Why Darwin?

Richard Lewontin reviews some recent books on Darwin in the NYRB:

The Darwin-Wallace explanation of evolution, the theory of natural selection, is based on three principles:

1) Individuals in a population differ from each other in the form of particular characteristics (the principle of variation).

2) Offspring resemble their parents more than they resemble unrelated individuals (the principle of heritability).

3) The resources necessary for life and reproduction are limited. Individuals with different characteristics differ in their ability to acquire those resources and thus to survive and leave offspring in the next generations (the principle of natural selection).

It seems amazing that two naturalists could independently arrive at the same articulated theory of evolution from a consideration of the characteristics of some species of organisms in nature, their geographic distribution, and their similarities to other species. This amazement becomes considerably tempered, however, when one considers the social consciousness and economic milieu in which the theory arose, a milieu marked by the rise of competitive industrial capitalism in which individuals rose in the social hierarchy based, presumably, on their greater entrepreneurial fitness.

Darwin's maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, started life as a potter's apprentice and rose to be a member of the circle of new Mid- land industrial magnates along with James Watt, James Keir, and Matthew Boulton. While the nineteenth-century theory that some rose and some fell in society depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses is often referred to as “social Darwinism,” we would be much more in agreement with historical causation were we to call Darwinism “Biological Competitive Capitalism.” The perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built.

One can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the Industrial Revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy. How else are we to explain the immediate and continued commercial success of Darwin's books? The entire first edition of 1,250 copies of the Origin was immediately snapped up by booksellers. The expectation of public interest is revealed by the fact that a circulating library took five hundred copies.[3] The sixth edition, only thirteen years later, sold 11,000 copies. One cannot understand the origin and the immediate success of the Origin outside of the social and economic setting in which it was conceived, nor have historians of science ignored the question. The pages of the Journal of the History of Biology have certainly not been devoid of papers on the subject. Yet what we have been provided with in 2009 is biography and annotations on the Origin, Perhaps it is time for a socioeconomic analysis of our own preoccupations.

The parallel between the arguments for natural selection and nineteenth-century economic and social theory, however, misses an extremely important divergence between Darwin and political economy. The theory of competitive socioeconomic success is a theory about the rise of individuals and individual enterprises as a consequence of their superior fitness. But even though the Industrial Revolution resulted eventually, at least in some countries, in a general rise in material well-being, the number of immensely successful entrepreneurs is evidently limited precisely because their success depends on the existence of a large mass of less successful workers. No population can consist largely of people like Henry Clay Frick.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, in contrast, is meant to explain the adaptation and biological success of an entire species as a consequence of the disappearance of the less fit. Provided that a species does not become so numerous as to destroy the resources on which it depends, there is no structural reason why every individual of that species cannot be highly fit. If we seek a true originality in the understanding of Darwin and Wallace, it is to be found in their ability to adapt a theory meant to explain the success of a few to produce a theory of the success of the many, even though the many may be competing for resources in short supply. Whether they were conscious of this divergence of the theory of evolution by natural selection from the reigning economic and social theory is a question.