Steven Pinker's Zen Koan

Okay, it's not really a Zen Koan, and it's not even original to Steven Pinker, but this line was my takeaway from Pinker's recent NY Times magazine ode to evopsych:

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

I cannot think of a more concise and witty defense of procrastination and beta-ness.

Pinker's piece also touches on one of my favorite topics, the similarities between the mechanism of evolution and the mechanism of economics:

In theory, we should hardly differ at all. Natural selection works like compound interest: a gene with even a 1 percent advantage in the number of surviving offspring it yields will expand geometrically over a few hundred generations and quickly crowd out its less fecund alternatives. Why didn’t this winnowing leave each of us with the best version of every gene, making each of us as vigorous, smart and well adjusted as human physiology allows? The world would be a duller place, but evolution doesn’t go out of its way to keep us entertained.

It’s tempting to say that society as a whole prospers with a mixture of tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors and so on. But evolution selects among genes, not societies, and if the genes that make tinkers outreproduce the genes that make tailors, the tinker genes will become a monopoly. A better way of thinking about genetic diversity is that if everyone were a tinker, it would pay to have tailor genes, and the tailor genes would start to make an inroad, but then as society filled up with tailor genes, the advantage would shift back to the tinkers. A result would be an equilibrium with a certain proportion of tinkers and a certain proportion of tailors. Biologists call this process balancing selection: two designs for an organism are equally fit, but in different physical or social environments, including the environments that consist of other members of the species.

Of course, that great bugaboo of sociobiology, Stephen Jay Gould, put it best when he wrote:

The theory of natural selection is a creative transfer to biology of Adam Smith’s basic argument for a rational economy: the balance and order of nature does not arise from a higher, external (divine) control, or from the existence of laws operating directly upon the whole, but from struggle among individuals for their own benefits.

In unrelated Structural Libertarian news, my friend and fellow KFP alum Pete Eyre tells it like it is in A Personal Plea for Liberty.

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