What Charles Darwin Owes to Adam Smith


The world will be celebrating Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and 150th anniversary of his magisterial On the Origin of Species this year. Science writer Matt Ridley has a sharp essay on the linkages between the insights of economics and evolutionary biology in The Spectator. As Ridely explains:

Ideas evolve by descent with modification, just as bodies do, and Darwin at least partly got this idea from economists, who got it from empirical philosophers. Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith's economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament. Where Darwin defenestrated God, Smith had defenestrated government. Neatly, this year also sees a Smith anniversary, the 250th birthday of his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that is very Darwinian in its insistence that sympathy is what we would today call innate, that people are naturally nice as well as naturally nasty.

Ridley notes an intellectual oddity–Rightwingers champion undesigned markets but can't believe in undesigned biology; Leftwingers are the opposite.

Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the Right, Darwin by the Left. In the American South and Midwest, where Smith's individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is reviled for his contradiction of creation. Yet if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer? Conversely, in the average European biol- ogy laboratory you will find fervent believers in the individualist, emergent, decentralised properties of genomes who prefer dirigiste determinism to bring order to the economy.

I can't help but note that in my debate with intelligent design proponents from the Discovery Institute last summer, I quipped:

"Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics."

Find Ridely's excellent essay here. Read my Reason interview with Ridley, "Chiefs, Thieves, and Priests," talking about his upcoming book on how progress happens here. My talk, "Attack of the Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators," is here. A nice youtube mash-up of my Purple Space Squid talk here