Complexity and self-organization as ideology


In a lecture from a few years ago, later published as Shaping Life: Genes, Embryos and Evolution, John Maynard Smith remarked that, in biology, ‘to believe in self-organization seems to be associated with left-wing or feminist views’, while for economists it was often found alongside right-wing political opinions.

So, in one field, people like Brian Goodwin and Richard Lewontin (see the video below) opposed a kind of ‘holism’ to what they saw as the dominant reductionism of molecular biology.

Elsewhere, of course, pro-market hostility to command, control and planned economies was more mainstream.

But with gene-culture evolution now a prominent research program, with supporters from L.L. Cavalli-Sforza to E.O. Wilson, I’m not sure this equation (or the related claim, often made, about levels of selection and political affiliation) still holds for biology.

As for economics, any relationship has always seemed non-obvious to me. Commodity exchange through markets isn’t the only way of organizing a complex division of labour. To suggest otherwise is a sneaky claim to generality.

Confusion arises because self-organization is often used more as a woolly descriptive slogan than a well-defined concept.

To suggest that a given system tends, over time, to increase in Kolmogorov complexity without structured external interference (which is one attempted definition) isn’t thereby to assert that it also climbs Mount Improbable (i.e. reaches fitness peaks).

So there’s a world of difference between recognizing that market exchange can spontaneously achieve well-defined average prices (which is true), claiming that these prices are first-best Pareto optima (which is unlikely), then taking this all as demonstrating the supremacy of market over non-market allocation.

Finally, there are other universal features of self-organizing closed systems.

Many-particle systems with random pairwise interactions (e.g. money transfer between participants in market exchange) that conserve some property (e.g. labour for classical economists, utility for neoclassicals) tend towards highly uneven income distributions, with Gini coefficients of roughly 0.5.

These distributions, where many people have low income but a few are very wealthy, are unlikely to be altered by tinkering with tax or welfare payments.


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