In Defense of Herbert Spencer


by Mario Rizzo

This my letter as it appears in today’s Financial Times (July 10, 2013):

Sir, John Kay (“Darwin’s  humbling lesson for business”, July 3) makes good points about evolutionary  theory and the social sciences. But he is wrong about Herbert Spencer, the noted  English philosopher and evolutionist. Spencer was not a Darwinist of any kind  nor an advocate of eugenics. He had his own theory of evolution that predates  Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species by a few years.  Spencer was broadly speaking a Lamarckian.

In other words, he believed in the heritability of acquired characteristics.  He further believed that a free market would produce a discipline on individual  actions that would, at once, make them more efficient and more moral. Since  these traits could be passed on to future generations, there was no need for  eugenics.

Three cheers for crass consumerism!

by Roger Koppl

Over an Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen quotes approvingly a new book by Geoffrey Miller.

From my perspective as an evolutionary psychologist, this is how consumerist capitalism really works: it makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits. It confuses us about the traits we are trying to display by harping on vague terms at the wrong levels of description (wealth, status, taste), and by obfuscating the most stable, heritable, and predictive traits discovered by individual differences research. It hints coyly at the possible status and sexual payoffs for buying and displaying premium products, but refuses to make such claims explicit, lest consumer watchdogs find those claims empirically false, and lest significant others get upset by the personal motives they reveal. The net result could be called the fundamental consumerist delusion — that other people care more about the artificial products you display through consumerist spending than about the natural traits you display through normal conversation, cooperation, and cuddling.

At least one commenter took the  passage as a slam on capitalism. I don’t think we should see it that way. Some of us do think that designer labels will save our souls. That’s bad. But it’s a whole lot better than thinking that, say, the Führer will save your soul, or a crusade against the infidels, or nationalism, or a host of other collective salvations. When the inevitable disappointment from consumerism comes, it’s a private tragedy.  When the inevitable disappointment from a collective salvation comes, it’s a national crisis inviting some new, possibly worse, collective salvation. Until humans learn the wisdom of angels, I will remain a great supporter of crass consumerism and conspicuous consumption.