Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 4); Malthus and Darwin: population analysis and evolution

The institutional evolutionism has a history before Darwin, parallel to it and even later divergent. In parallel, Darwin for the elaboration of his concept of natural selection took from the political economy the notion of population analysis by Robert Malthus, the one that also comes from the analysis of the institutions as a framework of incentives. At the time Malthus sought to refute the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, who proposed abolishing marriage as a social institution. Mindful that the extra-marital children lacked at that time fewer rights than those born in marriage, Malthus replied that such a measure would lead to an exponential growth of the population and, therefore, marriage as an institution fulfilled the containment function of population growth. A similar analysis makes Malthus of the laws of poor: aid to the poor increases the cost of food, which generates more poor, assuming the dynamics of a vicious circle. The judgments of Malthus have an empirical character that makes them susceptible of refutation, it can be verified if Malthus was right or wrong. However, what has an abstract, methodological, propaedeutic character is its population analysis. That is what Darwin took to conceive natural selection processes and that today can be used in the analysis of institutional evolution.

When one speaks of a political, economic, or social institution displacing another, such movement becomes effective at the level of the populations. For example, literacy and accounting applied to business administration generates a leap in efficiency in the administration and auditing of businesses. It is not surprising that literate traders who carry inventory and accounting processes displace illiterate traders. This is how literacy and accounting can be extended without any central political decision, nor any disruptive phenomenon. (Of course, the modern state, in its process of rationalization, can impose the obligatory nature of certain principles of accounting or schooling, but not necessarily depend on it.)

To a large extent, the arrival of European immigration to South America in the second half of the 19th century consisted in the importation of habits, practices and techniques that immigrants already incorporated. It is widely known the arrival of new techniques of field work and breeding and care of livestock. Also many immigrants who arrived implemented inventory practices and cash management that were leaking into the rest of the population.

William Easterly characterizes this phenomenon as a leaking of knowledge. Following the example of the previous paragraph: those immigrants were more competitive because they brought with them new techniques of rationalization of time, they took inventories and accounted for income and expenditure of funds methodically. This advantage translated into prosperity and expansion of their businesses. However, in order to implement this type of “technology” they must necessarily share it with their collaborators. There is in these collaborators an incorporation of human capital through what Gary Becker called “on-the-job training”: a learning of how to work at a general level (to arrive at schedule, to concentrate on the task, to meet deadlines) and also at a particular level (particular techniques of sowing, raising livestock, managing a certain inventory system). Human capital is a set of habits and practices that “travels” incorporated in each “apprentice”. In this way, the entrepreneur can finance himself by paying part of the compensation to the dependent in kind: the training. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon characterized by Easterly as “leakage of knowledge”. This knowledge is transmitted, migrated, from person to person. To the extent that it reports a greater utility to its “bearer” it is expanding, extending, throughout the social fabric, often not as a deliberate education, but as an unintended consequence of the use of such knowledge, which, for can be put into practice, needs the help of more than one person.

It is in this sense that what evolve are the practices and habits, in this case of work and business. It is extended by its incorporation by individuals who adopt them, often involuntarily, either through the incorporation of guidelines from their place of work, or through imitation or emulation. Following the terminology of evolutionism, practices and habits are the unit of evolution and the people who incorporate their replicators. A practice or habit is more successful to the extent that it extends into the population. In turn, the populations carrying practices and habits more adapted to the environment will extend them to others.

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 3 of this essay here, and you find the full essay here.]

Twelve Things Worth Knowing According to Jacques Delacroix, PhD, Plus a Very Few Brain Food Items.

Note: I wish you all a prosperous, healthy, and writerly year 2019. (No wishes for happiness, it will come from all the above.)

I have a French nephew who is super-smart. Not long after graduating from the best school in France, he moved to Morocco where he married a super-smart Moroccan woman. He is so smart that he asked me for my intellectual will before I depart for another planet. It’s below.

Here are my qualifications: I taught in universities for thirty years, including twenty-five years in a business school in Silicon Valley. My doctorate is in sociology. (Please, don’t judge me.) My fields of specialization are Organizational Theory and the Sociology of Economic Development. My degree is from a very good university although I am a French high school dropout. My vita is linked here (pdf). Its academic part is respectable from a scholarly standpoint, no more. There is much additional info in my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, available from me, and on Amazon Kindle, and in my electronic book of memoirs in French: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration”, also on Amazon Kindle.

1. When the facts don’t fit your perspective you should change …. ? (Complete sentence.)

2. One basic complex idea worth knowing that resists learning: natural selection.

Note: the effective mechanism involved is multi-generational differential reproduction. You don’t understand natural selection until you can put a meaning on all three words.

3. Another basic idea worth knowing, a counter-intuitive one, that also resists learning: the principle of Comparative Advantage: If you are not working at what you do the very best, you are impoverishing me. There is a ten-lesson quick course on my blog to explain this. Look for short essays with the word “protectionism” in the title. A longform version can also be found, here.

4. Taking from the poor is a stupid way to try to become rich when you can invent a new world – like Steve Jobs – and be immensely rewarded for it. Or open a decent restaurant and be well rewarded, or learn welding. There isn’t much you can take from the poor anyway because they are poor. Plus, the bastards often resist!

5. Culture is in the heads (plural). Everything else isn’t “culture.”

6. How a body of people act is not simply the addition of the thinking of its individual human members. (There is a sociology!)

7. Beware those pesky fractions. Quick test: Five years ago, my income was 40% of yours. Now, my income is only 20% of yours. Am I earning less than I did five years ago?

8. Correlation is not causation but there is no causation without some sort of correlation.

9. Statistical significance is significant even if you don’t quite know what it signifies. Find out. It’s not hard.

10. Use statistical estimation methods even if you don’t understand them well. It will improve your reasoning rigor by confronting you brutally with the wrongness of your guesses. And you can only become better at it with practice.

11. There is not text that’s not improved by extirpating from it half of all adjectives and adverbs.

12. Reading is still the most efficient way to improve your comprehension of the world.

It seems to me that if you understand these twelve points inside out, you are well above average in general culture; that’s even true on a global scale.

Below are some intellectual anchoring points of my life. They are subjectively chosen, of course. Don’t lend them too much credence.

My favorite singer-composers: Jacques Brel; the Argentinean Communist Atahualpa Yupanqui. (I can’t help it.)

My favorite instrumental musics: baroque music, the blues.

My favorite painters: Caravaggio (link); Delacroix (Eugene); Delacroix (Krishna).

I don’t have a favorite book because I read all the time without trying to rank books. These three books have made a lasting impression, changed my brain pathways forever, I suspect: Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; George R. Stewart, Earth Abides; Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

The only two intelligent things I have said in my life:

“Once you know a woman well vertically, you know nothing about her horizontally.”

“There is not bad book.”

The Paleo Diet and the Vegetarians

I have been defending the “Paleo diet,” named after the book of the same name by Loren Cordain. Unlike many of its critics, I have actually read the book. I like the fact that it rests on an overall defensible viewpoint based on evolutionary theory while its specific claims are explicitly and painstakingly related to modern research.

The Paleo diet or v “caveman’s diet” simply says that our genetic apparatus cannot have changed much since the spread of agriculture, 7,000, 8,000 or 9,000 years ago (more like 6,000 for people of European ancestry). Therefore, the author argues, we should limit our food intake to what our pre-agriculture ancestors ate: Vegetables, fruits, nuts, and especially fish and meat. Thus, it excludes cereals, beans, dairy products and sugar, among other staples. That’s the general argument. As I have said, there are also specific arguments pertaining to different classes of food that are linked to contemporary scientific research.

I have been observing the Paleo diet, with some systematic cheating, for a little less than a year. The cheating involves two items: wine and coffee. Cavemen obviously had the solace of neither (but they had the thrill of trying to escape giant cave bears). Basically, I would rather be unhealthy than give up either drug. My adherence to the Paleo diet is not a “faith.” It’s completely rational, as the accommodation I make at this stage in my mind with the information available to me. I could turn on a dime on this.

Two things have happened since I started the Paleo diet: First, I have had Diabetes Type II for twenty years. Less than three months after I started, my basic blood sugar number became almost normal. (That’s the same number I have been monitoring for fifteen yeas.) It became completely normal another three months later and has stayed there.* Second, I have lost a little weight without even trying. I keep losing. It’s very little but it’s consistent. (I use to gain a little weight consistently.) There is no mystery about why I lose weight: I seldom feel hungry and when a I do, I am able to cut hunger with ten almonds.

Of course, the coincidence in time of this positive health development with the diet may just be that, a coincidence. This is how I am thinking about it: For twenty years, there are no good news; I go on a specific diet that promises specific improvements; shortly thereafter, I get specific good news pertaining to the improvement the diet promises.

Of course, it’s possible that in addition to positive health outcomes, the Paleo diet is destroying my heart, or my kidneys. As to the first, my Stanford Medical school cardiologist is not concerned. My other doctor, the internist who hates fads has not said anything about danger to my kidneys.

The Paleo diet has not made me more handsome, nor smarter, nor yet kinder, I must admit.

My testimony just remains this, a personal testimony; it’s a truthful one. The critique below is more than a personal testimony though if you believe that the nature of its warriors tells you something about the validity of a particular war.

Of course, the Paleo diet has triggered the anger of vegetarians and “sustainable” agriculture advocates, and well it should have. Sustainable Ag people simply don’t have a leg to stand on. Veggies are apparently tired of simply arguing that theirs is an ethically superior stance. (I believe it is.) There is an article in the June 3 2013 issue of Scientific American that just came to my attention. I surmise, it’s an expression of this anger. It treats the Paleo diet as just another unscientific fad. In the middle of the article, the author uses the following words with respect to our ancestors: “[they] evolved a mutation.” Cut, stop press! Mutations don’t “evolve,” they just happen; they happen all the time. The verb matters, it suggests that a particular mutation appeared in response to something. Mutations are not (adaptive) responses to anything; they are the material on which evolution plays. Natural selection simply retains spontaneous mutations.

End of story; end of reading. The author just demonstrated that he lacks a basic understanding of evolutionary theory, the main material of the view he is criticizing. How about the editors of Scientific Americans, what were they thinking when they allowed this monstrosity? Is there a reason for the laxness? Is there an agenda or is it just an expression of ordinary slothfulness?

This big mistake in a big publication dedicated to the spread of science does not make the Paleo diet right of course. I will await with interest a critique by someone who know what he is talking about.

* I am still taking the full complement of diabetic drugs. It’s a precaution and my doctor, a skeptic, does not seem to know how to phase them out without risk.