Evolve this

Posted: 10 September 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

I haven’t read Robert Frank’s new book, The Darwin Economy (as reviewed by Chrystia Freeland). But I do have one question: does Frank discuss the origin of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in nineteenth-century political economy?

I ask because Richard Lewontin and other historians of science were well aware of the connection back in 1990:

In his recent review, “High on Science” [NYR, August 16], M.F. Perutz was most indignant about my assertion that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a transformation of nineteenth-century political economy. His belief that such a claim betrays a passé dogmatic Marxism still alive at Harvard, although dead in the rest of the civilized world, is rather quaint. Although the idea may sound a bit Marxy (and, indeed Marx was the first to point out the striking resemblance between Darwin’s theory and the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism), it is, in fact, received doctrine among modern historians of science. Of course, that does not make the idea right, but it does show that one doesn’t have to be a dogmatic Cambridge pinko to believe it. Perutz ought to look at the modern Darwin historiography, say the Journal of the History of Biology, for the last fifteen years. I especially recommend the justly famous work of Sylvan Schweber on the sources of Darwin’s thought in the writings of Dugald Stewart and the Scottish Economists.

During the last twenty years, as the externalist view has come to dominate the history of science, no better case for the influence of social forces on scientific discovery has been constructed than for Darwinism. After all, Darwin himself started the whole thing by telling us that he got the idea for the universal Struggle for Existence from reading Malthus’s famous tract against the old Poor Law. To the extent that any hypothesis about history can be said to be clearly true, the claim that Darwin’s view of the natural economy comes out of his understanding of political economy is clearly true, at least in the view of those who do history of science for a living.

It may be that what is bothering Perutz is the thought that the truth of Darwin’s theory is somehow being impeached when its origins are revealed. But no one with a vestige of understanding of elementary questions in philosophy would confuse the context of discovery with the context of justification (certainly not Marx, who had a doctorate in philosophy, and who thought Darwin was right about evolution).

Marxism may indeed be dead in Eastern Europe, but as “bourgeois” intellectual tradition becomes dominant, students will be taught on the banks of the Vltava and Vistula, as they are on the Charles and the Cam, that “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is obviously nineteenth-century capitalism writ large, and his immersion in the social relations of a rising bourgeoisie had an overwhelming effect on the content of his theory.”

Which, of course, provokes another question: does Frank understand that his appropriation of Darwin is twenty-first-century capitalism writ large, based on his immersion in the social relations of a bourgeoisie that both created and profited from the Second Great Depression?

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