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Evolution is truly amazing.
The are two reasons I think this. Firstly, just look at the wonderfully diverse range of organisms to which it has lead. Elephants, dolphins, giant redwoods, kangaroos, scorpions, sharks, squid, salmonella, venus fly traps, honeybees and naked mole-rats. They are all stunning examples of what evolution has caused.
The second reason I find it amazing is that it is so simple:
■An individual’s offspring will share similar traits with that individual
■An individual with beneficial traits is more likely to have offspring
■Therefore more beneficial traits are more likely to be passed on from one generation to the next than less beneficial ones
That is pretty much it and all you need to add is a bit of time.
A friend of mine disputed evolution recently, on the basis that the species we see today are just too complex to have come out about through such a process. This is how I thought about it. (This is probably why I don’t have many friends.)
Suppose that a particular species has a one year lifecycle and on average each new generation is about 0.001% better than the previous generation. It’s a very small amount – one one-thousandth of one percent better.
Over a period of 1000 years you would notice little difference – the current generation would be about 1% better than they were 1000 years ago. It’s very similar to compound interest – invest £1 for 1000 years at a rate of 0.001% and you will get £1.01 back at the end. Look at this though:
After 10,000 years it will be worth about £1.11
After 100,000 years it will be worth about £2.70
After 1,000,000 years it will be worth about £22,000
After 2,000,000 years it will be worth about £485 million
After 3,000,000 years it will be worth about £10.7 trillion
After 4,000,000 years it will be worth about £235 quadrillion
Back in terms of our evolutionary example, our species that improved at a thousandth of a percent per generation is 235 quadrillion times better than its ancestor of 4 million years ago whilst being virtually indistinguishable from its ancestor of a few thousand years ago. Pretty cool.
Of course, like my friend, not everyone believes in evolution. Some favour Creationism. In Creationism you assume that there is a supremely intelligent being who made a supremely brilliant strategy for the development of species at the start of things and everything worked out from that brilliant strategy.
Now, I can hear you all saying, “That rabbit has really lost it this time, what the hell is he talking about now? I was expecting some sexy economics shit not a biology lesson.”
I am coming to that. I am a big fan of something that has come to be known as evolutionary economics. It works like this:
Suppose you want to achieve a certain outcome over a period of time in an environment with many unknowns. One way of doing it would be to work out the perfect strategy at the start and then run with it. Evolutionary economics would suggest that a better way of doing it would be to continually monitor and adapt your strategy, keeping the things that are working well, and replacing the things that are working badly with new things. Some of the new things will work and they’ll be kept. Some of the new things won’t work and they’ll be binned and replaced. Perhaps some of the things that worked well a while ago will stop being beneficial later. That’s fine, they’ll be adapted too. By doing this, the strategy continually evolves, adapting to the successes and failures along the way in order to ultimately succeed.
I strongly believe that in a complex environment the very best way to achieve success is by continually reviewing and adapting strategy. I do not believe that the very best way to achieve success is to come up with a strategy at the start and never adapt it in spite of how well it does.
Some people do though and they’re called politicians. When the Conservatives won the last election they did so partly based on the promise that they could cut spending and also achieve economic growth. The economic growth though, for one reason or another, has not materialised.
Some people will say, “You big muppet, George Osborne! You said we’d have economic growth and we didn’t! Your strategy was all wrong!”
I don’t agree with this way of looking at things. Sure, he’s a muppet but we are talking about the deployment of a strategy in a complex environment. The behaviour of the UK economy is not easily predictable – a huge number of unpredictable factors influence it. It is complex. His failure is not in his initial strategy, it is in being unable to adapt his strategy based on how well it is actually doing.
Imagine you are watching a horse race and horse number 3 is in the lead. You might say, “I think horse number 3 will win this race.” It would be a fair prediction. Horse number 3 might then take a fence badly and be overtaken by horse number 5. You might then say, “I think horse number 5 will win this race.”
You give your best judgment at a particular point in time and if the situation changes, you adapt your judgment. A politician does not do that though. When horse number 3 was overtaken, a politician would still back horse number 3 because that was what they said first. Horse racing is a brutal industry – when horse number 3 fell at the next fence, broke its foot and was shot by a vet, the politician would still back it to win.
In contrast to evolutionary economics, I have developed my own term for this kind of thinking – Creationist Economics. It’s impossible to get everything perfect first time around but politicians it seems, believe their strategies represent some kind of intelligent design.
At last week’s Conservative Party conference the general economic theme seemed to be, “We must keep doing what we’re doing because you can’t borrow your way out of recession.” (That’s actually not really true. You can borrow your way out of recession you are just left with more debt afterwards. What you can’t do is cut your way out of recession.) Either way, I am moving away from my point. George Osborne, favouring Creationist Economics, refuses to accept that his strategy has not realised the growth that he forecasted and instead stands by his policies through what I can only interpet as a matter of faith.
Of course, George isn’t the only disciple of the church of Creationist Economics. The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley has an idea to reform the Health Service. Because the communicated benefits of his policy turned out to lack any basis in fact he had to work hard on a campaign of misinformation. (This is always preferred by creationist economists over accepting their strategy was wrong which is considered blasphemy.) Lansley found a couple of facts that if taken out of context he could use to make his strategy look like a good one. He didn’t exactly lie but he did intentionally mislead people, which I think is every bit as bad.
Let me summarise my thoughts:
■It is not possible within a complex environment to devise a perfect initial strategy.
■It is therefore necessary to monitor and adapt a strategy in order for it to be ultimately successful.
■Politicians deny these things as they are creationist economists
You may not have realised this but most likely you are an evolutionary economist. Suppose you are making your first ever Sunday roast and when making the gravy you decide how much corn flour to add and it all goes thick and lumpy. Next time you do it you learn from your failed strategy and add less corn flour. Congratulations, you are an evolutionary economist. Would you ignore the evidence and continue to put the same amount of corn flour in your gravy forever? If so then you are a creationist economist.
To me it seems clear that our politicians are not governing our country in a particularly efficient way. It’s not just the current government – the opposition parties would and do embrace their own creationist themes. My complaint is with no particular political party it is with our system. If a politician tried evolutionary economics the media would crucify them for “flip-flopping”. It is much more beneficial for a politician to just get it wrong to start with, never waver from being wrong and spend their time and effort on misleading people into thinking they are right.
And while this is the case, we will all have to endure poor political strategies and politicians will have lumpy gravy every Sunday.