My Reply to David Wilson on Hayek & the Use of Mathematical Population Biology Models in the Social Sciences (draft)

David Wilson has asked me to read his discussion of Hayek and the growing literature on multilevel selection modeling and the wider literature of human cultural evolution. This is my reply which I hope he will welcome in the spirit of filling the gap in the literature on “the sphere of economic thought centered on Hayek and the modern study of cultural multilevel selection.”  My discussion will also engage his lecture (listen here) on Hayek and multi-level selection delivers before Peter Boettke’s F.A. Hayek Center for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at George Mason University.

Let me begin by saying that I admire his work, and I have read the literature in which he works for over 35 years with great interest, stretching back to the pioneering work of Richard Alexander, which I encountered almost concurrently with my encounter with the work of Hayek.  My own background is in the philosophy of biology and scientific explanation, working with Alex Rosenberg and Larry Wright, which has involved studying most of the foundational work in the history and philosophy of biology, including that of Wilson’s colleague Elliott Sober.  I have also constructed a functioning selection model of cultural evolution in which individual behaviors creating group-exhibited properties give selective advantage both to the individual vis-a-vis individuals not displaying the behavior and vis-a-vis species which do not display the group property, as in the case of schooling behavior by individual fish and the fish species to which they belong.

Let me suggest that the crucial first step in “bridging the gap between Hayek and cultural multilevel selection” is simply this:  o identify and remove a host of false conceptions and mythologies found in Wilson’s discussion concerning both (1) the domain of Hayek’s work and (2) the domain of evolutionary and selection explanations.  Let me go through a list of these false conceptions and unhelpful mythologies.

  1. “Hayek Crossed a Continental Divide in the Landscape of Economic Thought”

Hayek actually did TWO things.  Hayek (1) resurrect the pre-20th century world of the enlightenment where thinking about social institutions involved combinations of both evolutionary thinking and economic thinking. And Hayek (2) showed how these elements made sense only in light of an empirical undesigned order problem seen already in the 18th century, fleshed out and put into an powerful explanatory frame involving the causal mechanisms of learning in the context of changing individual understandings of local conditions and prices relations, following negative rules of conduct like “no stealing”, and using the pure logic of choice as a window on global economic plan coordination.

David Wilson suggests that there existed a “continental divide” between two elements (1) The Age of Reason / The Physics of Social Behavior; and (2) Evolutionary Biology, which Hayek “crossed”.

In fact, Hayek developed as a scholar steeped in the work of Carl Menger, Friedrich Wieser, Ernst Mach, and a number of other continental thinkers, all of whom never bought into many elements of “The Age of Reason / The Physics of Social Behavior,” and all of whom combined economic and evolutionary elements in their explanatory paradigms, accounting for the growth of knowledge, institutions, and human flourishing.

So the “continental divide” identified by Wilson didn’t exist for Hayek as a budding scientist. What is more, Hayek went back and showed that many important enlightenment thinkers working in social theory rejected modern conceptions of “The Age of Reason / The Physics of Social Behavior” as became prominent especially in the 20th century, and these thinkers combined economic, competitive and evolutionary conceptions in their explanatory paradigms matched with undesigned order problems fully compatible with the later Darwinian vision, a vision which Hayek shows was itself derived and inspired in large measure from economic, competitive and evolutionary conceptions from social theory.

Hayek points out, for example, that John Locke had a socially evolutionary conception of “reason” and rejected what Hayek often referred to as a “French” conception of reason.  Hayek points out that Darwin’s branching tree conception of historical evolution by descent derives from the linguistic work of William Jones. Hayek points out that Adam Ferguson, Bernard Mandeville, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Edmund Burke identified social institutions and structures which were the product of a multitude of human behaviors across time but were not the result of any one man’s intentional design.

And of course the work of Thomas Malthus on scarce resources, declining marginal utility and competition for goods was the direct inspiration for the Darwinian paradigm itself.

Hayek also does something very similar to what Ernst Mayr does in his book The Growth of Biological Thought, Hayek shows how conceptual roadblocks fixed in the very terminology of Greek thought block space for a domain of ordered phenomena between the intentionally designed and the physically regular. Hayek shows how Greek conceptions block room for undersigned order thinking in social theory and Mayr showed how Greek conceptions of types, kinds and concepts blocked the notion of change across time in biological categories like species and adaptive features.

So right here we identify a meaty, fruitful and substantive “gap” area significant for exploring the character of economic, selective and evolutionary undesigned order explanations — and how those have been blocked by the intellectual traditions stretching back to Greek thought.  There is a great deal on the plate here in Hayek’s work, from his rejecting of justificationalism in epistemology to his Wittgensteinian rejection of rationalistic Platonic or Fregean pictures of conceptual significance, work that could be enriched with connection to David Hull’s work on concepts as historical individuals. This work could also be connected to Hayek discussion of the problematic and misleading nature of God’s Eye View models of social phenomena, work directly linked to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on this same topic.  David Hull’s discussion of the problematic man-many relation between phenotype and genotype would also be of significance here, directly related to Hayek’s account of the many-many problem of brain classification and perceptual categories.  There is a lot to think about here.  Anyone wanting to “fill the gap” needs to do so.  And the issues involved only get started with these topics.

There is massively more to be said about how Hayek never began within a “continental divide”, how Hayek established that no such “continental divide” existed in much of the best of enlightenment social theory, and about how Hayek replaced the mistakes of “Age of Reason / The Physics of Social Behavior” social science as it came to dominate 20th century economic thought, even as Hayek provided crucial new components to the formalization and mathematization of the pure theory of choice and the equilibrium construct.  More importantly, their is the central story of how Hayek managed to recast economics as a science originating in an empirical undesigned order problem, and the role of the pure logical of choice and equilibrium constructs in our conception of that problem, and the relation of these to the central causal mechanisms accounting for plan-like social coordination (1) changes in individual understanding in the context of changing local conditions and relative prices; and (2) inherited negative rules of just like rules against lying, stealing, and breaking contracts.


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