Intro. [Recording date: January 14, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: Before introducing today's guest, I want to thank everyone who voted in our Survey for your favorite episode of last year. It takes a while to compile those, but we will at some point communicate those via Twitter and via an episode later in this year; and we do have a category in our archives called Favorites where you can see what people voted for in the past--what were some of the favorite episodes in years past. And, one of the things I learned from the Survey is that many of you do not realize that we have Highlights for every episode, which is almost a full transcript; we have links to things related to this episode, including other EconTalk episodes and the writings of the author or the guest. And, so, I encourage everyone to check those out if they interest you at all.
Russ Roberts: And now, for today's guest. She is historian and author Jessica Riskin.... Her latest book and the subject of today's conversation is The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick which was published in 2016.... Your book is a history of the science of how we've thought about life and nature itself, and science, also. And at the heart of the book is a tension between what you call brute mechanics and agency. Explain those two different issues and how they've played out in the History of Science, without giving us the entire book--which of course is what the book is about. Just give us a brief intro to the idea behind those two concepts.
Jessica Riskin: Sure. Yeah. Well, I think that there has been a kind of a struggle throughout the history of the modern life sciences between two models of living things. And, according to both models, living things are a kind of machinery in the sense that they are made out of material parts interacting with one another. But, one of the two models considers them to be machines, clock-like machines, that are essentially passive: they've been designed to function in a certain manner, and they function in exactly the way they were designed, like a clock--tick, tick, tick. And so they are essentially passive. According to the competing model, living things are active machines: they are self-making, continually self-transforming. They have a kind of internal agency. And so those, I think those two models of living things emerged around the 17th century and have been in a kind of an interesting struggle with one another since then. And even today, I think you see elements of each in current science. So, in The Restless Clock, I was interested in tracking that struggle.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and on the surface it seems kind of obvious, say, that a car is a machine and I'm not. And yet, there are many car-like, machine-like things in me: my blood pressure, my sweat when it's hot out. There are a lot of things that are clearly not in any sense agency on my part. They happen without agency. They happen passively, without any intention. And so there is a deep, obviously philosophical question as to whether I can have any intention at all--or is it all just the parts? All just the chemistry of the adrenalin, etc., that makes me tick; and I'm under the illusion that I have agency?
Jessica Riskin: Well, also the other thing about--I should sort of specify that when I use the word 'agency' in the book, I use it sort of at many, many different levels. So, maybe the highest level agency would be conscious acts of will. But, you can sort of go all the way down to very, very rudimentary forms of agency by which living organisms respond to their environment, at least according to certain theories, that are not acts of will--say, phototropism of a plant or something like that. And, Lamarck, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was really the first person, at the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th century, to develop a theory of what we would now call evolution--he didn't use that word--but transformation of living forms. Lamarck was the first to develop a theory of that. And he identified kind of a spectrum of forms of agency going all the way down to very, very rudimentary sensitivity and reactiveness to the environment, and all the way up: he said that at the level of birds and mammals, that was the level of complexity at which organisms could respond by acts of will to their environments and shape themselves through actual acts of will by forming habits in response to their environment. So, you know, there certainly is a spectrum of forms of living agency in the History of Biology.
Russ Roberts: Lamarck is having a bit of a come-back. We will get to that later. I think that's incredibly fascinating.
Jessica Riskin: It is. That's very interesting.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, I want to go back to--you mentioned phototropism. And I assume that means that, if you put a plant on a table it will turn toward the sun, and start growing toward the sun. Which is--we would often, in science, we certainly do this in economics--we would say, 'The plant as if it seeks the sun.' We don't think the plant is conscious, but we find it useful to use a metaphor of intention and agency to describe that activity, that action, that result. And, what's fascinating to me about much of what you write about is: I think most scientists would say, 'Well, we don't really mean the plant wants to get to the sun. It's just a metaphor.' And yet, we struggle to keep those metaphors separate from the reality.
Jessica Riskin: Right. Yeah. I mention in the introduction to the book--it's funny, actually: this is one of the passages that people have responded to the most--I mention the conversation I had with a good friend of mine, actually one of my college roommates who is a biologist now. And, I was talking with her about this--you know, she was saying that biologists, in conversation, in casual settings, all the time speak as though the organisms they study had agency--were, you know, seeking things and striving for things, and so forth. And she said, 'But we would never publish in those terms. We would never'--you know, this is only okay for casual conversation. And I think that's sort of an interesting thing. If you find a community of researchers who speak in one way and publish in another way, it's sort of an interesting phenomenon. Why is that? I'm interested--so, one way to describe what I was interested in, in the book, is the history of that situation: Why do biologists speak in this way casually, but they would never publish in those terms?
Russ Roberts: You and I have a colleague at Stanford in the Business School, Paul Pfleiderer. I don't know if you know Paul. But he wrote a very provocative piece, and we talked about it on EconTalk, and we'll link to it, where he talked about the 'as if' assumption in economics--'People act as if'--or the idea that we model things by stripping away a lot of reality, and we all assume that firms, say--we actually call them 'agents' in economics. It's a pretentious term to mean people who decide things, and live. But, we'll talk about 'agents's having a certain utility function,' or maximand. And, when pressed, most economists would say, 'Well, we don't literally mean that, that's exactly what they are doing. But, they act as if they are doing that, and it's useful.' The problem is, is that we then want to make welfare statements--statements about wellbeing--that are predicated on those models' actually describing reality. Not just trying to use a model to predict what's going to happen. And those are two very different things. And what Pfleiderer points out is we typically confuse those because of our habits of talking about them as if they are the same. And they are not at all. And it's really dangerous.
Jessica Riskin: Right. Yeah, I mean, of course any model--this is sort of a basic point in the Philosophy of Science, that any model is going to reduce and simplify. If it didn't do that, it would be worthless. Then you might as well look at the world itself rather than at your model of the world, if the model doesn't reduce or simplify in any way. But, as you say, for one thing it's important to keep in mind the dimensions in which you are reducing and simplifying. And also, I think, it's a question of what people are trying to achieve with this particular form of reduction or simplification. So, to come back to, to give an example from the book: I think the classical, passive mechanist model or brute mechanist model of considering living things to be like clocks, or other sorts of machines that have been designed in a certain way and function in that way for all of eternity--the purpose of that model, that model came out of--it's one of the things I'm most interested in, in the book--that model came out of a theological tradition, the argument from design, in which people beginning around the middle of the 17th century began to--especially Englishmen like, for example, Robert Boyle--it's a fundamentally Protestant theological tradition, the argument from design. People began to look for lots of evidence of rational design in nature as evidence of a rational designer, of a rational God. And so, people got very, very interested in studying physiological fitness: the perfect suitability of, you know, the eye of a bird to the task it has to perform, versus the eye of a fish, which needs to do a different task in a different environment. Those questions of physiological fitness first got attention in the context of the argument from design. And of course, the argument from design assumes that agency is external, is outsourced to the designer, and not internal to the designed creature.
Russ Roberts: 11:04 And that's a fascinating--it's a paradox, of sorts, or at least a confusion, even, I think, for some people. Because, on the surface, the movement toward seeing nature as mechanical--as a--and I think of that--you didn't talk about this much, but I think of it as a series of causes and effects. A series of a chain of responses to stimuli. That's the essence of science. It's that you're not going to use or invoke a divine mover. And similarly for human beings: you are not going to invoke a soul to describe what gives human beings life. That's the essence of science, is to rule out those theological arguments. And yet--I want you to say it again--your argument that in the beginnings of science, at least, the more mechanical people viewed nature, the more they were essentially invoking a divine origin.
Jessica Riskin: Right. That's right. I think there's a kind of supreme irony, actually, in this. I mean, the founding of the modern sciences around the 16th, 17th century--one of the kind of main features of that moment in the history of natural science was the ruling out of what these new philosophers--people like Newton and Boyle--took to be mystical, you know, 'No longer will we appeal to mystical tendencies and souls and things like that'--
Russ Roberts: Miracles, magic--
Jessica Riskin: Exactly. From now on--so, final causes, in Aristotelian terms, are to be ruled out. Its purposes, tendencies, inclinations, and so forth--from now on we're simply going to talk about matter in motion. Material causes. And, so, you know, the origin of this kind of passive clockwork model of the cosmos really takes place in the 17th moment in which people are trying to rule out these kind of inexplicable tendencies and proclivities that they saw as having been everywhere in scholastic medieval science. But, there is an irony to this, which is that they sort of outsourced all of that agency to an external designer. So, in a sense you have this purely material artifact world--this very beautiful, very complex, very perfect and rationally-designed artifact world that's all made out of just moving parts. And so, the advantage of that is it's intelligible. Descartes is another example of someone who--he was one of the first to describe this beautiful, rational, artifact world and to extend it even to living things. To say, 'Everything is just machines and we can understand therefore what's wonderful about that is we can understand it all.' It's all intelligible to reason. If we apply human reason to this world, we will understand it entirely. But, then there's this ironic, sort of accompanying feature which is that agency and the original cause of all of this, is external. Is super-natural. It's out there in the hands of the super-natural God. So, there's a kind of supernaturalism that goes along with it.
Russ Roberts: And yet, in today's world, I think many scientists who do not believe in God, would argue you don't need a first mover. It just kind of--it just happens. And it just so happens that that world that happens has cause and effect, laws, things that we can inquire about and uncover. And we do. And that's nothing to do with intention or design on the part of a divine origin. It's just the way it is.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. I mean, here's another: We've come to another kind of basic principle in the Philosophy of Science, which is that any explanation has to start somewhere. You have to start somewhere. You have to have some primitives, some beginning point. And so, for somebody like Descartes that beginning point was matter and motion: you know, you assume the existence of matter and motion; and then explain everything in those terms. And I suppose human reason--somebody like the German philosopher Leibniz--he really objected to the kind of major theories that he saw emerging around him, to the Cartesians [i.e., followers of/thinkers about Descartes--Econlib Ed.] and to Newtonians. He said, basically, 'Matter and motion explain nothing without force, without energy. Modes of action.' What puts all of this in motion? You need to have some source of movement and energy and force. And so, he made that his primitive. So, I guess it's a question of what you are willing to assume, and what you really want to be able to explain to explain, in terms of those things that you've decided you are willing to assume.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think--I think for modern scientists--they are very Leibnizian. I don't know if that's a word. Is that a word?
Jessica Riskin: That is a word, I think. Or at least I think, because I use it.
Russ Roberts: So, they are very Leibnizian. And that first cause is the Big Bang. And, once that is set into motion--we don't have a theory as to how that happened or why it happened. Or, if you are a religious believer you'd say it could have come from God. But if you are not a religious believer, you just say, 'Well, they don't'--I think increasingly scientists don't say, 'We just don't know.' They say, actually, 'I don't even need to have that first cause any more.' But I think most people, most human beings are very uncomfortable with that. And they like the idea, even if it's a mystery as to the source of it, they like the idea of a first cause.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. Well and also I think you need a lot of first causes in scientific explanations. For, the Big Bang, for example, is a useful first cause maybe in cosmology, astronomy. But there are plenty of areas of science where it probably doesn't get you very much explanatory power, and you need other first causes there. So, yeah. I think it's sort of an interesting philosophical problem throughout the sciences for any given area or field: Which are the things that I'm willing to assume? And which are the things that I need to be able to explain? But, those explanations are always going to go only as far as the level of assumptions, right? Again, you have to start--it's interesting, my daughter is a junior in high school, and she's taking AP [Advanced Placement] Biology this year. And, one of the things she found hardest when she started the AP bio curriculum was that it seemed to her that some of the questions she was asking in class, she was told, the teacher would say, you know, 'You just have to assume that.' 'If you go to grad school in biology maybe you'll be able to learn about that, but for now let's just assume it.' And other things, the teacher would give her a very worked-out explanation that she would need to understand and learn. And so she was saying to me, and she said to her teacher, 'I don't understand what's the difference between those questions that I have to just assume and those where I really need to be able to explain it thoroughly.' And I think that's a problem not just for high school juniors in AP bio, but throughout the sciences.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I think it's a big part of life. It goes way beyond AP bio, for sure. When I used to be in the classroom teaching economics, I loved to ask students questions that didn't have clean answers. That were puzzles. And, to answer those puzzles, to make any progress, you have to make some assumptions. And my students, at first, they want to know: Well, what are the right assumptions? And, that's the hardest part: knowing what to ignore and what to focus on is a huge part of the scientific enterprise. And even the social scientific enterprise. And it's not really science. It's a craft. It's an art. At least in economics.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I want you to talk about the metaphor of the restless clock, because it haunts me after reading your book. And I want you to contrast it with the brute machine--you mentioned it briefly but I want you to go into it in a little more depth, the origin of that phrase and its contrast with the brute machinery. And, the brute machinery, the brute mechanism model--you know, I'm basically at the mercy of my chemistry, forces beyond the control of the living organism itself. How does that restless clock work?
Jessica Riskin: Okay. So, thank you for asking that. Actually, the Restless Clock--I struggled to come up with a title for the book. And when I arrived at this, I thought that would really encapsulate the argument. Um, it actually, the phrase, 'The Restless Clock,' comes from a passage by Leibniz, who I was just mentioning a few moments ago, in which he says, um--he's writing in his new essays, which were written in French, actually, even though he was German--he was writing in French. So, he says, in German, the name for the balance arm for a clock is [?unhula?], which he translates as, in French, as [?aquiez?] or restless. And he says, 'I like that name for the balance arm of a clock.' Because, if you think about, clocks are always having to respond and adjust to their environment. They are always having to make up to a little variations and things taking place around them. And, it's the same way--I'm certainly paraphrasing here--but, 'It's the same way, he says, in living bodies. We are constantly having to respond and adjust to our surroundings. We can never just be calm and quiet. We have to be always in a constant state of restless responsiveness.' And what struck me about that passage is that this was a period in which pretty much everybody, everybody, everybody was making that analogy between living organisms or different natural phenomena--but, including living organisms on the one hand and clockwork on the other hand. But, they meant very different things by it. So, another--you know, someone else--I'm going forward in time a bit, but someone like William Paley who made that same analogy, meant that living things are passive, mechanical devices that have been designed, by some external designer. Leibniz meant that they are dynamic, responsive, self-adjusting, self-moving. So he meant something very different by it. And so, that's why I chose it as my title, because I wanted to point out this kind of less, I think less visible but equally important tradition in the history of the life sciences, which is the restless clockwork model as opposed to the passive clockwork model.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I want to stay with that for a minute, but I first want to digress for a second about economics. In economics, we have the model of a market in equilibrium. We teach it to our students. When I teach economics it's at the heart of what I teach often as a way of analyzing the impact of, say, a policy intervention or change in something that's affecting the market participants or any of the supply or demand side. So, it might be looking at a change in tastes or taxes or subsidies or price controls, or so on--changes in the so-called rules of the game. And, we then, in economics, we perturb the system and we watch it come back into equilibrium. But, when pressed, certainly a good economists says, 'Well, of course, that's just a metaphor.' Markets--first of all, they are not real. There is no such thing. We are not talking about a farmer's market. We are talking about, say, the thing that determines the price of a shirt made out of 100% cotton that are, say, iron-free in the United States right now. That's what we mean by the market for shirts. And there isn't one. It's just a conceptual idea to help me wrap my brain around a really complicated kind of set of interactions between buyers and sellers. And, I don't really believe it's an equilibrium because the price of cotton is constantly changing, and there's all kinds of things affecting the labor market for workers in the cotton industry. And the fashion market is changing every second. And so, it's a metaphor. It's really a restless--it's a super-restless clock. Because it doesn't--it doesn't necessarily stay on time at all. And we wouldn't really expect it to. And a good economist admits that. But, we use that metaphor because it's helpful.
Jessica Riskin: Right. Right. Yeah, it's interesting, actually: I think, to sort of pursue the connection between living systems and economic systems, it seems to me that the modern theories of those have a common origin that is very much related to the subject of my book: that, you sort of, Darwin--Darwinian classical evolutionary theory and classical economic theory come from the same intellectual moment--
Russ Roberts: yeah--
Jessica Riskin: and indeed very much influenced one another. Certainly, you know, Darwin had in mind a kind of invisible hand struggle--
Russ Roberts: competition--
Jessica Riskin: competition, struggle for survival, when he was developing his idea of natural selection. And I think--but reciprocally, I think the authors of classical liberal economic theory had in mind--out of Smith, certainly--had in mind the late 17th and early 18th century natural sciences as a model for how social explanation should be. You know: social explanation should be as much as possible like natural scientific explanations. So, there's a real convergence in that moment.
Russ Roberts: And, Smith did not mean that you had to use calculus; but his modern offspring certainly think that that's the way to understand it. I don't agree; but it's a common thing to model economics as something like physics. I do think--I think I learned this from Vernon Smith, Nobel Laureate, in an EconTalk episode with Jim Otteson when we were talking about Adam Smith--that Smith was alive when Newton was alive--I think he was 3, or maybe 5 at the most. He didn't have any intellectual conversation. But, clearly, Newton was interested in the harmony of the heavens; and I think Smith was deeply interested in the harmony of our interactions with each other: how they worked together and interacted together. And, he wasn't looking for an equation for gravity, but he had something similar in the back of his mind.
Jessica Riskin: Oh, absolutely. That's right. And I think that the intellectual world that Smith was operating in was one that had been extremely shaped by Newtonian physics and the kind of natural science that got established at the end of the 17th century, with Newton's Principia and other contemporary works. And another thing that's interesting is it seems to me that both--just going back to Smith and Darwin--that both of them were much more sort of causal pluralists than their followers. So, Darwin was interested--so there's a kind of very reduced form of Darwinism that Darwin himself did not advance, that sort of reduces everything just to adaptation, natural selection and adaptation: every single trait is the result of natural selection directly and therefore is adaptive in some way. And the same thing, I think, with economic theory after Smith: the idea that competition is the only thing. And I think in each case--Darwin was interested in a kind of multiplicity of causes; and I think Smith was also interested in more of a multiplicity of forces at work in the economy. So, there's a kind of simplification that happens in the wake of those.
Russ Roberts: That's a great point. They are both incredibly rich thinkers that, if you haven't read them in the original, you've missed something. You may not learn a lot about Facebook and social media, say, reading Smith--although I wouldn't, as I've written: there is something to be learned from Smith about social media. But, just an example: Obviously, there are many things that are outdated in Smith; and similarly in Darwin. And yet, you get to see their minds at work in such a rich and non-reductionist way, that, as you say, led to some really reductionist theories down the road. But they were not reductionists themselves at all.
Jessica Riskin: Right. I think that's right. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, you write a beautiful thing about--going back to The Restless Clock for a sec--you say,
To say that a human being works like a machine, whether one accepts or rejects the idea, sounds like science. But it sounds less like science when one describes the machinery as restless, moved by its own inner agency.
And the reason I love that is, I do think--we've talked recently in the program about whether there is free will or not. Most of us behave as if there is. We find that to be a helpful--maybe an illusion, but certainly it is a helpful way to live. But, I think that idea of seeing ourselves as restless clocks--that there's a huge piece of our lives that we have no control over, a huge part of our being, but that somehow we have some agency and we do interact with our environment in complicated ways. And--I'm going to give you an example in a second, but first, just react to that.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. I mean, one thing I'm interested in with this book is that what does or doesn't sound like science is a matter of history. Something sounds like science because the science has developed in a certain way. And so I guess I was sort of trying to suggest with that passage--I think it's toward the end of the book--that one could imagine this kind of parallel historical development in which the description of restless clockwork sounds perfectly scientific, and that there are--I think, a political history of science, almost. You know, as I've said, it had to do with the relations between, actually, science and theology. So, the idea that agency and purpose and meaning and those questions--those questions belong in the realm of theology; and science is meant to just address questions of sort of proximate mechanism: this piece pushing up against that piece. And to describe an essentially passive world to which the theologians will then supply the meaning, and the purpose, and the agency. And so, it's for that reason I think that, today, one of those sentences--the kind of passive clockwork, classical mechanist model sounds scientific; and the active mechanist model sounds less so. So, yeah. That's what I was getting at, with that. And in fact, William Paley--I had mentioned him earlier--he was the author of the watch on the heath--I think many probably many people have heard this kind of little story that Paley told. If you are walking across a heath, a field, and your foot struck against a stone, you could reasonably say to yourself, 'Well, maybe that stone just happened to be there. It's always been there.' But, if your foot struck against a watch, then you'd have to imagine that there must be a watchmaker somewhere. And so this is analogy: He wants you to then apply that to the natural world--'This is a watch' implies a watchmaker; the rational design of nature implies a rational God. And, Darwin recalled that he, as a student at Cambridge University had had to memorize a lot of Paley, a lot of Paley's writings. And he quite admired, actually, Paley. You can even hear the kind of resonance in Darwin's writing of some of Paley's rhythms and way of phrasing things. And Darwin basically said, 'I'm doing Paley, but I'm just taking out the God part.' And that's an interesting thing to think about. Can you, if you adopt that model of living things as sort of passive clockwork-like mechanisms, can you then just take out the God part? Or, isn't it implicit in that model; and don't you need a different model of living mechanism? So.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, why does that matter? I mean, why, for a modern scientist today who is not interested in God, or Paley for sure, who is usually mocked by most modernists, moderns: Why is that relevant? Why should I care about this old historical problem that you are talking about? This tension, this issue of, 'I'm just doing my science. Leave me alone. I don't have to worry about this.'
Jessica Riskin: Right. Good question. Well, I think because, I think practicing scientists, if they don't know so much of the history of their science, then they don't fully understand the stakes of their own convictions. So, if you have a conviction that ascribing agency to an evolving organism is unscientific, but you don't realize that that emerged from this older, theological division of labor, then I think you haven't fully understood the stakes of your own--what you take to be axiomatic. You know, today, in the 21st century--Darwin, I think Darwin himself was tremendously torn between the Paley model of clockwork--passive clockwork--and the Lamarck model of living things as self-making, self-transforming machines. That's how Lamarck saw things. Lamarck, of course, was in very bad odor in the 19th--well, has been, I think continues to be in many circles in very bad odor. But, initially at the end of the 18th and going into the 19th century, Lamarck was associated with the French Revolution, with materialism, with regicide, with Jacobinism, radical politics. And so, you know, Darwin sort of struggled to reconcile these two competing models, and with all of this politics surrounding them. And, if you don't know about that history, then you as a practicing biologist today in 2019, you don't fully understand why 'Lamarckian' sounds to you like bad science.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And it would also discourage you to being open to the idea of epigenetics--the idea that some traits can be passed on. Which increasingly, in small areas, not important large ones necessarily. But that it is possible at all is absolutely stunning, given the way people were believing for the last few hundred years. And you'd miss that. You'd be biased against it.
Jessica Riskin: Exactly. And, in fact, I think you mentioned earlier that Lamarckism is having a sort of comeback today; and maybe I should specify I think that's right. And what I mean by Lamarckism is--
Russ Roberts: It isn't--I'm going to interrupt for a sec. It isn't that by stretching for the fruit that a giraffe gets a longer neck and passes it on to their children. Which is the sort of parody. That's what I was taught--
Jessica Riskin: That is the--well, he did say that.
Russ Roberts: That's what we were all taught. 'Well, that was a wrong idea.' Because that doesn't happen.
Jessica Riskin: Right. I remember learning that in high school biology as an example of total wrong-headedness. The giraffe stretching its neck. But, by Lamarck, Lamarckism, Lamarckian biology, what I mean is: First of all the idea that an organism can change in the course of its lifetime in ways that can be heritable. And, as you say, epigenetics is one area, one current, sort of very hot area of biological research in which people are finding that organisms can transform in ways that are not within the genome but, you know, outside the genes, there's a lot of things. There's the cell. There's the body. There's the environment. And so, an organism can transform in the course of its lifetime in heritable ways. And I think biologists are currently very interested in studying that. I've gotten, actually, sort of connected with a group of biologists through my colleague at Stanford, Marc Feldman, and his, I guess, collaborator, Kevin Laland who is at the University of St. Andrews. And they've invited me to a couple of conferences. It's been really fascinating. So, they are at work on something they call the extended evolutionary synthesis, which is trying to build back into evolutionary biology all those areas outside the genes that the kind of Neo-Darwinist tradition had left out. So, from the larger cell to the body to the environment--even, they are interested in the culture of animals and animal behavior. And that's been really fascinating for me, to be a part of those conversations.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to draw a different lesson from your book. I understand it's not--it's a long book; you've got a lot to talk about; there's a whole bunch of very in-depth intellectual history that you explore there and so you don't have, obviously, room or time for everything. But one of the things that struck me as I read it was the following. And it's an issue that's come up on the program before: That, you read these brilliant people--Descartes, Kant, Darwin, Lamarck--and a few dozen other of their colleagues that you write about in some detail. So, amazingly [?] that book, one thing that strikes you--at least it struck me, and I'd love your reaction--is that, 'Yeah. I just had no idea.' They were really smart; and they had, of course, limited knowledge--of all kinds of things, genetics being one obvious example for the listener that I just gave you. But, they had limited knowledge, and so their idea of, say, 'How are human beings different from animals?'--they had all kinds of wacky ideas that we look at now and laugh about. But it strikes me that we haven't made that much progress on a lot of these issues. And the second thing that strikes me--you and I talked about this before we came on the air--is that, a lot of times we latch onto a metaphor like a clock because it's the most advanced thing we can possibly think of. So, that was true in, say, 1750. And at that point--then later it became the steam engine. Or the combustion engine, became a better metaphor. And now it's the computer. So, we say, 'Well, eventually we'll understand that maybe the whole universe is a computer. It's all simulation.' And some really smart people believe this, or at least consider it, or speculate about it: that the entire universe is a computer simulation. It's like, 'Really?' If you read intellectual history, which is what your book is, you realize that we're just--we're really in the dark a lot of the time. Now, does that mean there won't be a moment where we're in the sunlight? Where we'll have finally figured this out? Whatever this is. But, it strikes me that humility is one of the lessons you might gather from some of these questions and our attempts to answer them.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. It's interesting. I think--an example is in the history of Artificial Intelligence. Well, let me back up for a moment and say that I think both things are true. On the one hand, the sciences make tremendous, extraordinary progress. And, on the other hand, it seems like certain problems, core problems, don't get any closer to being solved--even while that tremendous, extraordinary progress is happening. And so, an example of this is, in the history of artificial intelligence, I think many artificial intelligence researchers have talked about this problem of a kind of moving of the goal posts. So, each time it becomes possible for a computer to do something that seemed like you could never do that, now there's a [?]. So, certainly, a computer could never play chess. Well, then there are computers that could play chess. And so, people said, 'Okay, well, that's not really the key thing. It's to be able to play Go.' Now there are computers that can play Go--
Russ Roberts: really well--
Jessica Riskin: Right. And so, each time there's--and it seems like, I do think that we don't--we have certainly not, through artificial intelligence gotten closer to the essence of what sentient cognition--even of animals--is like, let alone of human beings. Maybe people--that might be a controversial statement. I think people like maybe Steven Pinker would disagree with that. Would say, 'Well, we know that it's just a lot of subroutines and maybe we don't know quite the details.' But, to my mind, I don't--I am not persuaded by that kind of argument. It seems to me that--it's quite extraordinary the number of things that computers can do. And, at the same time, quite extraordinary how, it seems to me, that hasn't gotten us any closer to the essence of sentient cognition.
Russ Roberts: I agree.
Russ Roberts: One of the words I don't think I read in your book--it's probably in there, but I didn't notice it--is 'instinct'. So, I want to ask--I want to give you a, tell you a story. And then I'll let you react to it. So, I'm looking out my window, on a Tuesday morning, and I see my bird feeder. And there's a cardinal on my bird feeder. It's really a gorgeous, beautiful, dangerous thing to be a cardinal, because it's really visible. A male cardinal. It's bright, bright red. And it's really nervous at my feeder--at least, appears to be nervous: I can't have any way of knowing. It seems to give off the air of unease. Restless, actually, would be a good word. Very restless at the feeder. And, it can't stay there for long. It immediately flits to a nearby tree. And then it comes back. And it comes back to the feeder. And I'm thinking, 'Did it want to do that? Or is it just instinct?' And then I think about myself. It would be, like, procrastinating; and I get up, and I say, 'I'm just going to have one handful of peanuts out of that giant Kirkland/Costco brand Virginia peanuts that are really good. And I take the handful, and I go back and sit down, and I read what I'm reading or work on what I'm working on; and then, 'Oh, just one more.' Now, is there any difference between me and that bird? Is there will in that? Intention? Is the bird just responding to instinct? And, are we ever going to answer that question? I guess we could ask the same question about me.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. I mean, I think there have been competing approaches to that kind of question. So, behaviorist psychology is about kind of describing animal and human behaviors from the outside and never ascribing any internal subjectivity to it. So, then the behaviorist answer to that question would be: 'You can just sort of describe what the bird does, and don't assume any subjectivity on the part of the bird, and attitude or feeling. Just describe what it does and assume that it does that because of its mechanism--how it's constructed. It's constructed to behave in those ways.' But it seems to me like those are questions of principle more than science. You know--do you adopt--or cybernetics is another example. I think that cybernetic movement of the mid-20th century, in which people like Norbert Wiener at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] tried to understand animal behaviors and computing and human intelligence, this kind of constellation of things, on the same model--all on the same model. And it was sort of axiomatic to them that you kind of describe from outside, in. You don't make assumptions about what's going on in the inside--the subject to it, of the organism. But it seems to me that those are questions of principle more than, or methodology, or approach. They are not questions that you can--you have to sort of adopt a stance. I don't know how you would ever answer that question through the science. Rather, you adopt a stance in kind of framing your experiment, framing your science. You decide, 'Well, I will either assume subjectivity, or not.'
Russ Roberts: That's a tough one, though, right? I mean it's--I presume that the cardinal does not, when at the bird feeder, have a flashback to a memory as a younger cardinal at a time when the seeds were better than the lousy ones I put out this year. Unlike myself, who might reminisce about some peanuts I had at a baseball game with my dad when I a little boy, and have a nostalgic moment. But, I don't know. Maybe cardinals have nostalgia. It seems we can't know--at least right now.
Jessica Riskin: Well, and also, it's interesting that Lamarck, I mentioned, said at the level of birds and mammals, these higher forms of responsiveness come in. Because I was just--my dog certainly has memories of things she's done in different places--
Russ Roberts: yep--
Jessica Riskin: even long after the fact. And we go back to that place, and you can see her remembering, 'Oh, there was a nice mud puddle here last time. I'm going to go see if it's there again.' You know. And so--and I think, at least according to Lamarck, organisms up to the level of birds and mammals, can have various forms of, almost unconscious responsiveness. But, from birds and mammals, they can respond deliberately and through acts of will.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about emergence, which is one of my favorite things in economics. Neglected, in my view. And I get the impression you think it's been neglected in science, as well, even though it's incredibly hot right now as an overall concept. What is its importance in thinking about sentience? In thinking about the life-ness, the vitality of things?
Jessica Riskin: Well. Gosh. I'm not sure exactly how to answer that. I mean, it seems to me like emergence is a way of naming the problem, of a kind of gulf between--you know, if you give as minute a description as you can of a living thing, there's a kind of gulf between that minute description and the result: the kind of whole result of a living, sentient, acting, responding being. So, emergence is a way of kind of naming that, gap. You know, something happens in between the low level and the higher level--the low-level causes and the higher-level results--something happens. But it seems to me that often, it's a kind of a hand-waving. We don't really know what happens, so we just have to assume that something mysterious happens in there, in that gap.
Russ Roberts: I think in science, at least the way you've used it here, emergence is the idea that the sum is greater than--the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Right? In economics, and in other aspects of science, yes, that's part of it. But it's also the idea that--that doesn't seem to cover it. It just seems to me that's not the--in particular, in economics, the idea that, say, a market might--here I'm going to lapse into my anthropomorphinization of a non-animate thing. Markets, they seem often to try to solve problems. My favorite example is, one of them, is that when hundreds of millions of Chinese leave the countryside and move to the cities and they start sending their kids to school and their kids start using pencils, so now all of a sudden the world needs a lot more pencils. And there's not pencils. Or there's nobody sitting around thinking, 'Gee, what are we going to do?' And yet, somehow, the market raises the price of cedar, and people start looking for substitutes for pencils; they use more pens. The things they use cedar for, they might use cedar less for those things, find substitutes, so that the cedar can go to the pencils. And so I might show up at Staples today, and I say, 'I'd like a dozen pencils,' and they don't say, 'Are you crazy? The Chinese got all the pencils this year. Come back in 2020.' That's a miracle, of some thing, of some kind. Not a divine miracle. It's an amazing--a marvel, is what Hayek called it. And, um, it looks like the market tried to solve that problem, and did. Right? That's what--there's an orderliness to emergence in some areas that's more than just, 'it looks orderly.' It seems to be purposive. I guess that's the way I'd phrase it.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, here's a way--okay. I was thinking as you were speaking. You asked whether, I think, whether emergence has been overlooked in the life sciences. And I think maybe one way in which I think it has been overlooked is that there is this--well, I was talking earlier about a kind of reductive tendency in Neo-Darwinism and a lot of 20th century evolutionary biology into the 21st century, a kind of insistence on there being only one kind of causal factor. Only one kind of causal explanation. Which is natural level acting at the level of the genes. And, in a sense, why should that be the case? The world is messy and complicated, and full of different levels of things competing and acting in different ways. And a kind of stew of lots of different kinds of forces. Why should it all reduce to just the one basic level of causation? And I think recent research in biology that I was mentioning--epigenetics and these people who are interested in extended evolutionary synthesis are trying to bring back some of those layers of messiness and complexity. And I would say the same thing must be the case--now I'm on shaky ground because I don't know a lot about economics--but it seems to me like the same thing must be the case in social systems, like economics: that there's a kind of mess of different factors. So if you try to explain it just on the kind of one level, you are going to be missing a lot of complexity. And so I think when people talk about emergence it may be also about trying to recover all of those layers of complexity that get filtered out in the most reductive versions of these sciences.
Russ Roberts: That's a really great example. I think a lot of people like to say--it's cute--like to say Adam Smith was the first behavioral economist. Because Adam Smith understood that we deceive ourselves; we're flawed; we're imperfect. And modern economics, oh, for roughly the last 70 years, has been about mathematical models that make absurd demands on what people are capable of deciding, and information--taking into account what information. And again, economists would defend that by saying it's just a simplification: it's not literally what people do. And, I don't want to ever suggest that's a mistake. It's obviously a good idea. I don't think--I use this example a lot--of football players--I don't think, when they're on the field they say to themselves, 'Well, I'm wearing a helmet; I can throw myself at 60 miles an hour into someone else's helmet.' And yet, if they're playing without helmets, I think they'd play differently. And so, there's obviously parts of our behavior that are not calculated, but still can be treated as if they are calculated. Milton Friedman liked to say that the truck driver takes the turn on a rainy night as if he knows the physics of the friction of the road, the tires. And he's onto something there. That's definitely true. I just think you have to be somewhat careful in how you push that. And so, today, people like to say, 'Yeah, so all those standard models of rational decision-makers--those are obviously wrong. People are full of flaws.' Of course, if you're not careful then you just don't have anything to say about anything: you just say, 'Well, people are stupid. They make mistakes all the time.' And you throw up your hands. So, it's a very tough thing.
Jessica Riskin: It is. I think that also the various disciplines in this regard. So, historians I think are people by and large who are drawn to complexity and messiness. Certainly there have been reductive schools of historical scholarship. Certainly there have been.
Russ Roberts: [?]
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. But still, I think, you know, we are interested in kind of storytelling. So that requires a certain multiplicity of forces and factors and characters and impulses. And so, it just seems to me that as a discipline, it tends toward complexity maybe more than some of the social sciences or sciences. So maybe this is something that historians have to offer the academic world, or the scholarly world, is kind of re-introduction of complexity and messiness.
Russ Roberts: Well, I make this claim. I think I'm alone. You and me. That's two of us. If I said to you, 'What was the cause of the Civil War?' or 'What was the cause of the founding of the United States?', no good historian would ever pretend there was one. It would be silly. It would be even sillier to say, 'Okay, you gave me four or five causes. Give me some percentages on each one.' You know, 'What percent was due to economics? What percent was due to culture? What percent--'. And I've had people do that to me with the Financial Crisis. Okay, there's a lot of different things. Can't it just be the truth, which is it's really messy? And every event might be somewhat unique. That's not good English. That every data point--every sample has one data point, in a certain dimension, in history; and yet there are things that are in common. And we understand that. But I think if economists acted more like historians we'd be more honest. Nobody--I use this example--we were about to invade Iraq a few years back. Would you call an historian and say, 'Well, tell me what's going to happen.' You'd say, 'What?!' But yet, we do a tax cut, or we do a trade war with China, and economists are expected to tell us "what's going to happen." It's weird.
Jessica Riskin: Right. Right. Yeah. I think actually a story is a good form of explanation. So, you know, if you ask a question like 'What caused the Civil War?' or some of the examples that you just gave, the best form of explanation in response to that is a whole story.
Russ Roberts: One of the things I got from your book which I found amusing, and I'd like you to talk about it, is the internecine nature of science, and discovery, particularly the Darwinian story where, you give people details about Darwin's doubts and fears that most people don't know about, or they don't want to think about them. Because it's true. 'What are you talking about?' And so, one of the things I've found--maybe I'm being unfair to the scientists, but I felt at times they were like religious believers who were afraid that something would refute their model, their story, the way a religious person might worry that a miracle could be explained by a natural explanation. That there's some, you know, some counter-evidence out there, it's like, 'Oh, phew! I was able to explain it away.' You're supposed to go, 'Wow! Maybe the world's richer; maybe I need to revise my theory.' But we're human beings and we struggle to do that, it seems to me.
Jessica Riskin: Right. Yeah. I really, especially loved writing the parts of the book about Darwin, because his--well, first of all, he was such an extraordinary writer. Such a beautiful prose--writer of English prose, both in his published writings and in his letters. And, he also--he had these voluminous correspondences with friends and colleagues all over the place. And, those letters--he really, he lays it all out there: what he's worried about, you know, his anguish over whether they eye, for example--the favorite example people making arguments from design in much of the 19th century was that the eye--the eye seems to be so perfect and so much like a lens instrument. Like an artificial lens instrument. And Darwin wrote to Asa Gray at Harvard that he lost sleep over this. Maybe it is--maybe it is kind of an irrefutable argument for a design. But then, he sort of pulled himself together and realized how one could give an evolutionary explanation of the eye. So, anyway, what I mean to say is that you see all of his worries and all of his agonizing and ambivalence about it. And in particular I think Darwin was torn between, as I said earlier, I think these two different models--the clockwork model that he got from Paley, the passive clockwork model, the watch on the heath; and this rather more mysterious but also on some level more essential model that he got from Lamarck of living things as fully material but in a continual process of self-creation and self-transformation. And that's what gave him--so, if you think about his theory as being composed of the idea of, sort of, two main ingredients: The idea of fitness or adaptation. He gets that from Paley. Partly. And then, the idea of transformation of living forms over time--he gets from Lamarck. And he has to somehow make them fit together. And he really, I think, struggled and suffered over this. I think he was also his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin--had come up with an idea of transformation of living forms around the turn of the 18th and 19th century, and had expressed it in very romantic--actually literally as poetry in the footnotes to long poems. And he was a romantic writer. And I think Darwin was both very influenced by his grandfather's work and also kind of embarrassed--he wanted to, um, somehow, kind of set himself apart from that romantic vision. At the same time, as historian of science at Chicago, Bob Richards, has written, you know, Darwin was very drawn to romantic writing, German romantic writing. He loved the German romantic, Alexander von Humboldt, and carried his work around in his pockets to read it out to friends, and stuff like that. So, he was drawn to these things, and also worried.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's fascinating that you mention that he's trying to square the circle, or combine these two ideas--the idea of adaptation or fitness, because so much of the natural seems as if it has a purpose. Or it looks--the features of it look purposeful. With the--what was the second part? the?
Jessica Riskin: The transformation of living forms over time.
Russ Roberts: Right. Right. And so, the irony is, is that I think Adam Smith helped him a lot. Think about that. And the irony is--it's not that Adam Smith did. The irony is--
Jessica Riskin: And Malthus--
Russ Roberts: And Malthus, too--
Jessica Riskin: [?] of economic-- [?]
Russ Roberts: But they were living at a time when economic progress and transformation was so minuscule compared to what was coming. But it was already started. So they could write about it. They could write about change. Right? If you were writing economics in the Year 800, there's not much going on. I forget who--maybe Robert Lucas observed it first, in my experience that, through most of human history, there is no progress. It's just the same--ox pulling a plow. And the level of the standard of living is going to be pretty much constant. And then, suddenly something starts happening. And Smith, writing in 1776 with the Wealth of Nations or even 1759 with The Theory of Moral Sentiments--they at just the beginning. So, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the possibility of transformation through the division of labor that he was so interested in could happen, combined with competition. And so, presumably Darwin was helped by that a lot. That helped him see how competition molded adaptation and led to change.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. No, I think you are absolutely right. I think, actually, from Smith, from where he sat, you know, in the 1760s, 1770s--1750s, 1760s, 1770s--it didn't feel minuscule or slow at all. You see the Industrial Revolution just booming all around. When you read his prose, you see it all filtering into there. You can almost sort of see out his windows, what's happening all around him. Absolutely. And I think you are right that that pace of transformation of the world. Darwin also--actually another thing, maybe kind of related to this is that there was a kind of agricultural revolution in Britain in the early part of the 19th century. And Darwin was seeing--he joined pigeon-fancying clubs, and he studied animal breeding. And he got a lot of material from artificial selection--from breeding--as kind of evidence for him for the power of selection.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Jessica Riskin: So, he was responding to economic and social developments around him, absolutely. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I guess what I was trying to get at--I just realized it now--is that if you'd been able to read Schumpeter, the idea of creative destruction, he would have made a lot--it would have been easier for him. Because that's when--and of course he was probably reacting to Darwin, also. Because Darwin is between Schumpeter and Smith. But that idea in economics, that things are constantly arising, and through the force of competition, either surviving or knocking off existing firms, existing technologies--is very Darwinian.
Jessica Riskin: Right. I mean, it's hard not to read history backwards, because it does seem as though people--you know, the earlier people are anticipating the later people. But, in fact, it's probably the other way around: The later people are building on the earlier--the later understandings are building on the earlier ones. But absolutely that's all part of one, I think, intellectual tradition that you are describing.
Russ Roberts: You want to close with Schrodinger? Now, if you'd asked me--I only know one thing about Schrodinger's Cat. We don't need to go into Schrodinger's Cat. We'll put a link up to Schrodinger's Cat for the interested readers, listeners who want to read about it. But: You talk about the import, toward the end of the book, of an essay that Schrodinger wrote called What Is Life?--
Jessica Riskin: What Is Life?--
Russ Roberts: And, I like that title because--it is an ambitious title. It does have a question mark, I think, at the end of it. Because it's a question that, I'd say, in many ways haunts your entire book. So, why don't you close by talking about what Schrodinger had to say about it, and who was a physicist, not a biologist--and why it's interesting and important.
Jessica Riskin: Yeah. I think that's an absolutely extraordinary essay, Schrodinger's What Is Life?. Because--well, apparently, I think many biologists consider it to be, have been a kind of, the kind of founding, whatever manifesto, of molecular biology. And he sort of anticipates DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]. He describes--you know, he describes it. But, what was fascinating to me about it is that he, once again, returns to the clockwork model. But, it's a restless clockwork model. You know, he says, basically, that the kind of clockwork that would be at the core of, that could answer the question, 'What is life?' is a kind of restless, responsive clockwork that could conceivably begin to move all on its own. He has this passage in which he describes--he says, 'A springless clock might suddenly begin to move at the expense of the heat energy of its own cogwheel and of the environment. The physicist would have to say the clock experiences an exceptionally intense set of Brownian movement.' So, he is sort of groping for language to describe living things as machines. But, restless, unpredictable, self-transforming ones. Self-moving ones. And so, I, I, I found it fascinating when I discovered those passages and that essay, sort of long after Leibniz, but coming back to the same kind of imagery.