Thursday, May 07, 2009
Biological Competitive Capitalism
While the nineteenth-century theory that some rose and some fell in society depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses is often referred to as "social Darwinism," we would be much more in agreement with historical causation were we to call Darwinism "Biological Competitive Capitalism." The perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built.
One can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the Industrial Revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy. ...
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.
- Richard C. Lewontin, "Why Darwin?" New York Review of Books, May 28, 2009
I live on the other side of the dateline, so I am 12 hours or so ahead of East Coast North Americans, but your article is 3 weeks ahead.