In many ways this paper is necessarily an introduction. I want to introduce away to understand F. A. Hayek’s ideas on both spontaneous orders and the brain by understanding network structures. More, I want to distinguish between networks that emerge top-down in organizations and cellular regulatory networks and those that emerge bottom-up in self-organizing systems and spontaneous orders, whose relations to each other follow similar patterns.
Socialists argue, contrary to Adam Smith’s thesis that the economy self-organizes from the bottom-up (1776), that the economy should be consciously designed and given goals. Hayek modernized Smith with spontaneous order theory. At the same time, self-organization theory emerged in physics and chemistry, complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory emerged in biology, and network theory emerged in several disciplines; these are all in the same conceptual family as spontaneous order theory. Hayek was part of the 20th century revolution of bottom-up self-organization theorizing that sees the universe emerging on its own through natural processes.
If everything in the universe is self-organized, where do we get this idea, resurrected by socialists, that conscious design is the norm? Humans, like most animals, evolved to immediately, instinctively recognize the signs of others of their species. With wolves, lions, and other strongly territorial species, scent signs mark territory to warn off others. But humans are more visual, so we leave visual evidence of order. As a consequence, we associate the presence of order with an orderer or designer, and the development of creationist theories to explain nature, soul theories to explain the mind, and governments to order society. Darwinism and self-organization theories replaced creationist theories (for most people); top-down soul theories, including Descartes’ homunculus theory, evolved into CAS theories of the brain’s network structures, out of which the mind emerges; top-down social theories (where the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church was reproduced in other Western social structures, for example) gave way to Adam Smith’s bottom-up self-organizing ‘‘invisible-hand’’ theory. While life and mind have continued to evolve toward theories of self-organization, our social theories took a u-turn when socialism emerged as a respectable theory of economic ordering. The designer fallacy, increasingly abandoned in theories of life and mind, was readopted in our social theories.
When humans evolved in the African savannahs, there was little question about whether or not we designed the environment in which we built our social hierarchies. We did, however, tend to attribute the order of nature to nature spirits, gods, and goddesses, and, later, a creator God. We attributed top-down ordering of the world to external forces. Since it was the natural world, there was no question as to our having had a hand in designing it: if there was a designer, it wasn’t us. But then our numbers and density grew to give rise to new kinds of social ecosystems: spontaneous orders. As a tribal species, we assumed social structures were man-made; yet here was a social order not of anyone’s making, but emergent from our interactions. While language was a spontaneous order, its ancientness prevented us from considering it ‘‘man-made.’’ The same cannot be said of the catallaxy. While each order has roots in our evolved human behaviors, it seems the more recently a particular order emerged, the more likely we are to try to control it. Few try to control language (notable exceptions being constructivist efforts by the French and political correctness); the arts face fewer attempts at control (notable exceptions being constructivist Communist countries and conservative theocracies); religion and government both decentralized and became more heterogeneous in many places – though these typically required revolutions to precipitate the changes. The internet is the most recent spontaneous order to emerge, and we are only now facing people trying to control it.
Hayek developed his theory of spontaneous order to counter the designer fallacy. He argues, with Kauffman (1993), that the evolution of complex systems is essentially ‘‘lawless’’ (Hayek, 1991, p. 261), meaning one cannot predict future states. These lawless systems arise naturally, from the bottom-up, the interacting elements creating a network. They do not need a designer. Yet, this goes against our instincts. As humans evolved more social behaviors, our ability to detect intentions in others improved, becoming almost instantaneous. One result is ‘‘Our ancestral sociality endowed us with a hair-trigger when it comes to detecting intentions, even where there are none. When confronted with impersonal processes, we prefer to see design, purpose and agency’’ (Tonaka, 2010, p. 8). For Hayek ‘‘the sensory order is an imperfect representation of the physical order, and there are limits to what the human mind can know, as knowledge is acquired from experience’’ (Wenzel, 2010, p. 63). The presence of such built-in modes of thought/world maps such as the belief that order requires an orderer (the source of all top-down theories of cosmic and social order) also contribute to ‘‘an imperfect representation of the physical order’’ that can be overcome with sufficient experience. Since each person is born with this cognitive bias, each person must learn the natural world is not ordered top-down. This bias results in errors in understanding the economy, society, culture, and even the brain. It is perhaps ironic that the tendency to see intentionality everywhere, an evolved behavioral trait that can be traced to the brain’s structures, has been one of the primary barriers to understanding the brain’s structures, or similar networks. It is overcome only through understanding complex networks. This is what Hayek’s spontaneous order theory gives us. It may seem odd we are biased against understanding how the real world actually works, but if we understand the environment in which we evolved, it makes sense. Someone who thought a village could emerge naturally would end up killed by the villagers; those who believed if there is order, there is an orderer, would expect dangerous humans about. Unfortunately, that same bias is no longer adaptive.
Our hypersensitivity to intention may make it difficult to persuade belief in spontaneous orders. We want to believe in creationism or intelligent design, whether in cosmology, biology, government, or economy. Yet, science helps us understand the world beyond how we are programmed to see it (Hayek, 1952, p. 5.42). It is important we have the right science for the right system to create the right model. Without the right model, we make mistakes understanding the world. Widespread use of the wrong model will result in the same mistakes because ‘‘similar Hayekian maps (mental models) will lead to similar descriptions of the world among individuals with similar backgrounds and will thus never have exactly identical minds (Hayek, 1952, p. 5.28)’’ (Wenzel, 2010, p. 64). This is built on the speciesspecific structures that also unify us. It is thus possible to pile error upon error. And the more complex the data – such as economic data – the more open it is to interpretation and to confirmation bias.
Nevertheless, it seems that if spontaneous orders are human social environments, with parallels in the natural environment, then in a real sense human beings are preadapted to living in spontaneous orders. This hardly means there won’t be people trying to control those social environments any more than people have tried to control their natural environments – as ancient dams, irrigation, and rain dances prove. These controls are not without consequence, though. When you irrigate, you accidentally salt the earth, eventually decreasing soil fertility. Some, like rain dances, are simply ineffectual. Economic equivalents would be the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing in response to the Great Recession (where they ‘‘irrigated’’ the economy with money, with the likelihood that it will soon ‘‘salt the earth’’) and the stimulus packages (the economic equivalent to ‘‘rain dances,’’ since they are based on a belief that the economy is controlled by ‘‘spirits’’). Interfering with the natural evolution of spontaneous orders has negative consequences when one does not understand the processes involved. And even if you do, you won’t be able to predict when a transformation will take place in a TCAS. Such processes are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Our evolved general intelligence allows us to adapt to any physical environment, but it is our other mental orders that restrict the kinds of social environments we can thrive in. This is why understanding the human brain is vital to the work of social scientists. To understand the neurological basis of the various elements of our various cultures and societies, ‘‘a series of bridging laws must ultimately anchor cultural constructions to their relevant brain networks. These bridging laws must integrate, rather than eliminate, the laws of human psychology. They must also include the historical, political, and economic forces that shaped human society’’ (Dehaene, 2010, p. 304). Indeed, in writing The Sensory Order, is this not Hayek’s challenge to all of the social sciences?