Darwin for Conservatives
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.