are measurable does not make them precise or exact, just measurable. That allows you to compare your theories to data, and if it is not measurable then it's useless as science.

      Did Thoma, Krugman, Romer, or Rowe ever acknowledge the need to have variables like utility, confidence, production functions, rule of law, measured?

      If not, does this ("if it is not measurable then it's useless as science") apply to economics?

      B.L. Zebub

    3. Let me put things differently.

      This is John Welch writing:

      This does not mean that the critics are wrong. Both the diversity and persistence of criticism might be explained by intransigence and lack of ambition in the field, by “the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of some of those who advocate [Darwinism]” (...), particularly in its “orthodox”, “ultra” or “hardline” forms.

      He refers to two groups: (1) the critics and (2) those who advocate “orthodox”, “ultra” or “hardline” Darwinism.

      Admittedly, I read it very quickly and I might have missed it, but did you find in Thoma's article any reference to the critics of economics?

      In Krugman's article, who are the critics?

      B.L. Zebub


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