In todays Wall Street Journal OpionJournal online appears this editorial by NYU’s Gary Marcus. Marcus is a professor of evolutionary psychology. In this editorial, he wants to make the case that evolution settles for what works, not necessarily for what is ideal or best. He then wants to apply this to understanding human behavior, especially as it relates to our economic behavior. Marcus writes:
All this matters because endeavors like economics and social policy are all built around theories about what human beings are and how they function. We allow consumers access to credit cards, for example, because we assume (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that they will be smart enough to balance their short-term needs as consumers with their long-term capacity to maintain a fiscally sensible reality.
The new discipline of behavioral economics is aimed at addressing these issues, but is not taken seriously enough. Even now, in the eye of the worst fiscal storm in recent memory, we trust citizens to do the “right thing,” without factoring in the quirks of our evolved psychology.
As we deal with the current crisis and in the years to come, it will behoove us as a society to recognize that evolution equipped us not with foolproof, steel-trap rational minds, but something more like a “kluge,” a clumsy and inelegant mental patchwork that is good enough to get the job done, but far from perfect.
If humans were truly the fittest possible creatures one could imagine, the rational-man model would make sense. But the “fittest” that survived are not necessarily the fittest possible. We are flesh and blood creatures, filled with cognitive quirks that are the detritus of evolution. If we are to move past perpetual cycles of fantasy-driven booms followed by devastating busts, we must recognize evolution’s limits, and confront them head-on.
I just have to wonder if Marcus thinks he’s making a rational argument here. And if he does think so, what’s his basis for thinking so? Perhaps his mental “kluge” has tricked him into thinking this is a rational argument when in fact it is non-sense. But how could he ever tell? In the context of his article, what exactly does “good enough to get the job done” mean?