Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the Errors of Robert Franks. Again

Erica Augenstein posts (29 November) in The Cornell Daily Sun a report of Robert Frank’s idea that Charles Darwin was the founder of economics, not Adam Smith

Cornell Professor's Theory Relates Economics to Theory of Evolution

Prof. Robert Frank, management and economics, detailed his new theory of how capitalism can be explained by Darwinian concepts at a lecture in the Plant Sciences building on Monday.

As detailed in his recently published book, The Darwin Economy, Frank explains that natural evolutionary behavior leads people to consume more in order to compete with the relative wealth of others.

For instance, “The middle class admires the rich and attempts to mimic them, which leads to more consumption,” Frank said. These behaviors allow individuals to fight for resources in the global market, much like animals in a Darwinian system.
Frank said that the parallels extend to the potential drawbacks of Darwinian evolution. Just as some evolution creates inefficiencies for animals, some habits of individuals in the marketplace, such as conspicuous consumption, can hurt people.
“The large antlers on the bull elk are good for winning battles for females, but make the bull elk more cumbersome,” Frank said. “This behavior is brought on by competition like a military arms race.”

This Darwinian theory provides an alternative to Smith’s “invisible hand” theory, which suggests that deregulation allows self-interest to advance societal interest. However, Frank’s theory is not meant to absolutely contend with Smith’s, Frank said.
“Smith explains how often there are effects of self interest. I have no quarrel with his insight,” Frank said.

Frank said he disagrees more with contemporary disciples of Smith who, he said, wrongly interpret the principle of the invisible hand to be the sole determinant of the forces of capitalism.

“It is not the whole story,” Frank said of this interpretation. “It is a naïve version of Smith.

Frank’s views on Charles Darwin are naïve versions of natural selection. For example: “The large antlers on the bull elk are good for winning battles for females, but make the bull elk more cumbersome,” Frank said. “This behavior is brought on by competition like a military arms race.”

Elks compete for sexual access to females. It is in their nature (and found in all living creatures that breed by sexual activity). Elks engage in sexual competition whether they had large or small antlers and some elks with small or smaller antlers continue to have progeny. Because of genetic changes some elks gain an advantage over other males from their bulk and strength. They have more progeny as a result, passing on their genes to more descendants. But they do not have any control or consciousness of their genetic inheritance and they could never consciously choose the size of their antlers. They cannot ‘mimic’ rivals with larger antlers ever! They have no control over their genes. By the time they are born it is too late. The size of their antlers is already determined.

Franks does not seem to understand natural selection. In comparing the participants in an economy, who consciously choose their actions within social constraints, with the blind forces of natural selection, Frank is in error. His is “a naïve version of Smith.” Therefore, he mistakes the so-called antler behaviours as an ‘arms race’.

It’s the wrong metaphor, much like his misunderstanding throughout his book of Smith’s use of the IH metaphor.

Frank’s version of Darwinian theory: does not provide an “alternative to Smith’s “invisible hand” "theory” on two counts.
First count is that Adam Smith never had a ‘theory’ of ‘an invisible hand’. Frank got that misattribution from modern economists, most not having read Wealth Of Nations, including, on this reading, suspect neither has Frank (see my review of his book on Lost Legacy in 2 parts, 23 September 2011). The other count is that Darwin never had a theory of natural election as represented by Frank’s misattribution.

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Blogger michael webster said...

Gavin, you need to read more of Frank in the original. His observation is that natural selection has produced a result for elks which people can avoid.

2:44 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Nice to hear from you.

I have a copy of Frank's book and I read ad reviewed it. Could you let me a reference to where he makes the point that you mention, please?

I drew my conclusions from the message he was making (though I do not care a toss about who is the 'father of economics'). I have read Darwin's set of books on natural selection, so I am familiar with it, and books by his successors. That is why I reacted to what I read in Franks' book more than once without qualification (not about what he said by third parties).

I am always ready to correct misstatements I make on Lost Legacy (or elsewhere).


2:54 pm  

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