Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wrong On Darwin, Right on Adam Smith

'The Age of Empathy' by Dutch psychologist and primatologist, Frans de Waal, using primate tendencies as a model, contends that humans are hard-wired for compassion. In Los Angeles Times by Sara Lippincott, a freelance editor specializing in science. HERE:

De Waal's principal thesis is that when contemplating our evolutionary heritage, we see ourselves more as natural-born competitors than natural-born empathizers and cooperators. "[U]ntil recently," he writes, "empathy was not taken seriously by science. Even with regards to our own species, it was considered an absurd, laughable topic. . . . " Some of us indeed have tended to think like Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase Darwin has been unfairly stuck with: "survival of the fittest." Indeed, some, like Hitler and the American and British eugenicists of the early 20th century, have tended to think that only the fittest ought to survive. But De Waal's readership is probably aware by now that altruism too has been built into the animal kingdom.

Nevertheless, he rightly argues that we modern humans need to recognize and cultivate our fellow feeling, "an innate age-old capacity" that has been naturally selected for -- for the excellent reason that without it we would have gone extinct long ago. "It's not as though we're asking our species to do anything foreign to it by building on the old herd instinct that has kept animal societies together for millions of years," he writes. "Every individual is connected to something larger than itself. . . . The connection is deeply felt and . . . no society can do without it."

De Waal bolsters his case with plentiful anecdotes of sweet-natured primates and contemporary examples of ill-advised human cold-bloodedness (Enron, the response to Hurricane Katrina). Along the way, you learn a lot of interesting primatological arcana, such as that apes can't swim and invariably defecate when excited.

In concluding, De Waal points out that Adam Smith, the alpha male of free marketeers, has consistently been misunderstood. Smith's disciples "leave out an essential part of his thinking, which is far more congenial to the position I have taken throughout this book, namely, that reliance on greed as the driving force of society is bound to undermine its very fabric

Frans De Waal is a much respected scientist, often working at the frontier of primate studies and human societies. Hence, when Sara Lippincott attributes to Darwin the following statement:

Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase Darwin has been unfairly stuck with: "survival of the fittest",

I am a loss to explain from where she got her ideas about the origins of the phrase, "survival of the fittest”. I am sure they do not come from Frans De Waal; at least I hope not, because Frans will be familiar with Charles Darwin’s, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex’ (1871: John Murray, London) and Darwin uses the phrase, survival of the fittest”, several times.

For example:

In an area as large as some of these islands [New Guinea, Borneo, Australia], the competition between tribe and tribe would have been sufficient, under favourable conditions, to have raised man, through the survival of the fittest, to have the inherited effect of habit, to his present high position in the organic scale” (page 157).

Either Frans is momentarily forgetful, or, more likely, Sara she carelessly summarising Frans’ observation on how often Herbert Spenser used the phrase in his arguments as an epigone of Darwin.

By the way, for balance, we should add some fairly respectable people to Hitler’s name, among whom we have Marie Stopes, Emile Zola, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, Winston Churchill, and Sidney Webb.

The last paragraph, however, is encouraging. Greed had nothing to do with Adam Smith’s theories of how humans interact socially. That notion comes from popular misattribution of “greed” as a philosophy to Smith when it was, in fact, an idea of Bernard Mandeville’s (1724).

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Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Don

Thanks for reminding me.

Gould was a writer of high quality on evolutionary science - I am not sure about "punctuated equilibrium" though.


5:34 am  

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