Creative Destruction

April 8, 2006

The Situational Element of Natural Selection

Filed under: Uncategorized — Adam Gurri @ 3:42 pm

I knew there was a reason I wanted to start a group blog!

Over at Sophistpundit, I had just finished a post responding to a friend of mine.  We were quibbling about the relationship of economics to natural selection; my argument was that often times evolutionary biologists focused on the genetic side of natural selection, while free market economics provide an engine for situation change.

""Survival of the fittest" is of course a term which most scientists would disavow, but has none the less polluted our understanding of evolution. A single example demonstrates the absurdity of it: do we really believe that the dark-colored moth which survives when the trees match its color is "more fit" or better than the light-colored moth which is more easily discovered by predators? Or vice-versa, when the situation is reversed?"

"It is important to distance ourselves from the notion that evolution makes things progressively superior. What it is is the weening out of those things which had thrived under a situational advantage when the circumstances alter and they are unable to cope. It may very well be that the situation will return to the way it was previously, when that species had the advantage–but the species has died in the interim and all we are left with are the ones who could survive and may now once again meet a disadvantage."

Having completed that behemoth, I returned to make good on my promise to Ampersand that I would respond at length to our debate in the comments section of a previous post.  I intended to use this notion of situational evolution to explain memes in the manner that I had just finished using it to explain economics.

But lo and behold, Tuomas has beaten me to the punch.  His post is far more profound, and technically adept, than anything I could have produced.

"Ampersand commented: Also, I’d point out that even the concept of a “self-destructive idea” is dubious. It’s probably more accurate to say that an idea is self-destructive in a certain environment; that same idea may be harmless in a different environment.

I’d say it goes further than that, I’d say an idea that is self-destructive in some environment is actually good in some other, and tends to spread."

This is basically the heart of what I was trying to get at when I spoke of situational evolution; that nothing is the "fittest" except for in specific circumstances.

It's probably obvious that when I used the example of a "self-destructive idea", I was grasping at straws in the middle of a debate that was quickening in pace.  I'd like to take a moment to flesh it out a bit.

Look at the Shakers.   If you want a direct link between procreation of flesh and of ideas, look no further than this odd little religious anomaly.  Believers in strict celibacy, they were applauded for their virtue, but I'll let you guess how many of them are still around today.

It is true that memes can spread by other means.  But once again, I can't add anything to Tuomas' poignant conclusion on this one:

"since memes are fairly resilient in themselves, as is obviously the choice in game theory tactics, due to the fact that humans have a both natural and cultural tendency to become attached to pet theories (possibly fed to them by upbringing and culture), I believe the demographic problem is quite real, and not sufficiently debunked by “let’s spread memes, not genes” -meme (heh)."

A good case can be made that breeding is one of the largest variables in the survival of a meme, and when coupled with upbringing, it may very well be the most crucial element.

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13 Comments »

  1. Thanks!


    It is important to distance ourselves from the notion that evolution makes things progressively superior. What it is is the weening out of those things which had thrived under a situational advantage when the circumstances alter and they are unable to cope.

    Exactly. It saddens me that even in this day, 147 years after Origin of Species, this fundamental principle of evolution is misunderstood.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 8, 2006 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah…actually, I’m going through something similar in the field of economics right now. I think it’s related, actually.

    See, the whole “survival of the fittest” notion is actually way older that Natural Selection–you can see it in Plato’s Gorgias, where the character Callicles argues that nature intends for the strong to devour the weak. After Darwin published his famous work, the terminology surrounding much of what he said was used to justify this much older notion of ruthlessness and exploitation. Even though the two have nothing to do with one another.

    Similarly, as I recently argued, Adam Smith labeled the system of colonization in America “merchantilism” and dubbed it economically counterproductive. The Laissez-faire politicians that followed from this school of economics were among the most anti-imperial in British history. The colonization of Africa later on, however, was done by British officials who may have never outright argued against laissez-faire as a school of thought, but whose policy was a de facto return to merchantilism.

    However, because they existed in the heyday of belief in classical economics, they used much of its terminology to justify their behavior, and so “capitalism”, a derogatory word that Marx slapped on laissez-faire economics much in the same way that Smith has done with the term “merchantilism”, was blamed for imperialism.

    To this day, both of those inaccurate stereotypes continue to plague people’s understandings of evolution and of economics.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 8, 2006 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  3. A good case can be made that breeding is one of the largest variables in the survival of a meme

    I have some quibbles with how you frame your conclusion, in that while the breeding vector is certainly important I’m not quite sure that you’ve demonstrated that it is one of the largest variables in play and this was the crux of Vulgar Moralist’s point.

    On the flip side, what are we to make of the fact that the Left completely ignores this dynamic? What with self-identified Conservatives already being 50% more numerous than self-identified Liberals, and the birth rates for Conservatives being higher, are liberals just deluding themselves on the mass appeal of their ideology? They’re outnumbered now and do they really expect to convert more than 50% of the offspring of conservative households?

    Comment by TangoMan — April 8, 2006 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

  4. I knew there was a reason I wanted to start a group blog!

    To hit on hot polisci sophomores. We already figured that out, dude.

    They’re outnumbered now and do they really expect to convert more than 50% of the offspring of conservative households?

    They do, because they believe they have an iron grip on the educational establishment.

    I believe this to be an error, however; they are in the position of the person who seizes control of the printing press at the Mint and believes they are in control of the economy.

    Comment by Robert — April 8, 2006 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  5. Breeding has an effect on the survivial of memes in the respect that children are in constant contact with and proximity to their parents’ ideas. So the ideas get replicated — at least until a better idea comes along or the child repudiates the parents’ teachings out of rebellion. People are quite malleable that way: able to have their heads turned this way or that in the course of a lifetime.

    I don’t know that either of the two main political perspectives in America truly relies on breeding to replenish or grow its numbers. That’s more the dogma of the Catholic Church. Rather, political parties tend (ironically) to be true believers that they have the best available (if not best possible) answers to the issues of the day. Clearly, that changes over time.

    Modern liberalism probably IS better established in the schools, but it’s no stranglehold. It’s also better established in cities as compared to rural America and favored by those with higher levels of education. None of those advantages are permanent.

    Comment by Brutus — April 8, 2006 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  6. I have some quibbles with how you frame your conclusion, in that while the breeding vector is certainly important I’m not quite sure that you’ve demonstrated that it is one of the largest variables in play and this was the crux of Vulgar Moralist’s point.

    I won’t pretend that I’ve offered anything comprehensive here–it just seems to me that culture plays the largest role in what ideas are filtered out, and that where you are brought up and who brings you up plays the largest role in embedding you into a certain culture.

    On the flip side, what are we to make of the fact that the Left completely ignores this dynamic? What with self-identified Conservatives already being 50% more numerous than self-identified Liberals, and the birth rates for Conservatives being higher, are liberals just deluding themselves on the mass appeal of their ideology? They’re outnumbered now and do they really expect to convert more than 50% of the offspring of conservative households?

    I would make this of it: those numbers come with a massive margin of error, and I never trust the methodology of this sort of statistic.

    I don’t know that either of the two main political perspectives in America truly relies on breeding to replenish or grow its numbers.

    I don’t know if there really are just two main political perspectives in America–the fact that there are two parties does not necessarily make it so.

    That’s more the dogma of the Catholic Church.

    Er?

    Rather, political parties tend (ironically) to be true believers that they have the best available (if not best possible) answers to the issues of the day.

    Do you really think so? Because I’m skeptical on this count. I think it’s far more pragmatic than ideological–one party says they’ll make good things happen. Bad things happen, or are perceived to have happened, under their watch, so people vote for the other party. For this reason, tracking the party line over time will turn up many contradictions.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 8, 2006 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  7. What with self-identified Conservatives already being 50% more numerous than self-identified Liberals, and the birth rates for Conservatives being higher, are liberals just deluding themselves on the mass appeal of their ideology?

    The problem with ‘liberal ideology’ is that it is vague. What does it mean to be a liberal? Classical Liberal (is that libertarian [I don’t think so, altough they have similarities]), FDR Liberal, Liberal that is really a socialist (why not admit that, then), Strawman Liberal (listen to conservatives on that one 🙂 )

    Basically liberals have themselves allowed the term to become vague and demonized, and like to use ‘progressive’.

    And (I don’t have links on this one, yet anyway) but people psychologically predisposed towards liberal values (rather than conservative), tend to be more flexible in their politics, and thus shy away from titles to box themselves into.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 7:20 am | Reply

  8. Basically liberals have themselves allowed the term to become vague and demonized, and like to use ‘progressive’.

    And (I don’t have links on this one, yet anyway) but people psychologically predisposed towards liberal values (rather than conservative), tend to be more flexible in their politics, and thus shy away from titles to box themselves into.

    Hey, you’ve been reading my “about me” post. The terms are indeed vague, which is fine by me. It’s obviously a problems for some others.

    Comment by Brutus — April 9, 2006 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  9. Yep, I read it. No, it’s not a problem for me (perhaps I implied it was). It simply partly refutes the theory that liberal ideas are losing, and conservatives are more numerous.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  10. I don’t know if there really are just two main political perspectives in America–the fact that there are two parties does not necessarily make it so.

    Of course there aren’t only two. It’s not even a continuum with two extremes. It just shorthand to make a tertiary point and needn’t cause alarm. Improper reduction to simple dualisms happens all the time in the media. It’s just rhetorical.

    Rather, political parties tend (ironically) to be true believers that they have the best available (if not best possible) answers to the issues of the day.

    Do you really think so? Because I’m skeptical on this count. I think it’s far more pragmatic than ideological–one party says they’ll make good things happen. Bad things happen, or are perceived to have happened, under their watch, so people vote for the other party. For this reason, tracking the party line over time will turn up many contradictions.

    I’m thinking pragmatism when I say “answers to issues,” but it’s more ideological than I think you give it credit for. It’s pragmatic that the pendulum swings left, right, and back over time. We need our pet issues to be addressed, but often solutions are elusive to either party. So the search continues. However, positions have hardened over time into ideologies, which are clung to even when they are proven (by experience) to fail.

    Comment by Brutus — April 9, 2006 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  11. Hmm, perhaps this seems like a turnaround from my previous post, but this is more like criticism of the method the study TangoMan quoted used, a possible alternative explanation.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  12. However, positions have hardened over time into ideologies, which are clung to even when they are proven (by experience) to fail.

    That’s true enough–paralleling when Tuomas stated that “Memes are fairly resilient in themselves”

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 9, 2006 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  13. […] Next, Adam Gurri at Creative Destruction writes about the situational element of natural selection. […]

    Pingback by Below The Beltway » Blog Archive » Virginia Blog Carnival XXXI — April 10, 2006 @ 7:47 am | Reply


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