Hayek and cultural evolution

Of course I knew Hayek had written about cultural evolution, but I’d never engaged with the material before now. Apparently cultural evolution was central to his whole way of thinking.

Anyway here is a summary by Erik Angner:

In his first systematic presentation of the theory of cultural evolution, Notes on the Evolution of Systems of Rules of Conduct’, Hayek began with the distinction between rules and orders. He specified a rule of conduct as a regularity in the behavior of an individual, regardless of whether the individual is aware of the regularity or not, and whether the rule is inherited or learned. Instead of rules’, Hayek occasionally used the terms customs’, norms’, practices’, habits’, and traditions’. Furthermore, he defined the order of a group as something that allows an observer to make reliable predictions about unknown parts of the group. Instead of order’, Hayek sometimes wrote system’, structure’, or pattern’. The order of a group is produced jointly by the rules of conduct adhered to by its members and the environment in which they live. Hayek’s definitions of rules’ and order’ remained vague, but for our purposes it suffices to note that a rule is a property of the individual, while an order is a property of the group.

According to Hayek there are two kinds of order, artificial and spontaneous, depending on their origin. An artificial order—also called a made order’, a construction’, or an organization’—is one that has been consciously designed and imposed on the group. Such an order can be imposed on a group, presumably, by directing the members to follow certain rules. In contrast, a spontaneous order—a grown’, self-generating’, or endogenous’ order—is one that has evolved without deliberate intervention. The spontaneous order, like any other order, emerges as a result of individual action, but unlike the artificial order it was not designed. Language, morals, law, and money are all spontaneous orders, but the most important one in Hayek’s opinion is perhaps the competitive market. The order of a free market was never designed by a thinking mind; in fact, Hayek wrote, it is far too complex to have been designed.

Spontaneous orders, Hayek maintained, evolve in a process of cultural evolution in which natural selection operates on the order of the group. He said that what may be called the natural selection of rules will operate on the basis of the greater or lesser efficiency of the resulting order of the group’. In cultural evolution, then, natural selection operates directly on the order of the group, which in turn is produced by the individuals’ following certain rules. Thus, selection operates on acquired characteristics like rules indirectly, via the order they produce. Some groups, Hayek added, have rules and orders that are more efficient’ , advantageous’, or beneficial’. Such rules and orders are more conducive to survival, Hayek believed, and confer an advantage to the group in the struggle for existence.

All of this seems remarkably close to the brand of cultural evolution developed by Boyd and Richerson and Henrich. Of course, Hayek lacked both the mathematical models and the empirical evidence that these scholars would go on to develop. His understanding of how cultural evolution works at the micro level is no doubt hazy. But on the macro levels he seems to derive the same fundamental insight, namely that cumulative cultural evolution has given rise to complex adaptations that no single individual could have dreamed up on their own—the collective brain that Henrich and Muthukrishna write about.

February 1, 2024