Author Archives: James Somers

The Agency Problem

Good teachers learn early on to tell stories wherever possible — it’s a lot easier to remember "that time Professor Jones got $300 off on a plane ticket" than "certain goods have high elasticity of demand in the short run." We’re hard-wired to think in terms of other conscious actors ("When Bill walked too close to the firepit…"), so it makes sense that anecdotes stick.

The problem is that in the process of anthropomorphizing, or anecdotalizing, or allegorizing, we can impute agency where it isn’t due. When we teach kids that "electrons follow the path of least resistance" or "genes want to survive," when we insist that there’s a Mother Nature or Father Christmas, we occlude understanding.

For instance, a friend of mine recently argued that future generations of humans will have no pinky toe because we have stopped using ours. Her faulty assumption was that Nature actually "selects" against what She perceives as unnecessary features, or even, that our bodies are trying to improve. She missed the fact that evolution, like every other blind, unconscious, and tasteless mechanism of the natural world, just is; whichever genes survive, survive. That’s what’s so impressive and important.

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