Thursday, December 23, 2010

Evolution: Smith before Darwin

In Appendix A of The Fatal Conceit, Hayek has this to say about the development of evolutionary theory:
Though in Hume, and also in the works of Bernard Mandeville, we can watch the gradual emergence of the twin concepts of the formations of spontaneous orders and of selective evolution..., it was Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson who first made systematic use of this approach. Smith's work marks the breakthrough of an evolutionary approach which has progressively displaced the stationary Aristotelian view. The nineteenth-century enthusiast who claimed that the Wealth of Nations was in importance second only to the Bible has often been ridiculed; but he may not have exaggerated so much....

While Smith has been recognised by several writers as the originator of cybernetics (Emmet, 1958, Hardin, 1961), recent examinations of Charles Darwin's notebooks (Vorzimmer, 1977; Gruber, 1974) suggest that his reading of Adam Smith in the crucial year 1838 led Darwin to his decisive breakthrough.

Thus from the Scottish moral philosophers of the eighteenth century stem the chief impulses toward a theory of evolution, the variety of disciplines now known as cybernetics, general systems theory, synergetics, autopoiesis, etc., as well as the understanding of the superior self-ordering power of the market system, and of the evolution also of language, morals, and law (Ullman-Margalit, 1978, and Keller, 1982).
Moral of the story: Read Wealth of Nations.

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