Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (5): The Disregard for Darwin

Beck says that "Hayek's theory suffers from . . . disregard for the theories that inspired it" (5).  I agree with her about this--particularly in the case of Darwin.  Hayek was not a good interpreter of Charles Darwin.  Indeed, he does not even show any evidence that he had actually read Darwin!

Hayek criticized Darwin for seeing evolutionary selection as purely "genetic," and thus ignoring the importance of cultural evolution in explaining the history of human civilization.  He also criticized Darwin for ignoring group selection.  Beck rightly points out that this view of Darwin is incorrect (88-91).  Darwin accepted Lamarckian evolution through use and disuse.  He emphasized the importance of cultural evolution in explaining human social and moral history, particularly in The Descent of Man.  And he developed his own theory of group selection, which he called "community selection."  The proponents today of cultural group selection can see themselves as continuing in the tradition of Darwin.  So it is strange that Hayek did not see his own theory of cultural group selection as linked to Darwin's.

Hayek claimed that Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution, because he had inherited that idea from Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Adam Smith, and others in the Scottish tradition of philosophy.  These were "Darwinians before Darwin."  Darwin's achievement was in applying this idea of evolution to the biological study  of the living world.  Beck criticizes Hayek for saying this: "This evaluation does not do justice to Darwin and demonstrates a rather regrettable incomprehension of his ideas, which in turn impoverished Hayek's analysis" (157).

I don't see her point here.  After all, Darwin himself acknowledged the history of the idea of evolution in the "Historical Sketch" that he added to the third edition of The Origin of Species.  Starting with Buffon, Darwin identified a long list of people who anticipated elements of evolutionary theory.  Beck says nothing about this.  It is true that he did not mention Hume and Smith in this "Historical Sketch," but he did cite them prominently in The Descent of Man.  And we know from Darwin's notebooks, that he began studying Scottish moral philosophy a few years after his return from his voyage on the Beagle as part of his effort to understand the evolution of human morality.

But if one is looking for some writer who exerted a crucial influence on Darwin's evolutionary thinking, Beck insists, one should look not at Mandeville, Hume, or Smith, but at Thomas Malthus.  After all, Darwin declared in his Autobiography that when he read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in October of 1838, "I had at last got a theory by which to work" (1959, 120).  Hayek, however, could not accept the Malthusian logic of evolution, Beck explains, because Hayek's ideological commitment to endless growth through capitalist expansion meant that he had to reject Malthus's warning that a growing human population must inevitably lead to a depletion of natural resources that will bring human misery.

But in assuming the truth of Malthus's reasoning, Beck ignores the anti-Malthusian arguments of Julian Simon and others that support Hayek's position.  This will be the subject of my next post.

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