Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Smith's and Darwin's Evolutionary Models

The ‘debate’ between religion and science is much sharper in the United States than in the UK. Recently, it became a debate about ‘Intelligent Design’ versus evolution, a subject less fraught here than in North American media. The fact that in the UK the consensus about the validity of evolution has not caused a crisis among Christians or Jews, or a collapse of their religious values, ought to give comfort to those who feel unable to accept any questions about theology in case their religious faith erodes. That the Roman Catholic Church has accepted much of the theory of evolution, without abandoning one iota of its faith, is comforting to those worried on that score.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic (
www.skeptic.com) and author of ‘Why Darwin Matters’, enters the debate with an article in Scientific American (October 2006): ‘Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution’. The part of his article that caught my attention deals with evolution and free market economics:

Evolution explains conservative free-market economics. Charles Darwin's "natural selection" is precisely parallel to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of competition among individual organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of competition among individual people. Nature's economy mirrors society's economy. Both are designed from the bottom up, not the top down.

Because the theory of evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, it should be embraced. The senseless conflict between science and religion must end now, or else, as the Book of Proverbs (11:29) warned: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."

It is a neat argument to link a Conservative economic totem (the free market) to religious belief. Unfortunately, the way Shermer does this is false. Darwin’s natural selection is not ‘precisely parallel’ to Adam Smith’s metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’. Darwin makes a statement, not a metaphor, about an evolutionary process – ‘natural selection’ – while Adam Smith used a ‘metaphor’, not a statement. Darwin’s evolution had content; the metaphor of the so-called invisible hand’ had none.

Of course, Shermer only picks up what US faculty teaches, namely a so-called ‘theory of markets’, wrapped round a metaphor. It helps in this context that Christians (and Jews and Muslims) believe in an invisible God, which must be attractive to believers in ‘invisible hands’. Indeed, several economists have suggested that Smith meant by ‘an invisible hand’ something related to a Deity (see Jerry Evensky, for example, ‘Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy’, Cambridge, 2005). But it is still a false prospectus because that is not what Smith meant. He was not even writing about ‘markets’ on the two occasions in which he used the metaphor, one each in ‘Moral Sentiments’ and ‘Wealth of Nations’. His use of ‘the invisible hand of Jupiter’ in his essay on ‘Astronomy’ was about pagan religious superstition.

He did not consider that ‘national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of competition among individual people’. Wealth – the annual output of the ‘necessaries and conveniences’ of society – did not require social harmony. If society had to enjoy ‘perfect liberty’ to produce goods, no society in the history of the Earth would have done so, yet they did, despite regimes showing degrees of disharmony from mild to tyrannical for almost the entire history of the human species. Perfect liberty has never, yet, been experienced; Smith opined that it was unlikely that they would ever do so.

Social harmony arose, not from competition between peoples, but precisely the opposite. Individuals learned about acceptable moral behaviour from within those elements of society to which they were exposed from the family, childhood and the ‘great school of self command’, i.e., interactions with others as they grew up to adulthood, and their exposure to ‘impartial spectators’ of their conduct.

There is a major difference between biological evolution, what Shermer forces into a statement called ‘Nature's economy’, and ‘ society's economy’. Biological evolution takes a vastly greater amount of time to work through, while social evolution in society is vastly quicker. Human language and knowledge is capable of speeding up social evolutionary processes. Perhaps, one day in the future, science may ‘speed up’ biological evolution but for the present is remains slower.

Economic change shows characteristic of biological change. It is undirected, undesigned, and uncontrollable. The most economists can do is remove inhibitions that slow down growth towards opulence. That was Smith’s purpose in writing his report on what caused the creation of wealth. His model had many elements in it of a social evolutionary model. He looked backwards in history for his data. Darwin looked around him from his Beagle voyage and collected reports and samples from a vast array of correspondents from around the world on the flora and fauna, while evolutionary geologists, such as Smith’s friend, James Hutton, looked at where rock formations were in late 18th-century Britain and thought about how they got into their then present states.

I cover the Smithian social evolutionary model in my forthcoming book, ‘Adam Smith’, Palgrave, 2007. You can also read a positive contribution on the social evolutionary model in Jim Ottesons’ ‘Market Place of Life’, 2002.


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