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February 16, 2008

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Nato

"...significant evolution generally takes place over such long periods of time that neither individual observers, nor, probably, humanity as a whole, can ever hope to actually observe any of it with our own eyes."

Except in microbes and viruses, in which evolution is of great concern, since it allows for new vectors, drug resistance, symptomatic variance and so on - the reason, for example, that avian flu is of such special concern. If an efficient humanly-transmissible version evolves, then it could become a very serious pandemic in a short time. The more humans catch it from birds, the more subpopulations get a shot at transmitting from their human hosts. So far, I know of one case where a human is thought to have infected another human, though fortunately (for us) that strain died with its second victim.

In any case, I think it's rational to focus on what seems to offer the most explanatory power. In economics, we want to find some stable dynamic to make sense of the apparent chaos. In biology, we want to find narrative that makes sense of different equilibria emerging in different biomes and eras.

Nathan Smith

"In economics, we want to find some stable dynamic to make sense of the apparent chaos. In biology, we want to find narrative that makes sense of different equilibria emerging in different biomes and eras."

Well, I wonder. It might just be that it pays to say something surprising. If you say, "The invisible hand of the market orchestrates the economy always tend to bring it into equilibrium," that's a more intriguing claim, in view of the hubbub of trading and price fluctuations that we see. If you say, "the economy grows over time so that we are all a little richer," you think, my grandma knows that! Likewise, a biologist who says, "All life on earth emerged from the simplest life forms through a process of gradual evolution," that's a more intriguing claim than to say, "Even though trees grow old and die, this forest has been here for 10,000 years and more." If you want to claim special expertise, you don't want to say what sounds like just common sense. But I wonder whether more might be learned through trying to deepen the channels of common sense. Clever contrarianism is fun, and sometimes leads to insights, if it's self-conscious and tentative; but the risk is that clever contrarianism might harden into dogma.

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