Someone Else Understands Darwin & Economics

This is amazing. We never thought we’d live long enough to see it, but we found someone else who understands and agrees with what we’re talking about. And to add to our astonishment — it’s a journalist!

In London’s Daily Telegraph we read I’m not a socialist for the same reason I’m not a creationist: because Darwin was obviously right. It’s by Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor.

Adding to our amazement, his column is adorned with portraits of both Charles Darwin and Adam Smith, as is our own humble blog. Verily, this is an unexpected pleasure. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Funny thing. Every time I write about evolution, and why it is obviously the only viable explanation for the complexity of life on Earth, people underneath rant on about socialism. “Atheists should never be allowed around young minds, because they have been poisoned by socialism, the religion of evil”, one says under my most recent piece, about creationists. Which is weird on many levels, but the key one is that I’m not a socialist. This is largely because I know that Charles Darwin was right.

Splendid beginning! Let’s see if Chivers can keep going at that level. He follows with a long paragraph describing natural selection, ending it with:

It is the most powerful tool for building complexity in the world, and it is completely unplanned, with every creature within it acting only in its own genetic interests.

He’s doing well. Let’s read on:

But while, as my angry commenter in the first paragraph shows, a lot of people on the Right are deeply uncomfortable with the fact of evolution by natural selection, some people on the Left dislike the work of Darwin’s counterpart in economics, Adam Smith. This is ironic, given that Smith was one of Darwin’s chief inspirations.

Yes, yes — he gets it! Your humble Curmudgeon has been saying such things for a long time, always to an almost empty auditorium (see Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection.) Chivers continues with an example of the unplanned global activities required to make shirts and says:

What drives this? It’s Darwinism, pure and simple. The only difference is that instead of competing for calories and mates, they are competing for money and customers. A cotton-grower who is able to sell better quality or lower price cotton will be able to take over more of the market than his rivals; rival cotton-growers will adapt or die, and his methods or competing ones will spread throughout the population of cotton-growers. The same for dye-makers, collar-lining-makers, nylon producers, heavy machinery manufacturers. … No one plans anything, no one need make a single act of generosity to help their fellow man, but amazingly, the situation continually gets better.

Then he discusses the inevitable objections:

This is not to say that this Darwinian approach to supply and demand – also known as the free market – is perfect. It self-evidently isn’t. For a start, it’s wildly unfair; in the shirt example above, worldwide, millions can’t afford shirts at all, while others could have theirs hand-made out of £50 notes if they choose.

[...]

It’s the same in biological evolution, of course. It would be in the interest of every tree in the forest to be only three feet tall. But if one of them grows to four feet, it gets more sunlight than the rest, and will have more offspring, so four-footers will take over the forest.

[...]

But the key difference between biological evolution and the free markets is that the free market has taxes, and monopoly commissions, and laws of fair trading, and all the other tools of government that can be used to stop runaway Darwinism.

[...]

Then it [government] has to sit back and let Darwin’s market work its wonders. It may not be perfect, but to pretend that we can build a better society without making use of human selfishness is daft. As Ronald Bailey said: “Intelligent design is to evolutionary biology what socialism is to free-market economics.”

That’s the end of Chivers’ column, and Bailey’s remark is a good one with which to end it. We mentioned Bailey’s remark four years ago here: From Reason: Evolution Debate at FreedomFest 2008.

So where does that leave us? It leaves your humble Curmudgeon still in the wilderness, but at least we’ve found another who seems to think as we do. Tom Chivers, you’re a good man.

[Addendum: as we post this, Chivers’ column has attracted 292 comments, many of them critical. We’re not surprised.]

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “Someone Else Understands Darwin & Economics

  1. Excellent. Hope you’ve girded your loins for the inevitable….

  2. NeonNoodle

    Indeed, Mr. Chivers. More Staples, less Solyndras, please.

  3. One day in 1994, 3 years before I became fascinated with evolution vs. creationism, and during my “evolution” from mostly liberal to mostly conservative, (as a pro-science fanatic I never fit either stereotype) the “Smith-Darwin” similarity hit me. For a split second I thought I was the first to think of it. Then I realized that others had surely beat me to it. I figured correctly that it was such a well-kept secret because it’s inconvenient to both far left and far right.

    Nowadays I realize that one must choose one’s words carefully on this issue, or risk being accused of the same is/ought fallacy that the producers of “Expelled” deliberately committed. But I’m still convinced that there’s something to it, and that many people, both liberals who accept a caricature of evolution for the wrong reason, and conservatives who doubt it because they think they’re supposed to, would have the same “Eureka moment” I had, and change their minds accordingly, both in the direction that would please us.

    As for Bailey, his 1997 article was one of the earliest criticisms of the anti-evolution movement I read. And it remains the one that, IMO most accurately describes what motivates anti-evolution activists, particularly those who peddle ID.

  4. Retired Prof

    On account of the patterns of primate evolution, I’m a lot more pessimistic than either socialists or classical liberals.

    Like most other primates, humans evolved in small hierarchical groups–some matriarchal, some patriarchal, some rigid, some fluid. What they all have in common is that dominant animals command the most resources and the ones at the bottom of the heap live at the edge of survival. Among human beings the maximum stable population of a group seems to be about 150 persons. Communities larger than that can develop because we cultivate grain, which can be stored to minimize the lethality of famines. These larger groups develop a layered structure in which a chief dominates other chiefs, gaining indirect control over that chief’s subordinates and making it possible to arrogate resources from many more people. They dole out the rest to those farther down the chain on condition that they produce more surplus.

    It doesn’t matter what theoretical system is in place. Apes is apes. As comedian Yakov Smirnoff said [paraphrasing here], “It’s easy to see the difference between capitalism and communism. Capitalism is one group of people exploiting another group of people. Communism is just the opposite.”

  5. Retired Prof says: “What they all have in common is that dominant animals command the most resources and the ones at the bottom of the heap live at the edge of survival.”

    That’s feudalism, dominated by lords and their priests. Your description is 100% accurate … for the year 1,000 AD. Nowadays we have this free enterprise thing. It’s new. It works. Give it a try.

  6. longshadow

    Apes may be apes, but exploitation cannot occur without coercion, and a free market, by definition, consists of free people engaging in volitional transactions, in which each party thinks they are getting the better part of the deal. Ergo, there is no coercion; and absent coercion there is no exploitation.

    The role of government is to provide a legal system to stop those who would use coercion or fraud to exploit others, and a civil judicial system to adjudicate contract disputes. In this sense, we differ from the rest of the apes, as well as in the sense that we have brains powerful enough with which to create new wealth, instead of playing zero-sum games generation after generation. The Naked Ape may be an ape, but he is unlike other apes in critical ways.

  7. Political feelings aside, I truly fail to see how Adam Smith and Charles Darwin inform each other just because one can draw an analogy between them. It’s not like chemistry and biology, which intersect. Using this specious analogy the author Tom Chivers seems to imply that poverty is somehow a birthright, that some people unfortunately are just born economically inferior and that’s the way it should be, as opposed the vast array of possible environmental, cultural, religious, geographical, political, climatological or any other numerous external factors.

    Furthermore, game theory developed since the time Adam Smith teaches that although oftentimes unstable, levels of cooperation and organization in some balanced combination with a competitive market can lead to superior outcomes than unbridled laissez-faire competition. So my second point is that in economics some new ideas have come along over the years that expand upon Adam Smith beyond the realm of the unfettered market. (Even Smith railed against the influence of factions and oligopolies.)

  8. Retired Prof

    Longshadow, I got to disagree with you that coercion is the only route to exploitation. In the 30s my grandfather and his neighbors raised strawberries. They would haul their crop in wagons to depot where buyers would gather. Grandpa said the buyers’ favorite ploy was to collude and just quit buying. The strawberries were sitting there in the sun. Farmers were given the choice of selling their berries at a loss or letting them rot. That tactic was just plain free-market competition; no tax collectors, no law enforcement involved.

    I have to admit that the farmers finally managed to devise a marketing strategy within the free enterprise framework you describe. They formed a co-op, a farmers’ union.

  9. Okay, as I sat here reading this, I looked out my window and saw a robin and a little sparrow fight over a dead bug. The sparrow finally won. So would that be Smith or Darwin in action?

  10. longshadow

    Farmers were given the choice of selling their berries at a loss or letting them rot. That tactic was just plain free-market competition; no tax collectors, no law enforcement involved.

    I have to admit that the farmers finally managed to devise a marketing strategy within the free enterprise framework you describe. They formed a co-op, a farmers’ union.

    As your second paragraph admits, there was a THIRD option — of which the farmers availed themselves — by forming their own co-op.

    More to the point, just because the marketplace doesn’t offer you a price that makes growing strawberries worthwhile doesn’t mean you are being “exploited.” No farmer in a free enterprise system has a right to a guaranteed profit, just as no businessman is guaranteed to not go bankrupt.

    And that brings us to the FOURTH option the farmers had — no one forced them to grow strawberries — it was their choice. They could always switch to a different crop that produced more demand, and potential profit.

    They could even sell some farmland and start a competing distribution company.

  11. longshadow

    Gary | 20-July-2012 at 4:00 pm |

    Okay, as I sat here reading this, I looked out my window and saw a robin and a little sparrow fight over a dead bug. The sparrow finally won. So would that be Smith or Darwin in action?

    Darwin — coercion was involved, which rules out free markets, and Adam Smith
    ;-)

  12. Retired Prof

    In England’s feudal period, aristocrats had incomes from roughly a thousand to about five thousand times the typical income of an artisan such as a blacksmith or cobbler. The contrast with serfs was even greater.

    In America, Mitt Romney’s income is not precisely known, but it is thousands of times greater than that of a worker in a typical factory he took over; and now that his policies have laid off the typical worker, the contrast is even greater.

    Like I said, it doesn’t make any difference what system is in place.

  13. Retired Prof says: “Like I said, it doesn’t make any difference what system is in place.”

    Your data is are all messed up, but never mind that. Just ask a feudal serf if he’d prefer to be in our system or his. I doubt that he’d reply that they’re both the same.

  14. Human societies and States go through a process of natural selection and evolution just as much as species do. Soviet communism proved a dead end, for instance, whereas Chinese communism evolved into de facto capitalism.

    But the opposite extreme, no government at all, you can see at work in Somalia for instance and the results ain’t pretty, though perhaps it is a system “more natural” or in line with human nature than Soviet communism was. But it results in a very low level quality of life.

    The State is as Natural, that is to say is as much a product of Nature, as is a bird’s nest or a beaver dam or a bee hive. Sufficiently advanced human societies produce States as naturally as birds sing or spiders weave. We can blame Rousseau’s fan club for the persistent delusion that the State is “un-natural” and “against human nature” but the reverse is true. There are better States and worse States, but no “un-natural” States save those that exist only in Utopian books and in the thoughts of bad philosophers.

    Absence of government does not mean absence of coercion, humans being humans after all. Even the minimalist Night Watchman State of the classical liberals must rely on coercion to some extent, else it cease being a State at all and devolve into a powerless anarchy (and if anarchy really worked, we’d have no need of the Night Watchman State, now would we? Someone would have provided a working example of Anarchy by now, which they have not done, contra some Utopian false claims).

    Talking about economics in the abstract while ignoring the necessity of the State in the whole process is Utopian, blinkered thinking. It is not, as Obama so incorrectly put it, that the State creates the wealth. It does not (or it can do so, but badly and with numerous negative side effects). But a properly ordered, liberal State does create the infrastructure in which it is possible to create wealth more easily and with less inequity than in other systems.

    So yes classical liberal economics (but NOT necessarily Social Darwinism) is in harmony with Darwinian evolution to a certain extent. But, to quote someone, Man does not live by bread alone. We do have certain values apart from mere economic utility that are as necessary to our Being as economics are. We used to agree on what those things were but sadly no longer do so (religion, at least the old religion, is no longer capable of this function, and no replacement has been found yet).

    So, we’re in a bit of an interregnum.

  15. Ceteris Paribus

    Yes Yes! Free markets for all! Just look at how the triangular sugar – to rum – to slaves trade invented around the time of Adam Smith brought prosperity and freedom to all parties involved.

  16. There is always cost in free markets, but all to often the pernicious effects are distributed exactly where they not only do not belong, but also bring the maximum possible harm, e.g. the sugar triangle example referenced above. A reasonably well educated, well informed, participatory democratic republic with sound legislated economic rules of behavior minimizes inequities in costs while more rationally distributing rewards, resulting in the maximum opportunity to function as stable societies based upon egalitarian economic equitability.

    Laissez faire may from time to time accidentally result in equitability, in between abuses and distortions and corruption/discovery/correction cycles. And regulation/oversight certainly is unlikely to ever absolutely prevent instances of negative outcomes.

    But if the prior three decades of financial industry (among other deregulated economic sectors) shenanigans, plus gilded age experience that informed the crafting of recently diluted regulations, plus the economic experience of pre-democracy & nascent democracy economies, combined does not prove the necessity of communally legislated protective legal strictures enacted for the common good, I expect nothing ever will.

  17. longshadow: >> Apes may be apes, but exploitation cannot occur without coercion, and a free market, by definition, consists of free people engaging in volitional transactions, in which each party thinks they are getting the better part of the deal. Ergo, there is no coercion; and absent coercion there is no exploitation. <> THIRD option — of which the farmers availed themselves — by forming their own co-op. <> And that brings us to the FOURTH option the farmers had — They could always switch to a different crop that produced more demand, and potential profit. <> They could even sell some farmland and start a competing distribution company. <> just because the marketplace doesn’t offer you a price that makes growing strawberries worthwhile doesn’t mean you are being “exploited.” <<

    Notice how he uses the phrase "the marketplace" to describe the buyers as if they are a machine (and not people responsible for their actions) devoid of choice, like a mechanism. Longshadow exaggerates the choices of the farmers, while at the same time emphasizing The Machine's lack of choice.

    It is not "the marketplace" that demands a low price, but a group of colluding buyers who know that farmers must sell their crop while it is fresh or they will starve for a year. Why should we pretend this "marketplace" as you define it–not the food consumers, but commodity buyers only– is the best way of maximizing human choice, when in this case, it has minimized human choice?

    If "the Marketplace" (buyers) minimizes the choices of the farmers, why shouldn't the farmers be a Machine too, and pass a law against collusion among buyers– thus minimizing their choices?

  18. Sorry my comment was garbled due to the use of greater-than less-than.

  19. Destroying the Commons: How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta (http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175571/tomgram%3B_noam_chomsky%2C_the_great_charter%2C_its_fate%2C_and_ours/?utm_source=TomDispatch&utm_campaign=bb18b45d80-TD_Chomsky7_22_2012&utm_medium=email#more) July 22, 2010
    by Noam Chomsky [lengthy history of Free Market outcomes, closing with present environmental realities]:

    The grim forecasts of the tragedy of the commons are not without challenge. The late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins. But the conventional doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, bitterly called “the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self.”

    Like peasants and workers in England before them, American workers denounced this New Spirit, which was being imposed upon them, regarding it as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free men and women.