Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics

I liked this book. Michael Shermer argues that ideas from biology, particularly Darwinian evolution, apply to the financial markets. It's an interesting idea.

Shermer makes his living as a self-proclaimed skeptic. And he does have one of the marks of the skeptic -- careful analysis. Shermer rarely takes things at face value. Instead, he challenges ideas that others take for granted. That trademark Shermer approach makes this book interesting and thought-povoking. Few authors do that as well as Shermer.

One example -- the evolution of the QWERTY keyboard. How often do we hear that the QWERTY keyboard shows a pitfall of standards? People moan that the QWERTY keyboard is terribly inefficient. But it became locked in early on as a standard. So we are stuck with it. Right?

No. Shermer looks back at the history of the QWERTY keyboard. Turns out that the QWERTY keyboard is not so bad after all. In fact, it's actually pretty good. There may be a more efficient arrangement of a keyboard. But it is hard to say -- tests show there is not much difference in typing speed between QWERTY and its top competitors.

That's just an example of the way Shermer approaches his topic. He uses the QWERTY example to show that evolution in the product market tends to produce an optimum. According to Shermer, standards like the QWERTY keyboard and a Windows-like operating system become standards for a reason. They survive evolutionary forces because they work, and work well.

In this book, Shermer pulls together ideas from biology, psychology and neuroscience. He then uses them to analyze the modern capitalist economy. That gets him to some interesting conclusions. Thoughtful conclusions that make a lot of sense.

To sum up his conclusions very briefly, Shermer gives a good theoretical grounding in solid science for two powerful ideas: Market forces usually work. Government intervention in the market usually doesn't work.

So libertarians, take heart. Voters may not support you. But it looks like science does.

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