Matt Ridley writes in the article “The Natural Order of Things” (published Wednesday, 7th January 2009) in The Spectator Magazine:
Ideas evolve by descent with modification, just as bodies do, and Darwin at least partly got this idea from economists, who got it from empirical philosophers. Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament. Where Darwin defenestrated God, Smith had defenestrated government. Neatly, this year also sees a Smith anniversary, the 250th birthday of his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that is very Darwinian in its insistence that sympathy is what we would today call innate, that people are naturally nice as well as naturally nasty.
Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. In his last year at Cambridge in 1829, he reported in a letter, ‘My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke’. At Maer, his uncle Josiah Wedgwood’s house in Staffordshire, he often met the lawyer and laissez-faire politician Sir James Mackintosh (whose daughter married Darwin’s brother-in-law and had an affair with his brother). On the Beagle, he read the naturalist Henri Milne-Edwards, who took Adam Smith’s notion of the division of labour and applied it to the organs of the body. Darwin promptly re-applied it to the division of labour among specialised species in an ecosystem: ‘The advantage of diversification in the inhabitants of the same region is, in fact, the same as that of the physiological division of labour in the organs of the same individual body — a subject so well elucidated by Milne-Edwards.’
Again: genius upon genius, to identify a relationship between biology and economics, as Darwin is claimed to have done. (This claim I’ll have to research.)
John H. Finley, Jr. ( who was a Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard for 43 years) presents in Thucydides (Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press, (c) 1942) a good case that Thucydides — in a fashion seemingly related to Ridley’s presentation of Darwin — got ideas as to how history should be done by acquaintance with the methods of ancient Greek medicine and by study of ancient Greek philosophy and science.
Thucydides was the father of history, by the way. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, he was the first to study and write history as a science. Herodotus before him did not bring history to the status of science; he was more of a chronicler than a historian proper.
I would not recommend Ridley’s article (but it’s an interesting read), as it seems to assume determinism in the realm of ideas: the author seems to say that Darwinian selection drives the success of ideas in cultures.
There might be a plausible argument to suggest such a belief — but there are important, crucial differences between genes in an environment and ideas in a culture.
Natural selection is deterministic. Cultural dominance is volitional.
And the cause-effect relationships are reversed: it is environment that determines what adaptations/genes will survive while it is chosen ideas that determine the larger cultural environment.
Yes, one can use the idea of Darwinian selection to think about ideas in human cultures — but the existence of volition makes the use metaphorical, analogical, or limited; Darwinian selection does not apply in the same way in both gene survival and idea survival.
For by what standard are ideas “fit,” when one drops context of human volition? Then truth as a standard is out. How would you know ideas are “fit” without saying so after the fact?
And how would the author reconcile the fact that success of bad ideas (Nazism, Communism) causes the failure of the human species: bad ideas cause mass extinctions?
Trying to explain the success of ideas in a culture without appeal to volition — i.e., by appealing instead to a deterministic process — makes as much sense as trying to explain physics in terms of choices made by matter or subatomic particles.
I like that the author presents the idea that modern European person A got a hint of a suggestion of an idea from modern European person B who to got a hint of a suggestion of an idea from modern European person C — but what influence did the Greeks and Aristotle have in all this?
There’s a question worth some research.