Monday, July 22, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (9): Matt Ridley on Adam Darwin

Originally, Matt Ridley was scheduled to be one of the speakers at the MPS conference in the Galapagos.  When I heard that he had cancelled his trip to the conference, I was disappointed.  But then I learned that there was a good reason for his cancellation:  as Viscount Ridley, he was elected to the British House of Lords in February as a Conservative hereditary Peer, and his new Parliamentary duties forced a change in his schedule.  He delivered his maiden speech to the House of Lords on May 14th.

If he had spoken at the conference, he probably would have delivered a modified version of the lecture he gave at the Adam Smith Institute in London on November 13th of last year--"Adam Darwin: Emergent Order in Biology and Economics."  A video of the lecture is available online.

Having just watched the video and having read a transcript of the lecture, I feel both frustration and relief.  I am frustrated by the thought that the similar themes in our lectures would have promoted a good discussion.  But I am also relieved that my lecture was not overshadowed by the brilliance of Ridley's presentation.

In my lecture, I argued that the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 made it possible, for the first time in history, to be an intellectually fulfilled liberal, because Darwinian evolutionary science has shown that Adam Smith was right about almost everything.  In his defense of what he called "the natural system of liberty," Smith was right to see that the social orders of morals, markets, and laws can arise as largely spontaneous orders, which emerge as unintended outcomes from the actions of individuals pursuing the satisfaction of their individual desires.  The Darwinian science of evolutionary order has confirmed this central idea of Smithian liberalism.

Ridley expresses better than I can the deeper implications of this idea.  Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from his lecture.

"I have called my lecture 'Adam Darwin' to stress how congruent the philosophies of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin are.  The common theme is emergence: the idea that order and complexity can be bottom-up phenomena that need no designer.  Both economies and ecosystems emerge."

"But my purpose is to explore not just the history and evolution of this shared idea, but its future, to show that in the age of the internet Adam Darwinism is the key to understanding how the world will change."

After surveying the history of Smith's influence on Darwin's thinking, Ridley observes:

"Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the Right, Darwin by the Left.  In the American red states, where Smith's emergent, decentralized philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is often reviled for his contradiction of dirigiste creation.  In the average British university, by contrast, you will find fervent believers in the emergent, decentralized properties of genomes and ecosystems who demand dirigiste policy to bring order to the economy and society.  Yet if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer--or vice versa? . . ."

". . . innovation is an evolutionary process.  That's not just a metaphor; it is a precise description. . . . innovation happens mainly by trial and error. . . ."

". . . In other words, intelligent design is just as bad at explaining innovation as it is explaining evolution.  Discovery comes from pluralism and serendipity, not command and control."

"Notice that the cultural evolution I am describing is the very opposite of social Darwinism, the notion that we should order society so as to encourage biological evolution.  Because bad ideas die in competition with good ones, people do not have to die.  The more we allow our technologies and institutions to evolve, the more we can afford to keep the poor, the disabled, and the weak alive.  This crucial point is often missed by my critics, especially the philosopher John Gray, who reviewed my book for the New Statesman and made this elementary howler, accusing me of social Darwinism.  Cultural evolution makes social Darwinism less likely, not more.  A country of grinding poverty and frequent warfare--fifteenth century England or twenty-first century Congo--is far more social Darwinist than a rich consumer society."

"Sex is what makes evolution a cumulative force--what makes it creative rather than conservative.  Without the swapping of genes between individuals, you cannot get good mutations except through inheritance. . . ."

"Evolution really got going when it invented sex.  So what's the equivalent of sex in culture and technology?  The answer is obvious to a student of Adam Smith: exchange.  Adam Smith more than anyone else spotted that exchange is a uniquely human characteristic.  'No man ever saw a dog make fair and deliberate exchange of a bone with another dog,' he wrote.  And he was right.  I have been going around the world trying to persuade biologists that only human beings indulge in exchange of objects and services between strangers. . . ."

". . . Only human beings routinely exchange things between strangers.  Only in human beings does culture have sex.  Only in human beings is culture cumulative and progressive.  Exchange was the key invention that led to the explosion of technology and economic progress in our species: not language, or tools, or self awareness or big brains.  We had all those for hundreds of thousands of years and remained rare and simple hunter-gatherers.  It was when we invented exchange that the human revolution happened."

"Adam Smith, in other words, has the answer to an evolutionary puzzle: what caused the sudden emergence of behaviourally modern human beings in Africa in the past hundred thousand years?  In that surprisingly anthropological first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Smith saw so clearly that what was special about human beings was that they exchanged and specialized."

". . . Just as sex gives a species access to innovation anywhere in its species, so exchange gives you access to innovation anywhere in your species."

". . . I am constantly being told that to believe in markets is to believe in selfishness and greed.  Yet I think the very opposite is true.  The more people are immersed in markets, the more they collaborate, the more they share, the more they work for each other.  In a fascinating series of experiments, Joe Henrich and colleagues showed that people play ultimatum games more selfishly in more isolated and self-sufficient hunter-gatherer societies and less so in more market-integrated societies."

"History shows that market-oriented, bottom-up societies are kinder, gentler, less likely to go to war, more likely to look after the poor, more likely to patronize the arts, more likely to look after the environment than societies run by the state.  Hong Kong versus Mao's China. Sixteenth century Holland versus Louis XIV's France. Twentieth century America versus Stalin's Russia.  The ancient Greeks versus the ancient Egyptians.  The Italian city-states versus the Italian papal states.  South Korea versus North Korea.  Even today's America versus today's France.  And so on.  Example after example of what Montesquieu called Le Doux Commerce."

"The entire drift of human history has been to make us less self-sufficient, more dependent on others to provide what we consume and on others to consume what we provide.  That's the very source of prosperity and innovation.  It's time to reclaim the word collectivism from the statists on the left.  The whole point of the market is that it does indeed collectivize society, but from the bottom up not the top down.  We surely know by now, after endless experiments that a powerful state encourages selfishness: that's the very point of public choice theory."

"In terms of human prosperity, we ain't seen nothing yet.  And because prosperity is an emergent property, an inevitable side-effect of human exchange, we could not stop it even if we wanted to.  All we could do is divert it elsewhere on the planet--which we in England seem intent on doing, by the way."

"Adam Darwin did not invent emergence.  His was an idea that emerged when it was ripe.  And like so many good ideas, it was already being applied long before it was even understood."

"So I give you Adam Darwinism as the key to the future."

Some parts of this lecture were previously published in The Spectator in 2009 in Ridley's article "The Natural Order of Things."

If Ridley had spoken at the MPS conference, I would have raised two points of disagreement with him.  First, if he's saying that American conservatives who support both free markets and intelligent design theory or creationism are being inconsistent, then I disagree.  There is no logical contradiction in saying that while economic order is largely a spontaneous or unintended order, biological order is not.  Whether spontaneous order explains both depends on how similar we believe them to be.

Moreover, the intelligent design theorist or creationist might argue that just as a spontaneous economic order depends on the right initial conditions being enforced by government, so does biological order depend on the initial conditions set by God at the beginning.  This might be unreasonable, but it is not inconsistent.

This leads to my second point of disagreement with Ridley, which is elaborated in my MPS paper.  His version of evolutionary liberalism shows an almost anarchistic scorn for government, which is contrary to what Smith says.  Liberalism assumes that society is a largely, but not completely, self-regulating unintended order, in that some limited governmental regulation is required to enforce legal rules of property and exchange, to prohibit force and fraud, to secure the military defense of society, and to provide certain public goods.  Smith rightly defended such a limited government as necessary for the "natural system of liberty."

No comments: