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Evolutionary Economics

On Thursday June 4, I attended the Cato Institute half-day conference in Century City, California, which started out with a lecture by U.C. Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides, one of the founders of that science along with her husband John Tooby. Cosmides’ talk was on the evolution of cooperation, but for this audience she tailored her lecture toward politics and economics (Cato is a libertarian think tank in D.C.), by asking “Why do free societies arise so rarely and with such difficulty?”

Unfortunately, Leda tried to squeeze about two hours of material and powerpoint slides into a 35-minute talk, and so she was necessarily brief as she blasted through slide after slide, each up on the screen for only seconds, making note taking impossible. That’s too bad because there was a lot of data slides that I think the audience would have liked to absorb (I know I would have). Nevertheless, Leda’s central point was this: our brains evolved for solving specific problems in the EEA (the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation — the Paleolithic), and so we have domain specific programs that help organize our experiences. The problem is that the modern world is so different from the EEA that it causes conflicts. For example, most hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian because they live in relatively resource-poor environments and are often unsure about their safety and nourishment, and so we evolved many cognitive instincts for cooperation, food sharing, and group cohesiveness, because everyone in the group was either related to you or you know very well, so as the political saying goes, we must hang together so that we don’t hang separately. But the modern world is nothing like this.

I’ve written about this problem in my book The Mind of the Market, which focuses on evolutionary economics, whereby the world in which we evolved of small bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherers is radically different from today’s world that is resource rich and with vast disparities of wealth between the richest and the poorest. Thus, we have a natural tendency to resent wealthy people, distrust free markets, and misunderstand the bottom-up process of modern economies and try to control them from the top down, usually with disastrous consequences (e.g., Alan Greenspan and the Fed’s constant manipulation of interest rates sent false signals into the market for the price of money, leading to artificially large bubbles that then burst).

Leda noted the difference between hunting and gathering in terms of risk and uncertainty: Hunting meat is highly variable, success is as much due to luck as it is skill, and 4/10 times the hunter comes home empty-handed. Thus, hunter-gatherers must pool risk to deal with frequent reversals of fortune through food sharing. By contrast, gathering foods is a low risk process that depends on effort, not luck, and the results are mostly shared only within the family and trusted partners, but not to the group at large. Cosmides explained that this evolved psychology can be seen today in which we make distinctions between people in need of our help because they were unlucky (as with the hunters who return empty-handed) versus the gatherers who don’t bring home the vegetables because they were lazy and were loafing on the job. We are inclined psychologically to want to help the former but not the latter.

The political and economic consequences of this evolved psychology can be seen today in debates about healthcare, welfare, social security, etc., which are all attempts to pool risk among everyone in society, but without any distinction between those who suffer because of bad luck versus those who suffer because of laziness or lack of ambition. Modern political states are in the business of redistributing wealth from those who have it to those who do not, and since there is no attempt to discriminate between those who were unlucky from those who were just lazy, the people who earn that money through hard work and talent who then have it confiscated by the government and given to people they do not even know, naturally feel resentful, even though statistically the wealthy are extremely generous in giving to private charities that they voluntarily choose.

Cosmides also noted the psychological difference between working land that you own versus working land that the government owns: the agricultural policy of the USSR allowed 3% of land on collective farms to be private, and it turned out that between 45% and 75% of all food in the USSR was the product of that 3% of private farms.

So, in conclusion, Cosmides noted that there is a mismatch between the ancestral and modern worlds, our minds evolved to navigate family and friends and small groups, certain laws and institutions satisfy the moral intuitions these programs generate whereas other laws and institutions regularly fail in the modern world. Cosmides concluded: “Liberty provides the solution to most social problems, but few appreciate it because of our evolved minds.”

The second talk of the day was by Dan Mitchell, the Cato Institute expert on tax reform, supply-side tax policy, the flat tax, and tax competition. His talk was titled: “America’s Looming Fiscal Meltdown.” We are shifting to a European size welfare state, he noted, dolling out blame to both Democrats and Republicans, starting with George W. Bush, who Mitchell noted in his eight year term increased the Federal budget from $1.8 trillion to $3.5 trillion budget, and then noted Obama says he wants change to even more government, adding another trillion dollars to the budget in his first term, if not more. Mitchell also busted the myth that Bush increased the budget for natural security after 9/11. Not true, he said: most of it was for pork projects for his political cronies.

Mitchell then noted that Keynesianism is bad theory: borrow money and then give it to people so they will spend it — but moving money from the right pocket into the left pocket does not produce more wealth; it’s just redistribution. It does not increase wealth. Only free markets can do that. And in any case, where does the government get the money to redistribute? From us! But they take their cut as the middleman, and therein lies the problem. Bigger government did not work for Hoover or Roosevelt, and all that federal spending to get us out of the depression did not work: we did not get back to 1929 GDP levels until WWII. Neither did federal stimulus plans work for Presidents Ford or Bush I during their recessions, and Keynesianism failed utterly in Japan during the 1990s, when its national debt went from 60% of GDP to 150% of GDP. I.e., Keynesianism does not work, and yet politicians on both the right and the left insist that the only reason it doesn’t work is because: “government isn’t spending enough.” Wrong!

We are on the road to serfdom, says Mitchell, as our federal spending is projected to jump from 22% of GDP today to 45%–55% of GDP in the coming years (mostly because of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). Unless our GDP doubles along with federal spending (it won’t) the collapse is coming. Well, not a collapse, per sey: America will not become Argentina or Zimbabwe. But we will become France: instead of growing 2.5–3% a year, we’ll grow 1–1.5%, a difference that has enormous long-run implications, lowering per capita GDP 30–40% below what it otherwise would be. More spending means more taxes: more income taxes, payroll taxes, death taxes, double taxation of dividends and capital gains. And this doesn’t work. In 1980 Ronald Reagan cut the top tax rate from 72% to 28%, and between 1980 and 1988 the number of rich people (millionaires) rose from 116,800 to 723,700, and their share of paying for the federal government rose from $19 billion in income taxes to $99.7 billion in income taxes. In other words, lowering taxes on the rich generates more revenue for the federal government, which is counterintuitive.

In the end, however, there are moral consequences to such economic decisions. Mitchell: “Today there are over 2 million people in America who completely depend on welfare: prisoners; well, the welfare state is a prison for the human soul.”

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Creationism in 3-D

A skeptic engages three types of creationists who claim science supports their beliefs, yet they contradict one another
magazine cover

During the tsunami of bicentennial celebrations of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in February, I visited the fringes of evolutionary skepticism to better understand how one of science’s grandest theories could still be doubted.

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol, England, is run by a kindly gentlemen named Anthony Bush, who insisted that I not confuse him with those “loony American creationists” who think that Earth is only 6,000 years old. “How old do you think it is?” I queried. “Oh, I’ve worked it out to be around 100,000 years old, with Adam and Eve at around 21,000 years old.” (At an order of magnitude difference that makes Mr. Bush only five zeros shy of reality.)

What about, I pressed on, all the geologic evidence for a much older Earth? All those strata of, say, sandstone — loose sand compressed into solid rock over immense periods? Those strata are laid down every season, like tree rings, Bush explained. Interesting analogy, given that we can see trees growing from year to year, but where can we find sand being annually compressed into stone? (continue reading…)

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Biblical Patternicity


Last night, April 28, 2009, I debated Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana from Reasons to Believe (RTB), an evangelical Christian organization whose mission it is to give people “reasons to believe” beyond the usual faith-based reasons. In this case, it is to scour the annals of scientific discovery in search of findings that seem to gel well with biblical passages; and even if they don’t seem to fit, these gentlemen are adroit at massaging both the research and the scriptures such that in the end they will fit come hell or high water.

I blogged about my previous debate with the RTB boys before, so I won’t repeat their arguments and my rebuttals here, but this was most definitely a larger venue and audience — the basketball arena at the University of Texas at Austin with over 3,000 in attendance — so I made sure that my presentation was especially poignant and lively (first and foremost, I believe, a public speaker must be interesting, have something to say, and say it in a manner that gets people to pay attention and remember). For example, I nailed Ross right off the bat on his claim that the RTB “day-age” model of creation is correct when he said that the use of the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis means “epoch” (and therefore no matter what scientists discover about the age of the origins of life, the Earth, and the universe, they can say “see, our model predicted that correctly”).

No, sorry gentlemen, yom means “day,” as in, well, a day, a 24-hour day. Yom Kippur, for example, is the “Day of Atonement”. Yom Kippur is, in fact, the 10th and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur does not mean the “Age of Atonement,” the “Epoch of Atonement,” the “Geological Age of Atonement,” or the “Cosmological Constant of Atonement.” As I pointed this out I could see Mssrs. Ross and Rana scrambling through their Bibles and other works of reference they had on the table with them, but they never did respond so I presume that they have conceded the point.


I also made the general point that their RTB creation models are based on postdictions, whereas science depends on prediction. That is, the RTB models start with what we already know about nature, then search for biblical passages to match them, then predict that we’ll find more of the same. This is exactly what the Nostradamians do, as when they “predicted” 9/11 … after it happened! Sorry gentlemen, that’s not a prediction; that’s a postdiction. For RTB to be science, they must make predictions about things we do not already know!

Ross claims that the Bible — and only the Bible — has a creation story to match that of modern cosmology; that is, the creation of the universe out of nothing, that the earth was without form and void, etc. That’s not true, and I provided several examples from the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. But I also found this one that I added to the collection, from the Tao-te Ching 25, 6th century B.C.E.:

There was something undifferentiated
and yet complete,
which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless,
it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere
and is free from danger.
It may be considered
the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.


At one point in my presentation I pointed out the supreme irony of an atheist having to explain to theists how to properly read the Bible. The book of Job, for example, is about suffering and the problem of evil and why bad things happen to good people. It is not a book of cosmology. Further, I noted that Bible scholars of all stripes (most of whom are deeply religious) agree that the Bible is an edited volume written by many authors over a long span of time. This helps explain why, for example, in one passage Noah is instructed to take two of every kind of animal on the Ark, and in another passage he is instructed to take 7 of each kind. One version has the flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, another passage says 150 days. In one passage Noah sends out a raven to find land. In another passage he sends a dove. And on and on. By adopting the methods of Reasons to Believe, you are forced to dismiss all of this scholarship and miss the real meaning of the Bible. The Bible is about how people should get along with one another and about morality and ethics and meaning. By trying to make the Bible fit the current estimates of the Hubble constant (to pick just one among many examples), me thinks you are missing the point of the book, and thus (in your world view) you are missing God’s message.

Is that supreme irony, or what?

In a form of what I call “Literary Patternicity” (patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise), in the following passage from the great poet John Donne, it would appear that he anticipated the discovery of the double helix as the basis of life and reproduction:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

Wow, incredible, how could John Donne have anticipated the discovery by Crick and Watson centuries later? But more importantly, my point in this exercise in literary patternicity is that you will miss the beauty and power of Donne’s poetry if you try to read into it modern scientific discoveries.

I closed with a set of challenges to Ross and Rana, asking them to tell us, from their scriptural readings, the answers to the following unknowns in science:

  1. Did Neanderthals have symbolic language, and what caused their extinction?
  2. Is RNA the precursor to DNA, and what came first, cells or self-replicating molecules?
  3. Did eukaryotic cells come from prokaryotic cells?
  4. When did ID/God intervene in the history of life — never, occasionally, always?
  5. Why doesn’t God heal amputees?
  6. If it turns out that your testable RTB models are refuted, will you give up your belief in Jesus as your savior?

Interestingly, although Ross said that if his RTB models were refuted he would give up his belief in both God and Jesus, there erupted in the audience a loud chorus of “no” voices, which made my point beautifully: this is not, never was, and never will be about science, because no scientific evidence would ever dissuade believers from their belief. Why? Because such beliefs are not based on science in the first place.


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Why Darwin Matters to Creationists

On April 2, 2009 I was the keynote speaker for the University of California at San Diego Biological Science Symposium, giving my talk on “Why Darwin Matters” based on my book of that title. Earlier that day I awarded the winners of the “Why Darwin Matters” contest, in which students submitted entries on different ways to express their answer to the implied question in my book title. The winning entry was a fun rap song entitled Holla Atcha Boy Charlie Darwin, by “Missing Link Mel” and “HMS Beagle-licious Brian,” which you can watch here: (continue reading...)

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A Skeptic in Creation Land

I visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, run by Answers in Genesis, the young-earth creationist organization run by Ken Ham, an Old Testament looking figure if ever there was one. I will be writing more about my experience in my monthly column in Scientific American (May 2009), but the highlight (also discussed in the column) was my interview with Dr. Georgia Purdom, the museum’s “research scientist” who explained what type of research one can do at a young-earth creationist organization, and why she thinks Francis Collins is wrong in his evolutionary understanding of the human genome.

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