On Chesterton's Fence

Let's think of the evolution as a conservative force for a bit.

The common narrative of evolution is that it is that great force of progress, optimizing the organisms, casting away inefficiencies, multiplying the species, and generally, driving living things to become more complex, starting from the simplest possible lifeforms, such as protozoans, up to that pinnacle of progress that is ourselves, the vertebrates.

But consider a plant that happens to have a mechanism to survive droughts, such as ability to store water in the roots. If there is no drought this year, that mechanism is a dead weight. It is costly to maintain and there's no immediate benefit form it. The plant would be better of without it. But the next year there's a drought and the plant survives. If the evolution was super progressive, the plant would optimize out its water-accumulating capacity in the first year and then die in the second year leaving no progeny behind.

A conservative may thus say: Evolution is a way to store knowledge of the past. It's a trove of mechanisms that have once proved useful for surviving. "Optimizing" it is just a nice way of saying that the instruments from that war chest are being thrown away.

And, of course, neither our strawman progressive or our strawman conservative are considering the full picture. Organisms benefit from having inherited the survival tricks from the past but also from being able to respond quickly and in novel ways to the new challenges. (But, to be fair, the conservative view is much easier to argue for. Arguing for the progressive view tends to lead to the theories on group selection, if not to some semi-mystical élan évolutif.)

In the end it's all probably just a race with time. The events that are frequent enough (the low temperature during the night, the cold in the winter) are worth optimizing for. Infrequent events (the ice ages) not much so. In the former case the tools for dealing with the event are worth keeping in the war chest. In the latter case they will be inevitably thrown away and we have to rely on the fact that at least some organisms will be, for random reasons, better suited to withstand cold and that those organisms will be the lucky winners of the evolutionary race when the next ice age comes.

To switch from evolutionary biology to political science, let's recall what Jean Monet once said on the topic of creating common European institutions:

The tragic events we have lived through and are still witnessing may have made us wiser. But men pass away; others will take our place. We cannot bequeath them our personal experience. That will die with us. But we can leave them institutions. The life of institutions is longer than that of men: if they are well built, they can accumulate and hand on the wisdom of succeeding generations.

It is easy to notice that this is the conservative argument as stated above. Institutions are our war chest of tools designed to deal with the problems that we've encountered in the past. But they don't necessarily give us the ability to deal with the novel challenges. To do that we need to create new institutions and add them to the chest. And, similarly, if the problem that lead to the creation of an institution doesn't occur for a sufficiently long time, the institution will eventually erode, get removed or repurposed and won't save us when it hits again.

And while this article doesn't offer any particularly new ideas, it may be worth thinking about before removing a fence.

April 29th, 2021

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