Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).


09 August, 2010

On Evolutionary Psychology and the Extended Order

By Aaron
09 August, 2010



A friend recently posted the following joke on Facebook:

How many free market economists do you need to change a lightbulb? None. If the lightbulb needed changing, the market would have done it already.

Now, I don't care to debate economic philosophies today, but this joke - in tandem with the must-watch video above from Reason.tv (extended version here) - has reminded me of just how ill-equipped by evolution is the human brain when it comes to understanding the complexity of our modern world.

Most of human evolution took place under conditions in which humans lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, which were guided in their actions by concrete, indisputable aims: get food, stay warm, run like hell. Moreover, in these prehistoric times, other humans were either friends or family (members of the same group), or enemies (everyone else). There wasn't much in between. Thus, to achieve anything, one had to act altruistically toward, and in solidarity with, one's allies. Everyone else got an ass-whuppin' if they strayed into the wrong weedpatch, as it were. Over time, the processes of natural selection favored those individuals who possessed such instincts and here we are today: still tribal and suspicious of outsiders.

Moreover, the human mind is not well-bred to easily grasp complex chains of cause and effect. In the prehistoric past, humans didn't have much power over the world around them and thus weren't normally capable of setting off such sequences of events. Rather, most human actions elicited an immediate and obvious reaction: chase the gazelle, get lunch; poke the lion in the ass, be lunch. Public policy, such as it was, amounted to deciding who would hunt (the men) and who would rear the offspring (the women). That life could be any more complicated than this would have been unimaginable to our prehistoric ancestors.

Even in the 21st century, the human instinct is to apply the rules that govern our family life to the wider world. In my home, for instance, the dishes don't get washed and the laundry doesn't get folded unless I do it - or, if the stars are aligned just right, I manage to convince my wife to do it. This is the simple cause-and-effect to which our brains are accustomed: the plates are dirty, I wash them, now they're clean. This is also the idea that seems to come through in the joke above.

When shifted to the outside world, however, this mindset generally proves to be a disaster, as when a government official decides that, say, no pencils could possibly be made unless he orders their production - the sort of thinking that has spawned such masterful catastrophes as the Soviet Union and Cuba. Yet, somehow, even with a growing population of schoolkids, and despite the fact that no pencil czar commands their production, we never seem to have a shortage of pencils. Unfortunately, the human mind struggles to understand that anything could be accomplished or produced unless it is actively commanded from on high, as the tribal chief would have done back when we were all still roaming the savannah, crapping in the underbrush, and wondering when the rain god would order some precipitation.

"If you have a problem, and you intend to solve it, you think about something to solve it and you do that," says John Tooby in the Reason video. "And that works when you understand the situation, you understand your house, you understand a little something about your business. But there's no way we can understand a world in which there are millions of players doing an immense number of different things which are beyond our comprehension."

Somehow, though, in yet another twist in the natural selection saga, we have come to live in a world in which prosperity depends on cooperating with people we don't know - and will never meet - as well as on learning to anticipate not only what is seen, but what is unseen. Success in this modern world thus requires that we go against our instincts and learn to live by two separate sets of rules: one within our families, and one for the "outside world." And, as F.A. Hayek wrote in The Fatal Conceit, woe unto he who be mixin' the two:

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of [the small band or family] to the [wider civilization], as our instincts and sentimental yearnings would often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet, if were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.

The point - and I know you were beginning to doubt that I had one - is that we're not wired to see through the complexity of our modern civilization and, as such, we often do a lousy job in running even our own individual lives. With that in mind, we ought to exercise the greatest humility - and restraint - when we get the urge to order someone else's affairs, especially when that person is outside of our immediate family. Fact is, we usually don't know as much as we think we do.