Sunday, June 12, 2011

From the Lost Legacy Archives, 2009:

‘Myths About Charles Darwin and Adam Smith’

‘Len Hart writes The Existentialist Cowboy Blog HERE: and posts an article “H. L. Mecken Covers the ‘Monkey Trial’ “, in which he 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. Critics of Darwin will often cite the tautology though it does not support them; it supports Darwin. Species that survive pass on their genes as well as their mutations. This is quite beyond debate. Every farmer who has bred animals 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 (allegedly) 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 very "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.”

My original 2009 Comment
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 Darwin's legacy.

I 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 photo reproduction Princeton University Press edition, 1981):

“In an area as large as one of these islands, the competition between tribe and tribe would have been sufficient, under favourable conditions, 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 ease, but 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, and who have not cared to read the authors they quote from with authority (in Adam Smith’s case, some of the perpetrators of the myths about him received the accolade of Nobel Prizes and still haven’t read Adam Smith beyond a few quotations).

It's best to remember that in my often expressed view that the 'patron saint' of all students everywhere is St Thomas, also known as 'doubting Thomas'.

I always used to warn first year students, and on occasion reminded final year students, never to trust what they were told solely by their lecturers [including me], but to always check for themselves by reading all references their lecturers asserted that justified their claims about what others were supposed to have written or believed in.

[Note: I have tidied up the above post slightly]

Yesterday (June 2011) a reader posted a comment to me:

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?

Today’s Comment
I cannot help this reader, though I lived in Glasgow for many years as a student and, later, as a youngish Senior Lecturer in economics. If there was such a statue of Adam Smith and the monkey, I do not know of it.

I know there is a statue of, or rather representing, a rather too handsome Adam Smith at Glasgow University.

There is also a recently erected statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh, across the road from the ‘City Chambers’, where he worked as a Commissioner of Customs from 1778 to 1790 (his grave in further down the Royal Mile/High Street at the Canongate Church, and next door is where he lived, Panmure House.

[Visitors to Edinburgh wishing to see these sites, should contact me, and if I am in Edinburgh and reasonably fit, I would be delighted to take you to see them.]

However, If any reader does know anything about this sighting of an Adam Smith with a monkey statue in Glasgow, please drop me a note and I shall post here.

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Blogger Len Hart said...

The phrase that most accurately describes Darwin is "Natural Selection" --not "Survival of the Fittest". In any case, the word "fittest" is biased and it is for that reason that robber would adopt it. The BEST short description of Darwin --and, as well, the phrase we used in at least 3 university courses (Biology, Economics, Philosophy) was "Natural Selection". Admittedly, it could be said that the word "natural" is likewise biased as is "fittest" but I would disagree. In context, the word "natural" refers to that "selection" which occurs "naturally" in nature as oppose to "artificial selection" as practiced by farmers, horse breeders, breeders of of any animal.

3:31 pm  
Blogger Len Hart said...

My objection to the phrase "survival of the fittest" is that it expresses a "value judgement". A farmer, for example, may wish to breed for desired traits or characteristics. That is quite correctly called "artificial selection" as it is supervised, "controlled" to a measurable extent by the breeder, the farmer. Whatever is no t "artificial selection" is accurately called "natural selection". In the American west, "cowboys" were sometimes heard saying things like "...never kill a slow roach, you just improve the breed." Conceivably, "selection" of this kind mind result is super-fast cock roaches who are sure to pass on those genes which make them fast.

8:59 pm  

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