The Epistemological Foundation of Evolutionary Analysis

(Note: This is an edited version of an email I sent to someone a couple weeks ago.)

F. A. Hayek delivered a lecture in 1983 where he argued:

The intellectual source of the idea of evolution lay not in the study of nature, but in the study of the even more complex phenomenon of human interaction.

He then went on to mention that David Hume can be properly considered to be the precursor of Darwin, since:

The suggestion of a general theory of evolution is to be found in [Hume’s] posthumous Dialogues on Natural Religion, which states the foundation not only for a theory of social evolution, which then his Scottish successors—Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Dugald Stewart—fully developed; it is clearly also no accident that there’s been established from the study of the notebooks of Charles Darwin that the idea of biological evolution occurred to him at the very time that he was reading […] The Wealth of Nations.

He also mentioned:

I’ve recently come across yet another piece of evidence confirming my old contention that the concept of evolution derives from the study of society, which I might just briefly mention here. It’s that the term “genetics”, which only 70 years ago by William Bateson was made the technical term for biological evolution, actually derives from the study of language. It derives from [a German usage in the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, where writers spoke of “the genetic problems of the evolution of language”]. It was then introduced into English by Thomas Carlyle. But even after Darwin we find an economist like Carl Menger speaking about the “genetic origin” of money and similar phenomenon without any reference to biological phenomena.

Now, let’s consider one of the major passages in Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion which communicates the insight which Hayek claims laid the foundation for the creation of the theory of biological evolution:

“And this very consideration too,” continued Philo, “which we have stumbled on in the course of the argument, suggests a new hypothesis of cosmogony, that is not absolutely absurd and improbable. Is there a system, an order, an economy of things, by which matter can preserve that perpetual agitation which seems essential to it, and yet maintain a constancy in the forms which it produces? There certainly is such an economy; for this is actually the case with the present world. The continual motion of matter, therefore, in less than infinite transpositions, must produce this economy or order; and by its very nature, that order, when once established, supports itself, for many ages, if not to eternity. But wherever matter is so poised, arranged, and adjusted, as to continue in perpetual motion, and yet preserve a constancy in the forms, its situation must, of necessity, have all the same appearance of art and contrivance which we observe at present. All the parts of each form must have a relation to each other, and to the whole; and the whole itself must have a relation to the other parts of the universe; to the element in which the form subsists; to the materials with which it repairs its waste and decay; and to every other form which is hostile or friendly. A defect in any of these particulars destroys the form; and the matter of which it is composed is again set loose, and is thrown into irregular motions and fermentations, till it unite itself to some other regular form.”

“It is in vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals or vegetables, and their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know, how an animal could subsist, unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find, that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases, and that its matter corrupting tries some new form?”

In other words: If we imagine that the universe is in constant flux through time, and that there are more and less stable configurations, then we must simply add the ingredient of a very long time, and what we will find at the end is the emergence of order from chaos. From each moment to the next, arrangements which are unstable fall apart, and arrangement which are stable remain together; when this process goes on for millions or billions of years, we find the spontaneous emergence of astonishing levels of complexity devoted to preservation of forms.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins asserts in the beginning of Chapter 2 that “Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable“, and that as a result “the universe is populated by stable things”. To complete Hume’s model, one must simply add the idea that at some point within the optimization process leading to increasingly stable forms, a key technique was found: the ability for a form to replicate itself, rather than merely remain stable over time in the way a rock is.

David Hume dedicated the entirety of Book I of A Treatise of Human Nature to first-person epistemology—the absolute foundation of all epistemological inquiry, where one takes nothing for granted and starts out by analyzing with fresh eyes the unbroken stream of sensory experience that makes up our conscious experience.

Rudolf Carnap referred to this method with a different term, which may be illuminating: “methodological solipsism”. While most people assume without analytically acquired proof that other people are conscious, the most foundational starting point of any analysis of human society must begin with an explanation of what it means to perceive other people as conscious beings with thoughts and emotions, despite not directly experiencing anything past their physical behaviors. The term “methodological solipsism” embodies the assumption that we don’t intend to remain solipsistic thinkers forever, but that for a certain amount of time we must feel like we have no proof of other consciousnesses beyond our own, so we can put ourselves in a proper frame of mind in order to then seek proper epistemological construction of the concept of modeling other humans as conscious beings.

In Books II and III of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume then transitioned to using the epistemological tools he had developed in order to analyze societal processes. I believe that the aforementioned idea that we could perhaps call the law of stability, which Hume elucidated, could show the way toward constructing a unified concept of evolution out of the raw materials of first-person epistemology, with biological evolution (replicators, and then eventually the sexual-selection process of dimorphic life), memetic evolution, the natural selection of nation states via the process of imperialism, and so forth, all as special cases of a more general theory of evolution. In other words, while Hume laid the groundwork, slightly younger thinkers like Smith and Ferguson applied the groundwork to essentially construct some of the first proper forms of economics and sociology, and then Darwin identified the special case of biological evolution through natural and sexual selection, almost all of our contemporaries have completely lost sight of this deep connection and shared epistemological foundation, and as a result have severed economics from biology, and sociology from the theory of natural and sexual selection. The replacement of the methodological solipsism of thinkers such as Hume, with a thoroughgoing materialism in the modern intellectual scene, has created a deep separation, where evolutionary biology and economics/sociology feel a world apart, though fields such as evolutionary psychology have started to pick up the shattered pieces.

The current disastrous state of mainstream economics can I believe be explained along these lines, in that the thinkers involved tend to have little understanding of methodological solipsism, while also not having an appreciation for the fact that the field of economics is in many ways best seen as a specific branch of the greater science of evolution. The term “incentive structure” definitely captures a reasonably large degree of what it means for a system to evolve over time in a patterned fashion, but I get the feeling that the lack of explicit epistemological awareness has marred the science.

One of the central arguments that Ludwig von Mises made in Human Action was that the refusal of mainstream economics to do philosophical analysis of the concepts of preference, intention, and so on, hasn’t nullified those phenomena, but rather put the mainstream economists in a position where they necessarily end up structuring their theories on a foundation of sand: folk psychology. At the most fundamental level of analysis, we realize that we experience only our own consciousness in a direct fashion; and as a result the process of engaging in economics—the analysis of the patterns of group behavior necessarily exhibited by humans within the context of market phenomena—lies on a foundation of first-person epistemology, where you introspect the structure of your mind, label the different parts, and only then use such labels to talk about other people.