Evolutionary could be revolutionary

Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin.
Beware of politicians with big-picture answers, writes Peter Lyons. 

It's taken me until my mid-50s and a lifetime of reading to arrive at a startling conclusion. There are two types of people in this world. Those who fully appreciate the implications of the scientific findings of Charles Darwin, and those who don't.

I am a firm believer in natural selection and evolution as shaping influences in our world.

But I find the term ``survival of the fittest'' a bit repugnant. It suggests a brutal race with a defined finish line. ``Survival of the most appropriate or relevant'' feels more accurate.

Evolution rules. It is one of the most amazing scientific discoveries ever. A logical, verifiable explanation of how our reality works.

Yet the scientific discovery of evolution has made little impact on the social sciences or public policy.

Maybe the concept of evolutionary gender differences or some of the other aspects it reveals about basic human nature are just not politically correct.

I believe an understanding of evolutionary theory is crucial for sound public policy.

Far too often, politicians seek to impose a big plan to fix a social or economic ill. Muldoon's Think Big projects in the 1970s were a classic. The lurch to free market fundamentalism in the 1980s was another.

I have evolved a healthy scepticism of big-picture political solutions to social or economic ills. No-one has the ``right'' answer. Our society is so complex and dynamic and evolving that imposing a rigid doctrine invites disaster.

The imposition of communism in Russia and China were tragic examples of this. China's recent economic miracle is an example of bottom-up evolutionary change which has created huge prosperity in a country that was once a basket case.

The move to a more market-driven economy was gradualist, starting in a few provinces initially.

Chairman Deng was right in the late 1970s. The colour of the cat doesn't matter, so long as it catches mice. Chairman Mao was tragically wrong.

So what are the policy implications of evolutionary theory for New Zealand? Firstly, beware of any politician who claims to have the big answers. No-one does, but a populist politician will always claim otherwise. Innovate from the bottom up rather than the top down. Try often, try small, have clear measures of success, fail fast then try again, then propagate the successes.

My main professional interests are economics and education.

Evolutionary biology is just a fascination. Education, healthcare and economics are often dominated by big-picture thinking and lurches in national policy, due to political whim.

An evolutionary approach to education policy would allow a diversity of schooling options, it would ensure innovation in education but also equity.

I was a staunch critic of charter schools. Mainly because of the potential undermining of teaching status. But our current schooling system is stagnant and moribund, especially for the least affluent.

Encouraging smaller, more flexible and dynamic vehicles for education makes sense.

Especially in areas where the current system is clearly failing.

A top-down approach is not meeting the holistic needs of students in these areas. A bottom-up evolutionary approach could be far more effective, provided the measures of success are sound. The same approach could also be applied to public healthcare, economic development and even environmental wellbeing.

Use the example of nature. An evolutionary approach to public policy could be revolutionary.

 -  Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peters College in Epsom and has written several economics texts.


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