Saturday, December 30, 2017

Natural Selection and the Invisible Hand

Invisible path to Oxford, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

     My sound ecology project led me to study animal sound communication, from three points of view: the modern science of behavioral ecology; indigenous ecological knowledges; and poetics, including zoomusicology. Zoomusicologists are especially interested in birdsong, from an aesthetic point of view. Sound functions for indigenous peoples as an indicator of nature: weather and climate, for example, and the locations and activities of animals, as well as spirit-persons. Behavioral ecologists study sound communication as part of the science of animal behavior: they are interested in understanding how, what, and why animals (and plants) signal information to one another by means of sound. Music may be understood as a special form of communication among human animals. Of course, compared with other animal sound communication, human music is thought to be complex in structure, to have aesthetic qualities, and to operate as part of the cultural matrix—that is, it varies among different peoples, it is learned and transmitted from one group and generation to the next, it is creative, and so on, making it different in degree (if not in kind) from the croaks of frogs and the chirps of crickets. And yet, I’ve wondered whether insights from the study of animal sound communication have bearing on music and sustainability, on the one hand, and on the place of sound and music in the contemporary environmental and cultural crisis, on the other.
     In reviewing the literature of behavioral ecology, I found that explanations of animal sound communication were based in the neo-Darwinian paradigm of fitness combined with modern gene theory. That is, individual animals communicated (in sound and by other means) in a struggle for survival with the result that those better adapted to their ecological niche would have the best chance of living longer, mating more often, and contributing their genetic inheritance to the ongoing gene pool of their species. Those better adapted exhibited advantageous variations compared with other members of their species: bigger, stronger, “smarter,” more flexible, and so on; or in the realm of sound communication they could vocalize louder, or longer, or in a more elaborate way, or more often, or when there was less interference from other sounds. As Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed, then, the animals who were better at vocalizing (all other things equal) would gradually comprise a greater percentage of their species, and over very long (geological) periods of time, would “transmute” (or mutate) into new species. 
     One of the things that struck me immediately about Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that its evolutionary algorithm operated like Adam Smith’s "invisible hand." In both, individuals acting in their self interest—that is, selfishly—were said to produce an overall outcome for the common, or public, good: whether for the better adaptation of a species, or the benefit of society (the market economy, with opportunities and benefits for more individuals). Darwin himself credited the genesis of natural selection to his reading of Malthus on population: “In October 1838 I happened to read . . . Malthus . . . and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.” 
    But recently in reading Silvan Schweber’s detailed examination of Darwin’s reading during the period that led up to his eureka moment, I found confirmation that Smith's "invisible hand" had also been an influence. With natural selection, as in the free market, there was no external intervention or regulation; things were said to work out for the best naturally, and of their own accord, as if guided by an invisible hand. Also, in reading Stephen Jay Gould’s summary of Darwin’s “middle road” the other day, I ran across a similar reaction to Darwin’s theory from none other than Karl Marx. Writing to Engels shortly after reading Darwin, Marx put it this way: “It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘invention,’ and the Malthusian ’struggle for existence.’” Nature, in other words, operated in the plant and animal kingdoms as the free market did in the sphere of human economics.
     Gould himself had come to the same conclusion after reading Schweber’s 1977 essay. He wrote, “I believe the theory of natural selection should be viewed as an extended analogy—whether conscious or unconscious on Darwin’s part I do not know—to the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith. The essence of Smith’s argument is a paradox of sorts: if you want an ordered economy providing maximum benefits to all, then let individuals compete and struggle for their own advantages. The result, after appropriate sorting and elimination of the inefficient, will be a stable and harmonious polity. Apparent order arises naturally from the struggle among individuals, not from predestined principles or higher control." Gould was quick to demur from Smith's classical economic theory: laissez-faire economics leads to oligopoly and inequality, not a stable and harmonious society. 
     Gould also went on to point out that just because natural selection and laissez-faire economics were analogous, that in itself did not mean they were wrong. Even so, I believe there are reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, it is also possible that Marx was right, in that natural selection is anthropogenic, projecting our human understanding of behavior onto the animal kingdom because we have no alternative: we can’t comprehend what it is to be a nonhuman animal. And for another, as I learned just recently, from a 2011 essay by Peter Harrison in the history of ideas, Adam Smith didn’t mean what Marx, Schweber, Gould, and I thought he meant by the invisible hand. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was understood, by Smith and others at the time he was writing, as deliberate intervention, “higher control” —in fact, it was taken to be the hand of God, hidden and invisible, yet working for the good of mankind. In other words, Smith’s free market was not free from the direction of God’s invisible hand. The irony is that Darwin’s natural selection was free from it. And so in this important aspect, Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the classical economic theory of Adam Smith are quite the opposite. Darwin himself would have liked to believe that God’s invisible hand was operating in the natural world, but could not bring himself to that faith, for various reasons that can be found in the voluminous literature about Darwin.
     Metaphors and analogies are necessary in scientific theories. Mathematical formulas represent ideas; Newton’s f=ma and Einstein’s e=mc squared are meaningless until the concepts are explained in words. “Relativity” is both a fact and a metaphor. Smith's "invisible hand" is a metaphor. In The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that he used the phrase “struggle for existence” in a “large and metaphorical sense including the dependence of one being on another.” And this is to say that for Darwin the “struggle for life” involved not only selfishness, but also interdependence and cooperation, something that is sometimes forgotten by contemporary neo-Darwinians fixated on what Richard Dawkins famously called “selfish gene theory.” Interdependence, after all, is the cornerstone principle of ecological science—the study of the relationships among organisms and to their environments—and one of the four principles of an ecological approach to musical and cultural sustainability. 

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