The Influence of Science: The Marginal Revolution and Biological Evolution

The classical debates following Malthus’s Essay reflected how

[t]he voice of objective reason had been raised against a deep instinct which the evolutionary struggle had been implanting from the commencement of life; and man’s mind, in the conscious pursuit of happiness, was daring to demand the reins of government from out of the hands of the unconscious urge for mere predominant survival (Keynes 1933 [1972]: 85; italics added).

This is to say, increasing importance was being assigned to the active role of the state, society, and individual in improving, catalysing, and above all optimising human progress. This attitude was furthered by revolutions in natural science and the gradual decline of religious influence over academic establishments in Britain—including Cambridge. The purpose of this section is to place postMalthusian ideas of the quest for human perfection or optimality in the context of intellectual thought. Taking a Keynesian line, we sketch the differences in approach between Malthus and Ricardo and the impact of this divergence on development economics and its continuity from the past, while shedding light on how concurrent revelations in science and evolution theory fed into the intellectual debate in Cambridge about optimising human progress and development.

Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo wrote around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and are credited as the pioneering triumvirate of classical economics; together with Locke, Hume, Bentham, Darwin, and Mill, they are praised for their ‘immense disinterestedness and public spirit’ (ibid.: 86). However, in their methods the three classicists were disparate, which engendered separate trails of thought and distinct families of idea and methodology. Smith, as we have mentioned, was the star of this emerging subject. The Ricardian approach found popularity and became the foundation for the abstract and mathematical conceptualisation of economic ideas during his time. Conversely, the degree of interest in the Malthusian approach to economic thought has arguably only been significant since Keynes himself generated the impetus for it in his Essays in Biography and then later in his General Theory (see Corry 1959).

Keynes considered Malthus’s Essay to have been greatly influential on him and ‘profoundly in the English tradition of humane science’ (Keynes 1933 [1972]: 86). He refers to Malthus’s correct line of approach to practical economic problems as compared to Ricardo,[1] and praises the Essay’s continuity from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical works on moral philosophy and the human perfectibility debate. Methodologically, Keynesian analysis favoured a return to this Malthusian approach for the purpose of short-term problem solving based on practical, real-world analysis. Keynes protests over how, in the simplification of a multilayered, abstract, and complex concept, the widely adopted Ricardian ‘pseudo-arithmetic doctrines’ (ibid.: 103) departed from the facts, while Malthusian analysis was neglected. Malthus, he contended, held more real significance in his intuitions and ‘by taking up the tale much nearer its conclusion.. .[Malthusian theory]... had a firmer hold on what may be expected to happen in the real world’ (ibid.). To illustrate this idea of Malthus’s applied line of thinking, we might consider Malthusian and Ricardian analyses of demand: Malthus remains public-spirited, anonymously publishing An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions (1800), in which his emphasis is placed on the observed macroeconomic criterion of ‘effective demand’ as it exists in reality, while the Ricardian method focuses on the underlying factors of demand and builds up theoretical foundations brick by brick. This more scientific approach enjoyed a new appeal during this period and lent itself well to the microeconomic analysis that would become the neoclassical school, and particularly the marginalist revolution pioneered by Walras, Menger, and Jevons, and solidified by Marshall (see Section 4).

In a sense, we might support Corry’s dispute with Keynes’s somewhat simplistic lament: ‘If only Malthus, instead of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be to-day!’ (Keynes 1933 [1972]: 100-101). One in lieu of the other would not do either, if continuity of past debates and intellectual traditions are to thrive. The mutual debate between Malthus and Ricardo and their readership was fruitful to the progress of political economy for the purpose of studying human betterment, and may indeed have been crucial to it. However, from the perspective of development economics at Cambridge, we might concede that the decline of multidisciplinary Malthusian approaches of a posteriori induction (catalysed by the influx of mathematisation and scientification in post-Ricardian thought) briefly quashed the continuous tradition of ‘humane science’ in the subject of political economy.[2] That a posteriori macroeconomic observations dwindled in the 100 years between Malthus and Keynes is regrettable, because the moral and political-economic debate on human perfectibility and universal optimal well-being of mankind did not make much economic progress during that period.

Yet that is not to say that the idea was forgotten altogether, and nor was the work of Malthus and Paley. During the early nineteenth century (though not of course in the sphere of neoclassical economics), movements in the natural sciences were making a huge impact in intellectual circles in Cambridge. The publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) made Britain the epicentre of ideas again with the theory of evolution, partly influenced by and in response to the Aristotelian natural theology debate and the work of Malthus’s population doctrine and Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794) and Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802), in which adaptation was deemed the design of a deity through natural laws. This was followed by Herbert Spencer’s First Principles (1862), which took a new direction in philosophical endeavours at Cambridge: the combination of metaphysical agnosticism, evolutionary progress, and utilitarian ethics (see Keynes 1933 [1972]: 169-170).

Movements towards scientific ideas and away from theology, in this way, broadened the accumulation of ideas on human capabilities and progress. In the wake of these new ideas, the notion of a higher power to direct human perfectibility ebbed away and furthered the more assertive idea that human potential is in human hands that hold the tools of liberal government policy and social responsibility. It was around this time, writes Keynes (ibid.), that Marshall entered Cambridge and was inspired to institute new ideas in political economy based on evolution. For example, colonialism was increasingly becoming an area where ideas of both social and biological evolution met with the familiar features of class, inequality, and stagnation. The likes of Theodore Morison, a Cambridge man, who spent much of his life in India initially as a tutor to the young Maharajas, and whose expertise on the Indian economy was such that his The Industrial Organisation of an Indian Province (1906) remains on the Tripos reading lists. On another note, the lowering of humanity to the same level as the earthly environment was considered both a snub and a shockwave: for the first time man needed to consider himself part of an ecological equilibrium, awakening questions on sustainable human progress that even today remain woefully unanswered in development economics. Malthusian conceptualisations of ‘misery and vice’, for instance, need not be a divine phenomenon but rather an indication that biological evolution needs to be matched with social evolution; the progress of evolution theory forced the pledge that our institutions need to change with the times and both keep up with and initiate human progress.

  • [1] As is well known, Malthus and Ricardo were intimate friends, and despite their differences in approachto economics, with one an inductive and intuitive investigator, the other an abstract and a priori theorist,the two had ‘the deepest affection and respect for one another. The contrasts between the intellectual giftsof the two were obvious and delightful’ (Keynes 1933 [1972]: 95).
  • [2] More balance between the Malthusian and Ricardian approaches is better implied in quoting Keynes’sview that ‘One cannot rise from a perusal of [the correspondence between Malthus and Ricardo] withouta feeling that the almost total obliteration of Malthus’s line of approach and the complete domination ofRicardo’s for a period of a hundred years has been a disaster to the progress of economics’ (Keynes 1933[1972]: 98).
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