“The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics”
Rating: 7 of 10
It is no secret that I hold a rather low opinion of various books produced by a few well-known atheists. Without exception, they are riddled with factual ignorance, easily demonstrable illogic and fraudulent appeals to science. While Michael Shermer is every bit the atheist that Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins are, his scientific expertise happens to be applicable to his subject matter and his approach is entirely different. And unlike the New Atheists, Shermer makes intelligent use of both science and logic in utilizing various aspects of evolutionary theory to consider homo economicus.
A professor of economics with an active interest in a broad range of sciences, Shermer, who is also the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, demonstrates the historical connection between classical economics and Charles Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. He draws an interesting analogy between the development of an economy and evolution, suggesting that the sophisticated complexity of the former is the product of the same sort of bottom-up “design” process that evolutionists insist has produced living organisms. The implication that follows from this, which Shermer correctly makes, is that government intervention is no more necessary for a market economy than divine intervention is required for the origin of the species.
The text is eminently readable; in fact, the core of Shermer’s case actually tends to suffer somewhat from the entertaining tangents in which he readily engages. For example, his exposition of the myth behind the dominance of the QWERTY keyboard is both detailed and fascinating, but it is largely extraneous to the larger subject at hand. And the history of the development of the two-wheeler, although informative, appears to have more to do with Shermer’s abiding interest in the sport of bicycling than it does to do with either evolution or economics.
Where the book gets particularly interesting, if arguably even further afield, is when Shermer addresses the question of human nature, and specifically, the material problem of evil. He makes a rational case for refusing to come down on either the side of the dispositional theory of evil or the situational theory of evil, preferring instead to posit a materialistic dual-nature that is the evolutionary product of the intrinsic conflict between within-group amity and between-group enmity. This is an intelligent approach to the problem, even if it leads him to the same quasi-utopian conclusion that has plagued materialist philosophy for more than a century.
In the end, of course, people choose to be good or evil. We can change the conditions and
attenuate the potential for evil, first by understanding it and then by taking action to change it.
Being a Christian, and perhaps more to the point, an individual who has read a great deal of recent literature pontificating on the subject, I tend to be more than a little skeptical about man’s ability to understand evil, let alone attenuate his potential for it. But Shermer must nevertheless be praised for directly addressing the challenge of the human perception of material evil instead of simply resorting to one of the evasions customarily utilized by rational materialists.
It is a pity that Shermer does not direct more of his skepticism toward the evolutionary theory upon which he relies so heavily, as it is easily the weakest aspect of his case. This is particularly noticeable when he is making comparisons between economics and evolution as the evidence he cites for the former is always much stronger than it is for the latter. Shermer clearly recognizes that his stated goal of bringing together various new scientific fields together under the aegis of Evolutionary Economics “the study of the economy as an evolving complex adaptive system grounded in a human nature that evolved functional adaptations to survival as a social primate species in the Paleolithic epoch in which we evolved,” is attempting to solve a really hard problem, but throughout the book I found myself thinking that evolution appears to need the benefit of economics more than economics needs evolution. In fact, the book itself would have benefited from more observable market realities and less hypothetical evolutionary conjecture.
But such criticism is somewhat beside the point, as Shermer’s intention is clearly designed to stimulate thinking in new directions rather than provide conclusive evidence of anything. If one takes both natural selection and the free market as given, or as Shermer suggests, “factual realities of the empirical world,” then his arguments are often sensible, even if they are not necessarily convincing in many cases. These arguments ultimately culminate in a laudable call for a positive approach to political and economic human freedom, which no libertarian can fail to appreciate. “The Mind of the Market” is an entertaining and stimulating book, and one that is definitely worth reading by anyone with an interest in either evolution or economics.