Does Darwinism lend support more naturally to a capitalist moral-economic perspective or to some other competing philosophical standpoint, say, a Marxist one?
Economic historian Niall Ferguson takes the former view. He’s been having a good run with his new book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World — that is, apart from being taken to task by a number of reviewers for applying a Darwinian framework to understanding market forces. In the current New York Review of Books, economist Robert Skidelsky chides Ferguson for purveying “false analogies between financial evolution and Darwinian natural selection….These attempts to explain the rise of money in terms of natural processes strike me as being both morally and philosophically naïve.”
Ferguson describes the “creative destruction” that comes about when financial institutions can’t cut it in the marketplace and so fail and disappear, to be replaced with better adapted competitors. Darwinian capitalism?
Unless your moral, political, and philosophical ideas are completely untethered by reality, then the way you picture in your mind the rules by which the world does work should have some impact on the way you think it should work. So the various answers that have been offered to the question of how life developed naturally lend themselves to the construction of philosophies that answer other, more practical questions, including how human fulfillment is achieved in the economic realm. Why not that? The notion that theories of evolution properly contribute nothing to theories of how wealth is created and divided just makes no sense. If life’s history required the guidance of a transcendent source of intelligence, that has consequences in the realm of economics. If life developed without guidance, but merely under the power of a Darwinian mechanism, that too has consequences, probably different ones.
The problem comes in determining what those consequences are. I haven’t read Ferguson’s book, but it sounds like he’s offering the traditional Darwinian tautology: The fittest firms survive. And what, in economic history, defines fitness? Well, survival. Because, you see, those that survive are, uh, those that survive.
Ferguson traces his idea that “Darwinian processes may be at work in the economy” back to Thorstein Veblen, who “first posed the question ‘Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science’ (implying that it really was) as long ago as 1898.” But the truth is that economic thinking that claims to be based on evolutionary science goes back decades before that.
In the preface to Capital in 1864, Karl Marx heralded his own ideas as presenting “the development of the economic formation of society as a process in natural history.” In his oration at Marx’s funeral in London’s Highgate Cemetery, Engels gave the ultimate compliment: “As Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.” That was March 17, 1883.
Starting tomorrow, I would like to devote a couple posts to the thesis that Communism has deeper Darwinian roots than many of us realize. That, in fact, even though Marx had already begun sketching the outlines of his ideas before Darwin published the Origin of Species — the Communist Manifesto appeared in 1848, the Origin in 1859 — he is fairly called a Darwinist. That, finally, the men who translated Marxism into practical political terms in the form of Soviet terror were evolutionary thinkers, just as they themselves claimed to be.