About a year ago when I read Richard Dawkin’s explication of Darwin in The Blind Watchmaker, I was stuck by how analogous the basic mechanisms of natural evolution and economics were. Now I can be sure it was no coincidence:
Ideas evolve by descent with modification, just as bodies do, and Darwin at least partly got this idea from economists, who got it from empirical philosophers. Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament.
Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. In his last year at Cambridge in 1829, he reported in a letter, ‘My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke’.
Having gone to a private religious school from kindergarten through high school, I never studied evolution in an academic setting. When I began reading Dawkin’s book, however, his description of evolution made intuitive sense due to my economics study. Where economics is based on the invisible hand and innovation, I realized, evolution is based on natural selection and random variation .
This is my favorite excerpt from the article:
Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the Right, Darwin by the Left. In the American South and Midwest, where Smith’s individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is reviled for his contradiction of creation. Yet if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer? Conversely, in the average European biology laboratory you will find fervent believers in the individualist, emergent, decentralised properties of genomes who prefer dirigiste determinism to bring order to the economy.
I love inconsistencies like these. If I can appreciate the economics notion that order can emerge spontaneously “as the product human action but not of human design,” surely I can appreciate evolution’s notion that nature’s complexities can emerge without a designer (and vice versa). Yet many, even vaunted members of the scientific academy, accept one and not the other.