Thursday, January 10, 2008

Michael Shermer's Book Lecture

So last night I went to the New York Academy of Sciences to watch Dr. Michael Shermer talk about his new book titled The Mind of the Market. The talk was part of the NYAS Author's Series which is apparently one of their public gateway programs. Overall it was a nice evening (the wine and cheese helped), and I strongly encourage any scientists in New York to get involved with the NYAS, become a member, go to some talks, etc. If for no other reason, go for the amazing view of lower Manhattan from the 40th floor of WTC Building 7. Unbelievable.

Anyway, before giving my thoughts about the lecture/reading (just to be clear, I have not yet read the book), let me declare my predisposition on this matter. For one thing, I am an unyielding skeptic. I am a card-carrying member of The Skeptics Society, of which Dr. Shermer is a founding member, and I read Skeptic magazine front to back the moment it reaches my apartment. However, I have noticed that I differ greatly with several of Dr. Shermer's views in the past.

Furthermore, as other bloggers have noted, his newest book was given a very interesting review on amazon by Dinesh D'Souza (and other conservatives) who trumpeted it as putting a positive evolutionary spin on free trade. Now, I hate D'Souza and think he is a spineless leach (I won't get into why now), but I vowed not to let a positive review by him automatically translate to a negative review by me. On the other hand, having read this review, I did not put it past Shermer to make these types of claims as he has made no bones in the past about jumping back and forth across political lines (i.e. he's a libertarian).

My main reason for concern is that I get a little antsy when people try to shoe-horn evolutionary explanations for human behavior. Don;t get me wrong, I love learning why we do the things that we do, and more often than not there is an evolutionary component to behavior. What kind of gets me is when people offer a change in our behavior to satiate some evolutionary need.  Unfortunately, even if the explanation fits nicely as it often does, there is still no guarantee it is the bona fide root of that behavior pattern. So my opinion on these types of exercises is they are fun and interesting, and can be very educational in some cases, but it is wrong to extrapolate from them that we should modify our society in order to more comfortably fit our "nature". It is a huge leap to begin solving problems from hypothetical explanations.

The reason that I went through all of that before discussing Dr. Shermer's talk is that I believe he was greatly misrepresented by D'Souza in this particular case. It did not sound to me like he was proposing that a free market system would be better for America, only that he thinks that our evolutionary past would predispose us to making good decisions if given a chance to do so in an open system (keep in mind here that I have not read the book, I'm only interpreting what was discussed at this particular event). This immediately addresses my main concern about translating a theory about our behavioral evolution into a drastic societal change.

In any case, his evidence was fairly convincing. He mainly cited things like Prisoner's Dilemma, which is a game theory scenario that posits a series of choices to people. There are many variations on this problem, but typically two people are given a choice to take all of something, share something, or give up something and there are a series of consequences for each choice. The bottom line is that most of the time, people choose to collaborate with the other person because the consequences are mutually beneficial. That was a poor description, but the outcome is all that matters. It seems as though humans are hard-wired to work together, because the benefits will outweigh the cost (the cost being a slightly lower payoff than making the "take all" choice). Similar experiments were performed on monkeys, and they made the same choices suggesting that it was a very early adaptation in our ancestors.

He also claims that most hunter/gatherer populations were egalitarian in nature, and that simpler societies make use of trade in order to establish trust and to firm up relationships. This, he suggests, means it is in our nature to do behave appropriately in issues of economics. Again, it's an interesting theory, but it would be a huge leap to say that a free market would benefit our society. For one thing, we have essentially been outside the realm of evolutionary pressure for a very, very long time. So even though many humans may have some predisposition to behave appropriately in a free market scenario, a few bad eggs would have grave consequences for the rest of society. And these bad eggs have not been weeded out by natural selection. it reminds me of the hawk/dove scenario that Dawkins has discussed. When a mutant hawk behavior is introduced to a stable population of doves, that behavior would take over. But this is no longer a stable situation, so the population would ultimately swing back to an equilibrium. However, if there is no pressure on the hawks, ESS does not apply and hawks would dominate the population. He answers this concern by saying that we of course need some rules, and that sending them to prison would be like selecting against those people. Not 100% about that, but it's a debatable point.

I guess the question is 'where should the line between free market and what we have today lie'? If we take away all of the rules then most people would behave, but the hawks might take over. If we have too many rules, we may not be getting the full benefit of our collaborative disposition. It's too complicated a matter for conservatives to blithely suggest that we should move towards a completely different economic situation. I won't even delve too deep into the hypocrisy here. If you don't believe that evolution can explain human behavior as D'Souza has stated (in fairness, he has said that he believes in evolution, but that it does not explain things like why we are here, or why we do things, only god can explain that), you can't then turn around and agree with someone who is proposing an evolutionary support for free markets. Whatever.

In any case, Dr. Shermer was a very engaging lecturer. He was witty and entertaining, and clearly knew his shit. My interpretation of his stance is that we evolved in a free market, 90% of our history was within a simplified free market, and therefore we would behave in a surprising way if we returned to it. I don't think he was necessarily condoning a sudden reversion to it, but again, that's my interperetation. I'd be interested to hear what other skeptics thought about him or his book.


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