Sunday, July 31, 2016

Evolutionary Biology and the Free Marketplace of Ideas


Joel Mokyr @ Stanford 5/20/15

Brad DeLong at Equitablog points us to a lecture by Joel Mokyr, professor of economic history at Northwestern University. For me, the talk raises the question how do current political ideas change, and what persuasive tools can we bring to bear on behalf of better ideas, or against destructive ideas?

Mokyr spoke about his new book The Culture of Growth: the Origins of the Modern Economy wherein he argues that the Industrial Revolution emerged in Europe in the late 18th Century (and nowhere else) because,  across Europe between 1500 and 1700, there flourished a free market place of ideas supported by highly diversified and decentralized political institutions. The development of reliable and speedy postal delivery services and the patronage (and protection) given to elite scholars--who had the freedom to move about between jurisdictions--enabled the emergence of a Republic of Letters that served as fertile ground for the development of new and better ideas. 

Chief among the useful ideas coming from this period is what Mokyr calls the Industrial Enlightenment: the shared idea that inquiry into natural philosophy (science and technology) should be geared towards practical purposes, i.e. things that might improve the state of well being of people and the world, and a fundamental belief in the possibility (and desirability) of human progress together with a conviction that intellectuals can help bring about such progress. 

The period 1500-1700 brought about tremendous cultural change, including: Protestantism, heliocentrism, iatrochemical medicine, Cartesian dualism, blood circulation, Galilean mechanics, infinitesimal mathematics, the presence of an atmosphere, the possibility of a vacuum, Newtonian astrophysics, and the validity of experimental investigations. And this raises the question of how such cultural changes come about? How do we become persuaded by new ideas? How do we assure that better ideas come out on top? 

In thinking about cultural change in ideas, Mokyr uses a metaphor of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biologists speak of phenotypes. A phenotype is the composite of an organism's observable traits or characteristics. It results from an organism's genes as well as environmental factors.  In terms of cultural beliefs, therefore, Mokyr suggests we can think of each individual as a unique cultural phenotype: we inherit specific cultural ideas, but we are also influenced by our environments, and we are able to pass these cultural beliefs on to others. 

Politics

What Mokyr says about the emergence of Enlightenment ideas, it seems, applies equally to our everyday politics. We inherit cultural ideas (e.g. our views on homosexuality, guns, abortion, the death penalty, global warming, the role of government, global trade, immigration, the deficit, and taxes) from our parents, and from the sub-culture we are born into. In that sense, political ideas are inheritable--subject to inter-generational transmission. All things being equal, we'll think like our parents. But in the realm of cultural ideas we are also subject to horizontal influences from teachers, peers, and things we hear and read. And, of course, we are influenced by what we think upon reflection. 

As we are confronted by a great variety of cultural ideas, we must choose among these competing cultural ideas. We are none of us exactly like our parents. So how do we make choices in the political realm?  Perceived economic self-interest is surely a factor, suggests Mokyr, but it's not determinative. People don't always form their beliefs or act in a way that is consistent with their perceived economic self-interest. Is free choice involved, or is it a deterministic model? It seems the answer to this question is up for grabs. It's one of the big questions of the 21st century.

Biases that Affect our Cultural Beliefs

Mokyr points out that most of us make cultural choices (change our minds) infrequently or never. This seems correct. We tend to stick with our acculturated views. And Mokyr identifies eight types of biases that both support our tendency not to abandon cultural ideas, and that can be instrumental in effecting cultural change: 
  1. Content bias. We are persuaded by evidence and logic. This is one way, of course, for us to change our minds, but as Michal Gazzaniga points out, our left brain explainer function is expert at marshaling evidence and logic in support of our existing cultural ideas. 
  2. Direct bias. We look to and are influenced by people in authority. If Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman say significantly increased infrastructure spending (and increased debt) are good for an economy that is underperforming, while consumer spending is depressed, and while interest rates are at the zero percent lower bound, well I'm likely to accept that.  But there's also judgment (and culture bias) involved in trusting these experts over others. 
  3. Model based bias. We tend to adopt and imitate the cultural views that are modeled for us. 
  4. Frequency dependent bias. We tend to conform our cultural views to views that everybody around us holds. [Not that there aren't contrarians!]
  5. Rhetorical bias. We respond to how issues are framed, and we are good at framing issues consistent with our pre-existing cultural views.  
  6. Rationalization bias. The story-teller function of our left brain that Gazzaniga speaks of is expert at coming up with rationalizations to fit new facts into our previously held cultural beliefs.
  7. Coercion bias. Strong social pressures, politics, and changes in law can influence our cultural views. The rapid change in our cultural views on same sex marriage seems like a good recent example. 
  8. Salient event bias. This one was added to the literature by Mokyr. He points to the Black Death, the Holocaust, and the events of 9/11/01 as salient events that effectively changed cultural ideas. 
The evolution metaphor is interesting. It suggests that, even if our individual ability to freely change our cultural views through a dispassionate evaluation of facts, logic and argument is limited (or non-existent as we might suspect from reading Gazzaniga) cultural ideas can nevertheless change over time. And they can clearly change in the direction of progress, as the Enlightenment examples above make clear. 

Of course, highly destructive cultural ideas can arise and become dominant as well.  See, e.g. National Socialism, Stalinism. In the market place of cultural ideas reflected in our current political campaign, which ideas will emerge on top? And what are the processes of persuasion involved? 

Listen to Mokyr's Stanford lecture above.  Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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