Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).


25 November, 2012

Darwin, Smith, and Ideas Having Sex

By Aaron
25 November, 2012

Video: Matt Ridley on "Adam Darwin"

Matt Ridley, who may be my favorite modern-day writer, recently delivered the annual Adam Smith Lecture at - of all places - the Adam Smith Institute. Ridley's remarks, available above or here, demand your attention and will likely be the most intellectually profitable 30 minutes of your week. 

Titling his lecture "Adam Darwin," Ridley beautifully demonstrates the theme which unifies the thought of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, namely the idea of "emergence" - that is, the idea that order and complexity can be bottom-up phenomena which allow both economies and ecosystems to emerge in the absence of a dirigiste state or an intelligent designer. For biological evolution, this emergent order relies, for the most part, on sex as a means of transmitting and combining genetic material; for social and cultural evolution, this process is accomplished via exchange (the way in which, as Ridley has put it elsewhere, ideas have sex). Thus by means of sex and exchange - which perform, fundamentally, the same function - do our bodies, tools, and rules emerge, evolve and, until something "better" comes along, endure. 

Thus have humans evolved and thus do they continually gain access to better technology, safer cars cleaner environments, and longer lives. Such improvements, however, depend on scientific progress and on the ability of entrepreneurs to bring new products to the mass consumer market. The processes of scientific advance and entrepreneurial risk-taking are, as it happens, not separate at all. As Ludwig Lachmann wrote in Capital and Its Structure:

The businessman who forms an expectation is doing precisely what a scientist does when he formulates a working hypothesis. Both business expectation and scientific hypothesis serve the same purpose; both reflect an attempt at cognition and orientation in an imperfectly known world, both embody imperfect knowledge to be tested and improved by later experience. 

Smith and Darwin would, no doubt, appreciate Lachmann's insight. 

As Ridley rightly notes in his lecture, the fans of Adam Smith and the fans of Charles Darwin have a troubling tendency to be two distinct groups, with only occasional overlap. Conservatives are usually fine with the free market implications of Smith's writings, but can be touchy when the subject turns to Darwin's discussions of natural selection. Left-wing atheists, meanwhile, will defend Darwin all the way back to the Galapagos but can be unnerved by the implications of Smithian specialization and division of labor. Both groups, however, would do well to realize that the social, cultural, and scientific discovery processes that have made their lives better - indeed, beyond a certain age, possible - proceed according to essentially the same logic, and this logic can only function if it is allowed to do so. Back in 1985, the economist Don Lavoie (who left this earth much too soon) wrote, in his brilliant book National Economic Planning: What is Left? (a remarkably dry title for a book of such thrilling insight): 

One of the most vital values to which this social discovery process necessitates allegiance is that of complete freedom of thought. The moral issues of freedom and responsibility are inextricably connected  to the epistemological issues of what and how we know anything about the world we live in. A substantial degree of the opposition to the use of force in human relationships is not merely one particular moral position among others; it is a prerequisite for the growth of knowledge.

It is imperative, then, that the scientist, the entrepreneur, you, me, and the village idiot all be permitted voice our ideas, test our theories, and come up with new cockamamie ideas provided we're willing the bear the responsibility for those actions and beliefs. This, after all, is how evolution of all sorts occurs.