Darwin, meet Smith; Smith, meet Darwin

I’m currently reading Darwin’s Pious Idea, which I have referenced before. So far it is superb. As I make my way through it, I plan to post those bits and pieces I find interesting. The first chapter is entitled, Introducing Darwinism—The Received View: Disenchantment.

When most people read about the history of a scientific discovery, they rarely think about the fact that the discovery did not happen in a vacuum. There is always a historical context to any discovery or event. Every “discovery” is situated. And it would be fairly naive to believe that any “discovery” wasn’t being articulated in a way that was heavily influenced by that very context in terms of the culture and the reigning philosophical and intellectual paradigms of the time.

Thus one of the interesting points in the first chapter is the parallels between Darwin’s conception of natural selection and Adam Smith’s economic theories. After all, there is only about an 80 year difference between when “The Wealth of Nations” was published (1776) and Darwin’s “On the Origins of Species” (1859). Darwin, while growing up and especially during his education, would no doubt have been very familiar with Smith’s theories.

As Cunningham notes:

“Another major influence, in terms of analogy, was the work of economist Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (1776) was to some degree itself an attempt at a Newtonian theory of economics. Three points of comparison come to mind. First, one finds in Smith the veneration of self-interest—‘it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest, buying cheaply and selling high’ (book 1, chapter 2). Second, according to Smith this self-interest could be sustained or articulated only if based on a world of individuals, rather than groups. Third, Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ if left alone, was said to bring balance and prosperity to the economy—it, rather than us or governments, would run the show (hence his call for laissez-faire). That Darwin based natural selection on the self-interest of species we have already seen. Also like Smith, Darwin (or at least Darwinism) adopted an ontology that posited only individuals…Natural selection operates in a strikingly similar manner to the invisible hand as it selects the winners and eradicates the losers in the economy of the struggle for existence. Thus Gould is certainly correct to argue that Darwinism is ‘The economy of Adam Smith transferred to nature.’”

Further on Cunningham quotes Vittorio Hosle regarding Dawkins:

“The suspicion that Dawkin’s interpretation has been influenced by unconscious fascination with the modern glorification of selfishness (in business, for instance) is not unfounded, indeed, one might say that Dawkin’s interpretation of Darwinism as been influenced by the dominant meme operational in capitalism, namely, egoism, just as Darwin was influenced by the work of Adam Smith.”

Many biologists believe they are simply learning “facts” when they are actually imbibing philosophy and often philosophy from quarters other than the natural sciences.

There is also the irony here. It would be interesting to see how many biologists feel that Smith’s theories are true and if they should be followed by governments. If they felt the theories to be false or unethical, one would have to wonder why, given their commitment to an impersonal “force” that seems to govern all life and rewards the “fitter” over the less “fit.” Why would one break away from this clear correspondence of reality with truth (as if there were such a thing!) and not apply it across the board? Interesting. It would mean one would have to appeal to some abstract principle, something added, something that exceeded the “evidence” and the “facts.”

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1 Response to Darwin, meet Smith; Smith, meet Darwin

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “When most people read about the history of a scientific discovery, they rarely think about the fact that the discovery did not happen in a vacuum.”

    You may also be interested in the fact that science progresses, and so its originating milieu has little to do with its eventual elaboration and verification. Quantum mechanics has been through several thorough rewrites and changes of notation and scope before its modern form. Is it still sort of Danish? Facts is facts, as it were.

    So your whole discussion is pointless as any kind of judgement, though of some historical curiosity if true. Was Darwin actually interested in economics to the point of reading Smith, or perhaps was he more interested in Smith's theory of moral sentiments, which belies your all-selfishness anachronistic Rand-ian reconstruction of Smith?

    Anyhow, we only hear that Darwin read Malthus, which is perhaps more to your point anyhow. A point that is unfortunately unimpeachable- that we, as all life forms, are selfish and greedy beings, along with much else.

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