Darwin-L Message Log 6:25 (February 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<6:25>From ad201@freenet.carleton.ca  Sun Feb  6 13:31:56 1994

Date: Sun, 6 Feb 1994 14:31:28 -0500
From: ad201@freenet.carleton.ca (Donald Phillipson)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Adam Smith's Invisible Hand: cf. Darwinism

>William Kimler [kimler@ncsu.edu] wrote Fri, 4 Feb 1994:
>This  is the most powerful insight of Smith's -- that indirect
>causation  can be the organizing force, e.g., the "invisible hand"
>providing  order to economic systems by the operation of
>self-interested  interactors, thus needing no divine, designing,
>intervening force or  mind, nor minds aware of the full consequences
>of what they  individually do.  Furthermore, this kind of causal model
>seems far  more important for Darwin's thinking than the pop-history
>story of  him "seeing English economics (competition) in the world of
>Can you provide the exact citation for the Smith remark?

Oxford Book of Quotations cites Adam Smith, Theory of Model Sentiments
IV, i, 10: thus:  "The rich only select from the heap what is most
precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in
spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity... they divide with
the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an
invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries
of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into
equal portions among all its inhabitants."

Everybody usually refers to Wealth of Nations as the principal source,
so a search ought to be made, but I have not done this.

Your "Evolution by natural selection is also a model of indirect,
unintended consequences" implies the Invisible Hand and Natural
Selection are analogous, so you may wish to consider Popper's
critique of the concept of "law."

Adam Smith may have thought he was citing a law, but it looks to me
like an empirical proposition that deserves verification in specific
times and places.  In Popper's terms it is falsifiable, so worth
considering;  and in my opinion untrue.  Perhaps it was true in 1776
but I do not think it true today that the rich "consume little more
than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and
rapacity... they divide with the poor the produce of all their
improvements."   (Reaganite "trickle-down theory" is contradicted by
actual data on incomes etc., in both the US and Canada.)

Your association of the Invisible Hand and Natural Selection suggests
both have either positive force (indirect causation) or predictive
power.  Current evolutionary theory (as reviewed by S.J. Gould in
Wonderful Life and elsewhere) abjures both predictive power and all
connotations of "force."  Darwinian Theory is unprovable by Popperian
canons because, while important and probably true, no experimental
results, not even surprises, could be interpreted unambiguously as
falsifying it.

To my eye the Invisible Hand was a plausible generalization that may
have been justified in some other society but not in ours, and Natural
Selection has a different ontological status, being unfalsifiable.
This would make me reluctant to cite either as models of the same sort
of general thing.

 |         Donald Phillipson, 4050 Hall's Road, Carlsbad           |
 |      Springs, Ont., Canada K0A 1K0; tel: (613) 822-0734         |
 |  "What I've always liked about science is its independence from |
 |  authority"--Ontario Science Centre (name on file) 10 July 1981 |

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