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Forget About Survival of the Fittest

In todays Wall Street Journal OpionJournal online appears this editorial by NYU’s Gary Marcus.  Marcus is a professor of evolutionary psychology.  In this editorial, he wants to make the case that evolution settles for what works, not necessarily for what is ideal or best.  He then wants to apply this to understanding human behavior, especially as it relates to our economic behavior.  Marcus writes:

All this matters because endeavors like economics and social policy are all built around theories about what human beings are and how they function. We allow consumers access to credit cards, for example, because we assume (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that they will be smart enough to balance their short-term needs as consumers with their long-term capacity to maintain a fiscally sensible reality.

The new discipline of behavioral economics is aimed at addressing these issues, but is not taken seriously enough. Even now, in the eye of the worst fiscal storm in recent memory, we trust citizens to do the “right thing,” without factoring in the quirks of our evolved psychology.

As we deal with the current crisis and in the years to come, it will behoove us as a society to recognize that evolution equipped us not with foolproof, steel-trap rational minds, but something more like a “kluge,” a clumsy and inelegant mental patchwork that is good enough to get the job done, but far from perfect.

If humans were truly the fittest possible creatures one could imagine, the rational-man model would make sense. But the “fittest” that survived are not necessarily the fittest possible. We are flesh and blood creatures, filled with cognitive quirks that are the detritus of evolution. If we are to move past perpetual cycles of fantasy-driven booms followed by devastating busts, we must recognize evolution’s limits, and confront them head-on.

 

I just have to wonder if Marcus thinks he’s making a rational argument here.  And if he does think so, what’s his basis for thinking so?  Perhaps his mental “kluge” has tricked him into thinking this is a rational argument when in fact it is non-sense.  But how could he ever tell?  In the context of his article, what exactly does ”good enough to get the job done” mean?

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22 Responses to Forget About Survival of the Fittest

  1. The argument would appear to be

    (A) Many human psychological traits have evolved through natural selection e.g our ability to pursue long term goals

    (B) Natural selection does not require that humans do this perfectly, only well enough to survive in the conditions under which we evolved

    (C) Also there is abundant evidence that in fact we do not do pursue long term goals perfectly or even particularly well.

    (D) Therefore, economic theories that assume accurate pursuit of long term goals are not realistic

    Sees like a rational argument to me. In fact it is rather obvious. You might disagree with A but that does not make it irrational.

  2. I agree with Marc Frank. He summarizes the main points very well.

    Donald, I think “good enough to get the job done”, means survival. Will the current wiring of the brain/mental process keep and organism alive? Obviously for the past few thousand years our brain/body has done the job well.

    The question is, as environments change, will the current adaptations prove sufficient.

    Evolution selects for the most suitable of what is available. Not the most perfect or ideal that is possible.

    Any ideas? David

  3. It is certainly rational, for the reasons stated above. basically, it has some defined logic behind it, which makes it rational. but so was the argument that the world is flat…”It appears to be flat, we have never reached the edge, therefore it is infinitely flat.” That was a rational argument when our knowledge of the world was limited. Being rational has absolutely nothing to do with being right.

    Trying to pass this off as science is ridiculous. It is pure speculation. I agree that humans are flawed. I also think it was written in the Old Testament thousands and thousands of years ago.

    Here’s what I think is just flat out wrong:

    We allow consumers access to credit cards, for example, because we assume (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that they will be smart enough to balance their short-term needs as consumers with their long-term capacity to maintain a fiscally sensible reality.

    I agree that many people are bound to screw up when given a credit card. But I completely disagree that it’s because of the “kluge” of a thinking system we evolved to have. If that were true, then NO ONE would be capable of handling their finances in a responsible manner. But clearly there are people. So obviously humans have the ability to do so. It has a lot more to do with being educated than hoping our chemical computers evolved the capacity to process everything beneficially.

    To Marc Frank –

    Obviously I disagree with (A). There is zero evidence that our psychologies evolved simply from RM+NS. That is per speculation. But I also disagree with (D) by the same logic as I just mentioned. I’m not disagreeing with the logic of the argument, just with its evidence, which is what science is all about, right? There is plenty of evidence that long term economic goals ARE realistic (there are millions and millions of people who achieve them). EvoPsych elegentally accounts for the inelegance of people who screw things up, but how can it simultaneously account for not only the people who get things right, but the brilliant minds in human history with the exact same mechanisms under the exact same selective conditions?

  4. We observe that we are not good at long-term goals, and we are not good at long-term goals because evolution has no long-term goals.

    How do we know about such things as long-term goals if Darwinian evolution has no long-term goals?

    The first man or woman to conceptualize a long-term goal could not have observed such a thing, so how would the conception have formed in the first place if there are no long-term goals to be observed in Darwinian evolution?

  5. uoflcard “EvoPsych elegentally accounts for the inelegance of people who screw things up, but how can it simultaneously account for not only the people who get things right, but the brilliant minds in human history with the exact same mechanisms under the exact same selective conditions?”

    Thats natural variation. Upon which natural selection works. But I am not saying that natural selection will weed out people with bad credit!

  6. we trust citizens to do the “right thing”

    “We” certainly do not. The author appears to be using the royal “we”.
    I don’t trust citizens to do the right thing. It’s a consequence of freedom that you are free to make poor choices and many people will indeed make what I’d consider poor choices. When it comes to consumer credit cards the right choice, IMO, is avoiding them altogether.

  7. Re #4

    do we know about such things as long-term goals if Darwinian evolution has no long-term goals?

    Now this is an example of irrational thinking. Darwinian evoluation has no goals at all. It also doesn’t have a sex drive or a desire to flee when confronted with danger. Does the designer have a sex drive and a desire to flee from danger?

  8. Thats natural variation. Upon which natural selection works. But I am not saying that natural selection will weed out people with bad credit!

    lol cmon now

    Okay, it’s “natural variation”. It varies, and it happens all of the time. But it is not genetic mutation/selection that leads to this variance. Quit thinking about the speculative, just-so, pop-evo aspect of this “science” and think about how this ridiculousness fits in with the actual physical theory of Darwinian evolution…it makes NO sense. In almost every aspect of our physical bodies, the functionality is almost exactly the same across a specific species, including human beings. How could natural variation of the human genome account for such incredible discrepencies of intelligence and mental capacity from from generation to the next, from one person to the next?

    Basically, everything Gary Marcus wrote is not applicable to real life (a frequent problem of EvoPsych, and Darwinism, for that matter). It is a bunch of speculation w/o a shred of evidence.

    The last sentence in the quoted segment above is wildly inconsistent with the EvoPsych/Darwin belief system…

    we must recognize evolution’s limits, and confront them head-on.

    Do millions of people screw up their finances? Absolutely. Are most of them mentally capable of being educated and doing things responsibly? YES. It is not a “limit” imposed by evolution, it is just a lack of education.

    But the part that is inconsistent with the Darwinian worldview is the thought that we should “confront” our evolved limits “head-on”. According to them, we aren’t conscious and don’t have any ability to make decisions (our brains are just “chemical computers”…everything we do is merely a natural reaction to a series/system of inputs), so why is he imploring people to do anything?

    In the end, EvoPsych is not a “follow the evidence” science. It is an extrapolation of a 19th century theory. EvoPsych’s conclusions and analysis are REQUIRED for Darwinian evolution theory to survive. Nevermind that it never makes any sense when compared with observations of reality or the “self” (a curseword in the field)

  9. Mark Frank

    (A) Many human psychological traits have evolved through natural selection e.g our ability to pursue long term goals
    (snip)——–
    Sees like a rational argument to me. In fact it is rather obvious. You might disagree with A but that does not make it irrational.

    Well, I disagree. The implication of A is that our rationality itself has evolved from RM/NS. If that is the case, there doesn’t seem to be any good way to justify our own rationality. We’ve had this discussion on UD before. There doesn’t seem to be any non-circular way to argue that our rationality evolved from irrational, blind, purposeless processes of RM/NS. Unless it can be demonstrated scientifically that A is even true, then the rest of the arument doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  10. I believe that survival of the fittest for mankind is problematic but has in fact happened to some degree. This guy’s proposition says that if it doesn’t harm, then it survived. I am not so sure I agree with this entirely but may have merit. A few thoughts:

    A successful human society needs a plurality of skills to succeed. Whether it is good archers, strong backs, maternal and communal skills, organizational abilities, intelligence etc. Even entertainment skills. People can pick the set necessary or useful. So while individuals are the focus of survival, many different skills will ensure the ability to prosper and have offspring. There is no conscious attempt to preserve these skill sets but they probably happened.

    There is a strong maternal and paternal instinct in man and this strongly favors one’s own offspring whether they have the skills to survive and reproduce on their own or not. Thus, inferior skills will be passed on. It probably exists in animals as well but since man remains in his parent’s control for a long time relative to most animals it probably has a greater effect with humans.

    The particular environment will enhance the value of different skills. For example, an environment that encourages trading might value a different set of skills than a hunter gather society, herding, nomadic or a subsistence farming society. Those who prosper in each will have more children but with a different set of skills from the other societies.

    This whole scenario has gone out the window with ability to limit children.

    I doubt that the vast number of things that evolutionary psychologists say happened had time to happen or there was enough of a selection value to have happened when for most of its history man was wandering from place to place to find food. It was only a relatively short time ago that man settled down into organized communities and by that time they were wide spread and very much isolated especially for breeding purposes.

    So what you see in common is probably built in from scratch.

  11. “All this matters because endeavors like economics and social policy are all built around theories about what human beings are and how they function.”

    Here lies the problem, policies are implemented based on THEORY!! These theories have presuppositions that may or MAY NOT be true!!

    We see our econimic policoes now as having failed but would we have said that 4 or 8 years ago? Probably not.

    When looking at our “evolved quirks” are we looking at a sub group or the entire species? Because many of those quirks are a result of education!! (Some may call that brain washing by the way.) They are leanred behaviors!! We were taught in public schools that the current system of borrowing and spending would work and was “good”. Oops, I guess it wasn’t so “good” after all.

  12. The validity of evolutionary psychology aside, Marcus’s premise of why we “allow consumers access to credit cards” is wrong. Consumer credit is “allowed” because we respect individual economic freedom, not because we assume that people won’t get into trouble with credit. Lenders take a calculated, educated risk that enough of their customers will abide by their agreement to make their business profitable, and ample evidence shows that it is profitable. That’s the long-term rationality that consumer credit market is based on.

    We don’t (yet) go about outlawing everything that might result in bad consequences for those who make bad decisions. That’s why we “allow” consumers to have access to credit.

  13. The human mind is probably the most brilliantly functioning object in the known universe. it is amazing how far out of their way EvoPsych “scientists” will go to downplay what is really there. They all do it, but here is this guy’s version of it:

    it will behoove us as a society to recognize that evolution equipped us not with foolproof, steel-trap rational minds, but something more like a “kluge,” a clumsy and inelegant mental patchwork that is good enough to get the job done, but far from perfect.

    Basically, our minds are one gigantic rat’s nest of a Plinko board that has evolved its pegs in particular places to allow for mental processing only adequate enough to survive and be passed on. yet again, look at *reality* instead of whatever you imagine the mind to be, and you see this is not the case. Is it imperfect? yes, people make mistakes all of the time. This fits just fine with most religious worldviews.

    I wonder why nature selected us to have the “mental patchwork” able to understand calculus and think of things like String Theory? Makes you wonder what happened to the cavemen to select that function? That must have been one harrowing chase by a Saber Tooth tiger! Ug, the one whose genes had mutated to be able to understand calculus did a quick projectile calculation and jumped across a ravine precisely to a narrow ledge on the otherside … hey, this EvoPsych thing is easier (and more fun!) than I thought! Maybe I’ll give it a chance after all

  14. Just paste your harrowing chase narrative into a grant proposal, uoflcard, and you’re on your way. Ask for enough for a new EvoPsych research center.

  15. Contrast evo-psycho with Biblical assessments of human nature any day of the week and you will find the latter will always square with everyday experience. Has science gone forward or backward in understanding psychology?

  16. 16

    “If we are to move past perpetual cycles of fantasy-driven booms followed by devastating busts, we must recognize evolution’s limits, and confront them head-on.”

    Or, we could eliminate the actual cause of such cycles, namely centralized banking. http://mises.org/story/3165

  17. Umm

    we must recognize evolution’s limits

    That seems to be the issue now, doesn’t it?

    And when all else fails chant “There are no weaknesses, there are no holes.”

  18. …and with every new discovery that seems to completely contradict the theory, don’t fight the discovery, just boldly accept it as something that evolution predicted.

  19. Evolutionary psychology has to be the stupidest branch of the theory of evolution. Basically you search around for reasons why such and such happens and then when you think of one, without testing it, you shout, “Fact!!!”

    Of course often times you can’t test the idea anyway, because as many people know, that would involve going into the past.

    There have been, however, some that have been tested. And falsified. :P

    http://post-darwinist.blogspot.....esign.html

  20. Well, actually, the link I gave doesn’t necessarily relate to evolutionary psychology in the direct sense. It involves it in the sense that the hypotheses falsified were “just-so stories,” just like evolutionary psychology.

  21. The worst part is that the “just-so” stories are based on what they think happened in the past and not what can be observed in reality today. The “results” become completely unliveable, because as they try to extrapolate an imaginative story about the past to today’s world, it rarely resembles anything like what we experience. “Well I know you think you feel or think this certain way, but actually it was beneficial for our ancestors to be like this other way, so that is how you really are. Forget about all of your intuitive and personal insights.”

    From what I gather (someone correct me if I’m wrong), they say we aren’t actually conscious, we don’t actually make decisions. All of our “thoughts” are just chemical/physical reactions to outide inputs. Okay, so tomorrow when I wake up for breakfast, instead of deciding, I’ll actually just be letting my chemical computer compute which cereal I want. Gotcha

  22. 22

    “he wants to make the case that evolution settles for what works, not necessarily for what is ideal or best”

    That theory was already put forward by Thomas Hunt Morgan in the early 1900s (Evolution and Adaptation). Funny how these ideas get periodically recycled.

    Natural selection does have to go, though, since it is not based on reality, but on the Malthus population principle.

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