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Darwin as Economist?

One session at the recent AEA meetings addressed “popular economics,” with a panel including Diane Coyle, Robert Frank, Steve Levitt, and Robert Shiller. (Shiller wrote a bit about it on Slate.) Many interesting things were said. To me, the most interesting was that Frank is writing a book arguing that Charles Darwin, more so than Adam Smith, is the true forefather of modern economics. (He has already written a Times column on the topic.)
This made me think back to a chunk from the introduction of SuperFreakonomics that we ended up tossing during the editing process. It is hardly perfect — we wouldn’t have thrown it away had it been — but I thought it might be worth posting here nonetheless as a prelude to Frank’s book, which I’m eager to read. So here’s our SuperFreakonomics outtake on Darwin-as-economist.
On May 24, 1859, the noted English zoologist, surgeon, and author Thomas Bell addressed the Linnean Society, a London institution of which Bell was president and which was among the world’s leading institutions for the study of natural history. Bell lamented that the previous year was not a noteworthy one; it had not, he said:

“been marked by any of the striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear; it is only at remote intervals that we can reasonably expect any sudden and brilliant innovation which shall produce a marked and permanent impress on the character of any branch of knowledge, or confer a lasting and important service to mankind.”

So no “striking discoveries” in the natural sciences had come along in the previous year – except for, as it turns out, a little theory called evolution by natural selection. Indeed, the Linnean Society was the very site of the announcement of Charles Darwin’s theory. And yet even a scholar as learned as Thomas Bell failed to appreciate just how profound and revolutionary it was.
Which, even if you are a somewhat-above-average thinker, might lead you to scratch your head, and wonder: So what am I missing out on?
These days, Darwin is regularly proclaimed a genius, and understandably so, for he essentially solved a riddle – where do species, including man, come from? – that had puzzled great thinkers for centuries.

But was Darwin’s feat in fact a triumph of genius?

As a 22-year-old man of wealth, privilege, and sharp intellect, Darwin climbed aboard a British naval ship called the
Beagle, which was dispatched to chart the coastline of faraway lands. Already a serious naturalist, Darwin thought it might be interesting to look at the animals in these distant places. At the time, he was a firm believer in the biblical theory of creation.
It was a journey that few such people of his standing would tolerate. His quarters were beyond cramped and the going was rough; he also suffered from seasickness and a hatful of other maladies. But he stuck it out, logging more than 40,000 miles over the course of 4 years, 9 months, and 5 days. The Beagle sailed down the eastern coast of South America and back up its western coast, then on to Australia, the southern tip of Africa, back to South America, and finally home to England, with many stops at islands, large and small, along the way.
While the ship’s crew did its work, Darwin did his, patrolling the shoreline but also making countless trips inland, some dangerous and many arduous. He collected and observed all manner of flora, geological formations, and especially the fauna – woodpeckers and geese, living corals and fossilized crustaceans, and on the Galapagos Islands, gigantic tortoises that didn’t mind if Darwin rode on their backs and birds whose beaks varied in length according to their diet.
Upon returning to England in 1836, he had so much data that he barely knew what to make of it. So he kept collecting more data, dissecting and measuring and thinking about all sorts of birds and barnacles. This went on for more than 20 years. He might have gone on gathering data for another 20 years but his hand was forced when a young naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin a paper he’d written that contained a theory about evolution that was strikingly similar to Darwin’s own. So Darwin’s long-brewing discovery was hurriedly announced at a Linnean Society meeting (along with Wallace’s findings), after which he rushed to explain his entire theory in a book called The Origin of Species. And the world was never the same.
So go ahead and call Darwin a genius if you must, but his accomplishment was above all a triumph of doggedness; in many ways, it was the opposite of genius.
There are at least two further points worth making about Darwin’s discovery as it relates to this book.
The first is that his theory of evolution wasn’t wasn’t actually new at the time Darwin proposed it, and had in fact been around long enough to be discredited. So why did Darwin’s version take finally hold?
Because Darwin was the man who painstakingly marshalled the empirical evidence that proved the theory. It was evident that he was not merely a man preaching what he hoped to be true; rather, he was a scientist explaining what the data said.
The second point concerns an original insight that Darwin did add to the existing thinking about evolution. He identified the mechanism by which evolution occurred: natural selection. In his decades-long course of collecting data, Darwin came to understand that species changed in large part because they were forced to compete for resources with other species and other animals within their species. As habitats changed, so too did the allocation of resources – which allowed some species to survive, thrive, and evolve while others died out.
In this regard, “natural selection” is a great deal like “the economic approach.” If the latter describes how people get what they need when other people need the same thing, then the former describes how, say, a groundfinch gets when it needs when other groundfinches need the same thing. Therefore, the question of whether a particular species of groundfinch survives is in fact a lot like asking how and why a particular young woman becomes a prostitute instead of president.