An explanation that few will agree with, fewer will like, and fewer still will advocate.
First, naturalistic evolution is true. I’m sorry if that disturbs you, but I don’t even consider it controversial. No respectable biologist does either.
I’m going to walk through it anyway, though, because it’s the first of several paradigms that help explain what’s what. The others won’t make sense without it, and/or without the particular emphases I’m going to place on parts of the theory.
Species arise as follows: Genes almost always copy themselves accurately, but sometimes they don’t. Mutants, those who bear genes with just-happened changes, may be better or worse suited for the environment that they share with the members of their species.
Most mutations don’t do very much. Some are instantly fatal. Some just inhibit reproduction. And once in a great while, a mutation constitutes an improvement, in that it makes the bearer more likely to reproduce. It constitutes — unwittingly, of course — an evolutionary Good Trick.
Good Tricks tend to get passed along to descendants, thus they accumulate. The genius of sexual reproduction is that it allows Good Tricks to pass not just down one blood line, but across the entire population of a species, where they can be shared and combined with Good Tricks from other blood lines. This in itself is a Good Trick, of course.
Over time, the happy mutants inherit the earth. Each of us is a big, complex pile of mutations, and all of them began as an evolutionary Good Trick somewhere along the line.
But in evolution there is no designer, no Creator, and no man in the sky directing traffic. Evolution is a spontaneous order.
Daniel Dennett calls the products of evolution Darwinian creatures, and by this he means more than just a shorthand for evolution. He means also that the evolutionary process is, for all merely Darwinian creatures, the only way that improvements to the design can ever be created or passed along. “Darwinian creature” is a paradigm, to which all species belong to some degree, and many exclusively so: Oak trees can never build better oak trees, except by blundering into a Good Trick here or there, and by having those individuals who do so blunder later go on to reproduce.
That’s beautiful in a sense, but it’s also dismaying and horrible. As I’ve said before, in the world of natural selection, Azathoth is king — the blind idiot god of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, who, utterly indifferent, creates and destroys with neither regret, nor malice, nor even consciousness. The elephant is sublime, but he is heir to a mountain of tortured, rotting flesh.
Humans are Darwinian creatures too, up to a point. That fact alone is so disturbing that many otherwise quite rational people reject natural selection. It’s downright horrid to think that this is how we came to be.
Well, that’s just what we did. But we’ve also done more, of course.
Some Darwinian creatures are also Skinnerian creatures. Skinnerians are capable not merely of hard-wired responses to environmental stimuli, but also of operant conditioning, in which behaviors are modified according to their consequences. Ceteris paribus, Skinnerian creatures have an advantage over their non-Skinnerian counterparts. Skinnerianism is in itself a Darwinian Good Trick, because it allows individuals to discover a subset of non-genetic, environmentally responsive Good Tricks. The best behavioral responses may vary a good deal from place to place, which is why having a Skinnerian capacity works out very well for a species that blunders into it: They become more adaptable.
Sadly, all the Good Tricks of the merely Skinnerian sort will die out with the organisms that acquired them. They are also largely the products of good luck. These are two huge disadvantages. As Dennett writes:
Skinnerian conditioning is a fine capacity to have, so long as you are not killed by one of your early errors. A better system involves preselection among all the possible behaviors or actions, weeding out the truly stupid options before risking them in the harsh world. We human beings are creatures capable of this third refinement… We may call the beneficiaries of this [refinement] Popperian creatures, since, as Sir Karl Popper once elegantly put it, this design enhancement “permits our hypotheses to die in our stead.” […] Popperian creatures survive because they’re smart enough to make better-than-chance first moves. Of course, they’re just lucky to be smart, but that’s better than just being lucky.
We allow our hypotheses to die in our stead! How much better this is than the cruel, mindless kingdom of Azathoth. Humans have found a Good Trick that surpasses evolution: An inner selective environment that previews candidate acts, in Dennett’s words.
Being Popperian sets us gloriously free. While we have ideas, while we hold them and make use of them, we are to some limited extent our own masters. And this is the origin of dignity.
We are still built on a Darwinian substrate, of course, on which being Popperian forms a kind of superstructure. Still, by far the larger number of improvements that our species has made have been Popperian, not Darwinian or Skinnerian.
As an added feature, we can import and export successful Popperian hypotheses from other organisms. The result is what Dennett terms a Gregorian creature after the psychologist Richard Gregory. This is much like what Matt Ridley means when he writes that our ideas can have sex with each other, and we can therefore use them as building blocks for new, better ideas. Just as Darwinian creatures use sexual reproduction to mix and match the most adaptive genetic traits, ideas can also be mixed and matched. Except that when we have idea sex, we can also know very well what we are doing, and we can allow certain mixed ideas — the less-fit ones, by Popperian criteria — never to go out and contend with the real world.
Now. All very well and good. But Gregorian creatures quickly encounter a huge problem — too many damn ideas! How can we know when a particular idea really is a Gregorian Good Trick? We might think the idea is good. It’s passed our Popperian tests, anyway. We might enjoy the idea, and we might enjoy it from any number of reasons. But still, Is the idea good? is a different question from Is the idea appealing to me?
If I have an idea — organize factories like this! freeze concentrated orange juice! make a cube-shaped puzzle game! offer worldwide overnight parcel delivery! — how do I know that other people will want it? And how do I know how much they will want it, when weighted against the many other ideas that always proliferate in a Gregorian environment? And how do I know that the resources needed to bring the idea to fruition are not better spent somewhere else?
These are vexing questions. It’s not merely a matter, as in the simple Popperian paradigm, of rooting out the obviously stupid and self-destructive.
If I may be forgiven for adding a layer to Dennett, we now become Hayekian creatures. We resort to markets. Markets are the way we determine which proposed courses of action are the most worth not merely our affinity, but our efforts. To answer this question requires more than the Popperian internal environment can supply. It requires knowledge of the internal environments of others — their needs, wants, values, and tastes.
Even consumers themselves may have no terribly clear idea of these things beforehand. Markets propose things to them. Markets also coordinate the production of things whose full roster of productive techniques can’t easily fit inside one person’s head, Popperian though it may be—“I, Pencil” is the standard description, of course.
The hierarchy among ideal types looks like this: Darwinian creatures live or die by their genes. Skinnerian creatures live or die by genes plus operant conditioning. Popperian creatures add an internal model of the environment that attempts to weed out bad guesses before they do real-world harm. Gregorian creatures share their best ideas and benefit from those of others. Hayekian creatures develop ideas complex enough, and aiming to satisfy diverse enough wants, that they require an advanced, socially mediated discovery mechanism to determine the relative usefulness of various ideas.
Are these nested hierarchies? That is, do the lower levels impose unsurpassable limits on those above them? I don’t know. It’s a difficult question. We have seen many examples of limits that later fall. Our Darwinian immune system is pretty pathetic when up against a wide range of pathogens, and Gregorian medicine dispatches them easily. Lots of other examples can be added, but none of them answers the question, logically speaking. The notion of unsurpassable limits may even be unfalsifiable.
For the Hayekian creature, not only do many ideas die in the internal environment, many others die in the marketplace. As well they should: They’ve turned out to be inadequate in meeting the needs of others, relative to some other set of solutions. This fact can later enhance the internal environments of the entrepreneurs and other participants in a market.
This is indeed one of the market’s most important functions, and it’s a great improvement over the merely Gregorian layer of human life. (Don’t believe me? Read some early modern metaphysics. That is what Gregorianism looks like without the ability to weed out the bad.) But the precautions all aim — every one of them — at making sure that bad ideas will not entail the suffering or death of their creators.
Yet there must be a disincentive. There must be, not as a normative matter, but as one of fact — unlike the Popperian internal environment, the Hayekian market environment always entails some level of risk to its participants. Markets commit resources. So far, we haven’t figured out how to make them work otherwise — how to collect the signals that they manifest about the relative values of resources, how to distribute those signals, and to allow actors to formulate plans accordingly — without the waste, necessary in our own world, that goes into all those failed attempts. That might just be the next step, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to get there.
 Do I advocate it? I do! That’s why I bothered to write. Thanks for asking.
 Yes, I’m from Cato, yes that makes me—undeniably, I’m told—a right-winger, and therefore anything I say about evolution must be somehow with a view to denying it. I know, I know already!
 No, not that tired old debate again. Theories can be true, and this one is. End of story. Sorry for putting it in a footnote. This clearly signals my evil intentions. I guess.
 Hereabouts I begin borrowing language from Daniel Dennett’s superlative book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Neither he nor I intend to imply consciousness by using the phrase “Good Trick.” The reason for using it will become clearer later.
 In ibid, pp 374-75.
 Yes, yes, a TED talk. TED is oversold. So are its critics. So there.
 It’s here that a strong argument can be made for a guaranteed minimum income. If the point of all this really is to avoid unnecessary suffering and death, then while failing in the market ought to have some negative consequences, starvation or severe material want ought not to be among them.
I suspect though that this Guaranteed Minimum Income should bear no resemblance whatsoever to any part of the welfare state as we know it, with the sole exception of the Earned Income Tax Credit. But the EITC is a feeble thing compared to a proper GMI. The latter could, if implemented, replace all welfare programs, plus Medicare, Social Security, and the minimum wage. That’s a bit of a long ways off. If I knew a way to get from here to there, I’d take it. But I don’t.