Tuesday, January 06, 2004

More on Eliminating the Concept of Purpose in Science

I mentioned Jacques Barzun's comments about the historical movement that eliminated the concept of purpose in scientific inquiry. Today I was reminded of some more historical data that contributed to the elimination of this concept.

In an audio summary of a recent business book, It’s Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology, and Business by Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, I was startled to hear the following three sentences:
Adam Smith wrote that people follow their own self-interest, which leads to the greatest good for all. Charles Darwin's rule says that species adapt or die. That's the meaning of the term "selective pressure."
I was startled by the obvious juxtaposition of Smith's and Darwin's ideas. But the two ideas mesh perfectly. Isn't Smith's concept of the "'invisible hand' of the marketplace" (in which large-scale public good is the inescapable, unintentional, and wholly unconscious by-product of laissez-faire capitalism) . . . --Isn't that "merely," in the social and economic sphere, what Darwin's concept of "natural selection" is in the scientific/biological sphere?

Now that I think of it, weren't the "social Darwinians" in essence turning Darwin's ideas back to their intellectual and historical predecessor: Adam Smith?

Again: this should have been so obvious. I have considered these ideas before in various ways.
  • Gary North, in Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996) points out that William Jennings Bryan's objections to the teaching of evolution in public schools was motivated not by scientific concerns, per se, but by social concerns:
    [While, on the positive side, Bryan argued that democracy gave taxpayers the right to control how their funds should be used, he argued] that a ruth-less hostility to charity was the dark side of Darwin-ism. Had Darwin’s theory been irrelevant, he said, it would have been harmless. “This hypothesis, however, . . . teaches that Christianity impairs the race physically. That was the first implication at which I revolted [when I read Darwin’s work]. It led me to review the doctrine and reject it entirely” (from William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1922), 107). [Bryan] cited the notorious (and morally inescapable) passage in Darwin’s Descent of Man: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have suc-cumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man” (Ibid., 107-108). [Bryan] could have continued to quote from the passage until the end of the paragraph: “It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Modern Library, [1871], 501). . . .

    Darwin in the next paragraph wrote that sympathy, “the noblest part of our nature,” leads men to do these racially debilitating things (Ibid., 502). Bryan replied: “Can that doctrine be accepted as scientific when its author admits that we cannot apply it ‘without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature’? On the contrary, civilization is measured by the moral revolt against the cruel doctrine developed by Darwin” (Bryan, op. cit., 109).

    Darwin was taken very seriously by many Pro-gressives on the matter of charity. In her book, The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Margaret Sanger [founder of Planned Parenthood] criticized the inherent cruelty of charity. She insisted that organized efforts to help the poor are the “surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding, and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents, and dependents” (Sanger, op. cit., 108). Such charity must be stopped, she insisted. . . . “If we must have welfare, give it to the rich, not the poor,” she concluded (Ibid., 96). “More children from the fit, less from the unfit: that is the chief issue of birth control” (Sanger, "Birth Control," Birth Control Review (May 1919).

    --From North, op. cit., pp. 453-455.

  • David M. Levy in his fascinating How the Dismal Science Got Its Name (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002) notes, too, how modern economic theory (i.e., economics post-Smith) interfaced with was borne along by--and bore with it--a social Darwinian view.
I don't know where I want to go from here. Primarily I wanted to make the observation that Smithian economics goes hand-in-hand, intellectually and historically, with evolutionary thought, both biological and social.

I guess I would like to make one more observation, this one coming, too, from the audio tape that inspired my comments here.

I am impressed with how theories of purposeless, "self-organization" (such as Smith's and Darwin's) are being turned to practical ends.

In the audio summary of Meyer's and Davis's It's Alive, I heard the story of a John Deere factory that makes seed planters.

The company uses a computer to create a few random schedules that express the sequence of planters to be built in a digital code made of zeros and ones. That code is a set of instructions, just as DNA carries a set of instructions as "genetic code."

This is possible because of a genetic algorithm. A genetic algorithm is a computer program that simulates the same sort of breeding and evolution that appears to take place in nature. The program can test millions of examples of a production schedule using a simulator. It identifies the schedules that work the best, kills the rest, and then mixes parts of the winning schedules to create new ones. In essence, it breeds new schedules. Then the new ones are tested, and so on. Forty thousand new schedules are tested every night, and the winner is the schedule that runs tomorrow's real-life production on the John Deere factory floor. . . .

In using genetic algorithms to set its factory schedule, John Deere applied two evolutionary concepts. One was the idea of recombination, which is known as breeding in the animal world. The other was to exert selective pressure. . . .

In the John Deere example, a schedule that speeds things up is rewarded by allowing it to breed with other fast schedules. A schedule that is slow dies off without breeding.

The cycle repeats through successive generations, and the agents undergo changes and evolve — in this case, getting faster. In life, the change of one species depends on the change of others. Fast foxes help breed faster rabbits. This is often called co-evolution.

--Audio-Tech Business Book Summaries, Volume 12, No. 7, Section 1, July 2003.

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