We've endured our own KT-event regarding David Hawkes's review of
Stephen Jay Gould's last book, The Structure of Evolut
Popular perception notwithstanding, the theory of natural selection was
accepted by every serious evolutionist long before Darwin. Earlier
scientists interpreted it as the clearest possible evidence for
intelligent design of the universe. William Paley's Natural Theology
(1802), for example, employs the famous image of the "great watchmaker" to account for the perfect adaptation of creatures to harmonious ecosystems. Darwin's innovation, which may appear small but is in fact immense, lay in his claim that natural selection is the only cause of evolution.
In one sense, this was merely a change of emphasis: The impulse of
pre-Darwinian evolutionists, faced with incontrovertible evidence of
natural selection, had been to ask why it occurred. They sought after
the "final cause" of evolution, and they found it in the proposal of an
intelligent designer. But one of the essential principles of modern
science is that such final causes are unknowable. Science must limit
itself to "efficient" or "material" causes; it must not ask why things
happen, but how. Darwin applied this principle to evolution. Whereas his
predecessors had seen the adaptation of organisms to their environment
as the effects of design, Darwin saw the physical development of
creatures as the sole cause of evolution. The great watchmaker had been
As Stephen J. Gould (who died as this issue was going to press) shows in
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Darwin's breakthrough was
essentially methodological. Darwinism is what you get when you focus on
the micrological details, resolutely refusing to lift your eyes to the
level of the whole. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this
methodological sine qua non for scientific investigation was imposed on
every discipline, but it originated in the "dismal science" of
economics. The "political economy" of Adam Smith began from the material
actions of individuals in pursuit of their own selfish ends, and
extrapolated from this micrological level to abstract generalizations
about the economy as a whole.
What Smith calls "the economy" is thus an amalgamation of all the
self-interested actions of individuals, and precisely the same is true
of what Darwin understood as "evolution." In fact, Darwin consciously
and deliberately imported Smith's economic methodology into biology in
order to refute natural theology's argument from design. As Gould baldly
puts it, "the theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith's
economics transferred to nature." He is reluctant to dwell too long on
this kinship, no doubt because he understands the severity of the threat
it poses to Darwinism's pretensions to objectivity. Gould's ally and
sometime collaborator Richard Lewontin has criticized him for such
reticence in several exchanges first published in the New York Review
of Books. Lewontin has called Gould's work "curiously unpolitical"
for failing to draw out the implications of "the overwhelming influence
of ideology in science." For Lewontin, "Darwin's theory of evolution by
natural selection is obviously nineteenth-century capitalism writ
large," and attempts to press it into the service of psychology are
The distinguishing theoretical characteristic of both Darwin and Smith
is reductionism--they reduce all knowledge to the level of the
individual. As Gould notes, "The rebuttal of the former centerpiece of
natural history--the belief that organic designs record the intentions
of an omnipotent creative power--rests upon the radical demotion of
agency to a much lower level, devoid of any prospect for conscious
intent, or any 'view' beyond the immediate and personal." Today,
technological progress has enabled evolutionists to carry Darwin's
reduction a stage further. The smallest individual Darwin could study
was the organism, but it is now possible to analyze the behavior of the
gene. People like Richard Dawkins now claim that evolution is driven not
by competition between individual organisms, but by struggles among
Many evolutionary biologists keep a guilty silence regarding the ethical
implications of their theory, but Dawkins positively revels in
dehumanization. His imagery dwells lasciviously on the mechanical--our
bodies are merely "lumbering robots," or "survival machines" for genes.
His infamous book The Selfish Gene (1976) abounds in brazen
antihumanist provocations: "I am treating a mother as a machine
programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the
genes which reside inside it." Nor does mechanization stop with the
body; evolutionary psychology views the mind itself as a machine,
reducing our thoughts and ideas to the chemical reactions that accompany
them. Dawkins has even propounded a theory that the history of ideas
follows rules analogous to competitive gene selection, reducing
dialectic to a tedious and pointless struggle between what he calls
"memes." Lately he has taken to writing letters to the British press,
suggesting that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush will be enlightened
if they "study memes."
The idea that genes determine all social behavior, that human beings are
machines, evidently strikes a chord in the Western popular mind.
Postmodernist works such as Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto"
celebrate the "posthuman" from what their authors apparently regard as a
radical perspective, while the theoretical texts of Michel Foucault and
Jean-Francois Lyotard advocate a micrological materialism that excludes
on principle any interest in "totalizing grand narratives." As John
Dupré has recently remarked, this "tyranny of the microscopic"
really constitutes an "intellectual pathology" whose significance is
sociological rather than scientific. Gould swats Dawkins away easily
enough--sardonically appropriating his vocabulary to dismiss his theory,
cruelly but fairly, as an "impotent meme"--but he does not explain why
such theories have come to seem plausible to many in the general public.
To examine that, we have to back up about 65 million years.
Reptilia served as Exhibit A then. Imagine Triceratops glancing
up from its grazing to notice a seven-mile-wide asteroid descending
rapidly toward its head. Triceratops had not expected this.
Nature had prepared it for the expected; it could expect to spend a
great deal of time fighting with Tyrannosaurus rex, for example,
and was formidably well-equipped for that purpose. But natural selection
had not prepared it to withstand a direct hit from a piece of rock a
The lump of stone that crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula
ended the Cretaceous Period by showering the earth with fire and
brimstone, thus destroying 70 percent of living species, including
almost all the dinosaurs. This was something of a spanner in the works
of natural selection, from which it may not recover. The implications of
this catastrophe, conclusive evidence for which was discovered only in
1980, have yet to be fully assimilated by evolutionary theory. For most
of the twentieth century, orthodox Darwinists held that natural
selection--the competitive adaptation of individual organisms to their
environment--was the exclusive motor of evolutionary change. Now they
must qualify this dogma, but it is proving a laborious process.
Many scientists remain convinced that catastrophic change is the
exception. If it weren't for that pesky asteroid, they gripe, natural
selection would have continued unabated. They note that natural
selection will always work ceteris paribus--that is, other things
being equal, under the controlled laboratory environment in which modern
scientists conduct their experiments. It will work, that is to say, in
the absence of the unexpected. But don't we know from experience that
the unexpected happens all the time, and occasionally with catastrophic
The "K-T event," as the asteroid strike is known, casts suspicion on the
doctrinaire claim that evolution is solely the result of the competitive
adaptation of individual organisms to their environment. It indicates
that the external constraints under which adaptation occurs must
inevitably exert an influence on the course of evolution. And it raises
the possibility that random, "chance" events play at least as
significant a role as the incremental, purposive process of natural
Although it represents a mortal threat to mainstream Darwinism, the
theory of catastrophic evolution is quite consistent with Stephen Jay
Gould and Niles Eldredge's epochal discovery of "punctuated
equilibrium." Punctuated equilibrium, or "punk-ek," holds that evolution
does not take place incrementally but rather in spurts that are divided
by long periods of stasis. It departs from Darwin by implying that
natural selection by competition among individual organisms cannot be
the exclusive cause of evolutionary change, since such competition does
not pause for periods of equilibrium.
Darwin is often thought to have rescued the history of life from the
superstitious fantasies of religion, by basing his theory on good,
solid, empirical evidence. But, as Gould and Eldredge noticed, the
empirical evidence does not indicate that evolution proceeds by
incremental, incessant natural selection, as Darwin claimed. In fact,
the empirical evidence indicates quite the opposite. When we look at the
living species around us, we do not find a continuum of creatures in
infinitesimally graduated stages of evolution. We find, instead, clearly
distinct species. We find the same when we look at the fossil record;
paleontology testifies that evolutionary stasis is the norm, and that
change takes place in abrupt bursts, as though suddenly spurred forward
by some external stimulus.
One of the many fascinating questions raised in Gould's The Structure
of Evolutionary Theory is why Darwin did not see this. Why did he
insist on attributing sole determining power to natural selection in
defiance of the evidence? His own explanation was that the fossil record
gives a false impression because it is radically incomplete. But this
does not alter the fact that natural selection is an imposition on the
available evidence, a bold reading against the grain. Did Darwin nod?
Why was he so convinced that all evolution is caused by natural
selection among individual organisms in competition with one another?
Gould does not explain this, almost certainly for a very interesting
reason: He has often been accused, by sociobiologists and orthodox
Darwinians, of handing ammunition to creationists. There is no room for
an intelligent designer in a universe formed entirely through relentless
competition between selfish individuals, but because it allows that
external factors may influence evolution, the theory of punctuated
equilibrium is not incompatible with theories of intelligent design--a
fact that has caused no small embarrassment to its authors. The charge
of neocreationism is deeply unfair--Gould testified against creationism
in landmark court cases and ridiculed it mercilessly in his writing. He
opposed intelligent design on the grounds that it is "theology" and not
"science." In this book, obviously intended as his legacy to scientific
posterity, Gould repeatedly and emphatically protests that no matter how
many revisions and qualifications he may impose upon Darwin, he remains
a faithful follower of the great man. In a rare and revealing mixed
metaphor, he claims to have retained "the guts of the machine," and he
uses a cumbersome simile involving a piece of coral to argue, again and
again, that his own work is merely an "addition" to Darwin.
That is rubbish, and Gould must have known it. The Structure of
Evolutionary Theory is an "addition" to The Origin of Species
in the same sense that Capital is an "addition" to The Wealth
of Nations. Gould certainly built upon Darwin's work, assuming its
premises as his own and erecting his own theory on the foundation of a
meticulous analysis of the original texts. But there comes a stage in
the construction at which, in fulfillment of the dialectical law,
quantitative change becomes qualitative change, and the extension to the
edifice deserves to be called a new building.
Despite (and because of) his vehement denials, I believe that Gould
reached that stage. His theory is more than a supplement to Darwinism,
it is an alternative view, a paradigm shift. Gould has deprived natural
selection of the exclusive role Darwin assigned to it, using the most
unimpeachable logic and the most scrupulous empirical research.
Gould obviously liked to limit the destructive impact of his criticism
to distortions of the founder's aims. But Darwin cannot so easily be
exonerated--Gould himself admits that the work of Dawkins constitutes "a
furthering and intensification of Darwin's intent." Indeed, Gould often
refers to theorists of gene selection as "ultra-Darwinists" or
"Darwinian fundamentalists," because they take the master's reductionist
method to the logical conclusion permitted by modern technology. Gould
would have been mortified to hear it, but his own interpretation
suggests that, were Darwin alive today, he might be Richard Dawkins.
Traditional creationism is based on a literal reading of Genesis and
represents no intellectual danger to Darwinism. The recent advocates of
"intelligent design," however, demand to be taken a little more
seriously because of their recent political and pedagogical successes;
they admit to the apparent age of the earth as established in the
geological record, for example, and accept the fossil record as evidence
of species change. Hard-fought cases involving the boards of education
of Kansas (1999) and Ohio (2002) have established a new beachhead for
intelligent design in the public mind, while simultaneously throwing a
shadow on natural selection's claim to be the exclusive motor of
The idea that schools in Kansas might depart from Darwinist orthodoxy
induced apoplexy among the commissars of science. John Rennie, editor of
Scientific American, urged colleges to be skeptical of applicants
from Kansas: "If kids in Kansas aren't being taught properly about
science, they won't be able to keep up with children taught competently
elsewhere. It's called survival of the fittest. Maybe the Board of
Education needs to learn about natural selection firsthand." In an
edition of the American Spectator, a leading theorist of
intelligent design, Michael Behe, professed to be mystified at Rennie's
outburst: "What is it about the topic of evolution that drives so many
people nuts? Why does a change in a farm state's high school examination
policy call forth damning editorials all the way from London, England,
and have normally staid editors threatening children?"
The answer is obvious, blindingly so. Behe does not see it because he,
like most advocates of intelligent design, approaches the issue from a
socially conservative point of view. Much scholarship on intelligent
design is sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based
foundation that describes itself as "dedicated to exploring and
promoting public policies that advance representative democracy, free
enterprise and individual liberty," and whose mission statement commits
it to boosting the "common sense" of the "free market." It is this
commitment, I suppose, that distracts Behe from one of the reasons the
American establishment goes "nuts" when the educational privilege of
natural selection is threatened: A threat to the exclusivity of natural
selection--individual competition--is a threat to market ideology.
(Although he tactfully pays it less attention than it deserves, Gould
acknowledges the full extent of Darwinism's complicity with Adam Smith.
But the alterations Gould introduces into evolutionary theory do not
depend on its ideological kinship with classical economics.)
Neither Behe nor his book Darwin's Black Box rate a mention in
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and Gould's silence on the
subject of intelligent design can be regarded as extremely eloquent. He
would have denied it, but this book really charts Gould's arduous
passage through Darwinism and his emergence on the other side. This
breakthrough seems to have been facilitated by his discovery of the
literature that Darwin was writing against. Gould blithely informs us
that "I had never read [Paley's] Natural Theology straight
through before pursuing my research for this book." Lay readers may find
this an astonishing confession from the world's leading Darwin scholar,
but those familiar with scientists' undiscriminating rejection of
metaphysics will be unsurprised. Having forced himself to pick up the
book, Gould finds that Paley's primary observation is "undoubtedly
correct," and largely accepted by Darwin--nature does indeed indicate
exquisite adaptation to environment. The difference lies in the reason
Darwin gives for this order in creation. Paley thought it bespoke a
benign creator, but Darwin "seems to mock the standard interpretation in
a manner that could almost be called cruel" when he introduces the
micrological economics of Adam Smith:
as the cruellest twist of all, this lower-level cause of pattern seems
to suggest a moral reading exactly opposite to Paley's lofty hopes for
the meaning of comprehensive order--for nature's individuals struggle
for their own personal benefit, and nothing else! Paley's
observations could not be faulted--organisms are well designed and
ecosystems are harmonious. But his interpretations could not have been
more askew--for these features do not arise as direct products of divine
benevolence, but only as epiphenomena of an opposite process both in
level of action and intent of outcome: individuals struggling for
Read that last sentence again. What might bring about the triumph of the
"opposite process" to "divine benevolence"? Clue: It is not the blind
indifference of nature. The history of human thought is hardly silent
concerning the struggle between a benevolent deity and a cruel mocker.
But Gould shies away from considering the theological implications of
his theory with the standard get-out clause: "This book cannot address
such a vital issue at any depth."
Many readers will be tempted to respond: "Why on earth not? It's 1,400
pages long!" But Gould was not eager to incur again, in his magnum opus,
the tired charge of neocreationism. He does begin to speculate about why
the homologous visions of Darwin and Smith should complement each other
so conveniently, and he also raises the question of why this connection
has come to seem so glaring in recent years. But his uncharacteristic
hesitancy reveals his discomfort away from scientific terrain: "I
venture these ill-formulated statements about Zeitgeist because I feel
that something important lurks behind my inability to express these
inchoate thoughts with precision."
Indeed it does. Later in the book, Gould remarks that "the exclusivity
of organismal selection...provides the punch line that allowed the
vision of Adam Smith to destroy the explicit beauty and harmony of
William Paley's world." Absolutely true. But the exclusivity of
organismal selection is what Gould denied, too. Is it really accurate,
then, to continue calling him a "Darwinist"? At one point, Gould demands
that creationists throw in the towel and acknowledge Darwin as "the
Muhammad Ali of biology." Ali was undoubtedly a great champion, but his
present condition renders Gould's image rather ambiguous. And then, too,
the reader is left in some doubt as to whether Gould saw himself in the
role of Angelo Dundee or Joe Frazier.
At work recently, I went to get a ham sandwich from the university cafeteria. I discovered, to my vocal dismay, that the well-loved food counter offering homemade fare had been torn out and replaced by a Burger King franchise. Questioned about this innovation, the head of "food services" insisted that
it had been implemented in response to consumer demand. An exhaustive series of polls, surveys and questionnaires had revealed, apparently, that students and faculty were strongly in favor of a more "branded feel" to their dining environment.
It is worth pausing over the term "branded feel." It represents, I think, something profound: The presence of Burger King in the lunchroom is claimed to be a matter of affect. It addresses itself to "feelings," it meets a need that is more emotional than economic. This need has been identified, I was informed, by scientific and therefore inarguable means. The food-services honcho produced statistics that clearly indicated a compelling customer desire for bad, expensive food. According to his methodology, my protests were demonstrably elitist and undemocratic.
It is hardly news that opinion polls are frequently used to bolster the interests of those who commission them. But in recent years the notion that opinion can be measured in quantifiable terms has achieved unprecedented power and influence over public policy. The American penal system, for instance, has been rendered increasingly violent and sadistic as a direct response to opinion polls, which inform politicians that inhumane conditions are what voters desire. The thoughts and emotions of human beings are regarded as mathematically measurable, and the practical effects of this notion are now perceptible in the most mundane transactions of daily life.
This quantified approach to human nature is the result of the importation of theoretical economics into the general culture. Since the marginalist revolution of the late nineteenth century, neoclassical economists have rigidly confined their investigations within the methodological paradigm of positivist science, and they aspire in particular to the model of mathematics. Economists seek to produce empirically verifiable, statistical patterns of human behavior. They regard such studies as objective, unbiased and free of value-laden, superstitious presuppositions. The principle of "consumer sovereignty" hails this mode of procedure as the sociological arm of democracy, and it has made economics the most prestigious of the human sciences.
As David Throsby's Economics and Culture and Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss's Market Society show, the procedures of academic economists are now being further exalted to a position of dominant influence over everyday experience. Homo economicus is fast becoming equated with Homo sapiens. When airlines refer to passengers as "customers" and advise them to be "conservative with your space management," this development may seem trivial or comic. But in their very different ways, these books suggest that beneath such incremental cultural mutations there lurks an iceberg of titanic dimensions.
The Australian academic David Throsby is about as enlightened and humanistic as it is possible for a professional economist to be. He is also an accomplished playwright, and his influence on the political culture of his native land has been extensive and unvaryingly benign. He begins from the accurate supposition that "public policy and economic policy have become almost synonymous," and his intention is to rescue culture from the philistinism of businessmen and politicians who are incapable of lifting their eyes above the bottom line. It is a lamentable sign of the times, however, that he sees no other means of doing so than by translating aesthetic endeavor into quantifiable, economic terms. As he puts it, "If culture in general and the arts in particular are to be seen as important, especially in policy terms in a world where economists are kings, they need to establish economic credentials; what better way to do this than by cultivating the image of art as industry."
In order to cultivate this image, Throsby makes extensive if ambivalent use of the "rational-choice theory" derived from the work of Gary Becker. In Becker's opinion, the kinds of decision-making that economists contrive to abstract from the actions of people conceived as economic agents can be extrapolated to explain their behavior in areas of life that were once, romantically and unscientifically, thought of as lying beyond the arid terrain of rational calculation: love, for example, or aesthetic endeavor. This emboldens Throsby to ask whether we "might envisage creativity as a process of constrained optimisation, where the artist is seen as a rational maximizer of individual utility subject to both internally and externally imposed constraints," and to postulate "a measure...of difference in creativity (or 'talent'), in much the same way as in microeconomic analysis differences between production functions in input-output space measures differences in technology."
There are enough caveats in Throsby's book to indicate a laudable reluctance to engage in this project; however, he evidently feels that the current climate of opinion leaves him no other choice. He is thus driven to apply the economic understanding of "value" to cultural phenomena, and to engage in a "consideration of culture as capital...in the economic sense of a stock of capital assets giving rise over time to a flow of capital services." Much of this book consists of a monomaniacal reinscription of life itself into the technical discourse of neoclassical economics. We are therefore subjected to lengthy discussions of "cultural capital" (formerly known as "culture"), "social capital" (a k a "society"), "physical capital" (née "buildings"), "natural capital" (alias "nature") and of course "human capital" (once referred to as "people"). There is, it seems, no limit to the colonizing potential of economics: "If broader cultural phenomena, such as traditions, language, customs, etc. are thought of as intangible assets in the possession of the group to which they refer, they too can be brought into the same framework."
We are faced here, essentially, with the quantification of all human experience. Not merely economic behavior but every aspect of life and thought can be expressed under the statistical rubric and studied in mathematical form. The notion of the "stakeholder," dear to Tony Blair, whose ambition to create a "stakeholder society" is overt and unapologetic, is fundamental to this project.
A stakeholder stands in relation to the world as a shareholder does to a corporation. He (or she) casts a cold eye on his surroundings and perceives only his "stake" in them; he rationally considers the means by which he may optimally maximize their benefits. The stakeholder, then, is not human. He is rather a quantified abstraction from humanity, a machine designed for the calculation of marginal utility. Good-hearted economists such as Throsby would retort that the stakeholder does not enjoy an empirical existence; he is merely a useful theoretical construct. Would that it were so. But in fact, as Hannah Arendt said of neoclassical economics' cousin, behavioral psychology: "The problem...is not that it is false but that it is becoming true."
There is an interesting convergence between rational-choice theory and the venerable tradition of socialist materialism. Both approaches insist that the real factor motivating human behavior is economic self-interest: that of an individual in the former case, and that of a social class in the latter. The British sociologists Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss address many of the same questions as Throsby in their book Market Society, but they view the conquest of intellectual and social life by economics from a more traditionally leftist perspective. Like Throsby, Slater and Tonkiss acknowledge that "market logic has come to provide a means of thinking about social institutions and individuals more generally," but instead of concluding that students of aesthetics must therefore incorporate economic concepts into their practice, they envisage a movement in the other direction. Today, they claim, "the economist's task of explanation is as much interpretive or hermeneutic as it is mathematical."
Slater and Tonkiss are influenced here by the "rhetorical turn" that economists such as Deirdre McCloskey have recently attempted to introduce into their discipline. The increasingly abstract nature of money, it is claimed, lays bare the fact that financial value, like semiotic meaning, is an imaginary and therefore arbitrary mode of signification. As such, money can be studied using terms and concepts drawn from rhetoric and literary criticism. (An amusing parody of this idea occurs in Will Self's novel My Idea of Fun, which features a "money critic" whose job is to pontificate about the aesthetic qualities of various forms of finance.) Slater and Tonkiss present this as an appealing reversal of intellectual roles: "Whereas the central preoccupation of critical social analysis has traditionally been the way in which economic rationality dominates culture, contemporary social theory has been increasingly concerned with the central role of cultural processes and institutions in organizing and controlling the economic."
Although their emphasis is different, Slater and Tonkiss's argument leads to the same essential conclusion as Throsby's: It no longer makes sense to distinguish between "economics" and "culture," or between "the market" and "society." In practice, it makes little difference whether one regards this as an incursion of aesthetics into economics or vice versa. Indeed, Slater and Tonkiss are a good deal more pessimistic than Throsby about the consequences of this development. To their credit, they are willing and able to introduce into the discussion concepts like "commodification" and "alienation," from which even liberal economists like Throsby recoil in horror. But they stop well short of the bleak dystopianism of Adorno, and their slightly anodyne conclusion is that "markets are not simply good or bad, because they are highly variable." This pluralism is forced upon them, because their book is intended as a historical survey of various theoretical approaches to the market: Market Society provides admirably lucid and meticulously fair readings of Smith, Ricardo, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Polanyi. Despite its historical approach, the most beguiling feature of the book is that its treatment of such past thinkers is undertaken with a prominent sense of our present predicament.
Discussing the economist whose theories have had the greatest influence on that predicament, Slater and Tonkiss remind us that "Hayek held that ultimately there were no economic ends as such; economic action always served ends that were non-economic in character because needs and desires are exogenous (or external) to the market setting." But to say that there are no economic ends is the same as to say that there are only economic ends. It is, in other words, to abolish any distinction between the economic and the noneconomic. Toward the end of Economics and Culture, Throsby observes that "in primitive societies...culture and economy are to a considerable degree one and the same thing." By this definition, as each of these important and timely books suggests, our society may be the most primitive of all. Can anyone, today, escape the "branded feel"?