Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on September 9, 2014

in Complexity & Emergence

… is from page 77 of Richard Dawkins’s marvelous 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable:

It [natural selection] solves it [the problem of the astronomical improbability of the emergence of undesigned complex phenomena] by breaking the improbability into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch.  Only God would essay the mad task of leaping up the precipice in a single bound.

Dawkins here is writing, of course, about the way that natural selection creates complex phenomena in the natural (that is, non-human-social) world – phenomena such as eagles’ eyes, pandas’ thumbs, and humans’ bipedalism.  None of these complex phenomena were created by a single giant leap from a phenomenon significantly different from it.  The eagle’s eye, for instance, did not emerge full-blown one day as a spontaneous mutation from a simple light-sensing cell.

The same logic of emergence is at work, although at a much faster pace in calendar time, in human society.  Decentralized trials and errors, genuine competition, freedom to innovate using only property whose owners voluntarily submit it to the risks of innovative trials, with the selection criteria themselves determined decentrally by a competitive process that gives maximum possible scope to each individual’s preferences – this spontaneous-ordering process works in human society.  It has given us the institution of money, law, and the complex supply chains that ensure daily that your local Wal-Mart and Safeway are stuffed with stuff whose inexpensive and ready availability we now take for granted – stuff like milk, and corn flakes, and disposable razor blades, and aspirin, and craft beer, and flouride-infused toothpaste, and antibacterial detergents, and….  the list is long indeed.

The logic of government planning is premised (if unknowingly) on the belief that government possesses creation and execution powers of the very sort that people who deny the reality of natural selection attribute to their god who they believe created, with intention and by design, all the animals and plants that have ever thrived on earth.

To be clear: someone can believe that the natural world was indeed created by a god but also believe that spontaneous-ordering forces are at work – or ought to be allowed to be at work – in human society.  Indeed, there are many people who hold these beliefs.  One thing, though, is certain: the many modern atheists who both ridicule religious people for believing in a creating god and who insist on ever more central direction of society by the state ought to examine their belief systems more carefully.  The latter belief resides only quite uncomfortably with the former.  (I myself, for the record, am an atheist as regards both the ‘natural’ world and human society: neither, in my view, was created by a superior being, nor can either be improved by god-like intentional design and intervention.)


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