Robert Wuebker
by Robert Wuebker
Sun Sep 6th 2009 at 7:53pm UTC

Ideas, Fresh and Dangerous

Finished Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett yet?

If not, begin now and, after that, read The Origin of Wealth and smash the two together. Add a dash of the Santa Fe Institute and you have plenty to think about. Here’s the executive summary:

“Here, then, is Darwin’s dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for…the diversity of species, and all of the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature…no matter how impressive the results of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision.” (The Origin of Wealth, p.59)

“Neoclassical theory is in the process of being supplanted by complexity economics…the economy is a complex adaptive system…made up of realistically rational agents who dynamically interact with each other in an evolutionary system.” (Wikipedia)

7 Responses to “Ideas, Fresh and Dangerous”

  1. Tim Kastelle Says:

    Nice post! They’re certainly two of the best books around. I’ve started teaching out of parts of The Origin of Wealth in my innovation classes – and it works pretty well. I can’t recommend that book highly enough…

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    I haven’t read The Origin of Wealth (yet) but notice that it was published in 2006, before the crash of ‘08. How does it relate to Paul Krugman’s article in yesterday’s Sunday NY Times about the failures of neo-classical economists? He basically says that the Chicago School forgot Korzybski’s truism “The map is not the territory” and got too tied to theory and forgot to look at the real world (or when they did, preferred the theory). Does “complexity economics” reject Keynes?

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    Slightly off topic:

    You know, there is no reason to separate “intelligence” from “evolution”.

    If you look at the history of technology or archaeology, you often see “evolutionary design” in action. For example, those old, boring displays at the Natural History museum showing how, say, arrowheads “evolved” in the Stone Age.

    Evolution is a perfectly acceptable engineering technique. Making small changes to products and then subjecting them to testing, and using that data to make further changes, especially when combined with statistical techniques like Six Sigma, can be very effective. In fact, there are computer programs now that automate the evolutionary process. If your testing can be done on a computer (say, finite element methods for stress analysis), this can result in huge cost savings and much quicker time to market.

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    My favorite Darwin-related book is The Beak of the Finch. It’s about a scientist couple working in the Galapagos and studying, as Buzzcut says, small changes in things like the beaks of finches that respond to changes in to the environment. The testing is the survival of the birds that have adapted to the current environment best. One of wonderful the things about the book is that these people are watching evolution in action. Remember we were taught in school that evolutionary changes happen over millennia? Well with close observation, they see them in years.

    If “without any intelligent supervision” is a theological statement, it’s a pretty narrow view. Just because an algorithm works through “individually mindless steps” doesn’t mean there’s nothing watching or tending.

  5. Buzzcut Says:

    If “without any intelligent supervision” is a theological statement, it’s a pretty narrow view. Just because an algorithm works through “individually mindless steps” doesn’t mean there’s nothing watching or tending.

    I just go back to the arrowhead example. Obviously, there was human intelligence behind that, yet when laid out next to each other, there is clear “evolution” in the design of the arrowhead. I sometimes wonder if we somehow didn’t know that humans were obviously the “makers” of the arrowheads, would we see this as a natural evolutionary process without intelligence? That the arrowheads “spontaneously organized” over time in response to evolutionary pressures?

  6. Mike L. Says:

    How would we confirm or refute the claim of “… without the help of any intelligent supervision”? Think of the balls bouncing about in a lottery machine. They are designed to proceed according to “a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other”. We know that there is “intelligent supervision”, but the balls in the lottery machine do not know that. At the level of the balls, the process is entirely random, but at the level of the lottery management, the process is minutely supervised.

  7. Nathan Says:

    To Michael Wells comment about whether complexity economics rejects Keynes:

    I just finished reading The Origin of Wealth, and before it, I was relatively uninterested in economics. Now, I’m pretty interested in it. So I am by no means an expert.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say that complexity economics either rejects or accepts Keynes. I think it evolved past Keynes. One of the most outstanding aspects of the book is that it kind of turns traditional left/right distinctions on their head.

    It could be considered liberal in the sense that Beinhocker advocates government actively shaping the fitness function of the evolutionary algorithm, so we get more of certain types of business and less of others, by choice.

    But it is also conservative and certainly un-keynesian in the sense that it does not advocate counter-cyclical government intervention into the economy. I think the complexity economist would prefer that the waves of creative destruction take place, so our economy can evolve and new innovations can thrive.

    In a lot of ways, complexity economics builds on both Keynes and Chicago school economists. The big impression I got was that, due to advances in computing technology, economists are able to actually study some of the things that used to be shoved aside under the label of “ceterus paribus.” Complexity economics doesn’t consider changes as exogeneous shocks to the otherwise stable system, it views them as the natural results of thousands of small transactions, built into the system.