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Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization

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

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Maxims matter more than maximization. Much in life isn’t quantifiable, much less numerically maximizable. Words, logic, images, and patterns all can express more than numbers can. Numbers and mathematics do different things in physics than in evolution and economics. Economists, perhaps “in slavish imitation of…physicists,” unwisely ignore that evolution fitted us for maxims, not maximizations, to manage life’s complexities, uncertainties, and contradictions.

Galileo in grounding heliocentricity, promoted a mathocentric physics. Since he declared his faith that “the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics,” physics has largely seen math as the one-true-way, the universal hammer that nails all truths. But physics has it easy. Its math describes simple, consistent behaviors, reliable direct forces, and closed causalities.

Evolution, though its core idea is captured in Herbert Spencer’s simple maxim “Survival of the fittest,” gets very complicated. Evolution is like language, an open generative process. The grammar (or rules of the game) of its processes is fixed, but it has open and indirect kinds of causality, that makes it less predictable. Evolutionary biologists use comparatively little math, typically for experimental statistics, rather than for causal equations.

Economics and the social sciences face trickier tasks than physics. They suffer uncertainties unknown in physics, of types that would frighten Heisenberg. People vary far more than atoms. Nothing in physics chooses. Or innovates. Or can so easily change its behavior. The math of the social sciences should be considered less closedly causal, less psychics-y.

Terence Burnham in a paper on “caveman economics,” finds it useful to write: “Economists may benefit by incorporating the insights of natural scientists”—especially distinguishing between ultimate and proximate causes. What makes sense proximally (e.g. a bird parenting rule: Feed any open mouth in your nest) can become ultimately anomalous (e.g. if others put their eggs in your nest, the preferred parenting strategy of brood parasites, such as cuckoos. Physics deals in direct causality, leaving no space for such indirectness and incoherence.

But life teems with indirect complex causes and seeming inconsistencies. Fortunately we are born “biologically prepared” to automatically acquire, without training, behavioral guidelines encoded in maxims or proverbs. These are anthropological human universals, found in all known cultures. Maxims are universal, and universally include contradictory pairs. “Many hands make light work” but “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Contradictory maxims survive where single rules of thumb don’t work. Lacking one true rule, we carry many and mix-and-match for particular situations. Physics’ capacity for universal mathematical laws, doesn’t yet fit all of life.

The mathocentric faith of Galileo’s disciples can be unwise. Wisdom means knowing how to choose rightly, for example picking the thinking tool fittest for each task. Economists who rely mainly on numbers to define rational behavior unwisely ignore that we aren’t by nature calculators. Math takes training. Maximizing narrow monetary self-interest isn’t a fit proxy for evolutionary success (for a highly interdependent species).

Numbers and mathematics have no monopoly on precision or truth. Words, logic, images, and patterns can be qualitatively exact. Only poor-quality thinking ignores that mathematics can’t yet be counted on to add up to the sum of all human wisdom. Reason and prudence dictate that we keep different kinds of thinking tools in our cranial toolboxes.

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.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors
Greek Myths About Human Origins
Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge
Economics vs Fiction on Human Nature
Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?

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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  1. 1. jtdwyer 1:03 pm 08/30/2013

    Nicely put. Can this perspective explain why much of the astrophysical community subscribes to the universal existence of dominating dark matter – inferred only by computational discrepancies between observationally derived gravitational effects, and approximations of masses and resulting gravitational effects expected to be produced by vast expanses of self-gravitating, compound objects? [hint - I think so!]

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  2. 2. tommygavois 10:52 pm 09/4/2013

    “But physics has it easy. Its math describes simple, consistent behaviors, reliable direct forces, and closed causalities.” I respectfully disagree.
    Even in classical mechanics, deterministic processes do not describe simple and consistent behavior. Think of turbulent fluids where not even the math is yet completely understood.
    I understand that Biology, Economics and Social Sciences do face hard tasks that currently seem not fit to be faced by the “kind of mathematics” that have been thus far so successful in Physics.
    That does not mean that we should throw away our faith in mathematics. Perhaps a new area of development is just around the corner or we just need a fresh way of thinking that may link areas of math to the problems of Economics, Social sciences or biology that need solving.
    We are indeed living in interesting times.

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