The Economist Embraces Evolution


"It is time to turn to Darwin to explain human behavior."  So reads the tag line to one of four articles on evolution recently published in an important, establishment magazine.  That The Economist chose to make evolution the theme of its 18 December 2008 issue is more significant than the details of the content. Indeed, all four articles lack a byline, making the collection even more significant by implying a degree of editorial consensus. The lead article explains the timing,

"Novermber 2009 is the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Until 1859, human nature was the province of God. It was Charles Darwin's famous book that brought it into the realm of scientific discourse."

Evolution, The Economist suggests, is "an idea that has gone out of fashion in the groves of academe over the past few decades, but is now due for a revival: that there really is a human nature, and that it is worthy of proper, scientific investigation."

"Darwin became unfashionable among bien pensants because of a reaction to the excesses of eugenicists, racists and ‘social Darwinists' who misused his theories. Darwinism seemed to emphasize the darker sides of human nature, and that sat uncomfortably with socialism. Yet man is an evolved species. His behavior makes no sense unless its evolution is comprehended. In any case, evolution explains not just the nasty aspects of humanity, but also the nice ones."

Nasty and nice aspects of our evolved (and still evolving) human nature are set forth in all four articles. Of widest appeal is "Why We Are, As We Are." This article's tagline is a kind of manifesto:

"As the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species approaches, the moment has come to ask how Darwin's insights can be used profitably by policymakers."

The editors have done a fine, if unnecessarily inflammatory, job of pointing out the ramifications of evolutionary psychology for better understanding the economic and social behavior and inclinations of individuals. Such behavior, of course, aggregates into society-wide phenomena that "policymakers" ought to be aware of.

My one generic quibble is this: By referring to those who espouse evolutionary perspectives as "Darwinists," the editors play into the hand of religiously motivated detractors who have long attempted to discredit the evolutionary perspective (not just in biology and anthropology, but also in geology and astrophysics) by focusing on the man (Charles Darwin) and the document (On the Origin of Species) that shifted early philosophical speculations into the realm of bona fide science.

In economics, of course, there are Keynesians and Marxists - each school bearing the name of a founder. In contrast, there are no Einsteinians within science, nor Crickians. To be sure, there are episodes in which a particular scientific discipline is amalgamating new data and new insights, and thus when scientists themselves disagree on basic premises. But, eventually, things settle out.

The infusion of evolutionary causal thinking into the realm of brain and behavior owes in large part to a new technology that is now offering up boatloads of clear and replicable data: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)

Nevertheless, because humans are not rodents, scientists cannot willy-nilly segregate individuals into test and control groups and then dictate day-to-day living to match experimental parameters over weeks and years. As with all the social sciences, there will always be differences in interpretation - even battling schools of thought. But when a financial collapse utterly surprises most political pundits and regulators, societal squeamishness about the evolutionary sciences must be put to rest once and for all. There is just too much at stake.

Let's make 2009 the year in which we say, "Yes we can!" to embracing the evolutionary sciences and all they can teach us in making ever more fit - justly, compassionately - the societies and economies of the world. I concur wholeheartedly with the editors of The Economist, who concluded:

  • "No one is suggesting Darwinism has all the answers to social questions. Indeed, with some, such as the role of hierarchies, it suggests there is no definitive answer at all - itself an important conclusion. What is extraordinary, though, is how rarely an evolutionary analysis is part of the process of policymaking. To draw an analogy, it is like trying to fix a car without properly understanding how it works: not impossible, but as likely as not to result in a breakdown or a crash. Perhaps, after a century and a half, it is time not just to recognise but also to understand that human beings are evolved creatures. To know thyself is, after all, the beginning of wisdom."