Monday, May 16, 2011

An economy of labels: the evolution of evolutionary economics

"THE anxiety we feel about whether we’ll succeed is evolution’s way of motivating us," or so says Robert H Frank, an economist at Cornell, in the May 14 New York Times.  That's in 'economist' which of course must mean expert in evolution!  After all, we buy groceries and cars and have a checking account, so we are (to a comparable extent and forecasting skill) economists.

Behavioral economics is the area of economics these days that, in frustration over the inadequacies of mathematical predication of economic decision making and consequences, that is, the failure to actually do their job satisfactorily, has turned to psychology, genes and evolution instead (we blogged about this a while back).  Molecular genetics (and, of course, NIH grants) to the rescue!  Why do people make the seemingly irrational economic decisions they do?  Evolution made them do it.

It's a little hard to ferret out the theme of Frank's piece, but essentially it seems to be that we're driven to succeed by worry.  Success apparently being the whole point (material wealth? fame? he presumably doesn't mean having more children than your neighbor).  Frank says people are very bad at predicting how they'll feel about changes in their lives.  Not being promoted, we worry, will make us miserable, but as it turns out, within six months people are generally as happy as, or even happier than they were before they were turned down.  They've got a new and better job, or it didn't matter as much as they'd feared.  Whatever.  Even people who become physically disabled, Frank says, once they've adapted are often as happy as they were beforehand.  
The human brain was formed by relentless competition in the natural world, so it should be no surprise that we adapt quickly to changes in circumstances. Much of life, after all, is graded on the curve. Someone who remained permanently elated about her first promotion, for example, might find it hard to muster the drive to compete for her next one.
By now you know what we have to say about the hyper-Darwinian explanations that hold that evolution is and always has been about 'relentless competition'.  Not to mention facile just-so stories about everything and anything one can assess by survey methods in our society.  Cooperation is much more ubiquitous than competition, and works at all levels of life, and we can not only observe it but retrodict into our ancient past.  Why Frank claims that competition means we adapt quickly to change isn't clear, but in fact adaptability is fundamental, so fundamental that essentially all living creatures have the ability to adapt to change.
Paradoxically, our prediction errors often lead us to choices that are wisest in hindsight. In such cases, evolutionary biology often provides a clearer guide than cognitive psychology for thinking about why people behave as they do.
According to Charles Darwin, the motivational structures within the human brain were forged by natural selection over millions of years. In his framework, the brain has evolved not to make us happy, but to motivate actions that help push our DNA into the next round. Much of the time, in fact, the brain accomplishes that by making us unhappy. Anxiety, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, thirst, anger and fear spur action to meet the competitive challenges we face. 
Turning to Darwin as though his work is the Bible is a common thing for professors (that is, experts) to do, but why?  Like everyone, Darwin was a product of his time, immersed in a culture of hierarchy and competition, which is reflected in much of his writing.  This is most obvious when he is trying to explain human culture and behaviors.

Explaining our drive to succeed or to be happy in Darwinian terms, as Frank tries to do in this piece, conflates contemporary psychological issues and concerns with the evolutionary social scientist's drive to explain how and why behavioral traits arose, most often with just-so stories.  Why are humans driven to succeed? Frank's answer is that "Anxiety is evolution's way of motivating us."  Really?  Evolution wants us to to do better at our jobs and get that promotion?

In fact, of course, evolution doesn't want anything.  It certainly doesn't care whether we're promoted.  Or even whether we're happy.  The only definition of success that counts in the evolutionary long run is surviving to reproduce.  But our contemporary brains are just as able to convince us not to reproduce as to have as many children as we can.  Our contemporary brains can even convince us to become suicide bombers before we give a thought to reproducing -- not very evolutionarily successful behavior.  Or to commit infanticide, or to have abortions, or to become estranged from our kin.  Or heaven forbid, even to be kind to strangers.  Sure, evolution-minded social scientists can always come up with some sort of convoluted 'evolutionary' explanation for these behaviors, but the simplest explanation is that culture trumps all we think we know about evolution when it comes to why we do what we do.

Of course, other denizens of academe will give Darwinian explanations for the destructive effects of angst.  No matter, they apply to different NIH sections for funding and live in different departments.  No matter, too, that the kinds of rationales that are given do not provide any evidence that humans are at all unique in these ways, which means that explanations in terms of human evolution are mis-placed.

There are, perhaps, valid evolutionary explanations of these things.  But they are about cultural rather than biological evolution.  The processes of cultural evolution and cultures' impact on us, given our basic animal physiology and mental states (that, in some ways we cannot really know are the direct, or more likely indirect products of millions of years of evolution and adaptation).  Understanding how these cultural effects work is an important problem.  Of course, undoubtedly professors of economics, being very intelligent, are experts in that, too.  Maybe if funders stopped funding this kind of faux Darwinian speculation, economists would be forced to figure out how their own, actual area of purported expertise  works.

-Anne and Ken


Holly Dunsworth said...

There must be intention. There must be destiny. With or without a god, we'll find a way!

Anne Buchanan said...

Makes me anxious just thinking about it...