Thursday, October 16, 2008

Don McLeroy: Evolution Doesn't Apply to Biology

UWire is reporting that scientists in Texas continue to be nervous about the upcoming science standards that will take effect early next year. They note:

More than 800 scientists from Texas signed a document in September, titled “Scientists for a Responsible Curriculum in Texas Public Schools,” to support the teaching of evolution.

The statement said instruction on evolution is vital to understanding all the biological sciences. It also said that a sound core curriculum encourages valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to strengths and weaknesses in biological theories and explanations, which politicians have used to introduce supernatural explanations into science courses.

“I have problems with what they said,” said Don McLeroy, chairman of the State Board of Education. “Evolution is vital to understanding a lot of the sociological sciences, not the biological sciences. To say that evolution is vital to understanding biology is simply not true.”

How did this man, who is so blissfully ignorant of the cornerstone of modern biology, become the chairman of the State Board of Education in Texas?? The sheer ignorance of the statement is mind-boggling. The one area to which you cannot extrapolate evolution is the social sciences. He has it exactly backwards. If there is a recall procedure in Texas for the Board of Education, it needs to be used. Now.


  1. The one area to which you cannot extrapolate evolution is the social sciences.

    Actually, evolutionary models can be profitably applied in economics. I'm not sure about the other social sciences, but I imagine evolutionary models have applications in them as well.

  2. The problem is that, especially in "social darwinism," the models break down because, in nature, there is no such thing as "government." There is nothing to intervene if things go funny, such as what is happening right now. How do evolutionary models explain the current crisis, and if they do, what does the bailout action of the federal government represent?

  3. Kenneth Miller argues that the closest thing to the way evolution works in an economic setting is the floor when trading happens because there is no overseeing director telling people what to do. They just act in their own self-interest. That is the only place, though, where there is not an intervening agent of some kind that puts observable, quantifiable restrictions on the kind of outcomes that can happen. While it is true in evolutionary settings that you have events that lead to allopatric speciation, they and their outcomes are unpredictable.

  4. Well, I only dabble in evolutionary theory, and I'm pretty new to it, so all I say may not be up to snuff. Also, I don't mean to imply that evolutionary models will explain all economic data. However . . .

    Economies do not have an overseeing director telling them what to do. They have a body of people trying their best to put up constraints on what people can do. There's a big difference. Even in heavily planned economies like the former Soviet Union and Cuba, planners simply can't direct every action of the economic agents. It's too large a task. The same is true in biological evolution, no? There are environmental constraints that organisms react to. And just as in biology we see emergent orders of characteristics, behaviors and systems, economies display a similar quality of emergent order. (E.g., you can buy as much steak as you need from the store today, even though no one is in charge of making sure that you, personally, get enough beef.)

    Now, one big difference between economic action and biological evolution is that some of the adaptations and constraints are endogenous and intentional. But that doesn't mean an evolutionary model is meaningless. I assume that one could build biological models in which organisms can intentionally try new mutations or behaviors to respond to their environments and come up with testable field predictions. But those models wouldn't work that well in biology, because mutations are not intentional on the part of the organism.

    Neo-classical economics tends to use physics as its ideal. Agents act according to fixed laws and achieve stable equilibria in an orderly way. I don't think that's the most informative way to model economic behavior, and I'm pretty sure that as time goes on, evolutionary biology will be the ideal approach that economists try to use. There's already a branch of evolutionary game theory, though I'm no expert in it.

    None of this is to say that I'm advocating social Darwinism. I just think the evolutionary paradigm of 1) change in agents 2) successful changes lead to improvement in some metric, 3) improvement in said metric leads to more agents with the specified change, is a useful approach to more areas than just biology.

  5. Huh. I suppose i hadn't considered that. Although, while it is true that biological constraints do put limits on how evolution acts, as you note, those biological constraints are often stochastic in nature. I know next to nothing about economic theory, though, so I probably should not have been so strident in my response. The problem that I see in the models is ideology. In biology there is no ideology and ideology sometimes either stunts markets or makes them do things they would not do on their own. Thoughts?

  6. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by ideology, or where it would show up in economics but not biology. Organisms and their structures do not have ideology (except for humans), so the biologist need not model ideology in their subjects. But biologists almost certainly have their various ideologies, and those who rely on their findings also have ideologies to which they will tend to try to make the findings of biology subservient.

    Although humans do have ideologies, and thus it may be of some use to include some ideological parameters when modeling the subjects of economics, economists rarely do this. As a working hypothesis we usually assume that ideology isn't something a person is trying to satisfy when engaging in economic behavior. A notable exception is Bryan Caplan's work on rational irrationality. He argues that when irrationality is cheap, as it is with, say, evolutionary theory to the average person, people will tend to indulge their ideology by engaging in irrationality. But when it's expensive, as it is with, say, gravity and electrodynamics, people tend to behave rationally.

    All that to say, in economics the ideology of the subjects of study is sometimes important, sometimes not. But, as with biology (and probably more so), economists have various ideologies, and those who rely on economic theory (particularly in government) most certainly have ideologies that they will try to force the theory and data to fit.

    But we soldier on.

    As a first approximation, I'd say that ideology* may play a significant role in the construction of the economic constraints, but probably doesn't play that big a role in the actions of the economic agents.

    *But then one has to ask whether they are following their ideology or their own financial self-interest. Probably a little of column A, a little of column B.

  7. Well, for example, the Soviet Union's 70 year experimentation in totalitarianism/socialism in which markets were simply non-existent. The same can be said for China, which is just now realizing that without a market presence, their economy will/has stagnate(d). A current example closer to home is Barack Obama's cap and trade plan in which he plans to, effectively, wipe out the coal industry because he does not like coal. Those are surely ideological ideas intruding on the markets, are they not?

  8. Wow, that's actually quite a bit to cover, and it will take more than an appropriate-length comment to respond. Besides which, this post is now on the second page, and thus it's unlikely that many third parties will be reading through it. So if it's all the same to you, I'll send a couple of email responses.

  9. By all means. I would love to read them. As I indicated, I know next to nothing about economic theory. I could use some instruction.

  10. Jim,

    Sorry I haven't emailed you yet, but I've been short on time. I wanted to note one thing about your environmental constraint comment a couple posts up, with regard to stochastic constraints.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but you can have both exogenous and endogenous constraints on evolution. Exogenous constraints might be something like a meteor hitting the earth and kicking up a big dust cloud. No living organism caused it to happen, and the constraints it places on evolution (e.g., being better able to self-regulate body temperature might be a boon) are likely to be fairly stable and long-lasting, and the behavior of organisms won't alter that constraint.

    On the other hand, you can have endogenous constraints, like biological arms races. A predator has sharp claws and teeth. This puts pressure on the prey population to evolve thick skin, or a shell. This, in turn, puts pressure on the predator population to evolve stronger, sharper claws and teeth. Which puts pressure on the prey to get an even thicker shell, etc. The offensive measures of the predator puts a constraint on how the prey can evolve, and vice versa the deffensive measures of the prey on the predator.

    On to economics. You can have stochastic exogenous constraints: Hurricane Katrina wipes out New Orleans and the surrounding oil refining facilities, or an earth quake levels Los Angeles. Resources that were once available are taken off the table. Agents react to conserve those resources that are now more scarece.

    On the other hand, you can have endogenous constraints. New York city passes rent control. Landlords react by charging rents above the controlled rate. The city responds by sending out enforcers. Landlords respond by charging the controlled rate, but stop expending resources for the upkeep of the building. The city responds by passing minimum maintenance ordinances. Landlords respond by maintaining the buildings but including clauses in renting contracts requiring tenants to buy the furnishings in the apartment at hugely inflated prices, and sell them back at the end of the contract for a pittance. The city outlaws the practice. And so on, and so on.

    Economic agents, like any biological organism, practice this sort of measure, counter-measure behavior. The government rarely gives direct orders to agents. It puts up constraints (determined endogenously), and the agents often try to overcome those constraints. The trick is in determining which constraints can be imposed without encouraging responses in the agents that are harmful on net.

    I hope this was cogent. And worth reading.

  11. I see your point. I was thinking on more of a grand scale. There are certainly exogenous constraints, ranging from cataclysmic (5 major extinctions) to local (dam breaks, inundating a valley and creating scarcity of resources) and endogenous ones (which traits are going to be best suited to reach adulthood and reproductive age). The assumption then has to be that marketplace economics are in force?

  12. As I read the news report on GM and Ford this morning, the thought "biological extinction" crossed my mind.