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Darwinism and popular culture: Is business a Darwinian enterprise?

Recently, a correspondent was advising me that business is about Darwinian competition.

Naturally, my mind wandered to self-described Darwinian capitalist Conrad Black, who did not fare too well in the United States’s justice system. Admittedly, Canadian journalists were inclined to give him a bad rap because of his habit of suing journalists, so I will not make him an issue.

Anyway, as a long-time business teacher for people in media, I replied as follows:

This much I know is true, so let me restate it:

Darwinism is worthless as an explanation of how prosperous economies operate, though clever analogies can be drawn to “evolution, speciation, extinction, mutation, survival of the fittest” by people with the time, inclination, and contracts for books destined for the airport kiosk.

Reality check: Darwinism is – to use Edward Banfield’s book title as a phrase – “the moral basis of a backward society”.

In a state of practical Darwinism, families, clans, and tribes form tight little groups with little interest in the public welfare. They distribute public assets among themselves. So public assets are minimal and poorly maintained, as far as the general public is concerned. For example, money is stolen at the Post Office, but “no one” is responsible for the theft. It’s untraceable.

Here is an example:

When I used to write for a road building association trade mag, I heard about a contractor who had lost a brand new bulldozer. He went on a vacation in a far away country, and guess what – he saw his own ‘dozer at work on a site – and they hadn’t even bothered to unscrew the Canadian licence plate! That’s how he knew for sure it was his. No one cared that the ‘dozer was stolen goods. He assumed, rightly or wrongly*, that it would be useless to contact the police there.

*I would think that any foot patrol officer might wonder why that service vehicle bore a Canuck licence plate. Couldn’t the owner be cited for not getting a local plate?

No wonder such a country is “less developed.” They are never going to get anywhere unless they give up practical Darwinism, and adopt codes of business ethics that owe nothing to Darwinism.

Why? Because few investors want to front large, complex businesses in such places. One never knows when the power or water will be off, due to corruption and incompetence – leaving a firm’s technical staff with an unscheduled but paid vacation.

The fundamental basis of prosperous societies is co-operation, not competition. The power is on, the water is clean, the roads are maintained, your business taxes go to something other than graft, the police target criminals (not dissidents), girls are in school (not in brothels), and if you smash up on the highway, a paramedic ambulance will arrive promptly to pick up whatever remains of you and try to snuff it back to life. That owes nothing to Darwinism, and everything to co-operation between large groups of individuals in the public interest – which helps the private interest as well, and thus promotes prosperity.

As far as I am concerned, as a business owner and business teacher, you can take Darwinism and blow it out the window. It is not what builds up a good environment for business.

Yes, of course there is competition in a favourable environment for business. But it is the favourable environment that makes competition viable. Practical Darwinism (= everyone out only for his own pack or herd) breaks down the needed environment for prosperity.

Golly, I hope someone listens .

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8 Responses to Darwinism and popular culture: Is business a Darwinian enterprise?

  1. Hi Denyse,

    Nice article as usual. I have always found this sort of reasoning to be faulty and one that stems from not really understanding basic economics.

    There is a very very superficial difference between the claims of what Darwinism can accomplish and what real world free capitalist economies accomplish, but it really is only superficially so.

    It is true that Darwinism preaches a bottom up origin for complexity in a system, and that capitalism is likewise a bottom up organizing principle when it comes to economics but that is about where the similarity ends.

    After all, Darwinism is supposed to be about processes that seek out local maximums for utility via some undirected process that just forces it is certain directions.

    By comparison a free market economy is anything but undirected. It is over all driven by bottom up forces, but each of the driving forces in a free market economy are intelligent agents making uncoerced decisions about what trades they regard as benifical. At every point agency and choice are active in a free market.

    Rather than free markets being a “Darwinian” laboratory perhaps they would actually be an excellent set of insights into an ID approach that has a bottom up instead of a top down organisational structure.

  2. Jason Rennie said:
    “Rather than free markets being a “Darwinian” laboratory perhaps they would actually be an excellent set of insights into an ID approach that has a bottom up instead of a top down organisational structure.”

    That’s an interesting thought. Are you suggesting a self-org type theory?

  3. Denyse, have you read the Darwinian explanations of the evolution of cooperation? If so, I’d like to hear your refutation of them; I’d like to hear you address the content of the explanation, not simply dismiss them as “fairy tales” or something similar, which actually avoids addressing them.

    Also, doesn’t one generally “snuff out” life, not “snuff in” life?

  4. It depends. Eric Voegelin in his brilliant analysis “Hitler und die Deutsche” made a clear point that Darwin’s hypothesis is in fact early liberal capitalism applied to Nature. In Darwin it acquired its sanction – look the Nature functions as we do! Nazis then take it back from there as “natural law” and the vicious circle was closed.

    http://cadra.wordpress.com/

  5. Retroman.

    In fact darwinists are pretty lost how to explain cooperation. In the case of eusociality Dawkins belauded to the sky kin selection because of haplo-diploidy of many social insects. Yet the Nature doesn’t obey this rule. On the contrary – queens often mate several times and so relation between workers and their sisters are quite often less than 50% – it may approach 25%!

    To save their failed hypothesis why workers do not mate neodarwinists use unintelligible conglomerate of selfish genes + kin selection + evolutionary games which no one is able to verify anymore.

    One of them – famous E.O.Wilson – has even brushed up condemned “group selection” recently to cope with unpleasant facts.

    The main point is in fact elsewhere. Natural selection is a mystical force no one knows where operates. No wonder that Dawkins thinks it operates on genes, late Gould was stauch proponent of organismal level, and the group level is in the stage again.

    Oddly enough this bizarre concept of “natural selection” is considered to be valuable scientific concept. But it reminds more the concept of epicycles used by ptolemaists long time ago…

    http://cadra.wordpress.com/

  6. Nice post Denyse. I was wondering if I could use it as an op-ed on my own website: The Mountain Daily News.

  7. Sure, bb, but please include a link back to this site, as we have lots more good stuff for your readers. – d.

  8. Thanks Denyse. I posted your article here with a link back to UD at the end of the piece.

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