What Charles Darwin Owes to Adam Smith

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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

NEXT: The Next Catastrophe

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  1. Duh. The only question is, how is the relationship between biological evolution and free market economics not self-evident?

  2. Rightwingers champion undesigned markets but can’t believe in undesigned biology; Leftwingers are the opposite.

    So righwingers leave biological design up to God.
    If only Leftwingers would do the same for economic planning and regulation.

  3. Two more good examples of largely unplanned dynamic systems: natural language and the Internet.

    It would be interesting to see the correlations between prescriptivist grammarians (‘”Ain’t” isn’t a word’), Internet regulators, ID advocates, and central planners.

  4. “Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics.”

    While I know what you are trying to say, I take issue with the statement. I believe you mean to say that intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what command economics is to free-market economics. Socialism implies some will common to all other creatures is being carried out and that all humans and animals on earth have some ownership in their world and dole out benefits accordingly. You’re looking for an analogy that says “top down, I know what’s best, but you have free will.”

  5. ‘Duh. The only question is, how is the relationship between biological evolution and free market economics not self-evident?’

    I have always thought the same thing; the beautiful similarities between the two systems are quite striking.

    I’ve also never understood why anyone would prefer living under some authority, be it a [G]od or Dear Leader. The only people with rightful authority over you should be your parents (if they’re not insane) and your employer, and then only because they pay you.

  6. I’m surprised Matt Ridley does not mention Michael Shermer in his essay. Dr. Shermer has studied the Darwin/Smith link extensively. Surely worth a look.

  7. Individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage in the South and Midwest? They have a weird way of showing it considering these are the areas that kept voting in the six year Republican hold on power that gave us the biggest expansion of government in 40 some years.

  8. Libertarians and Social Darwinists, cozying up together. Who could have predicted this? (raises hand)

  9. It would be interesting to see the correlations between prescriptivist grammarians (‘”Ain’t” isn’t a word’), Internet regulators, ID advocates, and central planners.

    So a prescriptivist grammarian, a Internet regulator and a central planner walk into a bar…

  10. Individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage in the South and Midwest? They have a weird way of showing it considering these are the areas that kept voting in the six year Republican hold on power that gave us the biggest expansion of government in 40 some years.

    What do you mean? They also elected Mike Huckabee.

    Oh wait… I mean… err…

    They elected Charlie Crist.

    Oh wait… let’s see… uhh…

    Crap. Never Mind.

  11. SIV | January 12, 2009, 12:32pm | #

    Rightwingers champion undesigned markets but can’t believe in undesigned biology; Leftwingers are the opposite.

    So righwingers leave biological design up to God.
    If only Leftwingers would do the same for economic planning and regulation.

    LOL. Agreed. Thanks for the post Bailey. Remeber, February 12th is Darwin day. Check out http://www.darwinday.org for events in your area.

  12. Who are these champions of free markets on the right that I keep hearing about?

  13. Warren, Sarah Palin for one. Plus she gives me little starbursts. < 3

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

    That’s because the characterizations of Smith and Darwin are wrong. Smith was not a libertarian and Darwin was not an atheist. Both of their philosophical treatises were chock full of errors that had to be fixed by their intellectual heirs.

    What they had in common was pragmatism. Smith believed that government was necessary to order society, but was wise enough to know that an economy could not be ordered. Darwin believed in God, but was smart enough to recognize the allegorical mythology of Genesis.

  15. Letifi | January 12, 2009, 12:51pm | #
    Libertarians and Social Darwinists, cozying up together. Who could have predicted this? (raises hand)

    lefti/ edweirdo, misspelling his own handle and fallaciously conflating evolutionary biology/ Darwinism with Social Darwinism. Who couldn’t have predicted this?

    A: no one

  16. In the American South and Midwest, where Smith’s individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage…

    This is so obviously false, it kind of ruins the whole article for me.

  17. So righwingers leave biological design up to God.
    If only Leftwingers would do the same for economic planning and regulation.

    In others words, either thing should be left to no one, nothing, etc.

  18. “Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics.”

    I can see the sentiment here, but that isn’t true. Socialism is a normative idea; intelligent design is a descriptive one. It’s apples and oranges.

    Put another way, the theory of evolution is science. It might be nice to claim Darwin as our own — and maybe Darwin the man was one of our own, influenced as he was by Smith and Ricardo and Harriet Martineau and the rest. But the science itself, the fossil and genetic record, is just science, not libertarian or liberal or conservative. The Galapagos finches know nothing of our squabbles over their beaks. Claiming otherwise is only going to make some people turn away from science. It will be easy for people to say “I’m not one of them, I don’t have to believe their evolution propaganda,” if evolution is presented in the press as some kind of cheerleading for a particular ideology.

  19. Darwin defenestrated God

    Richard Dawkins et al. notwithstanding, I don’t believe this is true. One could say he pushed God farther back, with evidence that He wasn’t creating every creature in the way the Bible describes. But I’ve never seen why evolution by natural selection proves atheism, any more than Copernican astronomy or Newtonian physics did. The fevered anti-Darwinism in some quarters of the Right makes no sense to me. (Neither does the fevered anti-sociobiology in some quarters of the Left.) And I say this as an agnostic.

  20. I’ve never seen an example where one of these apple and orange type comparisons actually raised the level of a debate. They are not really helpful, sure you can say that socialism is the ID of political science, but that is not meaningful beyond a metaphorical level, or you could say, free markets and evolutionary origin are copacetic, but is that the only possibility? If there was a Godhead why would at least one avatarian specie not be programmed for autonomy?

    As a firm agnostic given to the probability I and no one else knows the ultimate ends, I say let’s try to keep things grounded, as this sort of conflating of political and ultimate means never comes out pretty (see modern Palestine).

  21. And Newton, of course, relied on Kepler, who could not have developed his ideas without Tyco Brahe.

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

    I have the solution: let them both found a church and leave their ideas out of politics.

  22. Darwin believed in God, but was smart enough to recognize the allegorical mythology of Genesis.

    Darwin was an agnostic later in life actually. So, yes, he believed in God at one point but then started doubting later on.

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

    There are, of course, meaningful differences between markets and species that allow this without too much cognitive dissonance.

    I would also add that part of the natural development of markets is that they tend to develop regulatory structures. This is also true of biological systems.

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

    I agree this is a poorly structured analogy on many levels.

  24. Let’s take this a bit farther, just for fun.

    Think about dogs.

    Dogs were a product of undesigned biology, and as a species are still coherent on that level.

    However, dogs are also among the most designed species around (along with cattle, etc…). The intentional breeding programs that gave us the wide number of dog breeds were undertaken to meet certain needs.

    So the question is:
    Are markets more like domesticated animal species or like wild animals? Are domesticated markets more useful to people than wild markets?

  25. Additional question along that line of reasoning:

    1) What is the relationship between domesticated markets and wild markets?

    2) Does market in-breeding lead to maladaption overtime?

  26. Neu:

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

    I agree this is a poorly structured analogy on many levels.

    Of course you do.

  27. um…

    make that “over time”

  28. “Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics.”

    Intelligent Design doesn’t necessarily require a central planner anymore than an economy does.

    It is certainly true that everyone seeking their own best interests creates the best of the results we see in both evolutionary biology and economics. …I would argue that the chief difference between them is that economics requires rights–let’s not let ourselves be easily confused with the Social Darwinists, shall we?

    The economic currency of human evolution, by the way, is called “love”. We libertarians should study it more and put a higher priority on the rights of women.

  29. Ron,

    Of course you do.

    Nice snark.

    Do you have a reply to the criticisms above, or shall I add to the list of ways the analogy is inapt?

  30. Rights as a social adaptation makes for interesting study too, I think.

  31. Just reread H.L. Mencken’s masterful reportage of the Scopes trial. Highly recommended for those few (nontrolls) here who have never had the pleasure or taken the time.

  32. “Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics.”

    I expect Ron was hoping to provoke some minds to think about the similarities in the two systems, how order appears from seeming chaos, etc., that comprehension of evolutionary biology and ecosystems might contain a key to comprehending economic systems in a similar light, and vice versa.

  33. Neu: All analogies are by definition inexact. In any case,

    ID = God as central planner

    Socialism: An economic system in which the basic means of production are primarily owned and controlled collectively, usually by government under some system of central planning. Directed allocation of social product.

    Evolution: The undirected process of natural selection.

    Free-markets: Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are owned by private persons, and operated for profit and where investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are predominantly determined through the operation of a free markets. Undirected allocation of social product.

    And you’re complaining about “snark”? Amazing.

  34. We have four entities in our analogy.

    1) intelligent design
    2) evolutionary biology
    3) socialism
    4) free-market economics

    1 & 2 are attempts to describe how the world “is.” They are related in that 1 is a vague (poorly formed) criticism of a very specific aspect of a well developed science-based theory that attempts (however poorly) to modify the well developed theory to include an additional element (the initiator/designer that got the process started).

    3 & 4 are normative theories about markets. They say how markets “ought to be” not how “they are.”

    Socialism is not a proposed addition to free-market economics explanation of “how the world is” it is a competing theory of “how the world ought to be.”

  35. Ron,

    And you’re complaining about “snark”? Amazing.

    I was complementing your snark.
    No complaints here.

  36. All analogies are by definition inexact.

    Not really true, but I was not complaining that your analogy was “inexact,” but that it was “poorly structured.”

    Inexact does not = inapt.
    Poorly structured might, as in this case = inapt.

    The snark complement comes because your comment managed to imply that I was on the side of ID and/or socialism when, in fact, I was just criticizing the form of the analogy.

    Another problem I have with the analogy: you set up “Free-market” economics as on-par with “evolutionary biology” as if they were at similar levels of scientific rigor.

  37. I don’t think Paul Krugman, for example, would say he’s disrespecting Adam Smith. For that matter, having read a little bit of Smith, I think he’s a lot more original and complex that you give him credit for.

    In general, I think it’s weird for an avowedly libertarian site like Reason to spend so much time dividing the world into Red and Blue teams, when its very existence demonstrates that the world doesn’t work that way.

  38. Maybe we can revise the analogy:

    ID is to Darwin as Marxism is to Adam Smith.

  39. “The world will be celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday”

    Really? The world?

  40. Bluto: OK. OK. I’m just hopeful.

  41. Libertarians and Social Darwinists, cozying up together. Who could have predicted this?

    The opposite of Social Darwinism is Social Eugenics.

    So count me amongst the Social Darwinists.

  42. Neu: My analogy is meant to focus the listeners’ attention on the central planning aspects of both ID and socialism versus the undirected nature of both evolution and markets. That is all.

    In any case, my analogy was a retort issued in the context of the debate with Discovery Institute IDer George Gilder who was incoherently trying to claim that he was shocked that people who believed in freedom (a libertarian like me) would also believe in evolutionary biology. Evidently, Gilder believes that evolutionary biology by being undirected undermines the free will granted humans by God, or some such idea.

  43. That’s okay. I just get bothered lately when writers of any strip use “the world” in their writing.

    As I read it in your piece I immediately pictured images of huge populations on massive swaths of terra firma that don’t have the slightest idea who Darwin was, juxtaposed with media coverage of the stroke of midnight New Years Day.

  44. “Neu: My analogy is meant to focus the listeners’ attention on the central planning aspects of both ID and socialism versus the undirected nature of both evolution and markets. That is all”

    God is omnipresent, not centrally located.

  45. strip = stripe

  46. http://www.motherjones.com/commentary/columns/2005/12/smith_darwin.html

    A starkly different take for sure.

    Economists, on the other hand, have been Intelligent Designers since the beginning. Adam Smith was a deist; he believed in a world governed by a benevolent system of natural law. Consider this familiar passage from Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, with its now mostly forgotten anti-globalization flavor:

    “By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry [every individual] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention?. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

    Smith’s Creator did not interfere. He simply wrote the laws and left them for events to demonstrate and man to discover. The greatest American economist, Thorstein Veblen, observed that “the guidance of?the invisible hand takes place?through a comprehensive scheme of contrivances established from the beginning.” What is this if not Intelligent Design?

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

    There seem to be two different meanings to “believe in” here, related to the problems with the analogy between socialism and intelligent design that Neu Mexican noted.

    Rightwingers literally cannot believe in undesigned biology–that is, they do not believe it exists, or could possibly exist.

    Leftwingers can’t “believe in” undesigned markets in the sense that they don’t believe they are a good thing, not that they don’t exist.

    Ron Bailey, do you think evolution produces life forms that are morally or ethically superior to those that become extinct? Because I think that’s what socialists believe about command economies.

  48. ID = God as central planner

    I still think of ID as an attempt to rationalize the possibility of a creationism without a central planner.

    And I think it’s more than just a nuanced difference there if creationists are effectively conceding the evolutionary process.

    What I was trying to say is that I think it’s possible to believe in a designer who put the conditions together that made the amino acids we evolved from possible. Whether this designer knew the end from the begining seems to be the question among IDers, and I suspect there are IDers who don’t assume the designer necessarily knew where his experiment would end.

    Regardless, ID doesn’t hold that there’s a central planner directing evolution to wherever it goes.

    There’s a difference too between the intervention of a hypothetical designer and a designer who knows the ultimate outcome. …like knowing that a 7 will come up more often than snake eyes doesn’t necessarily mean the dice are loaded.

  49. Agreed with NM and dannyk. Can’t we drop the specious comparisons? There are some nice metaphors linking markets to evolution. I like NM’s “wild” and “tame” analogy, and would also mention the ideas of stable equilibria and the unintended consequences of manipulation. But it’s really not a useful analogy, in that it doesn’t give us any new insights about either field.

    It seems — not to be too hard on Ron Bailey for writing a good post — that this is just a kind of self-congratulation for our crowd. Lucky us, we believe in both evolution and free markets! (And, presumably, not in God.) I just don’t think it’s necessary. Yay Darwin, yay Smith, yay to undesigned systems — but let’s not stretch a metaphor too far.

  50. parse,

    Good points.
    See my question related to domesticated animals/markets above…

    Are domesticated markets more useful than wild markets?

    Can intentional design improve the performance of an evolved entity for a specific purpose?

  51. ‘Are markets more like domesticated animal species or like wild animals? Are domesticated markets more useful to people than wild markets?’

    If by ‘domesticated’ you mean not going to the bathroom all over the place (in the market context, this means not polluting and paying compensation for pollution you commit), then I would say markets ought to be like domesticated animals.

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

    Moral equivalence rules! The ideology of atheistic socialism is exactly the same as the belief that ‘the heavens proclaim the glory of God.’

    ‘Dirigisme has a place, of course, in the regulation and operation if not the design of institutions. A school cannot work without a teacher, a firm without a manager, or an army without a general – just as a body is directed by a brain in its everyday operations.’

    And creation cannot work without a Creator. Duh.

  52. From Ridley:

    He makes an case for the evolution of technology.

    I think this is an important element in the discussion.

    To begin, we need to establish whether “markets” are a technology or not.

    If not, why not?

    And what role does the engineer have in the process of technology’s evolution. I think Ridley stretches a bit.

  53. Can intentional design improve the performance of an evolved entity for a specific purpose?

    War-making and a concurrent command economy might be viewed this way.

  54. I totally buy the analogy, by the way… I don’t even think it’s an analogy.

    There’s an invisible hand that seems to guide the process of evolution. It gave us everything from humanity to the duckbilled platypus and that fish with the bioluminescent thingy hanging in front of its mouth. That hand, it works by the same mechanism that guides markets and moral sentiments.

    Applying game theory to mating is as natural as could be. It’s all the same thing.

    And anybody who understands the process of evolution well enough to make fun of creationists for it should be ashamed of themselves if they’re advocating for a planned economy. People who throw stones shouldn’t live in glass houses.

  55. I was thinking about this very subject, comparing Adam Smith to Darwin, on a different site. And what made me think of it was something I came across written by Schopenhauer. I’ll be damned if what he’s talking about below isn’t human evolution and the substance of things being decided by millions of individuals making individual choices.

    “All the love-affairs of the present generation taken altogether are accordingly the meditatio compositionis generationis futurae, e qua iterum pendent innumerae generationes of mankind. Love is of such high import, because it has nothing to do with the weal or woe of the present individual, as every other matter has; it has to secure the existence and special nature of the human race in future times; hence the will of the individual appears in a higher aspect as the will of the species; and this it is that gives a pathetic and sublime import to love-affairs, and makes their raptures and troubles transcendent, emotions which poets for centuries have not tired of depicting in a variety of ways. There is no subject that can rouse the same interest as love, since it concerns both the weal and woe of the species, and is related to every other which only concerns the welfare of the individual as body to surface.”

    http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/essays/chapter12.html

    I don’t know if Schopenhauer wrote that before or after Darwin published, either way, both Darwin and Adam Smith appear to be right there in the middle of it.

  56. Darwin owes the bearer the sum of ten pounds

    http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/current/current_10.htm

    Smith owes the bearer the sum of twenty pounds

    http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/current/new_20.htm

  57. The real similarity between classical liberal theory and evolutionary biology is technology
    or rather how free markets act for technology
    as a jungle acts for an animal.

    if you look at the development of piece of technology
    there is usually an original model then variations on that model, different features and different designs. The market acts to cut away the less successful designs and technology evolves.

    Thats why the UK and the US gave the world most common household appliances and the USSR didn’t develop anything useful and just reverse engineered other countries ideas

    This is actually one of the reasons why relative wealth is important. Initially only top range mobile phones had cameras. This technological Darwinism would allow for several different camera designs to be evaluated by the market and as the successful designs pushed through pretty much any phone has one now.
    If you have a centrally planned economy you’d have to say from day 1 all mobile phones must have a camera with design A and even if its not the best design it will remain.

    On another note coming from a country where Charles Darwin is on a bank note its absolutely inconceivable that 40 odd percent of yanks don’t believe in evolution. Maybe that’s state brainwashing

  58. It is ridiculous, MaterialMonkee, that people would believe some musty old book of fairy tales more than scientific evidence. Give it up for the American educational system.

  59. “Are markets more like domesticated animal species or like wild animals? Are domesticated markets more useful to people than wild markets?”

    Wouldn’t it depend on which people?

    A domesticated market produced $40 billion for the good folks at AIG. I’m guessing they’re happy with the progeny.

    Domestications like the English Mastiff and General Motors might have trouble competing in more wild environments. While large, they carry a lot of extra weight, and suffer from other inbred defects.

  60. I think the analogy between free markets and materialistic-random evolution break down when you are trying to explain how the chemical became the biological.

    In a free-market system, there are intelligent agents acting in a non-random manner.

    In materialistic evolution, you have atoms bouncing around randomly, without any purpose or intention, crashing together and allegedly forming life.

    If the evolutionists would just admit that there are either non-random variations, or non-random selection, then evolution would make sense.

    Otherwise it really is a tornado in a junkyard.

    A more proper analogy would be if the “free” market consisted of literally insane people, acting entirely randomly, and whether a coherent market system would evolve from that. My guess is no….everyone would starve and die.

    It’s the same with the nascent life of 3 GYA.

  61. @Jeremy: “I think the analogy between free markets and materialistic-random evolution break down when you are trying to explain how the chemical became the biological.”

    Your attempt at deconstruction self-destructs due to a misunderstanding of evolution: it is most certainly NOT random. In fact, it’s anything BUT random. Evolutionary theory is sometimes broken down into two components: Random mutation and natural selection. While the appearance of mutations is random, natural selection, the process by which evolution works, certainly ISN’T. Natural selection is teleological (although biologists often eschew that word) in that it has a goal: survival. Trait selection is predicated on how well it contributes toward a species’ survival.

    So that analogy of agents/nature acting in a non-random manner is quite apt, indeed.

  62. Bill Snedden,

    You seem to misunderstand Jeremy on at least two levels.

    Doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems with the veracity of his comment, just that you are missing the main ones.

    His is a defense of ID. He, it appears, wants the random mutations to be Intelligently designed.

    Or he wants natural selection to be goal oriented.

    You give him hope with this:

    While the appearance of mutations is random, natural selection, the process by which evolution works, certainly ISN’T. Natural selection is teleological (although biologists often eschew that word) in that it has a goal: survival.

    But in this, you are mistaken. The goal of survival is held by the individual, not by natural selection.

    Natural selection just sets the requirements the individual needs to meet in order to survive.

    Natural selection would not care if all life died out. It is not goal directed.

  63. The Green Revolution is to the ecology what socialism is to free-market economics.

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