Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Evolution of Everything, by Mark Sumner

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The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, by Mark Sumner (PoliPoint Press, 2010) is one of the most delightful books that I have read. It doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. For example, it has nothing about the use of natural selection in evolutionary computation. Furthermore, his application of evolution to everything is mostly metaphorical. But it is interesting, and gave me several new insights. Consider these examples.

Evolution depends upon and produces biodiversity. But humans, particularly conservatives, tend to devalue biodiversity. Sumner quotes Ronald Reagan, who said during the 1966 California governor’s race, “I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres of so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” He then makes the point that businesses depend on diversity of products and stores just as natural selection depends on genetic variation.

Sumner also drew an analogy between evolutionary mass extinctions and market perturbations. Extinctions, in evolutionary time, are opportunities for species, especially small ones that grow quickly. Similarly, most new companies start during financial turmoil. “Post-extinction-event worlds are worlds for small animals. Post-economic-disaster worlds are worlds of opportunity for small businesses.” Massive corporations have many vulnerabilities; “TBTF” simply means that we are scared to let them fail.

Sumner also writes about altruism, and explains that from the Founding Fathers until the end of the nineteenth century, the American government embraced altruism by controlling banking and supported infrastructure, things that free-market conservatives today reject. “More than one voice would be quick to declare these ideas (the ideas of Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln) to be socialist. Even un-American.”

Sumner had something to say about creationism, too. Only 40 percent of Americans accept continental drift, although it is measurable. This would seem to be a shocking statistic regarding American ignorance. But perhaps it is not ignorance so much as it is racism, which makes it even more shocking. Sumner says this result came from the way the question was worded. The survey asked, Were America and Africa once part of the same continent? Most of the “no” answers came from the South; and this, as Sumner points out, is where fewer than half believe that Obama was born in America. Other interpretations are possible, but Sumner’s interpretation certainly caught my attention.

Much of Sumner’s book is about the history of evolutionary thought, things that most of us already know. But it is so delightfully written that it was a pleasure to read things I already knew. For example, this is what he had to say about Darwin: “Although others had previously floated proposals about the mechanism by which evolution operated, Darwin’s hypothesis was meticulously researched, brilliantly argued, eloquently written, and vigorously defended. A hundred and fifty years of effort by the world’s most motivated detractors has done nothing more than prove that Darwin’s ideas were even better than he knew. Darwin is remembered because Darwin was right.”

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