Evolution, Free Markets, and Complexity

Adam Smith
Charles Darwin

Many secular liberals, and even a few secular conservatives, take great pride in the theory of evolution’s victories on the public square. In recent decades, they have forced their Deist opponents to retreat and regroup in response to a new reality.

But the movement of our society toward this more scientific stance brings with it new responsibilities. And, at times, the follow-through has been inconsistent.

For example, many of those who supported the teaching of evolution in schools also favor a shift toward some degree of centralized socialism. You sometimes hear their more strident voices disparage Adam Smith’s description of capitalism as an ”invisible hand”. They scoff at the idea that human economic order could emerge from an unplanned, self-organizing process.

The internal contradictions within these beliefs usually go unnoticed. But commonalities between the theory of evolution and the theory of free markets are quite clear. While Adam Smith and Charles Darwin might have explored separate scientific disciplines, in different centuries, the foundations of their work ultimately addressed the same pattern. They described a process in which a long series of adjustments to the surrounding environment resulted in the creation of some higher order. That order is constructed through trial and error; through many failures and a few resounding successes.

This has led to one of the great ironies in modern political discourse: the centralized socialists and the Deists see themselves as irreconcilable opponents, yet both sides often rely on the same flawed argument, depending on which issue is being defended. The two assertions – anti-evolution and anti-free-market – share the unproven claim that some wise, external, supervisory intelligence is required to shape and stabilize a system that would otherwise devolve into either chaos or formlessness.

Among the centralized secularists, this belief is confirmed by their deep reverence of high-level bureaucrats like Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, or Anthony Fauci. Alan Greenspan, for example, was called ”the Maestro” due to the widespread belief that he could exert an almost god-like control over a wide range of markets from his perch atop the Federal Reserve.

This collective blind spot might have continued unnoticed if not for the emergence in recent decades of a new science: complexity theory. Its pioneers have deepened our understanding of principles that were initially outlined by thinkers like Darwin and Smith. Complexity theory’s growing body of work now grants legitimacy to a wide range of iterative and non-hierarchical ordering processes.

This development, perhaps as much as any other, has contributed to the recent authoritarian power grab by America’s political and economic elites. That gambit is often interpreted as an aggressive act motivated by greed. Which it is. But the power grab also has a defensive component. It can be seen as the nervous counterattack of a deeply entrenched – but now existentially threatened – paradigm against a populace that increasingly recognizes how much it can be empowered by complex citizen-to-citizen interactions.

This is a type of conflict that Americans have not seen for more than two centuries. We often attempt to describe this new battle using imprecise, outdated twentieth century words like liberal and conservative; left and right. While those concepts do still have meaning and merit on their own, they are now secondary factors. Any attempt to use them as descriptors for today’s conflict can only add confusion to an already difficult situation.

Instead of using yesterday’s “values language”, the question that must be answered by today’s society is whether the centralized power structures constructed in previous eras are still effective. In other words, should political power still be controlled in a top-down manner? Or should we instead rely on the lessons learned within the science of complexity?

Complexity theory describes a set of processes that reside at the bottom of the political circle. The sub-processes of evolution and of free markets find shelter under its umbrella (but not, it should be noted, the processes of K-Street crony capitalism).

This iterative, non-hierarchical, edge-of-chaos ordering paradigm stands in opposition to the uniformity-mandating centralized power structures now in place in the United States. Thus, Americans are caught between opposed forces that represent the two poles of an unfamiliar duality. Twenty-first century citizens must learn to navigate between those poles.


  1. mark8adams says:

    Good info, as always. Sometimes I think I’d like to have your recommended reading list, but then I think I may be embarrassed that I couldn’t follow it. Keep up the good work. I value the challenge to my thinking and my paradigms.


    1. Hi Mark,
      There are two books at the top of my list. You might have read The Fourth Turning already. Its cyclical theory of history predicted today’s political situation with uncanny accuracy. Colin Woodard’s American Nations is another book that changed the way I view our culture.


      1. mark8adams says:

        Thanks. I got the first when Chuck Marohn recommended i awhile back, and I’ll take a look at the second.


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