About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 26, 2008

More on DS Wilson and the invisible hand

David Sloan Wilson, over at the Huffington Post, has replied to my criticism of his previous essay on why the so-called “invisible hand” guiding financial markets is, as he puts it, “morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead.” David and I have a good working relationship (he is one of the infamous “Altenberg 16”) and mutual respect, so the following is meant to be in the spirit of an open minded debate between two scholars. David agrees, contrary to many of our colleagues, that it is good for the public to see scientists honestly argue their diverging positions in public, so here it goes.

First off, David claims that both I and conservative commentator Larry Arnhart, “have objected to [David’s] declaration that the invisible hand is dead.” Arnhart has, I certainly have not. I completely agree that this pernicious idea has gone the way of the dodos in light of the events of recent years (at least from the Enron debacle on). I simply disagree that such a conclusion has anything whatsoever to do with hypotheses on the evolution of human morality and cognitive abilities.

Wilson challenges my claim that evolutionary psychology cannot tell us much, as a science, about the evolution of social human behavior. He rhetorically asks “Would [Massimo] make the same claim about astronomy, geology, and paleobiology? Past events leave traces in the present that can be pieced together to produce solid knowledge.” Of course they do! I, like David, am an evolutionary biologist, and I am perfectly cognizant of the inferential power of historical research. But I am also well aware of its limitations. Astronomy, geology, paleobiology, as well as much of evolutionary biology, have plenty to say about historical events, and they are solid sciences. The case for the evolution of human cognitive (as opposed to physical) traits, however, is much more dicey.

David wants a full account of the reasons for my skepticism, and he can find them in Chapter 7 of my book with Jonathan Kaplan, Making Sense of Evolution. Briefly, the problem comes down to three accidents of history that make it particularly difficult (though I never used the word impossible) for scientists to test historical hypothesis about cognitive adaptations in humans: a) We do not have a fossil record of the relevant behaviors (as opposed to, say, physical attributes like brain size); b) we do not have enough closely related species for a statistically sound phylogenetic comparative method to apply; c) it is irrelevant to measure natural selection on currently existing populations because the environmental conditions are radically different from those under which the traits of interest evolved. These problems do not apply in the case of several other species of living organisms, where one or more of the above conditions are satisfied, and the testing of adaptive hypotheses can therefore proceed on firmer ground. None of this, of course, means that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in their theories, it just means that their suggestions ought to be taken with a huge grain of salt, as arguments from plausibility, not established science.

Wilson also mentions the fact that there are plenty of peer reviewed papers in evolutionary psychology, but I find this to be by far his weakest argument. Peer review is a necessary component of scientific practice, but it is only the beginning of the critical analysis of scientific claims, not the end. Plenty of wrong ideas (e.g., the ether theory) have succumbed despite once being published in peer reviewed journals, and I’m not even going so far as claiming that evo-psych’s ideas are wrong, just not firmly grounded in historical evidence!

David’s more interesting point is that “all theories of human behavior require assumptions about an underlying human nature ... asking where the assumed propensities come from, the only plausible answer (barring creationism) is to provide an evolutionary account.” As he knows very well, I do not subscribe to creationist ideas, so why exactly is he bringing this up? I submit that his premise his incorrect: we do not need a theory of the origin of “human nature” (a concept in itself fraught with philosophical and scientific problems) in order to study the behavior of human beings in modern societies. I hasten to clarify that I am no simple-minded behaviorist, but I simply do not see what could possibly be added to modern cognitive science by speculations on whether certain behaviors evolved by natural selection. Whether they did or not (and as I pointed out above, it is exceedingly difficult to tell), we can quantify the behaviors, model them, and even make testable predictions about their consequences for individuals and societies. Since the issue here, remember, is what one ought to do with respect to market regulation, any scenario based on a possible evolutionary historical path rather than another is simply not that relevant.

Finally, to the naturalistic fallacy (deriving an ought from an is), which I claimed both Wilson and Arnhart committed in their respective commentaries. David cites the extended comments of thinkmonkey on this blog to exonerate him from having committed the fallacy, stating that “I did not say that sustainable society is good because it evolved in our species.” Ok, there clearly is plenty of room for subjective interpretation here, and if David says that’s not what he meant, I’ll take his word for it. But if that is the case, why then does he start his reply to me with “my main argument against the invisible hand is based on fundamental evolutionary principles ... If there is anything that we can say with confidence, it is that individual selfishness does not automatically lead to adaptive societies.” Perhaps, but adaptation is a matter of biological fitness (survival and reproduction), which is not at all the same thing as morality and justice. If David doesn’t want to mix the two, why does he build an argument for a particular moral choice (we should regulate the markets so that they don’t wreak havoc on people’s lives) on the basis of a fact about the a-moral concept of biological adaptation? Once again, evolution does not have much to say about the current debate on Capitol Hill, and bringing it up doesn’t help either policy makers or the public at large.


  1. Now I'm with you, Massimo. By using "adaptive" in a way that I can't help but interpret as adaptive=good, Wilson does seem to be showing his naturalistic fallacy hand. In evolutionary terms, "adaptive" means increasing the fitness - that is, the reproductive success calculated in some fashion - of an individual organism or defineable group of organisms. But here Wilson seems to be using the word "adaptive" in a general sort of sense, broadly indicating that it's good if a society can adapt to changes in circumstances - while also trading on the scientific sense of the term in evolutionary explanation of human behavior. To me, that looks like both a fallacy of equivocation and a naturalistic fallacy.

    I am currently finishing my dissertation examining the intersection of human evolution and ethical theory, in which I argue that there *are* legitimate ways to bridge the fact-value gap. However, such bridges must be built with great care and total transparency, not hidden amongst assumptions or smuggled in through equivocation. The only reason I spent as much time on my responses to the prior post on this subject was because it seemed like a good opportunity to refine some of my own thoughts about the proper diagnosis and over-diagnosis of the naturalistic fallacy. (Or maybe I'm just rationalizing this concession to my all-too-frequent urge to argue philosophy and politics in the blogosphere when I should be doing more productive work. ;-)

  2. thinkmonkey,

    no need to apologize for procrastinating other work, why do you think I have a blog to begin with? (ok, not true, I'm actually deluded enough to think that engaging people in rational discourse is good for society...)

    I would like to read your dissertation. I agree that there are reasonable ways of bridging the fact-value divide (just think of Quine's work), but -- as you say -- the naturalistic fallacy and the fallacy of equivocation always lurk nearby, and need to be addressed.

    Hume himself never said that one cannot derive an ought from an is, only that people shouldn't do it casually, without justification.

  3. I agree Massimo. I don't think evolution can tell us much about politics. That said, the invisible hand, a metaphor that Adam Smith only used used once or twice in The Wealth of Nations, is not as useless as you might think. But whatever, my main point in responding is to say that I find it strange to see D. S. Wilson defending evolutionary psychology. In the past, it was has always been the gene centric Dawkinsians taking the flag of evo psych, not group selectionists like Wilson. What a weird turn of events.

  4. Bailout Fails, Markets Go Up

    For more details, see the Markets page.

    The market has been working for the last three years to correct for the housing bubble caused by the Federal Reserve. Government intervention over the last year has been an impediment to the correction process. In the absence of these interventions and the promise of even more, the correction process would be much further along and more resources would have been reallocated and the recovery process would already be well underway.

    Home builder stocks began their correction in late July of 2005 signaling the end of the housing bubble. I knew one local home builder who sold off his inventory of homes and left the industry at this time. By this time I was receiving calls and emails from prospective home buyers asking if they should still buy given what they had read on www.Mises.org

    Off course the mortgage broker firms that were hawking all sorts of mortgage "products" were forced out of business long ago. They exited without much fan fair. It was a market correction to a problem brought about by the Federal Reserve. Right before they started their exit the then Vice Chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, said that regulators had looked into the mortgage market and that everything was fine.

    More recently, home builders continue to downsize, bad banks are failing, and the financial retrenchment has reached Wall Street. Hedge funds now see their glory days in the past, and once prominent Investment banks that were extremely leveraged have seen their risky schemes come undone. Efforts to bailout and save these firms have only delayed the recovery.

    The government schemes known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also been revealed as irrational. Public-private partnership like this are extremely dangerous and they became the conduit to hiding the risks of the housing bubble. It would have been far better for the government to force them into bankruptcy rather than "conservatorship" which puts the taxpayers at risk and perpetuates their danger to the economy.

    Finally, the derivatives markets is coming undone. Once touted as a way to eliminate risk, these "financial products" have been revealed as a dangerous illusion. Hedging strategies are fine and good, but Wall Street used these new methods to take on ever increasing levels of risk, not to mitigate existing risk.

    The rush to bailout Wall Street must cease and be reversed or they will bailout American into the next great depression.

  5. McCain Warns of Depression! (1991)


    Now some of McCains reasoning does not quite see today's circumstances particularly well. Like for instance, he implies that it was "Reagan's pork barrel spending" on things that included studies on green house gases which don't quite gel with the usual positions of conservatives - either to spend more or spend it on studies related to global warming. The budget then that he is referring to was obviously a wish list from different competing party's interests, not just Reagan's alone. And the leading practices legislation of the late 80s were so new it would have been a little hard to see how that might be part of the collapse TODAY.

    Nonetheless, McCain did seem to understand that this time of correction was coming.

  6. Yes, Cal, watching McCain makes me very depressed...

  7. Kimpat,
    You're depressed?

    BUT I'm depressed because he is not nearly as far right, lunatic fringe like I am. ;) lol!

    Come on, K, pick something that's REALLY wrong with the world and complain about it instead.

  8. Come on, K, pick something that's REALLY wrong with the world and complain about it instead.

    Uh, that's really easy... how about "people like Cal do actually exist in the real world"? That seems to me one of the wrongest things with the world, indeed.

  9. I firmly believe that DS Wilson is a charlatan and a scientific fraud. With all due respect Massimo, I think that by engaging him on futile discussions like this one a) you obliquely give him credit that he doesn't have or deserve and b) you lower yourself to his level. I regret to say that this is very disappointing from someone of your intellectual calibre.
    I suggest you respond briefly and dismissively and save your time for people who deserve it. Regards,
    Canberra, Australia

  10. Huinca,

    I think that's a bit of a heavy handed judgment on David that you are passing. On what are you basing it? He is a legitimate academic with plenty of empirical papers and thoughtful books under his belly, and while I disagree with him on several issues, it just seems much too harsh to use the language you did.

    Besides, I have taken on people like Michael Behe and Duane Gish without worrying too much about "lowering" myself... Talk about charlatans!


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