In an earlier post I argued that, ironically, disbelief in evolution evolved because it acted as a “greenbeard” for religious “conservatives”, improving their fitness by enhancing their group solidarity. Here I’ll approach the question from a slightly different angle: even if it stopped providing any benefit, disbelief in evolution would probably persist because of a common engineering problem broadly called “Pareto optimization“.
The Pareto in question was Vilfredo Pareto, an accomplished Italian thinker who was one of the first people to apply hard scientific rigor to the study of sociology and economics. Indeed, Pareto’s era was the zenith of sociology, before the discipline became a clearing house for overeducated Marxist wingnuts. From what I’ve read about him, Pareto was pretty controversial even in his own day, but if he were working today, his Darwinian ideas about social organization would give the left side of campus a self-righteous conniption fit. It probably wouldn’t help that Pareto was (and is) pretty popular with the goose-stepping crowd, so no matter how brilliant he was, he’d end up in the same pigeonhole as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Evola, and Von Braun. Of course, ASD cares not for your foolish mortal politics, so here are a few snippets about Pareto’s thinking:
Pareto believed in freedom. He complained about what he thought were unnecessary abuses against the powerless, and he complained about corruption in high places. Marxists had a solution to the distribution of wealth and powerlessness problems, but Pareto was opposed to their solution, and for Pareto the ideologies of liberals and socialists were just smoke screens for leaders who were as inclined to enjoy the privileges and powers of the governing elite that they replaced. He viewed democracy as of no help to the poor, and in a 1900 article Pareto declared democracy a sham. — Frank Smitha
At the bottom of the Wealth curve, he wrote, Men and Women starve and children die young. In the broad middle of the curve all is turmoil and motion: people rising and falling, climbing by talent or luck and falling by alcoholism, tuberculosis and other kinds of unfitness. At the very top sit the elite of the elite, who control wealth and power for a time – until they are unseated through revolution or upheaval by a new aristocratic class. There is no progress in human history. Democracy is a fraud. Human nature is primitive, emotional, unyielding. The smarter, abler, stronger, and shrewder take the lion’s share. The weak starve, lest society become degenerate: One can, Pareto wrote, ‘compare the social body to the human body, which will promptly perish if prevented from eliminating toxins.’ Inflammatory stuff – and it burned Pareto’s reputation. — Mandelbrot and Hudson, as quoted in Wikipedia
See? Economic distributions arise by evolutionary processes, and have nothing to do with moral decisions made by some mysterious “One Percent”. I couldn’t agree more, and hell, if that makes me a fascist, polish my jackboots and call me Benito.
Evidence of my fascist tendencies: I find this adorable, even though I HATE KITTENS.
During his long career Pareto learned a lot about the dynamics of economic systems, but the idea that has gained the widest traction amongst biologists is that of “Pareto optimization”. Imagine a young child going to school — at first she doesn’t know a whole lot, so it’s possible for her to pretty much saturate her ability to learn math, literature, and science at the same time. However, as she grows up and get educated, it takes more and more effort to reach the “next level” in any one subject, and decisions start having to be made about how to allocate time. If she decides to spend more time on math, she’s not going to have as much time for literature or sports. The problem only gets worse with time, and once you’re at the rarefied heights of grad school, it’s easy to find yourself doing literally nothing but studying one bizarre invertebrate that no one has ever heard of, even to the exclusion of social activities, exercise, eating, etc.
We claim this lobster lip in the name of Cycliophora!
Thus, you can only make costless “Pareto improvements” for so long before you approach a “Pareto frontier” where any further improvement in one function produces a negative influence on at least one other function. In evolution (and probably other fields) we call this a “trade-off” and it’s one of the reasons why there aren’t any “perfect” organisms out there. It’s probably also why the whole “car/boat hybrid” thing never took off, why there are so few multi-sport athletes or scholar athletes competing at the professional level, and why the spork is inferior to either a spoon or a fork.
In this figure, we’re trying to minimize two traits (represented by the two axes). When both traits are far from ideal, it’s easy to improve either or both (top right). As they approach the perfect “utopia point” they eventually reach the Pareto frontier, where it’s impossible to improve one trait without damaging the other one. The trait space beyond the Pareto frontier is unreachable.
So, when you’re sitting on a Pareto front, you have to make decisions. Which traits do I really want to maximize; what are my priorities? Unless you’re devoted to being as spork-liciously mediocre as possible in as many traits as possible, you’re going to specialize, and that’s going to cost you something somewhere.
So how does this connect back to belief in evolution? The problem is that scientists and laypeople have very different priorities. As we mature and approach our own personal Pareto frontiers, we start optimizing for our chosen professions. Scientists (hopefully) optimize truth-seeking and intellectual honesty. We voluntarily submit ourselves to a sado-masochistic peer-review process that supposedly prevents us from professional dishonesty, kind of like a great intellectual chastity belt.
After a decade or six obsessing over intellectual honesty — and suffering the travails of academic publication and watchdoggery — we expect everybody else to obsess over it too. But that’s kind of like a priest, having mastered the dubious art of celibacy, expecting everybody else to have a similar mastery over their gonadal urges.
But why should they? Outside of science, honesty and accuracy are probably generally good ideas, but do “normal people” really benefit from taking it to the extremes that scientists do? Probably no more than they would benefit from celibacy. No, most people optimize more sensible things, like getting along with their neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And if that means not thinking too deeply about certain things that your neighbors, co-workers, and friends might be wrong about, well, so be it.
And it’s not like scientists are any better about being intellectually honest in their private lives. The degree to which academics turn a blind eye to the utterly innumerate claims of the leftist politicians they idolize boggles the mind. The idea that somebody could aggressively nitpick parametric vs. nonparametric statistical methods in a paper about lizards fucking, and then nonchalantly accept the idea that eternal deficit spending is a good idea — that’s hard to swallow, man.
My guess as to why academics do this? Academia slowly drifted leftwards over decades for complicated reasons, and at some point a critical mass was reached where, in order to live a peaceful and sociable life, it was advisable for an academic to at least act like a good leftist. In other words — it doesn’t matter if the ideas are grounded in truth, if they’re productive, or even if they make sense. People believe them because they’re optimizing sociability, not political science or economics.
Ultimately, academics don’t believe in capitalism for the same reason that many “normal people” don’t believe in evolution. It doesn’t matter how much evidence supports something: you’re unlikely to believe something that makes your colleagues think you’re a douche. You can see this trend all around you: the choice between truth and practicality is usually a Pareto optimization problem, and we choose the latter over and over again in our lives. It’s absurd to expect “normal people” to treat scientific truths any differently than any other truths.
I’ve made two arguments here, first that disbelief in evolution is actively selected amongst Christians because of the greenbeard effect, and second that it expands from that Christian core because of the Pareto impossibility of simultaneously maximizing truth and sociability. Does this mean that we can’t increase the American public’s acceptance of evolution? Probably not by just harping on the scientific evidence. But there are other tactics that I do think will work. But that’s for another day…