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History of Political Economy 35.2 (2003) 350-353

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Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics. Edited by John Laurent and John Nightingale. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 2001. xii; 254 pp. $90.00.

Darwinism has never been more influential than it is today, over 140 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin had worked out his theories twenty years earlier, but, an establishment figure, he feared his social standing would not withstand publication of them. Darwin also understood the importance of priority to scientific reputation, however. Upon reading a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace, a then obscure naturalist, that independently proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin was moved to hasty publication—his introduction calls On the Origin of Species an “abstract.” Darwin also orchestrated, without Wallace's knowledge, the unveiling of both men's work at the same meeting (Raby 2001). While Wallace is sometimes granted credit for codiscovering the theory of natural selection, it is Darwinism, not Wallacism, that inspires and exercises contemporary scholars.

Darwin and Darwinism start with only two fundamental premises. First, heritable changes occur randomly in individual organisms. Second, some of these changes offer individuals, via natural selection, a greater relative chance of surviving and reproducing (a.k.a. fitness). If both premises are true, the population to which the individuals belong will necessarily evolve, that is, the population will have an increasing proportion of fitter traits. Darwin never knew what changed or how it was inherited or what caused its changes—he died without having read Gregor Mendel's genetics paper. Darwinians know that phenotypes (organisms and their behaviors) are influenced by their genes (collectively, the genotype), and that it is the genotype that changes—via mutation and recombination from sexual reproduction—and that the genotype is inherited via sperm and egg.

Economic thought and evolutionary thought are old trading partners, and biological metaphors are commonplace in the history of economics. The range of [End Page 350] contemporary economic thought that adopts the term “evolutionary” is likewise impressive. But, as noted by John Laurent in his first contribution to this intriguing collection, Darwin's and Darwinian thought are strikingly absent from the history of economics.

Laurent finds that Darwin's economist contemporaries, to the extent they understood evolution at all, typically confused Herbert Spencer with Darwin—the catch phrase “survival of the fittest” is Spencer's coinage. Two fairly obscure Australians are the best evidence of Darwin's influence. Alfred Marshall, who liberally salted his work with biological metaphors, should promise better hunting, but doesn't. The frontispiece to Marshall's Principles has the same gradualist motto found in On the Origin of Speciesnatura non facit saltum—and Marshall even claims that “the Mecca of the economist lies in evolutionary biology.” But, as Peter Groenewegen's chapter reluctantly concludes, Marshall knew almost nothing of biology, still less of Darwin's ideas, and Marshall's writings provide no reason for a pilgrimage.

Laurent's second contribution, on Keynes and Darwinism, documents that the Keyneses and Darwins, leading Cambridge families, socialized, intermarried, and frequently dabbled in eugenicist politics. Keynes understood Darwin's ideas better than did Marshall, but there's little evidence that Darwin influenced Keynes's economic ideas.

The standout paper, by William Coleman, offers a clever intervention into the ongoing historical debate over classical political economy's, especially Thomas Malthus's, influence on the theory of natural selection. One side of the debate—what evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin terms “received doctrine” among historians—reduces Darwin's thought to a simple projection onto nature of classical political economy, which is itself read as capitalist apologetic.

Coleman's gambit is to offer Wallace as counterfactual evidence. Wallace was to his death a stout defender of natural selection. At the same time, however, he strenuously rejected orthodox political economy. Wallace opposed competition, free trade, usury, and exports, championed minimum wages, land nationalization, and free bread for the indigent, and argued that “capital” was “the enemy and tyrant of labour” (39). If political economy determined the theory of natural selection, Coleman dryly concludes, historians...


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