False starts: Other notable cases

Marx: Dialectic historical materialism and transformation of human society

The first major theory in other social sciences that seeks to explain system changes with an evolutionary element might have been Marx’s historical materialism theory of social changes. Marx, undoubtedly an admirer of Darwin (Richerson and Boyd

2001, 52, fn. 1), argued that production forces determine supra-structures, and as production forces progress, human societies evolved from slave-based to feudal, capitalist, and eventually socialist and communist stages. In short, the transformation of productive forces leads to the transformation of the social (supra-)structure toward higher stages, and human history has thus been inescapably and linearly progressive.

Dialectic historical materialism, however, is a pseudo-evolutionary theory at worst and a quasi-evolutionary theory at best. By projecting a linear path toward human progress as “historical inevitability” or “destiny unfolding,” dialectic historical materialism is fundamentally Spencerian, thus pseudo-evolutionary rather than evolutionary. Certainly, dialectic conflict, the central mechanism of systemic transformation according to dialectic historical materialism, has little to do with the central mechanism of artificial SVI/VSI.

Hayek's "spontaneous order"

Frederick Hayek’s notion of cultural evolution via “spontaneous emergence” has been quite influential among many economists and political theorists (Hayek 1967, 1973 [1982], 1978,1979 [1982], 1988).27 Hayek (1967, Chapter 4,1988) explicitly adopted a quasi-social evolutionary approach, or “evolutionary rationalism” as he called it, toward human society, contrasting it with a “(nai've/constructivist) rationalism” (i.e., order via designing and planning) approach.28 Hayek further noted that social evolution operates via group selection and upon acquired characteristics (e.g., rules, norms) and that groups that happen to have more efficient rules and practices will enjoy advantages in social evolution (e.g., Hayek 1967,67n3,1979 11982], 202).

There is no doubt that Hayek’s quasi-evolutionary theory of social order represents an improvement over the New Institutional Economics (NIE; see, for example, North 1981,1990), which is inspired by Neoclassical Economics (NCE), which is in turn inspired by physics rather than biology. Hayek’s scheme, however, still suffers from several crucial defects.

Fundamentally, Hayek’s approach is still heavily tainted by naive adaptationism (see Chapter 2), which is also a hallmark of functionalism and neoclassical economics. In various places, Hayek asserted, “the term function is indispensable when talking about spontaneous order,” “a spontaneous order will always constitute an adaptation,” and “the inherited traditional rules should often be most beneficial to the functioning of society” (1973,28,44,1979,162).These formulations are almost identical to functionalism’s formulations on social order, social system, and institutions, such as Durkheim’s insistence that “rules emerge automatically” and “[have been] established spontaneously” (1893 [1984], 302, 304). Not surprisingly, Hayek rejected any role for power and conflict as critical forces of selection and inheritance in social evolution,just as functionalism and NCE had done before him.

Moreover, by denying intentional (institutional) design in institutional change, Hayek’s theory of “spontaneous order” fundamentally denies a role for human intelligence in social evolution. Ontologically, Hayek essentially took any institutional design to be wholesale social planning by a central planner (e.g., a socialist state). Yet, institutional design can be part of piecemeal social engineering. The ontological mistake committed by Hayek is evident.

Epistemologically, denying a role for intentional design in institutional change— whether as part of wholesale or piecemeal social engineering—is simply untenable. Because institutions are embodiments of social ideas or knowledge, institutional change is essentially a process of codifying ideas into institutions (Tang 2011a; see also Hayek 1960; Boland 1979; Nelson and Sampat 2001). Hence, we are intentionally designing an institution whenever we try to turn our social knowledge into institutions, even if our design is imperfect due to the incompleteness of our knowledge. As such, intentional design is indispensable not only for any process of institutional change but also for the evolution of our knowledge about institutional arrangements. If we do not put our knowledge about institutional arrangements to use by codifying ideas into institutions, our knowledge about institutional arrangements cannot be empirically tested and thus cannot evolve (Campbell 1960,1974a; Popper 1963 [1991]). Hayek thus self-contradicts by first admitting the incompleteness of our knowledge about institutional arrangements and then denying the possibility of empirically testing our knowledge about institutional arrangements via intentional design. Along the way, he denied a critical venue for our ideas to evolve.29

Propelled by his libertarian beliefs, Hayek took “spontaneous order” to mean order without human intention/design playing a role.30 He did not grasp that an outcome in social evolution can be unintended for all the agents involved, even if agents wish to impose their designs. In human society as a system (Jervis 1997), an order can indeed emerge as an unintended outcome from the interactions of many intended designs (Merton 1936). In Carl Menger’s words, “Phenomena of organic origin are not the result of ‘an intentional aimed at this purpose’ but ‘natural’ products (in a certain sense) ... of unintended results of historical development” (1883 11963|, 130; italics original; see also Elias 1939 [1991], 1939 [1994], especially 365— 366).31 Put differently, although the outcome of a particular institutional change can be understood as “unintended” because the outcome is beyond the control of any individual agent, it cannot be “spontaneous” in the sense that the outcome does not have the input of intentional human effort: Spontaneous order in human society can only be possible with human intelligence.32

Pushed to its logical outcome, Hakey’s position came dangerously close to “traditionalism” or “convention-ism” or “irrationalism/anti-reasonism” when he pitted (rational) reason against evolution (e.g., Hayek 1973 [1982], Chapter 1; for a similar interpretation, see Paul 1988, 258—259). Such a stand is almost identical to Parsons’s (1951) insistence on values. For both Hayek and Parsons, values, conventions, norms, and habits are taken for granted as an exogenous variable or “naturally evolved.” In reality, many, if not most, of our values, conventions, norms, and habits have been the product of social construction in the shadow of power (cf. Elias 1939 [1994]; Bourdieu 1980 [1990]; Foucault 1980,2000;Tang 2011a).

Finally, Hayek’s thesis of“spontaneous order” by “naturalizing” order (and institutions) essentially dehistoricizes the evolution of social order and thus commits the signature error of fetishism (Bhaskar 1979 [1998], 75). Hence, Hayek and his followers can insist on the naturalness of social order without looking into the actual process of constructing social order, which almost inevitably involves power and conflict. Hayek’s “spontaneous emergence” is thus a naive, if not superficial, evolutionary scheme at best (Tang 201 la, Chapter 1).

Fundamentally, Hayek had only rudimentary understanding of biological and social evolution (e.g., Hayek 1967, 66-81, 1973 [1982], Chapter 1, 1979 [1982], 155-159,1988, Chapter 1), and even his limited understandings were full of errors (for a brief discussion, see Angner 2002,697-708). Without a decent grasp of biological and social evolution, Hayek’s defense of liberty and open society contains numerous inconsistencies and smacks of traditionalism and conservatism (Paul 1988, especially 258-261). In the end, Hayek’s defense of “spontaneous order” becomes ossified just as Parsons’s structural functionalism (Tang 201 la, Chapter 1).

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