Adam Smith and Theory of Evolution

Adam Smith and Theory of Evolution

What role did Adam Smith play in helping Darwin develop his theory of evolution? Quite a bit actually. If you think carefully, you will see many similarities between Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Adam Smith noticed that, in a pin factory, many less experienced workmen working together can produce more pins than what an expert would do alone and the primary contributing factor was division of labor.

To take an example, therefore,19 from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade),20 nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.*21 I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

Adam Smith’s key contribution was not in describing a pin factory but in taking the leap of faith to argue that (i) employing similar division of labor worldwide could increase the wealth of all participating nations, (ii) by natural process (‘invisible hand’), countries could self-organize to maximize their relative strengths. The second part appeared the most unconventional at the time.

In the same vein, Darwin noticed that the breeders used selection process to generate different kinds of desirable animals or plants, and argued that Nature had been doing the same for millions of years to generate diversity of living beings on earth.

More on that from Stephen Gould:

Thinking one step ahead, are the biological thinking of today being unduly influenced by the contemporary economic beliefs? For example, does hierarchical government-based funding system influence the views of biologists on biological system and make them search for biological/natural principles mirroring their own conditions in personal lives?

Something to ponder about….

Written by M. //