Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Avalanches and Fitness

We've been discussing some aspects of evolution as it applies to the economy, especially evolutionary theorist Stuart Kauffman's ideas.

There is a serious downside inherent in all this, however. If the economy does have a tendency to evolve, there is no inherent teleology, no underlying guarantee it will be in ways which are good for us - however we want to define it.

And the system can be inherently unstable.

The central image here is of a sandpile on a table onto which sand is added at a constant slow rate. Eventually the sand piles up and avalanches begin.

Sandpiles, self-organized criticality, and the edge of chaos. If I am right, the very nature of coevolution is to attain this edge of chaos, a web of compromises where each species prospers as well as possible but where none can be sure if its best next step will set off a trickle or a landslide. In this precarious world, avalanches, small and large, sweep the system relentlessly. .. At this poised state between order and chaos, the players cannot tell the unfolding consequences of their actions. While there is law in the distribution of avalanche sizes that arise in the poised state, there is unpredictability in each individual case. If one can never know if the next footstep is the one that will unleash the landslide of the century, then it pays to tread carefully.

There are inherent limits to how much we can predict the future in a system like that:

We, with all the others, cannot foretell the avalanches and their intertwinings that we jointly generate. We xan do only our local, level best. We can get on with it. Since the time of Bacon our Western tradition has regarded knowledge as power. But as the scale of our activities in space and timehas increased, we are bring driven to understand the limited scope of our understanding and even our potential understanding. (p29)

It is almost a tragic view, even if, as Kauffman says, in practice we ignore it and do what we can anyway. It does suggest having firebreaks and some elements of resilience as well, though. Have several tables of sand, not just one.

There is another point. Kauffman does not say it, but one thing that we can do which species in nature cannot is potentially influence fitness itself in our environment. We can set some of the rules for our society and economy that are set by nature for natural evolution. And that is perhaps one of the few main ways in which we can influence the process.

The definition of fitness can to a large extent be set by us. Indeed, that is why in many cases innovation can be stifled or societies decline, because "protecting current elites" is the default value in many societies. Right now we generally set it to "Profitability or political transfers." If we set it to "help people flourish" the landscape could look different.

That means we need to think more consciously of the selection criteria for innovations and experiments in our evolving social and economic landscape. We need more of a sense of what to filter, what to encourage and what to discourage, and what is selected against.

We have to make economic evolution work for us. We need "selective breeding" of the things which serve human happiness best, just like farmers selecting seeds and transitioning to agriculture.

It is a little more complicated than basic policy choices, however. If we set policy to "maximize hens", it makes the niche of fox look all the more attractive. We are tied to realistic choices that take account of coevoluton. The system has to have stablizing defenses too.


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