Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Darwin Strauss and Popper

Robert Waldmann

Neoconservatives have expressed sympathy for “intelligent design theory,” that is, creationism. This is well documented by Ronald Bailey’s article in “Reason on line.” Bailey discusses why neoconservatives might claim they don’t believe in evolution by natural selection even though there is no scientific basis for that view.

update: link corrected thanks to VtCodger in comments.

Mainly, he suspects that it is a Strussian “noble lie,” roughly that they believe that fundamentalist religion is needed for the good of socieity, so they pretend to agree with it. He mentions, but is not very fascinated by, the idea that this is partisan hackery — that neoconservatives think the interests of the Republican party would be harmed if they didn’t bend their knees before the fundamentalists. Of course the problem is that once one decides to lie, it is very hard to decide exactly how noble to be about it.

He doesn’t mention the collosal arrogance of people who assume that biologists don’t know anything relevant about biology which they don’t know. I think this is always a risk in people coming from law or social sciences. They just have no clue how much evidence lies behind the claims of natural scientists and assume that they can bluff their way past biologists as they have successfully bluffed their way past say economomists.

In the second part of his article, Bailey argues that there is no scientific case against evolution by natural selection. Naturally it would come first, one normally doesn’t question someone’s honesty until one has exausted other options (although the NeoCons he quotes are pretty up front about how they start with the conclusion and work back to the evidence). I think the editorial decision makes sense as most Reason on Line readers don’t really need to be convinced that modern biology is not all a big mistake.

I think Bailey’s arguments for Darwin are weaker than his earlier analysis—not because he doesn’t make a convincing case, but because he buries the lede. Basically he has a theoretical disagreement with a mathematician, then speculates about the origin of life, then asks if one can be both a Christian and a Darwinist (hint yes) and only then discusses some of the evidendence for evolution by natural selection.

But Berlinski stoutly declares in Commentary that he is no creationist. He claims merely to be engaged in critiquing the failures of Darwinism. Berlinski is particularly savage about what he regards as Darwinism’s tautological character. “Time and again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival, the friction between the two concepts kindling nothing more than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time.”

In Berlinski’s view, evolutionary theory simply says that the ones that survive are the ones that survive. But that is not quite right. But that is not quite right. Darwinian natural selection sifts for useful variations among mutations, thus natural selection generates increased fitness, not just preserving the fittest. This process generates new species, species B being the descendant of earlier species A. This claim is clearly more than a tautology.

Wrong Bailey, the way to argue that something isn’t a tautology is to point out a testable implication. Instead Bailey claims the stated theory is not quite right because it didn’t include the word “species” even this explanation is incorrect (see below*) but the main thing is that the theory of evolution by natural selection has testable implications because organisms have detectable features which don’t make any detectable difference.

The evidence for the theory became vastly vastly enormously gigantically even more immense than it was already when biologists began sequencing DNA. They found patterns explained by the idea some sequences don’t matter and drift faster than others which do. Based on those sequences they can redraw the family tree of living things and lo and behold it almost exactly matches the tree drawn based on other features and based on fossils. Oh and one can check that the sequences that don’t seem to matter don’t matter and, so far, they don’t. Before sequencing the evidence was weaker but already overwhelming based on traights which didn’t seem important.

There might be another explanation for these facts, but no one has ever pretended to have one. Instead critics of biology like Berlinski and Kristol just ignore the evidence entirely. Bailey mentions it long after speculating at length about the origin of life (OK and I began indignantly typing before I read that far).

Berlinksi’s claim is, I think, false as a matter of fact. Biologists do not claim that the survival of this or that species is evidence in favor of evolutionary biology. The evidence all concerns trivial things which are considered evidence of evolutionary history exactly because they have tiny or zero effect on fitness.

The quote of Berlinski (all I have read of his writings) does not disprove the hypothesis that he thinks that modern evolutionary biology is completely summed up by the phrase “the survival of the fitest.” That is, indeed, a tautology. It is indeed part of the subtitle of “The Origin of Species.” But I mean, to be fair to Darwin, one should at least read the full subtitle. Oh and maybe glance at the book. And to be fair to evolutionary biology, one would have to note that much evidence has been collected since then (not to mention the theory has developed).

I have Popper in the title, because Popper did the same damn thing in “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Popper at least asserted that something wasn’t there — predictions which have since been confirmed, explanations of puzzling facts, you know non tautological science — which absolutely wasn’t there. Popper, I think, assumed that he was brilliant enough to know what is written in a book after reading part (not all) of its subtitle.

* I think a biologist tried to explain this to Bailey and he didn’t get it. The non tautological point is that the descendents of species A might belonge to species B and C two different species present at the same time. Now the claim that two different organisms belong to different species is *not* mere terminology — it has an operational definition — orgnaisms from two different species can not produce fertile offspring descended from both of them.

If evolution were always new species A replacing now extinct species B, then all we would know is that we choose to use different words for organisms of type A and B. Without a time machine, we can’t test if they are two different species.

Now “survival of the fitest” does not logically imply that one species can, over time, split into two. This is a radical idea. It is also, in principle, experimentally testable, although the experiment will take a long time.

I personally think the experiment is under way and it is already clear that one species can split into 2 much more quickly than evolutionary biologists imagined. The experiment is raising fruit flies in laboratories. They are used to study genetics. Normal non mutant flies are called “wild type” but their ancestors haven’t been wild for about a century now. They have been bread in labs from each other.

Interestingly when an actual wild male captured in the wild is mated with a lab bread “wild type” female, something happens called “hybrid disgenisis” which means the offspring are messed up. It is known that this is caused by a transposon (basically a very very benign virus) which keeps itself inactive in the genome of wild fruit flies by making a repressor protein. None of that protein gets into spermatazoa so if the transposon is in one of the male’s chromasomes it makes copies of itself and spreads them around inside the chromasomes of the fertilized egg.

Evidently the transposon spread through the wild population after the ancestors of the lab flies were captured.

Some of the offspring survive this process. But already there is a barrier between wild and lab fruit flies after about one century. One can imagine that another hundred years or so, wild males will not be able to produce fertile offspring with lab bread females (just a few more such latent virus like things would do it).

Now to get two whole species it has to be blocked the other way too and the lab population is very isolated (also from other insects) and divided among labs so I mean maybe experimental speciation won’t occur in my grandchildren’s lifetime. But it’s really close.

Tags: , , Comments (0) | |

Justin Fox’s new book: ‘Myth of the Rational Market’

by Bruce Webb

Over at TPM Justin Fox is launching a discussion of his new book The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street which feeds right into some discussions we have had here at Angry Bear. So I propose to give his set-up here and then suggest people comment in either or both places.

(But) a couple of seeming certainties that emerged from academic economics and finance in the 1960s and 1970s have been showed by experience to be mighty uncertain. One was the contention that financial market prices were in some fundamental sense correct, or at least fluctuated in a reasonably narrow band around their fundamental values. The other–and the two don’t have to be linked, although they often were–was that it was relatively easy to model the movements of markets and manage the risks thereof.

If you believed these two things, then the spectacular growth in power of financial markets (at the expense of government, of corporations, of commercial banks) over the past three or four decades was great news. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that rational-market economic theories fueled this rise–although it’s awfully difficult to sort out cause and effect.

Now that this financialized economy has proved to be extremely fragile, we’re due for an extended period of rethinking–of financial economics, of regulation, of taxes, of how we think about economic growth (clearly, growth fueled purely by rising asset prices isn’t such a great thing). I’m of the opinion that it’s not as simple as, say, putting the regulators back in charge, given that there’s no reason to think financial regulators are more likely to be rational and right than financial markets are. But clearly we can do better. Got any ideas?

(My TPM Cafe comment is reproduced under the fold.)

My take:
Well we might start by recognizing that market participants are intent on maximizing their own interest and where possible will exploit asymmetrical information to achieve that end. Moreover unless restrained they will also exploit power imbalances.

I think we would all be well served by having all economists study the way markets actually operated back in the Gilded Age. What happens to a market when insider trading is not only not illegal but valued as a best business practice? The old adage “What the market will bear” implies a lot more than a simple affair of supply and demand setting price, not when the vendor has the ability to control supply and influence demand.

And then after mastering the methods of Cornelius Vanderbilt they could move on back and study the history of wage setting in industrializing England from 1790 to say 1848. I am currently re-reading E.P. Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’ and can say that the reality of the wage market in those years bears no resemblance to the sanitized market models found in text books. The notion that some Invisible Hand was busy adjusting compensation to marginal productivity is belied by facts on the ground, wage suppression was a national policy backed as necessary by the use of State force (see Peterloo Massacre).

I firmly believe that much of the problem with the classical liberal economic model is that it was formalized in a time and a place where political democracy based on universal suffrage was not only not the norm but conceived to be a positive danger to society at large. Give all workers and (shudder) women the vote and who knows what might happen. Well now we know, it gave Britain the Labour Party and the U.S. the New Deal and with them reverberations that shook old ideas about how markets should work to the core.

Caplan’s book ‘Myth of the Rational Voter’ whose title I assume is at least an ironic inspiration to that of the book under discussion is I think at root the product of frustration. Don’t the proles understand that everything was better back when the world was run by J.P. Morgan and a handful of associates?

It is no wonder that both the political and economic right look back at the McKinley Era for their ideal. No income tax, no universal suffrage in England, no popular election of Senators in the U.S., no insider trading rules, no restrictions on wage suppression. Now that is freedom!!

Prof. Thoma told me a few years ago that “Economics does not handle equity well”. And after giving that some long thought I figured out why. Because classical economics does not handle popular democracy well. That is for some people in England everything was downhill after the Reform Act of 1832 with ultimate disaster delivered with Representation of the People Act of 1918, while in the U.S. it was the changes introduced with the 16th, 17th and 19th Amendments.

Damn democracy! Always screwing with this nicely designed business plan!

Tags: , , Comments (0) | |

How Much Should I Spend to See a Movie? (In which I channel McMegan)

While the brood was at Mary Poppins, I took advantage of the Academy Awards rules and went to see Revolutionary Road. The incremental cost was subway fare (arguably a sunk cost, since I have old Metro cards) and the $12.50 NYC film ticket price.

So that was quite rationalisable; met up with an old friend and spent a relatively pleasant couple of hours. (Saw the movie too.)

On the other hand, Defiance opens December 31st. At the Ziegfeld. And that one I can’t not take Shira to see.

So it’s either: spend US$18 for train fare (two r-t) and US$8 possible subway fare (walk slightly over a mile, with timming issues), and ticket price (presumably US$25), and get a babysitter to cover the minimum five hours (and probably more) this hegira would take.

Not to mention how one values ten to twelve person-hours of time with much to get done.

Or wait until it opens on 16 January, and be able to pay C$ (which might still be an advantage then), but not get to see it at The Ziegfeld.

Tags: , , , Comments (0) | |

Proof the Brown M&Ms clause is not an Urban Legend

I don’t feel like talking about economics right now, so let’s talk Rock and Roll.

The contract with Van Halen’s legendary “brown M&Ms” rider has been published by The Smoking Gun. And it was there for purely rational reasons:

While the underlined rider entry has often been described as an example of rock excess, the outlandish demand of multimillionaires, the group has said the M&M provision was included to make sure that promoters had actually read its lengthy rider. If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance–lighting, staging, security, ticketing–may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

All we need now is the clause by whatever band it was that requested “the brown M&Ms Van Halen refused.”

Otherwise, an open thread with which to discuss Rational Expectations.

Tags: , , Comments (0) | |

What Do Economists Think About When They Think About Rationality?

Fabio Rojas has some questions for economists at

  1. Isn’t evolutionary psychology the real challenge to neo-classical rational choice? Isn’t a tool kit of mental functions more plausible and interesting that the utility maximizing model? Isn’t that much more radical than behavioral economics, which is like neo-classical with a cherry on top?
  2. Why don’t economists have a model of when people change their preferences? For example, people seem to change as the age. Is this not true? If it is true, then why don’t we focus more on changing utility functions? Do we really prefer the same stuff all our lives in the same way?
  3. In an argument, economists will concede that people seek stuff other than money, but this is rare in published papers and nearly non-existent in economic theory. Do economists have a theory of when people maximize money as opposed to other stuff (e.g., prestige)? Or which goods are like money (smooth, continuous) and which aren’t? Or which goods are surrogates for money?
  4. Do economists ever believe in endogeneity of preferences? Do economists ever believe that institutions lead to preferences, rather than preferences leading to institutions? For example, isn’t the real reason most Americans belive in democracy is because they grew up in one, not because it maximizes their utility functions?
  5. Do economists really believe Becker’s “as if” argument? Shouldn’t there be many situations where people can’t figure out the optimal outcome? Why can’t “task difficulty” be an important feature of an economic model? Do economists cherry pick situations where optimal moves are easy for people to figure out? Doesn’t the existence of consultants and R&D departments show that firms don’t have easy access to optimal strategies and have to spend much effort in finding them?
  6. Finally, given the critiques from experimental econ, evolutionary psychology and other quarters, why is the basic model of economics still the rational actor? Have economists systematically shown it to be superior the other competitors? If so, where can I read about it?

They have some good responses in their comments section, and FWIW my response is here. I suppose if you’re a thinking non-economist and have gotten your account of economics from Becker, or worse yet from Posner, it would be fair enough to wonder if we actually believe the Chicago School’s account of the world. Many of us will say hell, no! As I recall, Dani Rodrik had a good post up some time ago making the important point that the economics tool kit shouldn’t be judged by its perhaps tendentious and/or overly influential results derived from more obviously false assumptions on reality. (I view all social science theorizing as involving a degree of falsity in service of [hopefully] clarifying one’s thinking, and I’m definitely not convinced that the other social sciences necessarily have their theoretical heads less in the clouds.) Maybe there’s a reason why we make the big bucks after all?

Tags: , Comments (0) | |