From Industrialization to Evolution

May 8, 2009

The New York Review of Books has an interesting peice up about Darwin’s place in intellectual history:

The parallel between the arguments for natural selection and nineteenth-century economic and social theory, however, misses an extremely important divergence between Darwin and political economy. The theory of competitive socioeconomic success is a theory about the rise of individuals and individual enterprises as a consequence of their superior fitness. But even though the Industrial Revolution resulted eventually, at least in some countries, in a general rise in material well-being, the number of immensely successful entrepreneurs is evidently limited precisely because their success depends on the existence of a large mass of less successful workers. No population can consist largely of people like Henry Clay Frick.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, in contrast, is meant to explain the adaptation and biological success of an entire species as a consequence of the disappearance of the less fit. Provided that a species does not become so numerous as to destroy the resources on which it depends, there is no structural reason why every individual of that species cannot be highly fit. If we seek a true originality in the understanding of Darwin and Wallace, it is to be found in their ability to adapt a theory meant to explain the success of a few to produce a theory of the success of the many, even though the many may be competing for resources in short supply. Whether they were conscious of this divergence of the theory of evolution by natural selection from the reigning economic and social theory is a question.

Though the rest of the article is very good, this part gave me pause. Although its true that its possible that all the members of a species could become fit, there’s still conflict between the many and the few going on here. Yes, economics is about the material dependence of the few rich on the many poor… but evolution is statistically dependent on having the many non-mutants in order to get the few fitter mutants. ┬áIt’s not a strict physical law kinda deal, but it does show up an awful lot (read: nearly always) in nature.

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