Hayek contra Pangloss on Evolutionary Systems

Whitman, Douglas. Constitutional Political Economy, 9, 45–66 (1998).


Some analysts have criticized Friedrich Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution for implying that the rules, customs, norms, and institutions that emerge from the evolutionary process are necessarily efficient or desirable in all cases. This charge is unfounded. The present article defends Hayek versus his critics in two ways: First, it restates Hayek’s own objections to the idea that cultural evolution produces optimal outcomes. Second, it shows, through an analogy with biological evolution, that Hayek’s theory need not imply any such conclusion. Contrary to a widely held misconception, biological evolution does not produce organisms that are perfectly adapted to their habitats; insofar as cultural evolution shares common features with biological evolution, cultural evolution may be expected to display similar types of suboptimality or mal-adaptation. Insights from the theory of biological evolution also help to illuminate some areas of controversy with regard to Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution, including: Hayek’s advocacy of gradual change; the question of what selective forces drive the process of cultural evolution; and the alleged conflict between group selectionism and methodological individualism.

California State University [pdf]