Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Adam Smith and Charles Darwin

The Sensuous Curmudgeon [SC] Blog (16 December) discusses “Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection” (HERE):

[First SC quotes part of ‘the invisible hand’ reference - ‘with paragraph breaks supplied’ by SC]:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he 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
.

Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”

[I have already quoted the fuller reference in my previous post. SC asks:]

Where does Darwin’s theory of evolution fit into this?

It has often been remarked that the theory of evolution, according to which life on earth evolves without the guidance of a designer, is remarkably similar to the way a free-enterprise economy develops, with each enterprise doing its best to prosper, yet without the “benefit” of a centralized planner.

Was Charles Darwin influenced by Adam Smith? He was certainly aware of Smith’s work. Darwin mentioned Smith in Descent of Man, and provided a footnote to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. See: The Descent of Man. But that was in connection with Darwin’s discussion of emotions. It was his only mention of Smith, and he never used the expression “invisible hand.” We wish he had, as it would have been a useful metaphor for the misleading appearance of intentional design in nature.
Although it’s easy to make too much of this, we observe that throughout Origin of Species, Darwin uses the expression “economy of nature.” Additionally he has passages that literally suggest economic behavior, such as this in Chapter 4 - Natural Selection:


We leave you with the following tentative conclusions: (1) Darwin was a late product of the Scottish Enlightenment; (2) Darwin was influenced by Adam Smith’s ideas, far more than is apparent from his one mention of Smith; and (3) The theory of evolution is remarkably compatible with free enterprise economics, especially regarding the ‘invisible hand’.”

Comment
When I read Charles Darwin’s, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex’, [1871] 1981, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, in 2003 (I was researching the pre-history of bargaining at the time), I marked the paragraph referring to Adam Smith in Part 1, chapter III, p 81 and footnote 17, because it discusses, if briefly, Darwin’s assessment of Smith’s views on ‘sympathy’ from chapter 1 of Moral Sentiments.

In distinction to Smith, Darwin concludes that ‘sympathy’ became an instinct (much like Francis Hutcheson, Smith’s tutor, asserted). This certainly establishes that Charles Darwin had read Moral Sentiments, or at least chapter 1.

First, SC includes the following sentence quoted above: “It was his [Charles Darwin’s] only mention of Smith, and he never used the expression “invisible hand.”

This is a strange statement from SC given that hardly anybody mentioned the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor in the 19th century. It did not have the significance given to it from mid-20th-century onwards. From this, I conclude that SC has not himself read Wealth Of Nations with its sole reference to the metaphor and acts on the modern popular myth that the metaphor had far greater significance than was accorded to it both by Adam Smith and by his 18th- and 19th- century readers.

Secondly, SC notes that evolution suggests that “life on earth evolves without the guidance of a designer” and is “remarkably similar to the way a free-enterprise economy develops, with each enterprise doing its best to prosper, yet without the ‘benefit’ of a centralized planner”. I agree with both statements.

However, SC seems to reverse his statement, that both evolution and the economy develops without ‘benefit of a centralized planner’, with his ‘tentative conclusion’ that “the theory of evolution is remarkably compatible with free enterprise economics, especially regarding the ‘invisible hand’ ” Yet the existence of ‘an invisible hand’ would suggest that these statements are contradictory.

If life evolved without ‘intentional design’, as I believe it did, and economies evolve ‘led by an invisible hand’ (which I consider nonsense and contrary to Smith’s treatment of markets, in which he never mentions an invisible hand) then it cannot be “a useful metaphor for the misleading appearance of intentional design in nature”.

Why do we need an invisible hand metaphor to deny ‘intentional design’ when how markets evolve and operate are themselves a clear example of the denial of such an assertion to begin with?

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6 Comments:

Blogger PatrickHenry said...

Curmudgeon here (despite my Google screen name). Thanks for writing about my little article.

Actually, George Washington used "invisible hand" in his first inaugural address: "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States."

True, he wasn't talking about economics, but it seems to have been an expression that had slipped into common usage.

12:43 am  
Blogger BSF said...

Gavin: I've been of the opinion that in the following selection from TMS, Smith was coming very close to the idea of natural selection.

Brian Ferguson


"The oeconomy of nature is in this respect exactly of a piece with what it is upon many other occasions. With regard to all those ends which, upon account of their peculiar importance, may be regarded, if such an expression is allowable, as the favourite ends of nature, she has constantly in this manner not only endowed mankind with an appetite for the end which she proposes, but likewise with an appetite for the means by which alone this end can be brought about, for their own sakes, and independent of their tendency to produce it. Thus self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals. Mankind are endowed with a desire of those ends, and an aversion to the contrary; with a love of life, and a dread of dissolution; with a desire of the continuance and perpetuity of the species, and with an aversion to the thoughts of its intire extinction. But though we are in this manner endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has not been intrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason, to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them."

3:15 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks Patrick for calling in to Lost Legacy. You are welcome to make comments at any time, especially on the invisible hand metaphor.

It was indeed a common literary metaphor by the 18th Century. In my paper, “Adam Smith and the invisible hand: from metaphor to myth” I gave the following citations on its use from ancient times:

Homer (Iliad, 720 BC); ‘And from behind Zeus thrust him [Hector] on with exceeding mighty hand’; [12]

Horace, Fulminantis manus Jovis (‘The mighty hand of thundering Jove’); [13]

Ovid of Caeneus at Troy: ‘twisted and plied his invisible hand, inflicting wound within wound’;[14]

Lactantius (De divinio praemio, c.250-325): early use of ‘invisibilis’;

Augustine, 354-43 AD, “God’s ‘hand’ is his power, which moves visible things by invisible means’;[15]

Shakespeare, Macbeth(1605) ‘Thy Bloody and Invisible Hand’;[16]

Glanvill, J. 1661. ‘nature work[ing] by an invisible hand in all things’; ‘invisible intellectual agents’;[17]

Voltaire (1694-1778) in 1718) : “Tremble, unfortunate King, an invisible hand suspends above your head’; and ‘an invisible hand pushed away my presents’;[18]

Daniel Defoe, ‘A sudden Blow from an almost invisible Hand, blasted all my Happiness’, in Moll Flanders (1722); ‘it has all been brought to pass by an invisible hand’ (Colonel Jack, 1723); [19]

Nicolas Lenglet Dufesnoy (1735) an “invisible hand” has sole power over “what happens under our eyes”;[20]
Charles Rollin (1661-1741), whom Pierre Force describes as ‘very well known in English and Scottish Universities’, said of the military successes of Israeli Kings “the rapidity of their consequences ought to have enabled them to discern the invisible hand which conducted them”;[21]

William Leechman (1755): ‘the silent and unseen hand of an all wise Providence which over-rules all the events all the events of human life, and all the resolutions of the human will’;[22]

Charles Bonnet (whom Smith befriended in Geneva in 1765) wrote of the economy of the animal: “It is led towards its end by an invisible hand”;[23]


Jean-Baptiste Robinet (1761) (a translator of Hume) refers to fresh water as “those basins of mineral water, prepared by an invisible hand”;[24]

Walpole, H. 1764. ‘the door was clapped-to with violence by an invisible" hand’[25]

Reeve, C. (1778) ‘Presently after, he thought he was hurried away by an invisible hand, and led into a wild heath’.[26]
[All end notes in my paper are downloadable from the Lost Legacy Home page]

That George Washington used it too in his inauguration (30 April 1789) is well known and as an educated person he probably read Defoe and knew Shakespeare’s ‘Scotch’ play. No doubt there are many others I have not picked up yet.

But my point is that ‘the invisible hand’ implies a hidden process, perhaps, as some religious writers claim, it is the ‘hand of God’. This latter Godly view leads to ‘intelligent design’ ideas which are the antipathy of evolution by natural selection.
I re-read your paragraphs several times but still found it difficult ((my fault, not yours) to disentangle your precise meaning.

Apologies if I am mistaken in the meaning I placed on your article.

1:38 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Brian
It’s always a pleasure to hear from you and thanks for your comment.

I agree completely with your observation (which readers will find at TMS II.i.10: pp 77-8).

Adam Smith also comes close to evolutionary thinking in several places and implies as much in all of his works.

Jim Otteson, Adam Smith’s Market Place of Life, 2002, Cambridge University Press presents an interesting literary model of evolutionary thinking in Smith’s Works (see p 124) and I have picked his ideas up in my ‘Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy’, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan (summarized in figures 2.1 and 2.2, pp 42-43).

Jim Otteson applied his evolutionary model to Moral Sentiments (1759), Wealth Of Nations (1776) and Origins of Language (1761), and I have added History of Astronomy (1744-58) and Lectures in Jurisprudence
(1762-3).

Some theists/Deists find God or intelligent design in these forays by Adam Smith towards evolutionary thinking.

I am currently researching these issues for a paper on the subject and will report in due course.

2:01 pm  
Blogger PatrickHenry said...

Gavin, you wrote:

"But my point is that ‘the invisible hand’ implies a hidden process, perhaps, as some religious writers claim, it is the ‘hand of God’. This latter Godly view leads to ‘intelligent design’ ideas which are the antipathy of evolution by natural selection."

Perhaps I've mis-understood Adam Smith all these years. I've always taken his "invisible hand" to mean that people only seem to be working toward the common prosperity, as if they were so guided -- but in reality, by seeking only their own prosperity, the common good emerges. It appears to have been intended, but the "hand" doesn't exist. And so it is with evolution.

Also, George Washington may have picked up the phrase "invisible hand" from one of the literary sources you listed, but because Smith's book was published in 1776, I just assumed that Washington got the phrase from there.

3:41 pm  
Blogger voltara said...

Adam Smith observed the same phenomenon as natural selection. Profit => life.

9:26 am  

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