Love Hayek, Love Darwin
I align with a lot of what you wrote, and of Hayek’s premises, but Hayek is missing many of the key elements of the conceptual puzzle (or at least does not make them explicit in this piece).
Looked at from an information perspective, evolution encodes strategies at different levels, genetic, cultural, individual, and each is averaged over different time scales, and must be applicable, at least to some degree, to all the significant events encountered over those time scales.
Once one understands the work of Axelrod, and the recursively applicable nature of the need of raw cooperative strategies to coopt stabilising strategies to prevent cheats from taking over, then all of history can be viewed through this lens, and seen as a strategic arms race between ever more abstract levels of strategies that can be broadly classified as cooperative or cheating (with the cheating strategies having a predatory aspect).
So in this aspect, I suspect we strongly align.
Evolution happening at the three separate levels.
But, and it is a big but, we may diverge significantly on the nature of that environment.
It is entirely possible that for most of human history, small groups lived in times of relative abundance, essentially without competition, and only periodically did competition become a major element.
How could that be?
Nature has many ways of dealing death and destruction – extreme weather, volcanism, earthquake, pandemic, comet and meteor strike. Anything less than enough to cause complete extinction doesn’t appear clearly in the fossil record. Thus populations could be reduced to 10% or less with relative frequency – every century or two, and there would then follow a century or two of relative abundance as the population rebuilt to the previous carrying capacity.
Between them all, it seems entirely possible that life for humans fell into a sort of stochastic sweet spot, that meant that for much of the time, there was no need of competition, and thus extended “space” for cooperative systems to evolve their requisite attendant strategies.
So that is one way in which Hayek’s view of evolution seems a little less than adequate.
At another level, in terms of the strategic arms race between strategy sets, it seems that there is considerable advantage for the dominant social “class” to maintain the lower “classes” in a more raw cooperative state, and thus keep them vulnerable to the dominant group’s “cheating strategies”. There is room for infinite regress in such an arms race, and there do in fact seem to be many levels of such at play in the world today.
So those are my two main criticisms of the view of evolution as a mechanism expressed.
Going to the specifics of the three levels of systems.
It seems that at the genetic level, one can see information about the nature of strategies required to survive the variety of conditions actually present (at the frequencies encountered) encoded into all aspects of evolved systems. And the strategies present are for the most part those most closely available in the space of all possible strategies. Wolfram’s work indicates that there may in fact be an infinite class of classes of strategies that work as stabilising strategies, and most of them lie far away in the depths of strategic complexity – and we now have automated systems exploring such strategic depths.
So our bodies come with likes and dislikes that have worked in practice over evolutionary time.
As one example, a liking for sweet things sent us to fruits, which over most of our evolutionary history were valuable sources of a wide collection of nutrients. Now that we have sugar water in supermarkets, that particular heuristic doesn’t work so well.
Same goes for many other heuristics that served our ancestors well in very different environments, most have now been exploited and subserved to the service of profit, and at cost to the health and welfare of us as individuals.
This brings me to the major fault in Hayek’s thesis, that profit is an effective symbol for telling us where we can make the best contribution.
In environments where almost everything is genuinely scarce, then a strong case can be made that profit does encode a strong signal of benefit.
In environments that contain universal abundance, then the profit signal fails.
The more items that exist in the class of universal abundance, the less utility is encoded in the profit signal and the more frequent become suboptimal outcomes.
When one considers oxygen in the air, a strong case can be made that it is the single most valuable commodity to any human being, yet it has zero value in a market. That is because markets can only ascribe value to things that are scarce, and have exchange value. Markets cannot deliver a non-zero value to universal abundance of anything.
So people have come up with ideas like “intrinsic value” in an attempt to counter the destruction of abundance. The notion of intrinsic value is flawed, in a complementary way to that which the notion of market value is flawed.
So this leaves us with two very distinct classes of problem.
One class of problem is how do we develop signals that actually give a strong measure of real value? This leads in to a whole class of enquiry into the degrees to which each of us as individuals allow the genetic and cultural values of our past to dominate our present determination of “value”, and the degree to which we consciously override those, and the risk/benefit profiles associated with different strategies and contexts.
The other class of problem is around how do we develop signals that allow us to give non-zero values to universal abundance? I live in a freehold house, with solar power, largely automated gardens, and I am vegan. As an economic agent I have very little value. As a human being I have spent over 40 years deeply in the enquiry into the nature of the strategic mechanisms present in our environment, and the nature of changes required to deliver an environment that empowers potentially very long lived individuals to live a very long time with as much freedom as possible. Once one removes age related loss of function and risk of disease, there are many other classes of risk present (to both life and liberty) that require effective mitigation strategies.
The pursuit of profit was a reasonable signal generator in times of genuine scarcity.
We now live in an age of automation that could provide universal abundance of a large and exponentially growing set of goods and services; but the pursuit of profit actively works against the emergence of any universal abundance (as we can see with the expansion of “intellectual property” laws – which are nothing more or less than a prohibition on the free sharing of information in the name of profit).
Today our ability to process information is doubling in under a year.
All systems that rely on information should be halving in price on that sort of timescale.
They are not.
People should be experiencing a doubling of perceived wealth and security on that sort of timescale.
They are not.
The system is being manipulated, at recursively expanding levels, to deliver profit, over delivering life and liberty to every sapient entity.
I make the assertion that any individual who values their own life and liberty, can most powerfully (on the long term, in an environment with strong signal transmission and signal fidelity – ie people will not forget that you cheated them, and will pass such information to their friends, and they to theirs, etc) ensure such life and liberty by taking all reasonable steps to ensure the life and liberty of everyone else.
In an age of automation, each time we get an effective strategy fully automated, it can be shared with everyone within a few minutes, and can be selectively applied to contexts as they see fit.
With relatively little effort, we could develop and deploy such systems world wide.
Distributed cooperation, at a global scale.
Distributed production and distribution, at a global scale.
Distributed security, information, automation.
Valuing individual life and individual liberty, at a global scale.
And individual freedom is not freedom from the consequence of choice.
Freedom demands a responsibility for the consequences of choices – it is about as far as one can get from the notions of whim or fancy.
And empowering individual choice necessitates an acceptance of the exponentially expanding diversity that must logically result.
Provided that diversity values the life and liberty of others, then it must be given liberty to go where it will.
Sure, as human beings we all exist in a cultural context, a context of communication, and we cannot be bound by any constraints from the past, and nor do we entirely ignore the past. The past is often, and not always, a good predictor of the future.
[Addendum 26 Nov 2015 – Correlation does not imply causation. If quantum mechanics tells us anything, it is that the past does not cause the future, and it is highly correlated with the future.]