On the European continent: from Buffon to Lamarck, Cuvier, and Darwin

Much attention is given to Darwin, but mechanisms of evolution had already been set out by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his classic 1809 work Zoological Philosophy. Lamarck began as a botanist before becoming a professor of invertebrate zoology, and he is known for having developed the first positivist theory of evolution for living organisms, but also for the influence he had on Darwin.

Others would want to mention Buffon as a pioneering figure. His contributions established the scientific foundation and the scope for natural history, a subject which he himself thought always leads back to a reflection on oneself (Buffon [1749] 1984: 39). Buffon called this the first truth:

...that man must arrange himself in the class of animals, of which he resembles above all in what is material, but even his instincts may seem more certain than his reason, and his industries more admirable than his arts. (op. cit.: 45)

He reckoned that, when mankind becomes aware of the true possibilities contained in his intellect, "he could make his nature perfect, morally, as well as physically" (op. cit.: 247). This project, to improve mankind morally, has given rise to a whole series of normative, politically-correct studies in the social sciences, in connexion with topics such as gender, sustainable development, immigration, and human rights. Putting it differently, many university departments today, especially in our newer universities, are not so much asking what the truth is, as what it ought to be, based on what kind of human beings we want to create. This becomes a new form of positivism. It may also be seen as an evolutionary approach, but we must distinguish normative from positivist evolutionists.

Unlike other animals, man can decide the direction of his own social development. In other words, he can elevate himself. This is done by creating an ideal, not by accepting what is "natural". The problem, when we move away from the notion of natural truths, is to know which ideal is the right one to follow and who should decide which it should be. Some academics go so far as to claim that the "natural" as such does not exist. One can then argue that the sciences can never really escape from the domain of politics, since all scientific findings have political consequences, whether we are talking about Stalinism or the atom bomb. On the other hand one might argue that more politics will not make university life any more manageable, as became apparent on campuses all over the Western world in the 1960s and 1970s. It is true that we can never become fully objective in the sense that we can escape our own subjective minds, but we can develop scientific methods to reduce our biases. To argue otherwise is in a sense to be a methodological fundamentalist.

One might ask what a book about zoological philosophy has to do with the study of human behaviour. The fact is that when Lamarck wrote about living organisms in general he actually had mankind in mind, as we see in a passage such as:

In order to give a living body the ability to move without impulsion from a communicated force, to be aware of objects outside of himself, to form ideas, to compare or combine these ideas, and to produce opinions which to him are ideas of another order, in one word, to think; not only is this the biggest of all miracles which the forces of nature have attained, but, in addition, it is the proof of the employment of a considerable time, as nature has achieved nothing but gradually. (Lamarck [1809] 1994: 122)

We might see Lamarck's contribution to evolutionary economics as implicit in his writings, even though it was Herbert Spencer who first developed the idea explicitly: namely, that societies are like organisms, in that they (i) augment in mass, (ii) gain in complexity, (iii) their parts gradually acquire a mutual dependence, and (iv) society is independent of each of its component units, i.e. is not affected by individual deaths. These similarities are often referred to as the four parallelisms (Peel 1972: 57). There are other parallels to human life as well. In Chapter VII of his book Lamarck discusses the influence of different circumstances on the actions and habits of animals, and the influence of those actions and habits on their living bodies, as causes of modifications to their structure and anatomy (Peel 1972: 206). Habits become a second nature. Lamarck reminds us that for a long time we have observed the influence that different states of our organism have on our character, our inclinations, our actions, and even our ideas. But he also notes that no-one has yet recognized the influence of our actions and our habits on our structure. Our whole organism changes when our behaviour changes. These changes are so slight that we hardly notice them. They are hard to notice because they only become apparent after a very long time. To demonstrate this, look at an old photo of your grandparents. Not only the clothes are different: their facial expressions are different too. The implication is that we have become our own evolutionary machines, even though the changes that we can observe are very small. What is driving this machine forward so fast is a system of technological development and economic growth. The changes in our organisms are initiated by needs. "If these new needs become constant or long lasting, the animals take on new habits, which are as constant as the needs which brought them to life" (Peel 1972: 208).

Lamarck notes that the great diversity of animal life must be understood against the background of the great range of diverse needs that appear when new species encounter one another in an ever-changing environment. Basic human needs for food, clothes, and shelter are much the same now as they were in the Stone Age, but their expression is changing because of the fact that we as human beings create new needs through a social mechanism called in everyday life "fashion" and the constant struggle for ever-higher living standards (again a form of social competition) in the shape of better and more diverse food, more clothes, and larger and more expensive houses than others have, than our neighbour has. (in marketing we call this last form wants, to separate them from needs, which are more constant) We do this because we are always seeking greater comfort or because we want to impress our fellowman, out of some version of a struggle to survive but also out of habit and perhaps because we do not always know how else to express our will. This creation of new forms and degrees of need is a human characteristic, because we have the time and the resources to indulge in it.

Our needs are seemingly endless and depend only on our imagination. But the strength of some needs decreases as others are fulfilled. Man is always looking to maximize his satisfaction (the marginalist perspective). We know too that types of need change: from basic human needs to luxury and what are understood as projects for self-realization, as we ask what the meaning of life is (evolutionary perspective). The discipline of marketing, we recall, is largely about how to register and communicate these needs and wants.

As human being we act when there is a need to change something, to improve something. Or putting it differently, a person who is satisfied with everything will seldom find a motive for pursuing truly great endeavors. "In human beings and in the most perfect of animals, life cannot be conserved without irritation in the parts which must react..." (Peel 1972: 344). This phenomenon can be observed in business life too, as when the son or daughter of some great industrialist is too happy with life as it is to take on the hard work needed to develop his or her father's business. Often such individuals feel they have nothing to prove; all needs are satisfied, there is no irritation. This is noticeable when we consider the contrast between entrepreneurs and executives. The former are often less risk-averse, more adventurous and curious, while the latter are typically more concerned with stability and a steady flow of income. From a biological perspective these characteristics may be seen and understood as different types of psychological irritation, results of environment and upbringing as well as inheritance. Teaching entrepreneurship from an evolutionary perspective then becomes largely a matter of making the student aware of these irritations and maintaining them.

Darwin was also indebted intellectually to the French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier. In a famous letter to Ogle in 1882, as a thank for a gift, Darwin described Linnaeus and Cuvier as his "two gods". Cuvier set out to tell the history of our planet by showing all of the changing processes it has been through, continually giving life to new species. One example is the different types of shell found in separate marine strata (Peel 1972: 150). Cuvier noted that among all the thousands of fossils he had investigated, there was never a single human bone, which led him to conclude that mankind is a relatively young species. Cuvier's endpoint is Darwin's starting point: if all those other species had a predecessor, then the same must be true for mankind. We must have evolved from other species.

Darwin begins his Origin of Species by drawing a difference between natural and domestic variation (Darwin [1852] 1994: 5). Even though Nature continues to bring about changes in mankind, these variations are considerably smaller than those of the domestic or self-imposed kind. This starting point has a parallel in modern evolutionary economics, with the contrast between those who focus on universal Darwinism, represented by Hodgson and Knudsen, and those who focus more on domestic variation, represented by Nelson, Winter, Cordes, and Witt (Witt 2006: 473-6). Thus it is problematic to speak about a single school of evolutionary economics. Instead what we have are different varieties of theory with different starting points. Rather than one school, there are various schools which all share an evolutionary approach.

Man's "self-imposed" variation has increased significantly over the past hundred years. This domestic variation is governed by complex laws:

Variability is not actually caused by man; he only unintentionally exposes organic beings to new conditions of life, and then nature acts on the organization and causes it to vary. (Darwin op. cit.: 410)

Rather, we select among the variations given to us by Nature, accumulating them in any manner desired. The same principles that act in circumstances of domestication also act in Nature (op. cit: 412). The individuals selected are those which find a competitive advantage in the environment within which they live and function. Finding such an advantage depends on the individual's ability to adapt. Since numerous individuals are involved and only some can succeed, competition is often fierce. These are very much the same forces that are involved in economic life.

In Nature males try to win females by being vigorous, by struggling, by acquiring special weapons, means of defence, or charm. In economic life mankind tries to gain an advantage in very similar ways. What this means is that the theory of natural selection is valid also for the discipline of economics; but, more, that it is being enhanced by the free-market economy, which in turn is the product of our philosophical ideals, such as freedom of the individual. In economic life Man struggles to satisfy human needs in very much the same way as animals struggle to survive: first by adapting, then by competing and trying to find a competitive advantage, a niche from which he can fend off competitors and sit undisturbed.

The most common form of domestic variation is indefinite variability. These are changes that last for a limited time only, like coughs or colds resulting from a chill (op. cit.: 6-7). Habits, inheritance, and the use or disuse of particular body parts are other reasons for variation. It is hard to distinguish clearly between individual differences and minor varieties, or between more plainly marked varieties and subspecies, or between subspecies and species (op. cit.: 212). These are all different degrees of variation. Nature preserves these differences with the same keenness, hoping they will result in a competitive advantage. These ideas are relevant to and would find a natural place in the discipline of economics, if economists would accept them. "Differentiation" is one of the generic strategies in Porter's model of competitive behaviour. Porter's contributions, although ignored by mainstream economists, in fact amount (probably to a large extent unintentionally) to one of the more successful blueprints for a new discipline of evolutionary economics.

What we have seen so far is that a first academic grouping developing the ideas which would eventually underlie evolutionary economics was well established in France with men like Buffon, Cuvier, and Lamarck, long before Darwin. Darwin belonged to a second grouping, but we will postpone discussion of this (and take it up in conjunction with the fourth grouping), because its influence on economics occurred mainly in North America. Before looking at that we shall consider a grouping that historically came third, and was located in German-speaking Europe.

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