Arnold Kling  

The Difficult Concept of Evolution

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David Friedman writes,


It is hard to see how humans could have evolved intelligence if intelligence is not heritable.

I hope that the notion that there is zero heritability of intelligence is a straw man. The debate ought to be over what proportion of intelligence is heritable.

Don Boudreaux wrote (and recently recycled),


Just as there is a compelling non-creationist view of biological beings, there is a compelling non-creationist view of social order.

He is arguing against the view that we owe all of our peace and prosperity to government.

The point that both posts make is that the left, which denounces religious denial of the theory of evolution, nonetheless has a hard time with evolution. Friedman gives examples in which the left has difficulty accepting biological consequences of the theory of evolution. Boudreaux gives examples in which people insist on intelligent design rather than economic evolution.

I think that the concept of evolution is really quite difficult. Perhaps we have evolved with a hard-wired belief in intelligent design or creationism, and only with considerable effort can we accept evolution and spontaneous order.


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CATEGORIES: IQ in Economics



COMMENTS (25 to date)

The problem is that we evolved to look for patterns and we are creators ourselves. We create order, structure things, and thus when we see order, we think there had to be something ordering it. Self-organizing systems is a fairly recent concept, though its reality has been around for 14 billion years or so.

With human intelligence, we have two things going on. One, about 1/3 of the genes are dedicated to the brain. And we know of several genetic diseases that affect intelligence -- so anyone who claims there isn't a genetic aspect to intelligence is an idiot. Second, the neurons in the human brain are very complex and plastic, meaning they adapt rapidly and are designed to create complex networks and systems. This adaptability makes us able to change in relation to our environments -- so anyone who claims there isn't an environmental aspect to intelligence is an idiot. How to avoid being an idiot? Recognize that the brain is made up of strange attractors that create variable, adaptable systems around them. Intelligence is genetic, and it's environmental. The genes give you an upper and lower range -- you can only be so dumb, and you can only be so smart -- while the environment affects where you are within that range.

To deny that human psychology hasn't evolved over time in response to changing life conditions is also a denial of evolution. As a complex system, our brains are adaptable, and can and do become more complex in response to the environment.

People just need to learn how to recognize the more complex patterns we have discovered and then they can learn to understand emergent systems and spontaneous orders.

This adaptability makes us able to change in relation to our environments -- so anyone who claims there isn't an environmental aspect to intelligence is an idiot.

bgc writes:

D Kernical Ph.D. writes: '...anyone who claims there isn't an environmental aspect to intelligence is an idiot.'

Straw man, there is no such person, so that's okay.

Intelligence (IQ, g factor) is substantially inherited. That's a fact. Intelligence differs significantly between individuals. That's another fact.

If you don't acknowledge these two facts, then you are not necessarily an idiot or a liar; but if you are honest and rational then either you don't know the data or you lack the specific competence to understand it. That's another fact.

Now, in contrast to the straw man of environment-deniers there are _shoals_ of people, smart people, in the media, education, politics... who deny the facts of IQ heritability and difference.

Rolf Andreassen writes:

I believe you are confusing 'is' and 'ought', here. There is clearly no intelligent design in, for example, the human body - as the old joke goes, what sort of idiot puts a sewer in the middle of a recreational area? This is a matter of fact. When you get into oughts, however, the question is quite different! I for one would much rather have a body designed by an engineer. Just for starters, it wouldn't wear out at 40. The metabolism would be adjustable. Organs would be modular and replaceable. And so on. There's an excellent case to be made that the human body should be redesigned by someone who

a) knows what they are doing and
b) Isn't obsessed with reproductive efficiency to the exclusion of all else.

All of which is not to claim that the analogy applies to societies as well, since we've found by experiment that condition a is impossible to fulfil. Just pointing out that the non-existence of ID is not an indication that it's a bad thing.

Johan Richter writes:

There had to be heritable component to intelligence in the past. That does not say much about the heritability at the present time.

Heritability always has be to be defined relative to a specifiic enviroment.

Robert Scarth writes:

Rolf Andreassen - "I for one would much rather have a body designed by an engineer. Just for starters, it wouldn't wear out at 40."

Wouldn't it? If the owner or manager of a company could design your body for 40 years of highly (like 10x higher than now) productive work and then replace you, why wouldn't they do that? Or is living more than 40 years obviously better than living less than 40 years of a much more (like 100x more) satisfying life?

If bodies get Engineered there will be trade-offs of cost and functionality.

"There's an excellent case to be made that the human body should be redesigned by someone who

a) knows what they are doing..."

"Knows what they're doing"? You think its possible for a single individual (or cohesive group of individuals) to design an improved human body that is unambiguously better for *everyone*?
The last thing we need is someone re-designing the human body. It will be great when its possible to extensively repair or re-engineer our own bodies, but the only person making the choices and trade-offs should be individual concerned.

Rolf Andreassen writes:
Wouldn't it? If the owner or manager of a company could design your body for 40 years of highly (like 10x higher than now) productive work and then replace you, why wouldn't they do that?

Quite so, and where did they get the power to dictate what body I should use? If my employer (or anyone else) has that sort of power over my decisions, I have serious problems quite apart from what sort of body they give me.

"Knows what they're doing"? You think its possible for a single individual (or cohesive group of individuals) to design an improved human body that is unambiguously better for *everyone*?

In a word, yes. You would start with stupid mistakes like the optic nerve being right in the middle of the eye, creating a huge blind spot. Not to mention the light-sensitive cells being upside-down, requiring the photons to go through a bunch of tissue before they can be registered, blurring our vision. And, of course, the silly crossover of the food and air channels which gives us the ability to choke. What possible downside is there to removing this sort of thing? Not everyone would benefit, perhaps, but nobody would lose out - a classic Pareto improvement.

But apart from that, why stick to a single design? Certainly there's room for lots of different body shapes and types within the human race; compare your average fashion show to a street in America. Unleash the engineers! They will make new and improved models, and we will choose between them in accordance with our preferences and desires. The human body is absolutely chock-full of stupidities, they can hardly avoid making improvements.

Les writes:

Its a pity that most people fail to realize that there are many examples of self-organizing systems all around us. Some examples are:

a) Languages
b) The human body
c) The animal world
d) The insect world
e) A beehive
f) An anthill
g) The oceans
h) Planet earth
i) The universe
j) Climate
k) Coral reefs
l) The seasons
m) Hurricanes

"Friedman gives examples in which the left has difficulty accepting biological consequences of the theory of evolution. Boudreaux gives examples in which people insist on intelligent design rather than economic evolution."

Is the right any better than the left on this? I don't see any of the leading political figures of the right, or the broad masses of the right, as expressing comfort with concepts like the heridability of intelligence. There are some conservative intellectuals who like to talk about heridability and intelligence, but it mostly seems to be in the context of promoting whiteness or white maleness identity politics, rather than a more general rigorous examination. I'm thinking of course about people like Charles Murray. In an age where we're learning all sorts of messy things about race, genetics, and heridability, it seems to me like he wants to force fit intelligence and heridability discussions into a narrow narrative about the political incorrectness of pointing out that whites have higher IQs than blacks, and that there are more male than female "geniuses".
It seems to me more like race/gender coalition building and identity/team socialization than an empirical quest to understand natual phenomena.

Pedant writes:

HA, I haven't read the Bell Curve yet but I know that the majority of it intentionally avoids discussing race by pointing out the importance of IQ within one race. His most recent book (which I also haven't read) is about reforming education by ditching ideas like No Child Left Behind that assume anyone can be molded into a college graduate. The majority of whites are not college material, and his writings are at least as focused on them (since there are so many) as blacks. I don't know what Murray has said about gender.

Dr. T writes:
I think that the concept of evolution is really quite difficult.
I believe that many people who learn about evolution willfully deny its applicability to Homo sapiens. They choose not to believe that we arose through the same process that produced that ultimate survivor, the cockroach. I do believe that luck and evolution combined to make modern man: our IQ did not have to be much higher than the great apes for us to survive, but we surpassed them (on average) by ~30 IQ points.

Getting to the topic of heritability of intelligence: the evidence that intelligence is hereditary is massive and essentially incontrovertible. Environment plays a role in that suboptimal environments will prevent a child from ever reaching full intellectual potential. However, the best environment possible cannot raise intelligence beyond its inherited limits. You cannot make an Einstein from a child whose maximum potential IQ is 125.

Pendat,
I read the bell curve, and I monitored the discussion and media and politics (and Charles Murray's role in both). The line about 2 chapters being on race has an element of plausible deniability to me. My objection isn't that Charles Murray discussed race and IQ, but rather that there's so much he didn't discuss about it, and the narrow swath he discussed seemed to me to have more to do with politics and myth (I think mostly for salience with identity coalitions) than with enlightenment. His pretext for doing so was to challenge race-based affirmative action policy as unhelpful, so he does acknowledge political rather than general empirical and enlightenment goals.

The whole Murray/Gould debate on the bell curve in my opinion was a textbook unhelpful dialectic, drowning out more interesting approaches to intelligence and heredity (and race) than either author/scientist used.

MattYoung writes:

A tough issue, outside the realm of economics.

Start with Arnold's idea that we are hardwired to separate ourselves from our brethren in the animal world. If you can justify or prove that theorem, then Arnold is right, our conflicts with evolutionary science would be apparent.

Not only we, but other animals are wired to differentiate among species. Primates especially are wired to recognize several animals, including "large cat," eagle/hawk, and snake. We remain naturally wary of such animals. Chimpanzees, like humans, also distinguish between "our troop" and "their troop" -- this is the origin of tribalism. Most people who live in tribes all themselves by a word that also means "human" -- meaning they typically do not see people in other tribes as being truly human. Getting beyond racism is a recent phenomenon, which has come about with increasing globalization. So if our natural state is to see people who are not members of our tribe as less than us, we shouldn't be surprised that we see other animals that way as well.

Troy,
I think your analysis is warped by something Steve Sailor calls "demonology" or something like that. I think we should have separate spaces where we discus racism empirically without infusing the discussion with normative goals about eliminating it.

Tracy W writes:

His most recent book (which I also haven't read) is about reforming education by ditching ideas like No Child Left Behind that assume anyone can be molded into a college graduate.

Who assumes this? NCLB doesn't. NCLB requires nearly every child to pass reading and arithmetic tests (1% of the population are allowed to be assessed against alternate standards, and that 1% cap is lifted for small schools and schools specialising in educating the severely mentally disabled). Assuming that 99% of the population can be taught to read and do some basic maths is a very different thing to assuming that *anyone* can go to college.

Although I have far less hope of convincing people attacking the NCLB to actually bother reading the law first.

The reality behind NCLB is quite different from the law itself. The reality is that standards have in fact dropped because of the 99% requirement, to ensure that you get 99% passing. Further, NCLB has resulted in schools passing students even though they had no business passing on to the next grade, meaning they in fact fall farther and farther behind -- and eventually drop out. Of course, once you get rid of the problem students, it becomes much easier to achieve the 99% requirement. I have seen it for myself, as has my wife, who teaches Kindergarten. NCLB does not take into consideration the fact that children develop at different rates, meaning a child who is behind this year, may excel next year. Why our grades are based on age and not ability is dumfounding to me. Age is about as arbitrary a choice as anything could be. Might as well segregate the grades according to height.

fundamentalist writes:

There are a lot of scientific problems with evolution, especially in the area of genetics. See "Genetic Entropy And The Mystery Of The Genome" by Dr. John C Sanford. The more we learn about genetics, the more impossible evolution appears to be.

Isaac K. writes:

Rolf: There are distinct efficiency and design reasons why the optic nerve is in the center of the eye. this "blind spot" does very little in the way of hampering binocular vision, which is what we are designed for (evolutionary or otherwise). Talk to a real specialist in the field and you will be told that there is a brilliance to the design despite the trade offs made.
Our metabolism IS adjustable - not necessarily to what you WANT it to be, but to what you do. Any 'idiot' knows you adapt a system optimally based on how it functionally is running, not on what ideal you would like to have. If you want your metabolism to burn more energy (which isn't warranted in different climates), then exercise more. USE UP MORE ENERGY.
Organs are 'replaceable' - they recently performed a double arm transplant successfully and have now done countless transplants of vital organs. In terms of modular - the tradeoff is modularity with efficiency - I don't need a stomach that can act as a heart. And the human brain is INCREDIBLY modular - it learns to reroute processing into other areas in event of brain damage, cutting the corpus collosum reroutes it in the majority of cases through the ahemispherical brain stem.
Read up, man, and stop spewing unresearched rhetoric.

Troy -
What basis do you have for your assertion that there isn't a species name in tribal groups?
yes, they may refer to themselves as a superior "US," but the asssuredly have a term to refer to other humans outside of their group. There is an important influence for tribes to differentiate externally between familial 'self' and 'other' -- the 'other' will KILL you.
Being perceived as 'less' isn't the issue - being perceived as significantly DIFFERENT is. As Isaac Asimov points out in a favorite essay of mine (wish I knew where) The reason we will never make computers that think like humans is because their process is different than those of humans - they compute, we cogitate. We 'think' better than them, but they 'process' better than us. Can you claim that we can do the job of an ant better than him? or a bat? or a whale? The brains of different species are geared toward unique tasks that are incomparable cross-genetically.
I'm not sure what point you are trying to make (that superiority of animals is 'narrow minded?') but you seem to be misjudging it a bit - humans are still animals, and are therefore part of the ecological food chain. Too many people have forgotten that and view us as some sort of isolated case from the global entity.

Must we only progress from ID to evolution? What about guided design?

Kurbla writes:

Well, at least Marxism is all about evolution of economic systems. For them even "intelligent design" of the new economic system is "nothing but" the expression of the existing economic struggles in human consciousness, as they said "life determines consciousness, not vice versa."

Isaac,

I don't know what it is you think you're responding to in my comments, but I was explaining why it is that humans may think of ourselves as "above" other animals, not necessarily arguing that we are -- though we are indeed more complex mentally than any other. As for your other objection, the Wari tribe refer to other tribes as "food." So while some tribes may have species-specific names for others (though typically it will be something indicating "all other people"), the Wari do not.In their minds you are grouped with all the other animals they eat.

j writes:

The concept of evolution is very simple, easy and obvious. But we resist to accept it, as it says that we are pointless, while we feel we have a purpose.

That's a pretty old version of what evolution says. With systems theory, purposefulness is reintroduced. WIth emergence, we see evolution evolving toward greater complexity. You should consider the works of Frederick Turner and Stuart Kauffman -- especially the latter one's latest book "Reinventing the Sacred."

Landrew writes:

Just as the creation of glasses and vaccines removed survival pressures on the less fit in ecological/biological evolution so government removes survival pressures in social evolution (beware the D word).

Government simply creates a different environment is all, and people then adapt to that new environment. The welfare environment creates people who succeed in it. for example. My wife, a former social worker, saw it. It's why she's no longer a social worker.

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