The Human Condition:

Mass Effects and Magical Thinking – November 4, 2012

We live in an age of wonders. Humanity’s new way of thinking, based on observation, hypothesis, and testing—the scientific method—supplies us with new machines and tools to support our advanced and rapidly evolving lifestyle, things like electric motors, microprocessors, satellite communications, and sophisticated data mining. This way of thinking also enables us to understand the principles behind many natural processes which humans have observed, wondered about, and created religions to explain since the first primate became self-aware, things like storms, earthquakes, solar eclipses, and the nature of life itself.

Some of the tools and their underlying principles are easy to understand and observe, like the actions of spark plug, piston, connecting rod, and crankshaft that drive an internal combustion engine. Some are difficult to understand and almost impossible to observe, like the electrons chasing around circuits inside a microprocessor, or the complex statistical algorithms that let researchers sift huge amounts of data to answer specific questions. For processes and principles that a person can’t study on a human scale and trace out with a fingertip, one is usually forced to accept—on faith, as it were—the explanations of trusted experts and the empirical fact that, whatever’s going on, the machine or process does work and provides reliable, usable results. Even if you don’t understand transistors and binary logic, you can still use a cell phone or computer.

But some processes are so vast, played out on inhuman scales of distance and time, or involving so many interactions and moving parts—for which I’ll use the shorthand term “mass effects”—that most people have a hard time seeing the chains of cause and effect. And so they may tend to disbelieve that the process is actually working at all. Two examples come to mind. First, the process of evolution, which plays out in millions of individual organisms over thousands of generations. Second, the price-setting mechanism of a marketplace, which plays out in thousands or millions of individual buy-sell decisions over a like number of transactions.

You can’t observe the process of evolution in any one individual or any one generation. Instead, you have to understand—or believe in—the cumulative power of thousands or millions of small changes to create a big effect over time. Similarly, you can’t observe the dynamics of a marketplace in any single interaction where A sells and B buys—which is the classic haggle of the bazaar. Instead, to understand a market, you have to multiply that interaction over hundreds or thousands of instances that establish a relationship among desire, availability, and price.

Curiously, if you divide the world into political parties—right and left, conservative and progressive—you find no appreciable difference in the power of these mass effects to confuse rational thinking. Each party has its adherents who face the challenge of understanding these far-flung and abstruse principles and then reject them as a kind of “magical thinking.” On the right, there is a tendency to doubt the power of evolution; on the left, a distrust of markets. These tendencies are not universal, of course. You can find traditionalists who are confirmed evolutionists (I’m one myself). And you can find progressives who are market-based economic theorists. But the tendency to doubt in either realm is well enough established to have become almost a trademark.

The traditionalist has a reason, of course, for dismissing evolution: it flies in the face of established teaching about the nature and intention of God. Evolution is messy. It has no foresight and cannot “intend” to produce any specific result. It builds on a series of tiny changes to simple structures that eventually, over time, creates more complex structures. And those tiny steps can as easily go backwards as forwards.1 Darwin understood this process and theorized about random changes that could be inherited long before anyone had defined the DNA molecule or worked out complementary base pairs, triplet reading frames, amino acid coding, and the mutations that might change one base in that genetic code into another.

Evolution works because it applies a filter, a process of selection, to the random changes that mutation produces in our genes and so affects the structures they build. The filter, the selection, is fitness of purpose. It doesn’t matter what the purpose might be or how it’s achieved.2 If the change abets the purpose, it creates advantage, and the next generation fares better. If the change defeats the purpose, it creates liability, and the next generation suffers. If the change is neither beneficial nor harmful, it might carry forward unnoticed for many generations—a genetic time bomb, as it were—until the environment and its demands change around the individual.

Religious believers hate this for a variety of reasons. Evolution makes no promises. It might have easily conferred the gift of awareness, thought, and personal purpose on sharks or dinosaurs or field mice as on a particular branch of the primates. What does that say about the God who made us in his own image? And evolution is cruel. It ignores the individual, his or her personal welfare, and any sense of destiny in this cascade of random improvements and disfigurements. A loving and benevolent God simply wouldn’t work that way.

The progressive has a reason, of course, for distrusting markets: they are inherently unfair to some portion of the people involved. Markets are based on discretionary transactions. A thousand or a million individual buyers look at the offering of a product at a certain price, weigh their need for the product, and decide, “Yes, I’ll pay that” or “No, too expensive.” A thousand or a million individual sellers look at the cost they’ve incurred to offer the product and the price they can get for it, based on the hunger in a buyer’s eyes, and decide, “Yes, now is the time to sell” or “No, I’ll wait for a better price.” For the average person of average means who can choose to buy or not, this might work equitably and fairly.

But the progressive sees and responds to the inherent disparities in the population. No matter what the market price may be, the rich man can always afford to buy—and take as much as he desires. No matter the market price, in times of scarcity it will usually rise out of reach of the very poorest. This disparity at the two extremes doesn’t matter much if the product in question is caviar or diamonds. But when the product is a necessity of life like food, housing, energy, or education, it becomes intolerable that the rich should gorge themselves while the poor go hungry. Market-based pricing makes no promises about what the “fair” price will be. And markets are cruel, because in times of scarcity some segment of the population will suffer. The market ignores individual wants and needs.

I find it curious that in these two areas, where mass effects play such a decided role, rational people deride belief in and reliance on these natural processes as some kind of “magical thinking.” Traditional believers deny that evolution can be the author of so much beauty and complexity to be seen all around us.3 Progressive economists deride the “dead hand” of the market as a means of distributing goods and services.4 In each case, the natural, human desire is for some kind of “intelligent design”—meaning an intelligence that an average human being can observe and accept. The religious believer wants a kind and loving God to design the living world along lines which he can understand and in which he can believe. The progressive theorist wants a kind and benevolent state to identify the population’s needs and fill them from available resources according to principles of fairness and equity of which he can approve.

Unfortunately, in each of these strivings for some human-quality intelligence to drive the natural system, the result does violence to the underlying principle.

A market can be made fair and benevolent for the disparately advantaged only by doing violence to the opposing party in the transaction. When products are naturally in short supply, holding prices artificially low for buyers robs the producers and distributors of their choice not to sell. When products are abundant, enacting price supports in favor of producers and distributors robs the consumers of their chance to stock up and save. When the benevolent state decides to take control of the entire economy and tries to direct production and sales according to “rational” principles, it always ignores niche markets, the needs and preferences of contrary-minded individuals, and the voluntary nature of an equitable exchange.

A planet’s flora and fauna that were created according to some “rational” or “intelligible” design would fix each creature in its niche within the environment. Even with godlike understanding and foreknowledge guiding the creation, the environment itself would have to remain fixed and unchanging forever: no climatic drift, no asteroid impacts, no solar life cycle, no perturbations among the stars. The slightest change, with its effects allowed to accumulate over millions of years, would oust each creature from its appointed place in the great scheme. Ultimately, life would die out entirely—a greater violence than the small daily and annual dyings out that set the stage for new life that is better adapted to current conditions.

What these systems of “mass effects” both address is the underlying dynamism in everyday affairs. In economics, that dynamism responds to the wide ranging differences in human needs, desires, ambitions, and preferences—the innate individualism of our species. In ecology, that dynamism responds to the unstable nature of reality—in which nothing is fixed, nothing permanent, nothing undying and unchanging.

People who live in modern apartment blocks tend to believe they inhabit a comprehensible, three-dimensional, clockwork, Euclidean-Newtonian world, because the walls, floors, and ceilings all come together in straight lines and neat corners, and the train schedules, banking hours, and television programming of their daily lives all run on the same time structure. They haven’t yet absorbed the underlying nature of reality, which is fluid, relativistic, stochastic, quantum-Einsteinian, and responds to statistical probability rather than to human constructs. In the same way, people who crave “rational” and “intelligent” solutions think they live in a static and unchanging world, where all humans want the same things, all fish swim in the sea, and horses run forever across fields of green grass under a warm and benevolent sun.

We live in an age of wonders. Not least of them is the amount of catching up required for human thought and emotion to match our accelerated scientific understanding.

1. The classic example of evolution is the bird’s wing, and you can duplicate the process in a metal shop—if you have enough time and patience, not to mention enough metal. Take a thousand or a million strips of sheet metal. Give each one a random whack with a hammer, then put it in a wind tunnel and see if the bent metal generates any kind of lift. If it does, set it aside; if not, discard it. For those pieces that generated some lift, give each one another random whack and test it. If it lifts, keep it; if not, discard. Repeat this process over and over, adding new pieces of metal as necessary. Eventually, over time, one piece will survive that has the perfect airfoil curve of a bird’s or an airplane’s wing. But a dozen times in the process, heartbreakingly, you will be one step away from the perfect wing and destroy it with the next random whack. Evolution cares more about results than progress and decrees that life is cheap.

2. A bunch of single-celled protozoans swim in a puddle. One undergoes a mutation that gives it the ability to manufacture a chemical sensitive to visible light. After that, and in every generation of single-cell division, the little animalcule makes that chemical without particular effect. Then, eventually, a second change lets the protozoan react to this newfound photosensitivity. If the creature also happens to acquire its daily energy through photosynthesis, suddenly it can move toward the light and thrive. Or, if the puddle happens to be gradually drying up—and drying faster in areas exposed to sunlight—the protozoan can move toward the shade and perhaps survive the drying out. Purpose and benefit are not directed. But still, in the land of the blind, the light-sensing protozoan is king. From that single chemical and the ability to sense it, to a full-grown eye—with an iris to regulate the amount of light that enters it, a lens to focus that light into an image, and a retina to retain and interpret the image—is just a matter of so many more baby steps.

3. But stop and think. Were not our eyes evolved to see and cherish, to take comfort in and seek pleasure from, the world in which we find ourselves?

4. Even though that “dead hand” merely represents the sum of individual choices freely made. What could be more fair and democratic than that?