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Darwin for Conservatives

July 1, 2006
The link between Adam Smith’s invisible hand and Charles Darwin’s natural selection is just one reason why conservatives should embrace the theory of evolution

Charles Darwin is back in the news, with Kansas school board members once again shifting seats Left and Right (with liberals this time winning out). Is there really a liberal-conservative split over the theory of evolution? There is. According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 63 percent of liberals but only 37 percent of conservatives believe that humans and apes have a common ancestry. Similarly, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 60 percent of Republicans are creationists while only 11 percent accept evolution, compared to 29 percent of Democrats who are creationists and 44 percent who accept evolution.

These findings are unfortunate because if anyone should embrace the theory of evolution it is conservatives. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is precisely parallel to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand. Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of individual competition among organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of individual competition among people. The natural economy mirrors the artificial economy. Conservatives embrace free market capitalism. In fact, we are against excessive top-down governmental regulation of the economy because we understand that it is a complex emergent property of bottom-up design in which individuals are pursuing their own self interest without awareness of the larger consequences of their actions.

The connection between natural selection and the invisible hand is most enlightening. Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy who posited a theory of human nature with competing motives: we are competitive and cooperative, altruistic and selfish. There are times of need when we can count on the humanity of strangers to help us, but daily trade in a marketplace is founded on the lesser angels of our natures, as Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

By allowing individuals to follow their natural inclination to pursue their self-love, the country as a whole will prosper, almost as if the entire system were being directed by an invisible hand. It is here where we find the one and only use of the metaphor in The Wealth of Nations: “Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command … He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. 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.”

The connection between Smith and Darwin is through the British theologian William Paley, who in his 1802 book, Natural Theology, presented a theory of intelligent design and used Smith’s invisible hand metaphor. Paley discusses a breeding pair of sparrows who are unaware of the long-term and unintended consequences of their act of reproduction — the survival of the species: “When a male and female sparrow come together, they do not meet to confer upon the expediency of perpetuating their species … They follow their sensations.” God made sex fun because its end result — of which organisms are unaware — is beneficial to the population: “Those actions of animals which we refer to instinct, are not gone about with any view to their consequences … but are pursued for the sake of gratification alone.” Behind the scenes, Paley says, God is pulling the strings. How? “For my part, I never see a bird in that situation, but I recognize an invisible hand, detaining the contented prisoner from her fields and groves for a purpose, as the event proves, the most worthy of the sacrifice, the most important, the most beneficial.”

When Darwin was in college he read Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Paley’s Natural Theology. He consciously employed Smith’s invisible hand metaphor in the Origin of Species as a counter to Paley’s misuse of it. Here is Darwin’s description of what happens in nature when organisms pursue their self-love, with no cognizance of the unintended consequences of their behavior: “It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”

So, where Adam Smith employed the metaphor of the invisible hand to describe a natural bottom-up process of self-organization, William Paley used it to describe a supernatural top-down process of divine organization. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, then, is an inversion of Paley’s inversion of Smith’s metaphor. How recursive!

Today we know that the economy operates best without excessive top-down direction from governmental intelligent designers, and thus this is one among several reasons why conservatives should embrace Darwin and the theory of evolution.

This article was first published here.

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8 Comments to “Darwin for Conservatives”

  1. Balak Says:

    GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS: The Fury of the Poor
    Der Spiegel, 14 April 2008

    Around the world, rising food prices have made basic staples like rice and corn unaffordable for many people, pushing the poor to the barricades because they can no longer get enough to eat. But the worst is yet to come.

    Fort Dimanche, a former prison in the hills above the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, is a hell on earth. In the past, it was home to the torture chambers of former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s death squads, the Tontons Macoutes. Today thousands of impoverished Haitians live in the prison’s grounds, digging through piles of garbage for food. But even dogs find little to eat there.”

    On the roof of the former prison, enterprising women prepare something that looks like biscuits and is even called by that name. The key ingredient, yellow clay, is trucked in from the nearby mountains. The clay is combined with salt and vegetable fat to make dough, which is then dried in the sun.

    For many Haitians, the mud biscuits are their only food. They taste of fat, suck the moisture out of the mouth and leave behind an aftertaste of dirt. They often cause diarrhea, but they help to numb the pangs of hunger. “I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” Marie Noël, who survives with her seven children on the dirt cakes, told the Associated Press.

    The shortages triggered revolts in Haiti last week. A crowd of hungry citizens marched through Port-au-Prince, throwing stones and bottles and chanting, “We are hungry!” in front of the presidential palace. Tires were burned, and people died. It was yet another of the rebellions that are beginning to occur with increasing frequency worldwide, but which are still only a harbinger of what is yet to come.”

    “Even When Times Get Tough, the Ultra-rich Keep Spending,”
    NYT, April 14, 2008

    …“Many businesses that cater to the superrich report that clients—many of them trades and private equity investors whose work is tied to Wall Street—are still splurging on multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartments, custom-built yachts, contemporary art and lavish parties.

    “Buyers this year have already closed on 71 Manhattan apartments that each cost more than $10 million, compared with 17 apartments in that price range during all of 2007… And the GoodBar, a downtown lounge, reports that bankers continue to order $3,000 bottles of Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac.”

    The article describes a party planned for May 10 at the exclusive Plaza Hotel. “It will feature a dozen female string musicians made up to look like statues and clothed in dresses of fresh flowers, like roses and gardenias. There will be caviar and cognac bars, as well as a buffet designed to visually replicate 17th-century Dutch paintings from the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, ‘The Age of Rembrandt.’”

  2. TonyZ Says:

    “Today we know that the economy operates best without excessive top-down direction from governmental intelligent designers…”

    Is that a fact? Tell that to the victims of the Enron and Tyco abuses. Tell that to everyone who will be suffering for years to come from the credit crises and other ramifications of the lax oversight of regulatory agencies over the banking system and the “shadow” banks.

    I guess the operative word here is “excessive”. But how does one define it? I am sure that a Conservative is going to define it very differently from a Progressive.

    So what, exactly, does the above clause mean anyway? Is most anti-trust legislation excessive? I’ll bet some on the right think so. After all, look at all the consolidation that has gone on in the past 25 years. Are free markets optimal with oligopoly? I think not but it doesn’t seem to bother too many in recent administrations.

    How about some real balance. We don’t need more self-serving statements from financiers about too much government ALWAYS being the problem. We need to recognize that too little can also be a problem. Note that countries with much more “top-down direction” (planning?) have better health care, better transportation systems, etc. and may be more able to survive the coming economic and social dislocations as a result. Consequently, in the long run, Darwinism may ensure that we either adapt to a different model or perish.

  3. Balak Says:

    This “Darwin for Conservatives” already has a name (i.e. “social darwinism”) and a long history of offering itself as the perfect pseudo-scientific rationalisation for countless bloody crimes committed by the rich against the poor.
    It is unfortunate to see how tenaciously Shermer fights to enlist the skeptical, humanist, rationalist movement in this cause… To the degree he succeeds, it will just be another manifestation of a dark time on which history will look back with disdain.

  4. Derick Varn Says:

    It’s funny to me reading these comments: I am not a “conservative,” but a “left libertarian.” However, I see both semantic confusion and flat-out ad hominems attacks on a “skeptics” site. The problem with many systems with better “health care” through central planning is that the overall economy may either be stagnating (in the case of say, France) or trade liberalization in other areas of the economy allow for the creation of a welfare system in medicine (in the case of say, Norway, Iceland, perhaps the UK).

    The problem with “Darwin for Conservatives” and the automatic equation with the pseudo-science Spencerian “Social Darwinism” is that it ignores advances in both complexity theory and the shift of the various meanings of conservative (a term that has little agreed upon meaning these days other than “not a Liberal Democrat”).

    That said, we must not forget that must charters of abundance do show that natural scarcity does make the current “economic paradigm” have more limits than our current opulence would lead, and ecological thinks really need to deal with economic thinkers and vice versa on how to deal with that.

    Ultimately, science and evolutionary thinking (as well as economics) is too important to cater to left-/right- political “distinctions.”

  5. Norman Levitt Says:

    So far as I can see, “free market” is a euphemism for Tragedy of the Commons, that is, the rational pursuit of self-interest by individuals acting as lone agents tend to produce, in the aggregate, a disastrous denouement for all concerned. You need but look at the curent liquidity crisis to see the phenomenon in action (which is why all those free-market monetarists in the central banking system have suddenly reverted into Keynesianism). It is also a commonplace among contemporary evolutionary theorists that a selection process that seems to benefit the reproductive success of individuals may well, in the long run, drive the species as a whole into extinction. In other words, the Invisible Hand might well be configured as a closed fist with its middle finger upraised.

    I note that the three hedge-fund moguls whom I know (casually), with a combined personal income of over $6,000,000,000 (no misprint!) last year, are all extremely liberal on “social issues” and, perhaps, outright Social Democrats. Maybe they know something the free-market absolutists don’t.

  6. Joe Zen Says:

    An important distinction that is already observed by the scientific community needs to be passed on to the conservative community. Scientific fact does not implicate moral right or wrong. As a strong religious believer and avid scientist I have found my peace between the two. I think of Jesus healing the blind man. Does it matter what disease the blind man had? No. The miracle was Jesus healing him. Does it matter if men are born with a desire for sexual dominance according to evolutionary psychology? It doesn’t change the need to respect women as the right thing to do. If anything, our view into evolutionary psychology should help us formulate our strategies of inhibition against our carnal desires. Hopefully we can finally realize that repression and isolation are helpless against the innate desires evolution has given us.

    And why do we have these desires? Why would God give them to us? God’s framework of evolution is designed to get the job done (keep the human race alive) for the as little energy as possible. That’s why we are coded to desire sex and not to desire wedding ceremonies, perfect relationship skills, and unforgiving love. Evolution faulted towards survival instincts that will on average bring the advancement of the species.

    So think of all the money wasted each year on inefficient programs that worship the quixotic theory of the blank slate. Science gives us the facts and the advantage for learning how to deal with moral issues.

    Stretching further into public policy it is important for us to realize our friend and enemy of evolution. Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, we must realize that millions will die from evolution. What is important for us in public policy is to fund those programs which provide a basic quality of life instead of spending millions on inevitable diseases. Simple things like heart disease and cancer. It is better for us to give this choice to the individual when seeking coverage and instead look to providing pre-natal care and childhood health to all. We must stop fighting with the ruthless hand of evolution and pursue programs which will on the average benefit all of society.

  7. Roberto Alazar Says:

    Yeesh! Such long and tendentious commentary; so little focus on what Mr. Schermer actually wrote. Which I think to be pretty persuasive.

    BTW, believing Christians and Jews–whose God by choice does not make Himself obvious to everyone, but reveals himself in specific ways on special occasions–should for that reason actually *expect* a naturalistic (if you prefer, a mechanistic) explanation for the origin of life and of consciousness. If it weren’t Darwinism, it would have to be something else just as offensive to the ID crowd.

  8. berlinda orlans Says:

    can anyone tell me where to buy haitian dirt cake.

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