Monday, October 10, 2011

Instincts, Game Theory, and Spontaneous Orders

Social scientists would do well to learn more than a bit from animal behavior studies. Take for example Robert Sugden's article Spontaneous Order. He tells about a practice on the Yorkshire coast where there was an unwritten rule about collecting driftwood on the beach. The first to collect the wood and put two stones on them got the wood, so long as they retrieved it within two days, after which time, it belonged to whoever came to get it. Sugden uses game theory to explain how this came about, which is good as far as it goes. He essentially argues that there is a hawk-dove mixed strategy at work, but this strategy is not just a product of spontaneous orders, but has deeper origins than that. As it turns out, it is a general rule of any territorial species to default Hawk when protecting one's own territory, and to default Dove when entering another's territory. This prevents most conflicts. It thus turns out that this pre-human instinctual behavior is what underlies the emergence of these kinds of property rights rules -- including the emergence of property rights themselves. Certainly this does not negate the use of game theory, as evolutionary biologists have made use of it for many decades now -- but it may suggest that our use of it may need to go deeper than we usually go with it. Game theory explains how a set of behaviors emerged, but natural selection explains how a set of behaviors gets set in as instincts, creating a platform for more complex behaviors -- which, if it turns out to have long-term benefits, is likely to become internalized as an instinct, allowing it to emerge more quickly, and any learning associated with it to occur more quickly. Citing John Maynard Smith's work, Segden does approach this insight, without quite getting there. I do believe more work needs to be done on the connection between our instincts and our different spontaneous orders.
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