Happy Birthday, dear Mr Charles Darwin

Today, Feb 12th, marks the birth anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest innovators. Charles Darwin was born on this date in 1809. And so was another great man — Abraham Lincoln — born on the same day and and the same year as Darwin.

Darwin was one of two people who came up with the novel idea that the mechanism for the evolution of biological life was natural selection; Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) was the other person. They explained what makes the biological world tick.

Evolution.

It is hard to escape the gravitational pull of the idea of evolution through natural selection. The idea goes back into antiquity. But it was only recently (in terms of historical time) in the mid-1800s that Charles Darwin pondered the biological variant of evolution and figured out the mechanism. It was natural selection. That is one of the superstar ideas that populate the core of our ideas galaxy. Everything that is known about biological evolution can be explained through natural selection.

Natural Selection

Darwin had patiently observed nature and cataloged a heap of facts during his voyage on the HMS Beagle which ended in 1837. Then another idea pushed him to an inspired guess on the mechanism which produced the diversity of species in the world. That idea came from a professor of political economy and Fellow of the Royal Society, Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834).

Malthus had considered the matter of how societies function and concluded that the struggle for food is critically important. The competition for food would result in winners and losers. Populations would increase till the standards fell to subsistence levels for the most fecund segment of society. The biological imperative to reproduce as profligately as possible lead inexorably to a situation where natural resource limits are reached and the weakest sorted out of the race. At the center of the drama of life was competition for resources.

Darwin had observed the natural world, pondered the evidence, and read Malthus. That’s what he needed to figure out natural selection. But then so had another contemporary of his: Alfred Russell Wallace (1823 – 1913). Like Darwin, he studied the natural world, pondered the puzzle of the diversity of species and he too had read An Essay on the Principle of Population (first published anonymously in 1798; final revision published 1826), by Thomas Malthus, and arrived independently at natural selection. Darwin was about to be scooped by Wallace and rushed to publish On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859.

Competition

The centrality of competition in the natural world is immediately understandable to anyone who has observed nature. Economists appreciate the power of competition and it is not surprising at all that natural scientists like Wallace and Darwin incorporated competition in their explanation of the biological world. (Darwin and Wallace were competitors!) They realized that there was no divine designer involved in the creation of variety in the natural world. There was no grand planner and consequently no grand plans.

The biological world evolves autonomously. There was only competition for resources and the universe was supremely indifferent to who were the winners and who the losers. Natural selection is the mechanism which all living systems rely on for their evolution.

The twin ideas of evolution through natural selection and competition are inseparable. I find it unsurprising that the central organizing principle of biology owes something to economics.

It should be noted that natural selection and competition are descriptive rather than normative or prescriptive features of the world. We are merely noting how things are, and no claim has been made so far on how they ought to be. The universe is neither moral or immoral; it is amoral. That eventually it gave rise to sentient beings that are capable of making moral judgments is itself a result of amoral processes.

It’s all karma, neh?

{This is a recycled post, made almost entirely of words that were used before: On Competition and Ideas (Sept 2008), which was recycled again in Competition and the Creation of Wealth (June 2016). Recycling is good because while the readers themselves are new, the ideas are old.}

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, dear Mr Charles Darwin

  1. “….realized that there was no divine designer involved in the creation of variety in the natural world. There was no grand planner and consequently no grand plans.”

    For this Darwin paid the price by earning a permanent place in the Hall of Hatred built by the religious fundamentalists. The vitriol he gets from the half-wits is unbelievable. They might as well blame Newton for discovering gravity as independent of god.

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  2. Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis (the Confederate leader), Charles Darwin shared the same attitude:
    They were all racist (Darwin called certain aborigines ‘savages’)
    –Gross misconception: Lincohn fought the Confederates because of the latter’s separatism. Slavery or no slavery was a minor concern to him http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm.
    Lincoln was a white supremacist period. It is funny how he was elevated into some kind of sainthood.
    After the civil war victory, he wanted to deport the blacks to Liberia and the Carribeans but his plan was abandoned after his assassination. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8319858/Abraham-Lincoln-wanted-to-deport-slaves-to-new-colonies.html
    Reality is a bitch,
    History no less.
    –Darwin sure was a great intellectual, at least he tried to explain his views through science and he has been vilified by people including racist fundamentalist Christians.

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    • Lin, certainly they were racists — and in keeping with the dominant ethos of that age. But Darwin did make a major contribution that discredits racism. I am not so sure about Mr Lincoln, though. He managed to keep the union together but to do that he did suspend the constitution and used violence for that purpose. I am against slavery but I am also against violence that thwarts self-determination.

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      • Darwin’s greatest statement is that we’re all product of our environment on short or long term perspective; IMO, both the ‘conservatives’ and the self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ are often confused when it comes to ‘races’. Two examples many might not be aware of:
        1)Whenever one mentioned ‘Sweden’, one might associate that country with the followings:
        a)Sweden is a wealthy developed country
        b)To the white racists, Sweden is at the apex of racial superiority
        c)’Swedish Maids’ is a porn genre
        Fact is during the 19th and early 20th century, Sweden was a poor country and many swedes migrated to other countries(sometimes due to crop failure). They were victim of severe prejudice even in other Nordic countries, often treated very poorly(like cattles according to one source). There’s a number of novels and movies on that subject. Swedish maids in Europe were just like Phillipino maids nowadays; it was severe employment problem and had little to do with porn. However one must give the swedes the credit of being an industrious people and they did the smart thing of staying neutral in WW1 and WW2 and saved themselves from the horrible carnage.

        2)The Dutch people
        The dutch are the tallest people on earth, so the white racists sure attribute it to ‘superior white genes’, haha
        but many don’t know that 2 centuries ago they were in fact a short people and definitely shorter than their neighbours, so the ‘progressives’ would say,”see, it all has to do with nutrition and environment’.
        Fact is it took them 2 centuries to achieve that.

        The bottom line is how to meet the Darwinian Challenge, survive and prosper

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