Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Adam Smith versus or with Darwin?

In an interesting essay in Mother Jones, James K. Galbraith writes that according to Louis Menand;
God and science really don't mix. Darwin didn't invent evolution. He invented Godless Evolution. Menand writes: "On the Origin of Species was published on November 24, 1859. The word 'evolution' barely appears in it. Many scientists by 1859 were evolutionists---that is, they believed that species had not been created once and for all, but had changed over time.... The purpose of On the Origin of Species was not to introduce the concept of evolution; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence---the idea that the universe is the result of an idea."
Menand goes on to say, according to Galbraith, "What was radical about On the Origin of Species was not its evolutionism, but its materialism."

Sorry? Are we reading the same Origin of Species? The one that says
Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. [Chapter XIV, p388]
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [p490]
? Sure, Darwin does say that using a Creator as an explanation adds nothing to our understanding:
... many naturalists think that something more is meant by the Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge. [Chapter XIII, p412]
On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is;--that it has so pleased the Creator to construct each animal and plant. [p425]
But this is hardly new to Darwin. Science had been slowly ridding itself of theological explanations for natural phenomena for over a century by then, and many of those who did so were happily theists - like Darwin was when he published the Origin, or rather, he was a deist, believing in a higher power that made the world as we see it.

In his Autobiography, written when he was an old man, Darwin wrote that he took a long time giving up his relatively orthodox theist beliefs, and it was the awful death of his favourite daughter, Annie, that tipped him over, as one can read in his descendent Randall Keynes' Annie's Box. But he never gave up belief in a god, nor was he ever a materialist in the sense then in fashion (i.e., rejecting any possibility that non-material things existed).

Galbraith's essay gets worse - he then misleadingly calls Adam Smith and those who followed him believers in Intelligent Design. Now since ID was a long-standing tradition in British thought, and the zenith (or nadir depending on how you measure it) of that tradition was the Rev. William Paley's Natural Theology (1804) at about the same time. Let us consider what Smith wrote 30 years earlier about his "hidden hand" effect that Galbraith calls "a world governed by a benevolent system of natural law":
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. [The Wealth of Nations, IV.2.9]
Is the invisible hand here the outworking of intelligent design? Is there a benevolence involved? Obviously not. Smith's point is that markets increase wealth despite the intentions of the players. He immediately goes on to say
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.
Intelligent Design, on the other hand, has order imposed from without. In the ID view, the world is simply incapable of order without guidance, as Paley said of his watch example:

THIS is atheism: for every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity. [Chapter 3, p17f]
Is Smith's market intelligently designed? Obvious not. Are living things intelligently designed? Darwin argued not, but despite this, he did not promote materialism or atheism; he promoted science and the scientific method. His contemporaries, such as the ill-fated Captain Fitzroy, certainly thought it promoted atheism and materialism, and the literature ever since has replayed that claim again and again, but many good theists, such as Asa Gray, accepted Darwin's mechanism of natural selection as an explanation of adaptation. Others, such as Haeckel, adopted a kind of deism in which Natural Selection was an intended improver. But the Origin was mostly influential not because of Natural Selection, which failed to gain much scientific support for another 80 years, but because of its proposal for Common Descent - this explained, where special creation did not, the distribution of traits in the taxonomic groups observed then and now.

Literary critics in Darwin's day and until the modern era read Darwin through these false spectacles, which colour everything Voltairish. Some critics, who do not read Darwin directly, accuse him of Nietzsche's errors. At least one treated such an attack as a disproof of Darwinian ideas, as if literary links poisoned the well of evidence.

Galbraith notes Thorsten Veblen's suggestion in 1894 that we should be evolutionary about our economics. He mocks the language used:

Yet economists resisted Veblen's message. Sentences like this one---though my favorite in all economics---might possibly help explain why he didn't quite get through: "If we are getting restless under the taxonomy of a monocotyledonous wage doctrine and a cryptogamic theory of interest, with involute, loculicidal, tomentous and moniliform variants, what is the cytoplasm, centrosome or karyokinetic process to which we may turn, and in which we may find surcease from the metaphysics of normality and controlling principles?"

(Don't get it? Sorry, can't help you.)

Perhaps I can. This was a time when an educated person was expected to have read a fair bit. Botany was just the least of it. Linnaeus' system of classification was taught to most people, at least in basics, and so writers could expect their readers to know that Linnaeus' Natural System classified things artificially, by whether they had one or more seed leaves (monocotyledons), or produced spores rather than seeds (cryptogams), and so on. Veblen is saying here - let's avoid making artificial classifications the way botanists did before Darwin. Stop pretending that these uncover the actual causes of processes in economics. And his readers, whether they agreed or not, should have understood him. So should we.

Some have, too. A school of thought known as Evolutionary Economics has developed. The leading proponents are Nelson and Winter, whose book An evolutionary account of economic change in 1982 set things going again, and a discussion can be found here in PDF. I've even written about this myself.

I can agree with much of what Galbraith has said - economics like many human endeavours is rife with magical agents. And I believe that the way Smith dealt with markets and Darwin with adaptations is a good approach. But I really do think we need to be a lot more careful in the way we express the issues. Smith is evolutionary. That those who have followed him and ignored the obvious shortcomings of relying on evolution for an optimal outcome are not really, is besides the point.

If a system evolves, then extinctions happen. Also, deadends, arms races that are incredibly wasteful of resources, adaptive lags, vestigial loads, and regression. Economics as a science should pay attention to the ways these facts pan out in biology, in particular in ecology. There, the Tragedy of the Commons is no fluke, but a routine event.

Thomas Henry Huxley wrote that we must not try to order our society like a "pigeon fancier's polity", in his marvellous Evolution and Ethics (1893):
Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.
thus anticipating G. E. Moore's attack on Herbert Spencer's abuse of evolution by 10 years. We must, I agree, learn from these intelligent folk of the nineteenth century, but not by smearing them through the lenses of the twentieth. Culture does indeed evolve, and economics is a part of culture, but there are no guarantees it will progress any more than there are guarantees a lineage will get more complex or survive in biology.

The Intelligent Designists of modern economics, and I have no reason to think there is not just such a faith about as Galbraith suggests there is, are not the heirs to Smith, or his successors like David Ricardo, even if Smith did have the now-unreasonable belief that the market would be overall progressive. He simply didn't know about the Tragedy of the Commons or the Simpson's Paradox in the then uninvented game theory; that's not his fault. But Darwin was under no illusions of that kind. So to that extent, I concur with Galbraith. Bring on Darwin. But bring on the real Darwin, and the real Adam Smith...