Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sympathy From the Devil

"Influenced by Adam Smith, Darwin believed that a sense of sympathy is essential for the existence of a workable society. That accounts for having a concern for the welfare of others, but not for why one organism within a society will come to the aid of another when to do so is risky or expensive. There are various possible ways of explaining such behavior, some of which Darwin considered...he invoked group selection, with the tribe the unit that gets selected. This may seem odd at first, but consider Darwin's experience during the Beagle voyage. He repeatedly saw evidence of one tribe exterminating another, and found native peoples in decline when thrown into competition with the more economically advanced." [Ghiselin, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, forthcoming]

"We suggest that in fact social Darwinists came to regard sympathy, the social glue of small groups, as an impediment to racial perfection because it allowed the 'unfit' to survive...The loss of sympathy is tied up with the question of how ideas of race entered into 19th century economics. A critical step occurred when Darwin's Descent of Man proposed that concern for the 'greatest happiness' be replaced with concern for the 'greatest good,' which is defined as racial perfection effected through 'natural selection'...The question is how did economics move from universalism to a form of particularism? Our answer is that The Economist served as a network for late 19th century racial theorizing in British economics...When Spencer's reciprocity norm was replaced by 'natural selection' in which the killer has higher rank than the killed, economics changed. We have conjectured (Peart and Levy 2005) that the coming of 'natural selection' into economics meant the end of sympathy as an analytical construction. Sympathy was an impediment to the law of the strong." [Levy & Peart, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, forthcoming]

(Nod to Kevin L)