Monday, November 10, 2008

The Virtually Universal Applicability of Lamarckian Evolution

Thomas of Endless Rocking recommended this review of this book. As the reviewer explains, one of the themes of the book is the parallel between the evolution of financial instruments and biological evolution:

But how does all of this fit in with the credit crunch, the first phases of which are covered by Ferguson? As ever, there are plenty of lessons from the past. In one of the strongest passages in his book, the author explains how financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection. And just like the mass extinctions that eliminated 85 per cent of the earth's species at the end of the Cretaceous period when asteroids hit the earth, the credit crunch stands out as a period of major discontinuity in the world of finance. Numerous banks and entire sub-species of financial institutions are dying off. This happens regularly in financial history, with the bank panics of the 1930s and the savings and loans failures of 1980s America cases in point.

Ferguson enumerates the common features shared by the financial world and an evolutionary system; in doing so, he paints a remarkable portrait of the past two decades of financial innovation. Finance has its very own 'genes', in the sense of certain business practices, and it boasts a potential for spontaneous mutation thanks to technological innovation. There is competition between firms for resources; a mechanism for natural selection, with weaker practices, firms and individuals wiped out; scope for speciation, with the creation of wholly new species of financial institutions a key feature of the past few years; and scope for extinction, with species dying out altogether.

This is a very interesting analogy. Indeed it's amazing how many interesting analogies with biological evolution and classification there are. One of the most provocative for my work is the three-fold analogy explored by Norman I. Platnick and H. David Cameron in "Cladistic Methods in Textual, Linguistic, and Phylogenetic Analysis," published in Systematic Zoology 26.4 (1977), 380-85. They show that the methods of dealing with textual corruption (i.e. the kind of thing explored here), the evolution of language (i.e. the kind of thing explored here and here), and biological evolution have deep analogies, such that one can fruitfully critique the methodology of textual criticism on the basis of the methodology of biological classification and vice versa. (Perhaps another thing they have in common is that all three are or have been at different times highly problematic for Christian belief.) The analogy has even been drawn with quilts.

Of course what is generally left unsaid is the fact that all of these analogies are drawn between biological evolution and systems that are either Lamarckian or else generated by "moderately intelligent design." That is, the evolution is driven by the efforts of the things evolving to improve their own adaptions (languages, financial systems) or else are material things created by moderately intelligent designers who, working with limited resources on the basis of what they have already, are trying to improve their adaption to the environment. Except for biology, no other evolutionary system seems to be thought to run on random mutation as its basic motor. (And no such system seems fruitfully explored as the result of omniscient intelligent design. The presence of constraint seems fundamental to effective explanation.)

Actually, one could argue that Lamarckianism and "moderately intelligent design" are the same thing, in that the thing seen to evolve -- whether text, language, financial systems, body types, and so on -- is always separate from the constrained will and limited intelligence seeking to maximize its adaption. Either way, it seems to be, all unacknowledged, one of the most powerful tools in the intellectual arsenal today.

Food for thought.

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