Monday, September 06, 2010

take the evolution challenge

Big Questions | It has become my passion to expand evolutionary theory beyond the biological sciences to include all things human. Many people are puzzled about why this is necessary. After all, an enormous body of knowledge about humanity has accumulated without reference to evolution. Why is an evolutionary perspective needed now when it wasn’t needed in the past?

You’ve heard of the Pepsi Challenge. I now invite people who ask this question to take the Evolution Challenge. In one cup, place any given body of knowledge that has developed about our species without reference to evolution. In a second cup, place the same body of knowledge viewed from an evolutionary perspective. Take a sip of both. If they taste exactly the same, then the evolutionary perspective merely rediscovers what is already known. If they taste different, then the evolutionary perspective has added something new — perhaps a reorganization of existing knowledge, a new set of questions, the identification of false claims, or the integration of knowledge across disciplines for a more cosmopolitan flavor.

Consider modern economics, which is dominated by a view of human nature called rational choice theory, often called Homo economicus as if it were a proper description of a species. According to rational choice theory, people are entirely self-regarding in their preferences and very smart about achieving their goals. Even if they do not consciously “maximize their utilities,” as the economists put it, they behave in a way that amounts to the same thing. When pressed to explain why Homo economicus has this particular set of preferences and abilities, economists must rely upon a genetic and/or cultural evolutionary account, even if they seldom make it explicit. They suggest that people who failed to maximize their utilities were not among our ancestors. Barring a reliance on special creation, what else can they say?

As it happens, Homo economicus is a patently false description of our species, as we have learned to our sorrow from the disastrous policies derived from rational choice theory. It is not the case that economists converged on an accurate conception of human nature without using the E-word and that taking an evolutionary perspective merely rediscovers what is already known. The evolution cup tastes completely different from the rational choice cup (as I recount in a series of posts on my Evolution for Everyone blog). Rational choice theory is inspired by Newtonian physics and is devoid of such flesh-and-blood attributes as sympathy, a sense of fairness, and norms.