The Religion of Evolution
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: FTremblay@liberator.net) [December 23rd, 2000]
Well, there would be a lot of bad things to talk about these days. I suppose I could talk about the failure of single-vote representative democracy, Russia's ongoing attempts to muster global anti-American sentiment, the American Government's power grab against non-profit organizations, or the Canadian Federal Government's moves to establish a country-wide fixed income program.
However, I am not going to talk about these things. First of all, because I like to change paces once in a while. Also, the Holidays are a time of good cheer, not gloom. Finally, my recent conversion to Austrian economics makes it a great occasion for me to talk about economy and related things.
The inspiration for this article is that evolution should be a religious, or perhaps more appropriately, pseudo-religious idea. That may seem absurd, since evolution is obviously not a religious idea -- however, I'm not talking about biological evolution, but the concept of evolution as a process.
Evolution can be roughly defined as : the adaptation of its object with time. In order to be a valuable pseudo-religious idea, evolution must be universal in some meaningful sense. This does not seem at all evident at first glance. Usually, human sciences are based on static notions : one need only think of the notion of perfect equilibrium in economics, or today's Republican-like political tribalism, which has created its opposite, cultural relativism. Evolution, insofar as it is temporal, does not seem to fit into our way of seeing things. We see the world as a fixed state from which we must deduce and infer everything -- the picture is the whole story.
This is a comfortable position, which does not demand of us to unduly exert ourselves. Everything is already laid out to us in black and white. A monopoly puts economical systems into a situation of disadvantageous disequilibrum, and therefore must be stopped. The language and culture in a certain region are breaking down in the face of superior cultures, and this must be due to the freedom of speech enjoyed by its inhabitants : freedom of speech must therefore be muzzled in the interest of culture. And so on.
Unfortunately, as we learn more and more about reality, we come to understand that it changes significantly, and that systems adapt to changes, when left alone. Monopolies are eventually broken down by new, more efficient competition, if there is enough space for it. Better cultures benefit their host more than older ones on the long run. This general phenomenon of adaptation is what I label as "evolution". I contend that it applies to most (if not all) areas of life, and therefore is universal in a sense that is meaningful to human beings.
I am not going to prove this formally (since this would be relatively uninteresting), and instead give you three examples of areas of life which can be associated to an evolutionary model, in order to show how the premise could be held coherently. I will first talk about biological evolution, then, not because it is the only or best way to see this process, but because it's the one we are the most familiar with, and the one that has the most precise concepts and terms.
As a form of adaptation, the object of biological evolution is lifeforms. Its adaptation can be subsumed by : survival of the fittest. Its most important mechanisms are natural selection and mutations. We must also take into account the phenomenon of environmental change, since organisms adapt to their environment as well as to other organisms.
Natural selection is the simplest concept of the three. It is simply the fact that organisms that are relatively "less fit" die before those who are fitter. Such an expression seems almost tautological : it is obvious that weaker animals -- in terms of survival against its environment and against other predators or diseases in its environment -- will die before the stronger ones, and also reproduce less. Only the most adapted survive, or in terms of genes, only the most adapted genes survive and have the possibility of being propagated.
Mutations are random-like changes which sometimes occur during DNA-copying. Most are neutral, from the point of view of the fitness of the mutated organism, most of the remaining are harmful, and of course the rest are beneficial. Mutations are the main way in which genetic variety increases, and therefore represent the random-like natural way of adding stock to the process.
Environmental changes are not part of evolution, but of its context. For example, when, we suppose, a meteor crashed on this planet at the age of the dinosaurs, it gave rise to a whole new ecosystem, which in turn evolved in such a manner that finally gave rise to homo sapiens. If there had been no meteor, we might perhaps see intelligent dinosaurs, provided they had the capability to evolve intelligence. This is, of course, an extreme case. Most environmental changes are not as drastic : today, most of these changes are brought about by man. Whatever they are, they represent a change in the context of the evolutionary process, that usually affects its objects in a beneficial or negative way.
These three factors put together make biological evolution an instance of evolution, which is in this case the adaptation of lifeforms to life on Earth, and gave the array of types of animals that we know today.
Note that, as in biological evolution, evolution is not a linear progression. To give a simple analogy, take the second law of thermodynamics, for example, which says that the total entropy in a closed system cannot decrease. Now, it is obvious to us that entropy can decrease in some instances, for example, in the process of biological evolution. Because the Earth is not a closed system (we get energy from our sun, for one), it can have local drops in entropy. In the same way, any process of evolution, while showing a definition direction of adaptation, can see local or temporary decreases in adaptation due to changes in its environment, like the meteor discussed before.
Man-based systems behave superficially differently from biological evolution and other natural systems. Natural processes can appear random-like in some of their facets because they are unguided, but man-based systems have the guiding hand of human consciousness to direct them. Not, of course, that this guidance is necessary rational, or even conscious, but it is necessarily there.
Man-made evolutionary systems
The perfect example of man-based evolution is the economy. Free markets are eminently evolutionary systems.
As Von Mises intuited, the market is a process -- to simplify, we might say the process of value flow. When we say free market, we mean that this process exists in a context of freedom, which therefore entails the protection of property and action rights, for one. This context in itself is also evolutionary, that is, politics is an evolutionary sphere in itself, as we can observe from history. At any rate, what we call "the economy" is therefore the set of all instances of the market process over a territory, or political system.
This process, taking the classical distinction between consumer and producer, is a dynamic one : the consumer demand pattern influences the direction of the offer pattern, while the offer pattern constrains the immediate choice available to the consumers, and therefore the immediate demand pattern. The resulting prices are the result of the tendency of these two factors to tend towards dynamic equilibrium -- that is, a state where offer-demand are constantly nudged by new discoveries, and the profit motive pushes producers to close the gap between the current prices and "perfect" (non-profit) prices.
You may have noted how this process is similar to biological evolution, where natural selection tends to close the gap between non-adaptation and adaptation thru survival of the fittest, while mutations give more genetic stock for selection to work on, and environmental conditions change the context in which the system evolves. The same thing is true here. The process of selection is effected by the choices of consumers and producers, while producers introduce new elements in the "stock" of economical goods. The discovery process brings changes in the context of this competition, which provokes disequilibrum for a certain time, due to market inertia. It is during this time that inventors and entrepreneurs can make the greatest profits.
This is why today we find that consumer products, for example, are adapted to their environment, that is, human tastes and conditions. Of course, the condition of the economy is not as optimal, if we can compare the two, as biological evolution, if only because no free market has seen the light of day yet. The present mixed or socialist economical conditions slow down the process of evolution to a large degree, because they disrupt the mechanisms by which consumer products evolve.
The economy is by far not the only man-based system that is evolutionary. I have indeed contended that they all are. Some examples of such systems are memetics, culture, societies, science, religion, and as mentioned earlier, politics.
Biological evolution also seems different from these other processes because one of its objects, humans, have achieved what we could call transcendental adaptation, because we now have the possibility to change the efficiency of the evolutionary mechanisms themselves. Not only have we become a big part of the standard by which selection functions, but we can also effect on the gene pool independently from evolution. In short, humans transcend the normal means of change.
Is this the ultimate result of all evolutionary systems? There are many ways to see the problem from the point of view of humans that I have just talked about. One is to say that humans have merely achieved a level of adaptation which permits them to be hierarchically "superior" from the point of view of possessing the tools or means of effecting change. In the computer industry, for example, operating systems have a hierarchical dominance over the software which is built for them, and have the means to affect their evolution. In this sense, transcendental adaptation may simply be the result of the evolution of hierarchy in systems, as they become more complex, much like the appearance of symmetrical mutations, which appeared as a result of biological evolution becoming increasingly complex.
Evolution, therefore, can be shown to be a universal pseudo-religious idea. By the general term "pseudo-religion", I mean an overriding sense of behaviour, a unitary way of seeing reality, and also a sense of purpose. Someone may argue that my concept of evolution is so vague that it is a trivial idea. It does not seem to me, however, to be the case. At the very least, the fact that change and adaptation has been largely ignored by humanity for so long seems to indicate a high probability that the concept is non-trivial. But how one would go about "worshipping" evolution rationally is another matter entirely, as there is a considerable difference between natural and rational processes. Perhaps the best way in that case would be to attempt to stir mankind towards a rational progression to goodness instead of obeying today's subjective dictates. But since I'm not a priest, I'll skip on that one.
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