… is from page 133 of one of my all-time favorite books, Daniel Dennett’s magnificent 1995 volume, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:
So [William] Paley was right in saying not just that Design was a wonderful thing to explain, but also that Design took Intelligence. All he missed – and Darwin provided – was the idea that this Intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they didn’t count as intelligence at all, and then distributed though space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic process.
Dennett, following Paley and Darwin, here discusses biological evolution. The insight, however, is more general. This insight is about undesigned emergent order and the dependence of that order upon countless bits of dispersed information prompting the elements (people) that make up the order to behave (act) in ways that, when each element (individual) acts in response to its unique bits of information, the amount of information put to use enables the formation of a larger order that no one designed or intended. The amount of information put to productive use is far larger than could possibly be comprehended by any of the individual elements (people) whose behaviors (actions) make up the order.
In human societies and economies, the intelligence at work is not (contrary to how it is in biological nature) stupid; it is generally thoughtful and purposeful; it is conscious. But in each instance it is – and can be – thoughtful and purposeful and conscious only about the minuscule sliver of facts and knowledge that its puny mind can perceive and process intelligently. It is stupid about the details of – and, in many cases, even of the reality of, or nature of – the larger order of which it is a part. An individual human mind might fancy that it can comprehend all social and economic order – that it can know and digest adequately all the facts and knowledge and patterns that make that larger order work – but any such fancy is pure hubris. Possession of such knowledge in any one mind – individual or singularly collective (such as in a government-planning agency) – is fundamentally impossible.
Our economy is prosperous and productive (and, indeed, orderly) only insofar as each of us is led to take notice of the small and often-fleeting pieces of information that we individually encounter and to act on that knowledge in ways that, when our actions combine with those of millions of other individuals, an order emerges that is the result of no one’s intention.