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Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Metaphors are our shortest stories. They are economical explanations that shape our understanding (itself a “mobile army of metaphors”). But badly mixed metaphors from physics and biology animate economics, creating “confusion’s masterpiece.” Another Shakespearean phrase, “invisible hand,” is partially to blame.

Science’s theories—its verifiable stories—also use metaphors. Some are loose analogies, others formal models. Orthodox economics abuses both kinds, misapplying oversimplified evolutionary ideas, like survival of the fittest, within an ill-fitting framework from physics. Its conceptual skeleton is: rational self-interest in competitive markets, led by an invisible hand, creates the best social equilibrium.

But, as I’ve described, biological and economic self interest are different. And what economists call rational can produce poor, sometimes even self-undermining, results.

Adam Smith made “invisible hand” famous. He first used the phrase in his History of Astronomy: “nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter…employed,” to mean that nothing supernatural was needed to explain physical phenomena. Smith lectured on Shakespeare, and likely knew the phrase from Macbeth (misdeeds are hidden by night’s “bloody and invisible hand”).

But “invisible hand” emergent equilibria in economics, evolution, and physics are crucially different. Self-organization—parts spontaneously creating ordered wholes—seems “natural.” But it’s usually also dumb. Humans can do better.

Evolution’s “invisible hand” story, typically sold as biology’s great “unregulated” competitions (thereby ignoring widespread cooperation) produces unintelligently designed results and regularly delivers foreseeable disaster. Narrowly self-interested competition in biology doesn’t guarantee efficient outcomes. And it can be as dumb as trees in economics. Social coordination can be less wasteful and more productive, if intelligently done.

General Equilibrium theory in economics was developed under the guidance of a physicist, Josiah Gibbs, who Einstein called “the greatest mind in American history”. Gibbs invented statistical mechanics to describe the behavior of large ensembles, like gases. Its metaphoric appeal for economics is obvious. However the “invisible hand” equilibria of physics emerge from parts interacting with uniform predictable consistency. But people aren’t like gas particles or biological billiard balls. We evolved behavioral flexibility and complex interdependent variable reactions.

Newton’s science is, metaphorically and fundamentally different than Darwin’s. Newton’s systems have clockwork causality; they converge on mechanically calculable patterns. Physicists have invented powerful mathematical tools for predicting their development and specific results. But Darwin described an open, generative, and divergent process with less predictable effects. Its general shape is describable by the mathematical methods of physics, but its specific outcomes aren’t so predictable (e.g. evolution, unlike anything in physics, needs game theory).

Evolution gave us capacities for intelligence, foresight, and social coordination. With these we can avoid the dangers of dumb “invisible hand” self-organization. It fits not our nature to ignore them. Such sub-natural metaphors of human nature exclude what’s best about us.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  2. 2. WRQ9 6:20 pm 07/19/2013

    I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the institutional perspective described as well as is done here. There are subtleties that I would argue in it’s implication but I think the reasoning is sound.
    In any clinical trial, all effective comparative distortion would be removed previous to inception. This preserves the environment of discourse against impending complications implicit within. Life is a realtime model, with no possibility of controlled environment. We cannot even imagine the commingling of circumstances we cannot foresee.
    Still in all my criticism of the system as it is, is not one of lack of direction, it is of steering intently by taking advantage of concurrent circumstance to artificially influence topical standard. We act consciously and subconsciously simultaneously. The erasure of substantial evidence in process through willful exclusion limits any result to that of a self fulfilling prophecy.
    In the present extrapolation of societal ethical standard, Charity and tolerance are relegated to the ranks of foolishness while guile betrayal and deception are exalted in no uncertain terms. These standards will, at very least, color any possible results. At the same time, real comparative analysis will naturally become evident over time.
    These systemic inconsistencies are only academically procedural for now, but substructure will also become evident and more direct methods will be necessary.

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