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Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

The American Evolution

The more biology and economics inform each other, the better. Cross-pollination of ideas from one discipline to the next can yield great insights and shed light on answers to questions once hidden by the intellectual silos.

The late naturalist Stephen Jay Gould wrote: “[Th]e theory of natural selection is a creative transfer to biology of Adam Smith's basic argument for a rational economy: the balance and order of nature does not arise from a higher, external (divine) control, or from the existence of laws operating directly upon the whole, but from struggle among individuals for their own benefits.”¹

As it happens, Gould was a socialist. Whatever his politics, he recognized the intellectual intimacy between Smith’s “invisible hand” and Darwin’s natural selection.

Any time someone has made the effort to use evolution as a lens through which to see economics and society, I am eager to see the product. Examples of such efforts include:

  • In Bionomics, Michael Rothschild makes explicit use of biological evolution to shed light on business, economy and globalization. Rothschild insists that economies are like “ecosystems.”
  • In Butterfly Economics, Paul Ormerod exposes the folly of static economic models by appeal to biology, chaos theory and complex systems. Ormerod’s example ant colony behavior is pulled from the observations of biologists, but the implications for macroeconomists are clear.
  • In The Biology of Business, John Henry Clippenger III offers a set of evolutionary analogs to businesses and organizations.
  •  In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley opens with an explanation of economic history as one of “ideas having sex.” The internal combustion engine plus the wagon yielded the horseless carriage (automobile). Mating ideas, according to Ridley, are the economy’s way of evolving.
  • In Law, Legislation and Liberty, F. A. Hayek offers his idea of kosmos, or emergent order, which he contrasts with planned order (taxis). Kosmos is not only an extension of Smith’s concept of the invisible hand, but an idea Hayek admits he borrowed from biology.

These works are hard acts to follow. So whenever someone sets out to follow them, I sit up and take notice. Indeed, when I was offered the opportunity to review someone’s effort to draw connections between evolutionary biology and socio-economic change, I jumped at the chance.

The American Evolution by Matt Harrison promises to be another book in this tradition. The title’s wordplay along with cover art featuring double-helices set certain expectations in my mind. But as I started to read, it became clear that this writer is not quite ready to join the constellation of stars bulleted above. That is not to say the book is devoid of value. It is to say the author was simply not ready to undertake such an effort.

Honestly, I empathize with Matt Harrison’s desire to write a book in this vein. As a matter of fact, I have. In 2004, I labored for a year on a book with the working title Complexity Politics. Like Harrison, I wasn’t ready either. So, my book sits on the hard drive of an old laptop. But The American Evolution has made its way to a vanity press as a signature product of The Prometheus Institute.

This may explain why reading The American Evolution is rather like stumbling on the blog of a bright, interesting young person. The blogger is clearly interested in a lot of things and is probably a voracious reader. He’s using the blog to say look at how much I know—or—check this out: I can relate any given nugget of Trivia back to Malthus or Marx.

In the following example, Harrison is discussing inter-generational music criticism. “The pessimism of such old school music critics [of the Beatles], in my view, is strikingly akin to Malthusian pessimism, convincing itself that the presence of inferior options means the superior options will never arise.”

Let’s pass over the problem of pessimism “convincing itself” of anything. And let’s be charitable to Harrison despite his having taken such liberties with language. Is Harrison’s defense of the Beatles as musical geniuses really all that germane? It could be. But examples like this strike a dissonant chord to this reviewer’s ear. When I read passages like that, I see a young man attempting to intellectualize his iPod collection in order to make Malthus a curmudgeon. (Or maybe it’s to use Malthus to beat up on Beatles’ critics). In the process of all this cross-cultural comparison, we lose the beauty and elegance of what could be an interesting theme: namely the evolutionary aspects of economy and culture.

Returning to my blog analogy, one finds strands of recurring themes on this blog, but none of the themes is strong enough to unite the blog as a corpus—much less a book with a cover and a table of contents. And yet that’s just what it seems like Matt Harrison has done with The American Evolution. Any given subsection might resemble a mildly interesting blog post in which all the grammar gaffs are forgivable. But the book does not cohere as a volume. It lacks a skeleton—either a narrative structure or the binding force of a single, compelling idea.

The other problem is that the book looks to be self-published. Even if the author could resolve the structural problems, The American Evolution needs an editor. I need an editor. You need an editor. All God’s children need an editor. If The American Evolution had an editor, he or she was probably just a friend tracking changes in Word. I don’t say this to be flip. I say this because the author—despite too many mistakes to enumerate—managed to get some really smart and well-known people to write a blurb.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention philanthropy.  That is, after all, why you’re reading this publication. Author Matt Harrison is also the founder of the Prometheus Institute, a non-profit organization “dedicated to pioneering innovative technology which increases civic engagement in the United States, especially among the younger generations.” One of their products—the DIY Democracy mobile app—could go a long way towards realizing their mission statement. I have it on my iPhone.

But I fail to see how American Evolution is all that mission-focused. And yet it is a flagship product of the organization. At least I find it hard to see how extensive quotes from rapper Jay-Z’s lyrics—combined with references to obscure thinkers—suffice to catalyze civic engagement, even among the young.

The punch line to all of this is that everyone in the freedom movement should shoot for high standards of professionalism and quality in everything they do. Indeed, many liberty-oriented organizations out there would do well to look to the Prometheus Institute for guidance on branding. Wonks don’t usually do graphics well, much less marketing. And so often it shows.

Likewise, the liberty movement needs people who are really good at things like iPhone apps and branding to remain focused on those activities. That’s not to say that Matt Harrison will never be seasoned enough as a writer to produce a magnum opus. He’s clearly very bright. It is rather to say that we all have to wrestle with the eternal question of the Renaissance man: How can I best apply my talents, move the needle for liberty and find happiness in meaningful work?

The answer this way lies…

 Max Borders is a 2011-12 Robert Novak Fellow. He is writing a book on wealth creation and the rich-poor “gap”.

 ¹ Gould, Stephen Jay.  1980.  The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History.  New York: Norton.

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