I caught a trailer for this year’s BBC Reith lectures on the way to a rehearsal yesterday. Apparently they are being given by Niall Ferguson on “the evolutionary approach to economics.” As far as I can see from Google, they’ll be based on his book The Ascent of Money, which clearly alludes to Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which in turns refers to Charles’ Darwin’s The Descent of Man. None of them, it seems, depends on my first boss’s political slogan, “Sideways with the People.”
A review gives a pretty good idea of what is on offer. This list comes from the appendix:
(1) Genes in the form of certain business practices that can be passed on to successive generations
(2) The potential for spontaneous mutation (i.e. innovation)
(3) Competition for scarce resources, leading to a survival of the fittest scenario
(4) A mechanism for natural selection (i.e. how the market allocates resources based on over- or under-performance)
(5) The potential for speciation, leading to new “species” of financial institutions
(6) The ever-present threat of extinction, as species die out altogether
Without a doubt this is a glaring example of Gregory Sandstrom’s concerns about the universalisation of evolution into places it cannot possibly belong. This is about human extension, not Darwinian evolution. At best it is a metaphor – but it seems pretty clear we are intended to see it as more than that, with economics being seen as something that is a given, of which we humans are mere observers and recorders.
But the list itself belies that. Point (2) talks of spontaneous mutation in the form of innovation. But as any fule kno innovation is not spontaneous, nor random either, if that were also implied by Ferguson. People change things because people think their hard-thought ideas will work better than old hard-thought ideas. Sometimes they’re right, but they’re never random.
Point (4) talks of natural selection, which is about how people make choices about what they will invest in based on their rational assessment of results. You may remember that is called “artificial selection”, and it is what Darwin based his
novel idea spontaneous mutation of natural selection upon.
As for “speciation” and “extinction” – just a bit specious and extraneous, don’t you think, when they actually mean “people think of new business plans” and “other people think they’re rubbish and trade elsewhere”?
What drew my attention most, though, was point (4). In the BBC trailer, Ferguson was taking about how propping up banks and so on artificially, as has been the case in recent years, is counter-evolutiuonary: the fittest need to survive, or the whole system is weakened. You may agree with me that this is not so much evolutionary economics, as economic eugenics. And like the original eugenics, the doctrinaire imposition of Darwinian/Malthusian logic means that real people suffer because of what will, in all likelihood, prove to be as misguidedly wrong as putting pygmies in New York zoos in the early 20th century.
It is interesting that this year’s Gifford lectures, by Prof Sarah Coakley, my exact contemporary at Cambridge, are all about debunking that Malthusian substrate to Darwinism, and cite sociobiologist E O Wilson’s conversion to the importance of mutual cooperation and even self-sacrifice in evolution – he now ranks it as a third support, with mutation and evolution. Maybe it’ll take another 150 years for that to trickle down into economics and business, where utilitarian ethics ruled long before Niall Ferguson wrote his book. Meanwhile, compassion in business will remain the domain of naive Non-conformist Victorian philanthropists. But it’s actually modern evolution, folks.
Footnote: my aversion to fanciful metaphors probably dates back to a church conference in Sussex when I was a teenager. We were asked to create metaphors for the Church, and being a keen zoology student my first thought was “The Church is an Amoeba.” Surprisingly my group ran with it. At first it worked quite well – after all, the Church is positively phototactic like the protozoon (it moves towards the light), it divides and multiplies, it is resilient, and it can go underground in times of persecution (remember amoebic cysts?). I don’t think I’d discovered slime moulds then or we could have talked about Ecumenical Councils too.
But it definitely didn’t go down well with my teenage peers when I pointed out that Amoeba is asexual.