Free markets and evolution

I came across this article this morning, on Francis Turner’s blog L’Ombre de l’Olivier (via Sarah Hoyt on Instapundit). I don’t visit his site often, but he always has interesting things to say.

This post, on “Free Markets and Evolution”, looks at the parallels between what we might call “belief-based science” (what we might more broadly call “scientism”, and “religion-based science”, aka creationism and Intelligent Design theory. His argument is that both are belief systems, marked equally by symbolism, ritual, vestments, mysteries of the faith and virtue signaling. Compare the vestments of a pastor or priest on Sunday, with the white lab coat worn by “scientistic” public figures like Bill Nye, and you’ll get the idea. Both preach their homilies from podia that inspire reverence and awe: the solemn interior of the gothic church for one, the Hayden Planetarium and Cosmos backdrops for someone like Neil de Grasse Tyson.

Turner’s main point is to highlight the disconnect between the cultural inspiration for Darwinism originally conceived and Darwinism today. Darwin drew inspiration from the titans of English economic thought, like Adam Smith or Thomas Malthus. The principal advocates of “Darwinism” today are largely hostile to the free-market, and the capitalist ideas that inspired Darwin. If they were consistent, Turner argues, modern Darwinists should be champions of the free market and market capitalism. In reality, they are just the opposite.

Why the disconnect?

One possibility is that modern Darwinism is not really Darwinian at all, a point I develop fully in Purpose and Desire.

Another possibility is that when it comes to evolutionary thought, it’s a pretty safe bet that public figures like Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson have no clue what they are talking about. They are mouthing articles of faith, with the hope that the majesty of “science” will cover their empty pieties for them.

Most likely is that the disconnect comes from the rise and conquest of “science” by “scientism”, the faith that scientific principles or methodology in one area of inquiry can apply equally to other fields of inquiry. Bill Nye might have been a very successful mechanical engineer (earned from Cornell University), but that does not automatically mean that he has meaningful things to say about, say, climate change. Similarly, Neil de Grasse Tyson earned degrees in astrophysics from top-notch universities, and for all I know is a very successful director of the Hayden Planetarium. Does he have important things to say about evolutionary thought? Not that I can see.

Austin Hughes explored this problem in his recent essay The folly of scientism (reference below). His money quote:

“All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.” p 32

Hughes argues that scientism sets up a sort of Gresham’s law (bad money drives out good money). Like the bad penny that keeps coming back, faith-based scientism will eventually purge evidence-based “real science from the public intellectual square.

Hughes is not the first to recognize the “folly of scientism”, however. Hayek was all over this issue in the 1940s. His important 1942 essay on Scientism and the study of society (reference below) makes the point that the emerging science of the 1920s was in many ways a radical departure from what everyone lauds as the dawn of the scientific idea, starting with Francis Bacon. Hayek makes the point that the rise of Baconian science rested on three attributes:

  • A rebellion against the dominance of authority in favor of individuals studying nature itself. Galen might have had many important things to say about the body, most of them quite wrong, yet he was, for centuries, the authority for training of physicians. It took a rebel like Harvey to set medicine on the path to being a science.
  • A rebellion against Platonic idealism. A plant might conform more or less closely to some species ideal (defined by a specialist, of course). It took a different eye to see that it was not the conformity to the ideal that mattered, but the disconformity of actual plants living in nature.
  • A search for the purposeful mind that organized and designed the natural world.

How remarkable, then, that modern Darwinism, or perhaps modern “scientistic” Darwinism rejects points 1 and 3 entirely. Which has led modern evolutionary thought to the scientific dead end where it now sits.

Bottom line: It is impossible to divorce mind from evolution.


Hughes, A. L. (2012). The folly of scientism. The New Atlantis
37: 32-50.

Hayek, F. A. v. (1942). Scientism and the study of society. Part I. Economica
9(35): 267-291.


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