Emergence is not Evolution

I have previously written about emergence in “Five types of change in philosophy”, even comparing emergence and evolution in types four and five. Nevertheless, I wanted to say something more focused on the distinction here. In my previous post, I alluded to there being a fallacy of absent agency, and this fallacy I believe to be a result of an insufficient understanding of what differentiates emergence, and why it is distinct from the more well known idea of evolution. The following is something I wrote about Hayek‘s The Constitution of Liberty.  I am no great fan of Hayek’s, and this was part of a larger piece of work to try supplement his failings via the liberating hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Necessarily this has a fragmentary feel, but I have left it more or less as is.

What is often overlooked in readings of Hayek is that his politics implies an epistemology. To miss this point, is to misread Hayek. Andrew Gamble suggests that Hayek’s “evolutionary stance is closely connected to his epistemology and his attack upon what he calls constructivist rationalism”, and that he “always reasons in terms of dualities, and his system of thought can be set out in terms of some polarities within it.”1 The idea of ‘evolutionary thought’ demonstrates why alternative terms must be found to comprehend spontaneous order. Gamble refers to another critique of Hayek’s work wherein its author suggests that “the key weakness of Hayek’s evolutionary theory is that it fails to identify a mechanism of natural selection to explain the outcomes of the evolutionary process.”2 Hayek is here being condemned for a sin he hasn’t committed.

The attempt to subsume spontaneous order under the rubric of evolution erases the very qualities which make his view of tradition so unique. Hayek’s ‘epistemology’ seeks to emphasise the limits of our knowledge, and the blind spots which are a part of our social vision, but which nevertheless do not impede our progress. The “failure to identify a mechanism” is rather the failure to read Hayek carefully, as the very virtue of a spontaneous order is that it functions in spite of our not knowing how it does so.

Gamble is in essence making the worst possible objection to Hayek, the one least sympathetic to his mode of thought, by saying “it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” We can temper our criticism, however, by noting that in turning to evolution to understand spontaneous order, one has already steered off on the wrong course. Almost immediately the possibility of a coherent reading has been precluded. As such, an alternative must be suggested, and this is to be found in the concept of emergence.

Any notion which appears alien to previous ways of thinking is best presented in the form of an analogy. Steven Johnson suggests that if we look to an ant colony, we may begin to understand what is implied by emergence. The colony may have many tens of thousands of ants, and only one queen, but the colony does not run according to a central decision making process. More importantly, it does not need to. The queen simply lays eggs, and no more. She is protected because it is in the colony’s best interest to do so. The emergent logic of the colony takes care of feeding, defence, construction etc. The ants may “think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behaviour.”3It is fair to ask what connection there may be between entomology and human behaviour, but first it is important to define the principles of emergence which we derive from such an example.

Johnson’s most elementary definition is “the movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication”4, from the local to the global. On top of this we must note that there is a difference between emergent factors and emergent behaviour. What are often taken for synonyms of emergence (self-organisation, catallaxy, group-think, collective intelligence) do not note that for something to be successful it must be adaptive, it must be flexible and allow feedback. Johnson quotes Jane Jacobs who notes that this adaptive idea was present as far back as Adam Smith, who “identified prices of goods and rates of wages as feedback information”.5 Critiques, such as that identified by Gamble, do not allow feedback in either its positive or negative forms, because it cannot be predicted or codified (in the sense of scientific positivism).

Feedback is how we can allow the system to continue its course and not be terrified of chaotic decline. This is what prevents Hayek’s society from necessarily being conservative in the derogatory sense, rather being conservative in the radical sense. It conserves the root conditions which facilitate future interaction, trusts the system and its individual constituents to act locally, in their best interests, and trusts that this will be sufficient to produce a global result beneficial to all. Johnson summarises: “understanding emergence has always been about giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints”6. Emergence is not automatically normative, and necessarily not authoritarian. The “as much as possible” here is to be kept in mind, however. This is not an apologia for Tea Partiers, or radical Libertarians. This is just the outline of the most basic structure desirable, before we supplement it with other democratic structures.

1Andrew Gamble, Hayek (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p. 31.

2Ibid., p. 198.

3Steven Johnson, Emergence (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 74.

4Ibid., p. 18.

5Ibid., p. 156.

6Ibid., p. 234.

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