Friday, July 03, 2009

Myths About Charles Darwin and Adam Smith





Gavin Kennedy

Len Hart writes the The Existentialist Cowboy Blog HERE:
and posts an article “H. L. Mecken Covers the ‘Monkey Trial’ “, in which includes the following:

“Interestingly, the term "survival of the fittest" was never used by Darwin”

Evolution is often considered to be so true as to be trivial: what survives survives. Critics of Darwin will often cite the tautology though it does not support them; it supports Darwin. Species which survive pass on their genes as well as mutations. This is quite beyond debate. Every farmer who has bred for specific characteristics knows the truth of it. And every cowboy will tell you that if you kill a slow roach, you improve the breed. Evolution! Adaptation! Natural Selection! Some of the more subtle critics of "Darwin" say that "survival of the fittest" is a circular argument: the fittest are those who survive, and those who survive are deemed fittest. There are problems with that:

1. Darwin never used the term "survival of the fittest"! That dubious honor belongs to Herbert Spencer, a "Social Darwinist" who never understood Darwin, nor was he "social"!

2. Even if the term "natural selection" is more properly substituted for the bogus term "survival of the fittest", the argument is circular only if the invalid conclusion that "only the fittest survive" is added! The invalid value judgment –survival of the fittest –is falsely attributed to Darwin.

I am not wholly in disagreement with Len Hart’s article (on the Scope’s Trial) but in the interests of protecting Charles Darwin’s legacy (much like I strive to protect Adam Smith’s legacy, Len Hart (NO DOUBT IN GOOD FAITH) distorts Daewin's legacy.

I have often seen the denial that Charles Darwin ever used the term: ‘survival of the fittest’; the statement's origins is more often associated with Herbert Spencer, yet Darwin mentions to ‘survival of the fittest’ several times in his book, The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex, 1871, John Murray, London.

An example, one of several, is found in Chapter IV, “Of the Manner of the Development of Man from Some lower Form” (page 157 in the photoreproduction Princeton University Presss edition, 1981):

In an area as large as one of these islands, the competition between tribe and tribe would have been sufficient, under favourable condition, to have raised man, through the survival of the fittest, combined with the inherited effects of habit, to his present high position in the organic scale.”

It is interesting to see myths that become "facts" merely by repetition as they spread round the world with an ease which are contrary to the real facts.

Clearly, the epigones re-presenting Darwin’s ideas, are like the epigones who have represented Adam Smith’s ideas since the 1950s, who have not cared to read the authors they imply they quote from with authority (in Adam Smith’s case some of the perpetrators of the myths received the accolade of Nobel Prizes).

It's best to remember that ther 'patron saint' of all students everywhere is St Thomas, also known as 'doubting Thomas'. I always warned first year students, and on occasion reminded final year students' never to trust what they were told by their lecturers, but always check for themselves by reading all references they asserted to justify their claims about what others were supposed to have written.

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Blogger Michael Thomas said...

I really like the idea of St. Thomas the apostle as a patron saint, but I cannot confirm him as the patron saint of students. I think that his skepticism is not enshrined this way in the catholic church, rather his need to overcome doubt is the lesson they wish to teach. St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of students and scholars.

On Thomas the apostle:

I would be open to any information explaining the role of skepticism in the catholic church's historical treatment of theology, but as of yet I cannot confirm.

2:08 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Michael
I was not motivated to use the symbolic representation of 'doubting Thomas' a theological thought. He was a figure well-known to students and his basic premis was not to believe what the other apostles told him.

The history of Roman Catholic doctrine is not predominant in my mind or memory (I was brought up as a Presbyterrean). It's the story of the doubter, not what some Christians make of it.

I well understand that the Roman Catholic Church would not have left Thomas's role as a doubter in, er, doubt. That would be subversive!

I don't accept that the Church of Rome is definitive on any matters, though I respect its role to claim to be so - and to defend my right to say so.

My main point was to encourage students not to beleive everything their tutors told them, just because they had the power of examining them.

Adam Smith pointed to credulity being widespread and deep in young children (TMS VII.iv.23); as students they should, in my view, think for themselves.

3:16 pm  
Blogger Michael Thomas said...

I think I was reading too literally and missed the sarcasm in the patron saint bit about doubting Thomas. Since a group of fellow students carried Aquinas to preliminary exams and dissertation defense I was familiar with the fact that the "other" Thomas was the patron saint of students.

I still like the idea of a patron saint of skeptics. The irony suits me.
Perhaps that is why I consider Kierkegaard's "Christian Existentialism" to be the most compelling description of religion.

I was happy to see you clarify Darwin and by extention Spencer.

6:34 pm  
Blogger Crystal said...

side bar: Last summer, while on a visit to Glasgow, I came across a statue of Adam Smith in the Crystal Palace. He is shown naked, in a sitting position, with a monkey on his knee. I took a picture, but didn't capture the details of the description. It referred to Smith and Darwin, but I can't remember the interpretation of this analogy. My emails to the Crystal Palace have gone unanswered. Can you shed any light on this?

7:37 pm  

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