Complexity and Intelligent Design

How 'Spontaneous Order' Applies to Economics and Evolution

By JOHN ALLEN PAULOS

Sept. 4, 2005 —

The theory of intelligent design, the purportedly more scientific descendant of creation science, rejects Darwin's theory of evolution as being unable to explain the complexity of life. How, ask supporters of intelligent design, can biological phenomena like the clotting of blood have arisen just by chance?

A key supporter of intelligent design likens what he terms the "irreducible complexity" of such phenomena to the irreducible complexity of a mousetrap. If just one of the trap's pieces is missing -- whether it be the spring, the metal platform, or the board -- the trap is useless. The implicit suggestion is that all the parts of a mousetrap would have had to come into being at once, an impossibility unless there were an intelligent designer.

Design proponents argue that what's true for the mousetrap is all the more true for vastly more complex biological phenomena. If any of the 20 or so proteins involved in blood clotting is absent, clotting doesn't occur, and so, the creationist argument goes, these proteins must have all been brought into being at once by a designer.

But the theory of evolution does explain the evolution of complex biological organisms and phenomena, and the above argument from design, which dates from the 18th century, has been decisively refuted. Rehashing the latter explanation and refutation is not my goal, however. Those who reject evolution are usually immune to such arguments anyway.

Rather, my intention here is to develop some loose analogies between these biological issues and related economic ones and to show that these analogies point to a surprising crossing of political lines.

The Complexity of the Modern Economy

How is it that modern free market economies are as complex as they are, boasting amazingly elaborate production, distribution, and communication systems?

Go into almost any drug store and you can find your favorite candy bar. Every supermarket has your brand of spaghetti sauce, or the store down the block does. Your size and style of jeans are in every neighborhood.

And what's true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country.

The physical infrastructure and communication networks are also marvels of integrated complexity. Oil and gas supplies are, by and large, where they're needed. Your e-mail reaches you in Miami as well as in Milwaukee, not to mention Barcelona and Bangkok.

The natural question, discussed first by Adam Smith and later by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper among others, is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet?

The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself, a stunningly obvious example of spontaneously evolving order. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store.

Different Reactions to Spontaneous Order in Biology and Economics

So far, so good. What is more than a bit odd, however, is that some of the most ardent opponents of Darwinian evolution -- for example, many fundamentalist Christians -- are among the most ardent supporters of the free market. These people accept the natural complexity of the market without qualm, yet they insist that the natural complexity of biological phenomena requires a designer.

They would reject the idea that there is or should be central planning in the economy. They would rightly point out that simple economic exchanges that are beneficial to people become entrenched and then gradually modified as they become part of larger systems of exchange, while those that are not beneficial die out. They accept that Adam Smith's invisible hand brings about the spontaneous order of the modern economy. Yet, as noted, some of these same people refuse to believe that natural selection and "blind processes" can lead to similar biological order arising spontaneously.

These ideas are not new. As mentioned, Smith, Hayek, Popper, and others have made them more or less explicitly. Recently, there have appeared several more mathematical echoes of these analogies invoking network, complexity, and systems theory. These include an essay by Kelley L. Ross as well as briefer comments by Mark Kleiman and Jim Lindgren.

Two Questions

There are, of course, quite significant differences and disanalogies between biological systems and economic ones (one being that biology is a much more substantive science than economics), but these shouldn't blind us to their similarities nor mask the obvious analogies.

These analogies prompt two final questions.

What would you think of someone who studied economic entities and their interactions in a modern free market economy and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed economic law-giver? You might deem such a person a conspiracy theorist.

And what would you think of someone who studied biological processes and organisms and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Darwinian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed biological law-giver?

-- Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books, including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.