Photo by Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak & Beemaster Hubert Seibring, Munich.

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

—Stephen Hawking

Professor Hawking’s “Turtles All the Way Down” anecdote, like any good anecdote, has had a long and exotic career. In the oldest telling of the story, it relates a Hindu myth claiming that the world rests on the back of an elephant, which stands upon a tortoise. (There is no such Hindu myth, but never mind. Fabricated Hindu myths, like imaginary African proverbs and Native American sayings no Native American ever said, are a cinema screen upon which a certain kind of mind projects itself.) The story crops up in the work of David Hume, Henry David Thoreau, and Lewis Carroll. Bertrand Russell himself related the story this way:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

A Christian Science bishop related the story in 1905, but instead of an Indian it was a “Richmond Negro preacher” telling tales of turtles all the way down. But the theme is always the same: Some benighted person—little old lady, Hindu, Richmond Negro preacher, depending on the local cultural prejudice—has a story that explains the universe in self-referential terms, producing infinite recursion. The recursive narrative aspect is fundamental to mystical literature: What is a religion if not a story that tells the tale of its own writing? Turtles all the way down is an invitation to pat somebody on the head—You and your cute little primitive beliefs!—while patting ourselves on the back. Politics, unfortunately, is turtles all the way down, with two blind men arguing angrily over the color of the turtles.

Scientists love the turtles story, because science is based on humility. That may not be blazingly obvious to those who have dealt with scientists on a face-to-face basis—case-by-case, scientists exhibit highly elevated levels of smartassedness. But in the aggregate, scientists exhibit remarkable humility. Scientific humility is a collective humility, built into the enterprise of science itself. Science has turned itself inside out in the past century or so—Albert Einstein published his special relativity paper in the same year that Christian Science bishop was talking turtles—and one of the happy consequences of that fact is that science is humble, because scientists have discovered that they have much to be humble about. Scientists may disagree bitterly about disputed subjects, but it is rare that a group of scientists believes that another group of scientists disagrees about something because its adherents are evil. Compare that with the rhetoric of any contested federal election in the United States. The culture of science values fact and evidence, and prestige is closely aligned with scrupulosity in regard to data. The culture of politics, by way of comparison, finds very little value in facts and evidence, and prestige in politics is almost entirely dependent upon winning—something that facts and evidence often get in the way of. One of the great ironies is that science has institutionalized humility, even though it attracts the smartest people and insists on the most rigorous intellectual standards, while politics has institutionalized hubris, even though it attracts mostly second- and third-tier intellects and in effect has no intellectual standards at all, only the binary win/lose criterion. That is one of the reasons why politics cannot address problems entangled in any meaningful level of complexity.

The science of complexity, however, is dedicated to attempting to understand extremely complicated phenomena, for instance the question of how the electrochemical reactions in the three-pound ball of meat known as the human brain produce consciousness. We know a great deal about neurons and their workings, about the anatomy of the brain and the relationships among its various areas. Entire academic careers have been spent studying the most minute details imaginable about the brain. But if you ask a scientist how close he thinks we are to being able to put those pieces together into a model of how human consciousness works, he is likely to point out to you that we still aren’t very good at predicting the weather more than a week out.

Complexity shows us that we remain very far from understanding certain intricate phenomena. More important, it also suggests hard real-world limitations on our ability to know certain things about complex systems. Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe was predictable: Understand the mechanics of the parts and you understand the mechanics of the whole. Pierre-Simon Laplace took this reductive view to its natural conclusion when he wrote

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect, nothing would be uncertain, and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Laplace sought only to establish as a matter of logic that to understand the universe as a whole is possible in principle. With the advent of electronic computing, some wondered if creating some version of Laplace’s all-knowing brain (known in the scientific literature as “Laplace’s Demon”) might not be possible in fact as well as in principle. In the Soviet Union, the strange amalgamation of computer science and Marxist ideology known as “cybernetics” took seriously the proposition that computer simulations could be used not only to produce perfect five-year economic plans but also to organize all of human social life. It certainly is an attractive proposition: a single godlike intelligence watching the gears of the universe turn in perfect synchronization, a place for everything and everything in its place. It is no wonder that Laplace, facetiously asked about the role of God in his model of the universe, replied: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Of course he didn’t. If the universe can be modeled in principle, everything else is only an exercise in engineering. But reality turns out to be more tangled up than even the remarkable minds of Newton and Laplace had imagined. Chaotic systems, possibly just to mess with us, are sometimes predictable—and, conversely, chaos arises out of relatively simple and orderly systems without outside intervention. As Melanie Mitchell of the Santa Fe Institute puts it in her magisterial Complexity, “The behavior of some simple, deterministic systems can be impossible, even in principle, to predict in the long term.” There are very few straight paths in the universe, but an endless supply of random walks.

Social systems are neither simple nor deterministic, even at their most rudimentary level. Nigel Franks, a biologist who specializes in the social behavior of ants, observes: “I have studied E. burchelli for many years, and for me the mysteries of its social organization still multiply faster than the rate at which its social structure can be explored.” His colleague Thomas Seeley chronicled his lifelong study of the decision-making habits of Apis mellifera in Honeybee Democracy and came to a similar conclusion. There is a very good chance that Professors Franks and Seeley know more about E. burchelli and Apis mellifera than you or I know about anything, and yet the boundaries of their ignorance expand more quickly than do the boundaries of their knowledge, even on these relatively narrow subjects. Expertise will not solve political problems. Expertise is of course important, but its application, by necessity, must be very narrow: Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel prize for economics, holds radically different views about taxes, spending, deficits, regulation, and monetary policy than does James Buchanan, who also won the Nobel prize for economics. You could set up a Supreme Court of nine revered Nobel laureates in economics and have them rule on federal economic-policy initiatives, and you’d end up with a lot of inconclusive 5–4 decisions.

Innovation, Jim Manzi argues, “requires that we allow people to do things that seem stupid to most informed observers—even though we know that most of these would-be innovators will in fact fail. This is premised on epistemic humility. We should not unduly restrain experimentation, because we are not sure we are right about very much. For such a system to avoid becoming completely undisciplined, however, we must not prop up failed experiments.” That ethos is the source of scientific humility.

Social systems involving human beings, who have a remarkable tendency to bounce around the planet (and occasionally beyond) in the most unpredictable fashion, are many orders of magnitude more complex than are insect societies. They should inspire commensurate humility not only in those who would seek to understand them but also and especially in those who would seek to rule them. It is notable that Professor Seeley, possessing such knowledge as he does about the social organization of honeybees, has made no attempt to reorder honeybee society rationally—indeed, it seems a ridiculous thing to suggest. There is no Laplace’s Demon among the 435 members of the House, 100 senators, nine justices of the Supreme Court, or single president, each of whom believes that he has the knowledge to shape the affairs of the United States, which is more complex than a beehive. Politics is the negation of humility.

Humility is not only a private virtue—it is a social technology. By keeping in mind that we may be wrong—that we are in fact very likely to be wrong in important ways—we help each other and ourselves to become less wrong over time. In animals, there are biological mechanisms to allow that to happen. At the macro level, the biological mechanism is evolution, but even Professor Seeley’s individual honeybee hives have built into their deliberative process mechanisms for becoming less wrong over time, which, he wryly notes, offer a lesson for his fellow scientists: “One difference between aged scientists and aged scouts is that the people tend to drop out of the debate reluctantly, sometimes not until death, whereas the bees do so automatically. I cannot help but wonder whether science would progress more rapidly if, in this regard, people behaved a bit more like bees.” Oversimplified ideologies and political narratives, especially those assuming bad faith on the part of those with different views, are especially noxious in this regard, in that their adherents are forced to back themselves into intellectual corners, defending every particular of their story like a fundamentalist defending every detail of his scripture as literally true. Without being open to the possibility that one is wrong—and not just trivially wrong, but wrong in some fundamental and important way—it is impossible to learn, to get less wrong.

Other forms of organizing common action have built-in systems for becoming less wrong. The scientific method is an important example, but there are less rarefied examples around us every day. Take the division of labor, for example—but before you do, take a moment to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the division of labor. Walking into your local Whole Foods and buying a salmon steak may not seem like an act of world-historic importance, but it is. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dantès shocks and amazes his aristocratic guests by hosting a dinner at which two kinds of fish from faraway places are served. Two kinds of fish! He calls it a “millionaire’s whim.” Today, I selected my dinner from about forty kinds of fish at my local Whole Foods, and I am not a millionaire. The Sun King himself could not have imagined a Whole Foods, which is an important milepost on our evolutionary road: Commercial activity is simply a consequence of the division of labor, without which we are basically monkeys, desperately trying to claw up enough grubs and tubers to stave off starvation. Thomas Hobbes argued that the absence of an all-powerful potentate made life in “the state of nature” in his famous formulation “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” but a more likely culprit would be the absence of the division of labor. (To be fair, Hobbes would argue that his Leviathan is the only power that can create social conditions under which the division of labor is possible, an erroneous contention that nonetheless remains with us today.)

Wherever there is an absence of the division of labor—which is to say, an absence of commerce—there is economic and cultural stagnation. Self-sufficiency sounds like an admirable goal, but in reality it is an extraordinarily destructive one: Self-sufficiency at the individual level means being Robinson Crusoe; self-sufficiency at the national level means being North Korea. Self-sufficiency as an economic policy is called autarky, and wherever it is tried it has made people poor and miserable—it’s like camping, but forever, with no tents or tools or other products of trade. The evidence for this claim is literally all of human history. Archaeological evidence finds in case after case that relatively advanced prehistoric peoples who were for one reason or another cut off from commerce with nearby peoples began to revert: Their tools became less sophisticated over generations, and technological innovations such as barbed spears or archery disappeared. They lost the ability to cultivate certain crops or hunt certain prey, and in some cases they regressed culturally to Neanderthal levels. In the twentieth century, we saw examples of both a liberal and democratic society (India) and a closed and authoritarian society (North Korea) attempt to become economically self-sufficient, India under Gandhi’s swadeshi philosophy and North Korea under its eccentric juche ideology. Both were reduced to dependency on outside aid, both experienced famine (the North Koreans to the point of cannibalism), both experienced cultural stagnation, and hundreds of millions of people were needlessly immiserated. The division of labor represented by commerce is something deeper than a mere economic principle: It is an indelible part of what makes us human.

It is remarkable that we speak and think about commerce as though competitiveness were its most important feature. Of course we humans compete over scarce resources, but earthworms and badgers compete over scarce resources, too, and nobody is building any monuments to their genius. What is remarkable about human action is the cooperativeness. Competition is only one of the ways that we learn how best to cooperate with one another—competition is a means to the higher end of social cooperation. Animals cooperate, too, in swarms and herds and flocks. The Portuguese man-o’-war appears to be a kind of jellyfish, but it is actually a collection of tiny animals that live as though they were a single, unitary individual. But we human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated. If you consider the relationship of the organism to its constituent organs, the relationship of the organ to its cells, or the relationship of the single cell to its organelles, it would not be an overstatement to say that the division of labor is the essence of life itself. The argument for human action is not economics, but biology.

The Once and Future King contains a wonderful episode in which the wizard Merlin transforms young Arthur into various kinds of animals in order to allow him to experience their social arrangements. As a fish, he experiences the might-makes-right society in which the big fish eat the little fish. As an ant, he experiences militarism and totalitarianism, and is taught the famous line: “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” As a goose, he experiences a cooperative society in which nobody is in charge. Arthur prefers the geese, who always seem to figure out what it is they need to do, while the ants cannot do much of anything unless they are given a direct order. Arthur is frustrated by watching an ant trying to solve a simple problem, and reports back to Merlin: “It was like a man with a tea-cup in one hand and a sandwich in the other, who wants to light a cigarette with a match.” It is a shame that Arthur did not spend some time as a bee. It is a common misconception that beehives are monarchies under the absolute authority of the queen. Here, our metaphorical language betrays us: Bee queens are not very much like human monarchs—in fact, the queen doesn’t even get a vote in hive-wide decisions. Like Arthur’s geese, bees rely on a distributed, cooperative decision-making process, which serves them well in their dynamic, far-flung lives of migratory travel. Unlike the automaton ants, the bees and geese are able to adapt quickly to changing local conditions and make use of new information as it becomes available. Bees are complexity theorists. (The Once and Future King is grossly unfair to ants, which in the real world have a much more apian social structure. Only the human imagination aspires to the total mechanical control Arthur experienced in the ant colony.) Like bees, humans are intensely social creatures. We have much bigger brains and a great deal more individual autonomy, but life lived outside of human society is indeed in most cases solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short: Rare indeed is the man who, shorn of weapons, tools, clothing, and other products of social cooperation, would survive very long dropped into the wilderness. Rarer still is the man who would enjoy it. And it is impossible to imagine sending a man naked and unarmed into the wilderness and expecting him to return having constructed an iPhone, or even a simple No. 2 pencil with which to chronicle his misery.

Complexity theorists have not, as of this writing, even agreed upon how to measure the complexity of a system as complex as the division of labor that produces No. 2 pencils. There are many possible measures of the depth of complexity in a given system, ranging from logical depth to algorithmic depth to thermodynamic depth. Each of those measures attempts, in its way, to quantify the information that is entangled in a particular system, whether it is a hurricane or a humane genome, to estimate how much knowledge it would take to render the workings of such a system transparent to an intelligence that could comprehend it all. (Not that everybody agrees on what constitutes “knowledge.”) Thus it can be said without hyperbole that, in a real way, the No. 2 pencil, the iPhone, and the Whole Foods fish counter all constitute mysteries of the universe, the social version of what happens on the level of individual organisms or individual cells. Health-care systems and financial markets constitute systems exhibiting complexity so vast that it is, as of this writing, literally immeasurable, even in principle, a fact that has important consequences for politics, the practitioners of which go about studiously not thinking about the depth of their aggregate ignorance, which is of course the inverse of the aggregate complexity depth of the systems they pretend to manage. Immeasurable complexity, immeasurable ignorance. Perhaps that state of affairs will change, but there is at present little reason to expect it to.

But to return to the narrower question of division of labor in the commercial economy: How do we know what to produce for one another without some Laplace’s Demon telling us what to do and when to do it? Which is to say: How do we learn how to cooperate? As Professor Read noted about his beloved No. 2 pencil, nobody is in charge of the process, which is the result of a spontaneous order. But that spontaneous order, even though its vast complexity is beyond our understanding, has a built-in mechanism for getting less wrong over time, mostly through trial and error—which is to say, mostly through failure. It is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to biological evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo (which is something that, I hasten to add, actually existed): When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies. Like a bee swarm choosing the wrong tree, choosing the wrong formula for Coke results in extinction—in this case commercial extinction rather than biological extinction. As with many healthy enterprises, the corporate culture of McDonald’s is such that there is no penalty attached to the failure of a new product; McDonald’s expects that many of its deliciously ass-fattening innovations will fail. McDonald’s knows that it is engaged in a process of trial and error, which is to say a process of experimentation. Other firms, Capital One notable among them, have developed programs of explicit experimentation. Looked at with fresh eyes, McDonald’s is science, its restaurants are laboratories, and that Happy Meal on the table in front of you, like the iPhone in your pocket, is a product of evolution, highly refined by countless tiny revisions through dozens of iterations moving toward a more perfect expression of its ineffable Happy Meal ethos—by no means moving in a straight line, but guided by the gift of failure in the direction of less wrong. Over time, less wrong looks pretty good: Look in your pocket. Look in the mirror: You’re a big improvement on Homo erectus.

Or take this very simple example from Manzi: Imagine we are playing a number-guessing game, but a really hard one: I’m thinking of a number between one and 1 billion, and you have to guess it. Mathematically speaking, random guessing would normally reveal the answer after about 500 million guesses—which is to say, in just under sixteen years if you take one guess a second, around the clock, with no break for sleeping or eating. That would not be a very fun game. But we could play a “less wrong” version of the game: You guess a number, and I answer “higher” or “lower.” In that case, you will know the number in about thirty guesses, assuming you use the most effective strategy, guessing 500 million first and then choosing the middle number in the range after each guess. That’s twenty-nine guesses and a few minutes of time as opposed to 500 million guesses and sixteen years. “I’m Thinking of a Number” is a kids’ game, but it perfectly illustrates the power of the iterative evolutionary process based on feedback. Apple may not know exactly how the iPhone is doing vis-à-vis all of its competitors around the world at any given moment, but it has an excellent idea of whether its products are getting more profitable or less profitable, and a pretty solid idea of whether its competitors products are getting more profitable or less profitable. It has its own internal accounts and financial analysis, and it also has microsecond-by-microsecond guidance from the stock market, where millions of people are constantly engaged in analyzing every aspect of Apple’s business and that of its competitors, for their own reasons, and then voting with their investments about whether the firms are moving in the right direction or the wrong one. Apple doesn’t always get it right—remember the Newton?—but it does consistently get less wrong.

The politician is the man with the sandwich and the teacup, wanting his cigarette lit and wishing for two more hands. The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.