Darwin, Free Market Economics, and Evolution by Natural Selection

What do Darwinian evolution and free-market economics have in common? A great deal, actually.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/darwin-free-market-economics-and-evolution-by-natural-selection
1 Like

Let there be discussion. And perhaps it will be good.

1 Like

This is a marvelous quote from the article!

[After returning on the Beagle]
". . . Darwin started compiling several notebooks devoted to the species question: how are species related to one another in time? What factors must be explained? "

[The Mystery of Mysteries!]
"We get a sense of his quandary from a line in a notebook devoted to transmutation (the word then used to mean what we now call “evolution”): “Herschel calls the appearance of new species the mystery of mysteries.” [ << Still a great phrase! ]

"John Herschel, son of the great astronomer William Herschel, was a prominent philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. Darwin had visited him when the Beagle stopped at the Cape of Good Hope en route back to England. Just a few months earlier, Herschel had written to Lyell, in appreciation for Lyell’s Principles of Geology. He also commended Lyell’s boldness for addressing “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others.”
[ ^^^ Yes indeed! ]

[Was it Either/Or for God’s miracles? - - Today we are inclined to see both! ]
" Lyell had not accepted transmutation at that point, but he had put the question prominently on the table. Herschel went on to endorse a Creator who “operates through a series of intermediate causes,” adding that if we were ever to understand the production of new species, it “would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process.”

“Herschel’s view was about to become Darwin’s view, and the connection was not lost on Darwin. As he put it later, reflecting on his experience in the Galapagos, “Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact — that mystery of mysteries — the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” The same phrase appeared once again in the second sentence of the introduction to On the Origin of Species.”

Imagine the work of geologists in the 1800’s… correlating sedimentary layers from one region to another … and from one country to another … following the rocky bread crumbs back … and their observations brought them to acknowledge that there was a Mystery of Mysteries!:

. . . not only was the Earth much older than 5000 years … but as they went back in time they would find some life forms just disappeared . . . while other life forms appeared seemingly “out of nowhere” … There were life forms in the modern world that didn’t used to exist! All these creatures (especially full-sized horses, rhinos, hippos, elephants, etc.) didn’t all exist, at the same time, in the oldest of rock layers.

The stories of these animals began, like a bad movie plot, in the middle of Earth’s long story!

Enjoyed the article. Reminds me of when we were visiting Westminster Abbey a few years ago, and happened to look at my feet to see Darwin’s memorial, side by side with missionary/explorer Dr. David Livingstone’s (I presume, also with their bones beneath). Interesting to see the juxtaposition of evolution and religion even there.

I have found it interesting how many who question biologic evolution embrace it in other fields, as you pointed out.

1 Like

The fact that Wallace came up with an almost identical. theory of Evolution before he had heard of Darwin’s theory indicates the time was ripe for such a theory to develop. It also serves as a double check that Darwin’s ideas were on the right path, and not just a result of his way of looking at the world.

I am reminded of the “Connections” program on PBS, where James Burke showed that discoveries in one area could lead to breakthroughs in another. Economics seems like a strange area to have an influence on biology, but economic survival is not that much different from physical survival.

1 Like

I’d forgotten that Livingstone is also nearby, but my favorite composer–Darwin’s grandnephew, Ralph Vaughan Williams, was also buried in that part of the Abbey. Newton is just around the corner.

1 Like

I have a degree in economics and my object of study is the history of economic thought. Biological evolution and economic evolution are always used interchangeably, like the models of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis are drawn from the evolutionary theory. I think it’s interesting that there are lots of discussions in the history of economic thought about Malthus and in the history of theology he’s basically forgotten.


Thank you for this enlightening piece. I was really struck by this turn of thought in “Notebook D”:

One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.

How would the history of science have been different if he had left off the “or rather” train of thought here?

I think of Roger’s (@Relates) frequent comments here and wonder if science might not have developed earlier in that direction.

It seems to me that descent with modification is an incontrovertible truth of nature, but that the metaphors we use to describe and package that reality are more malleable, and furthermore that the choices we make in that arena really have a big impact on how we reconcile evolution and Christian faith. Specifically, I have long thought that evolution could be made more palatable to the Christian worldview by describing it as a process by which God provides for His creation, a process where God provides for beneficial mutations, thereby allowing better adaptation and more efficient use of resources within ecosystems, a process which also entails some “creative destruction” (in the form of deleterious mutations and at times brutal competition) but which is essentially positive in character. Subsuming adaptation under the category of “divine provision” seems to me to fit well with texts like Psalm 104:

All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.


I find the evolution discussion in contemporary culture between religion and science curiously bi polar. Is that a mental disorder on a grand scale pointing to serious issues of dysfunctionalism? I recently read an article in scientific American and it opened with a very pastoral drama quote " the two deepest mysteries in science today is the human brain, and the cosmos" simply translated it says, " the two things we understand the least scientifically are ourselves and the world around us". I think that pretty much sums up the dysfunctionalim religiously and scientifically at the universities and the culture!!!

Some good points have been brought up here.

@AMWolfe, thank you for the comment.

What I noticed when I studied Darwin was indeed the impact of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, However the science of economics has changed a great deal since the writing of the Wealth o the Nations, while the science of evolution has not. Economics is not about liessez faire capitalism any more, but evolution is still about survival of the fittest.

Social Darwinism based on the population theories of Malthus is no longer popular, but his theories are still at the basis of Darwinism.

Only in libertarianism do we find the toxic brew of Smith, Malthus, and Darwin when archaic science meets individualistic dogmatism. Sadly this false worldview has infected some branches of conservative Christianity.

Evolutionary science in the guise of Dawkins and the Selfish gene needs to move beyond 19th century thought and embrace ecological thinking.

1 Like

It is sort of interesting to consider how the church itself has evolved. The church can be looked at as different populations (denominations or congregations) that populate different environments, some thrive and grow in population, some decline. When the environment changes, some adapt, some do not. While God and the gospel is unchanging, the social and religious environment changes.

1 Like


Yes and No. Certainly6 God is unchanging and the good news of Jesus Christ does not change. However too many churches confuse their understanding of the gospel with salvation when it is not.

Also Science confuses Darwinism with God by claiming that it is unchanging even though Natural Selection baaed on Survival of the Fittest has not been verified by scientific experiment or field studies Science is not God. If it appears to be unchanging over many years, then this is a red flag…

Hi Roger,

I think you are overlooking some innovations in biology over the past century. I am only a casual student of the field, but I can identify many revolutions in it: the advent of genetics, the discovery of regulatory gene networks, pseudo-genes, genetic drift, the utility of cooperation, molecular clocks, convergent evolution. …

If you think that the continuing presence of natural selection in the theory means there has been no change, I would point out that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is still appearing in first-year economics courses.

I have enjoyed your many contributions to the forum, Roger, and I bid you good day.


Thank you for your response. You are correct in that the genetic or Variation aspect of Evolution has evolved significantly over the decades. However the Natural Selection aspect has not.

Evolution is a complex process of change, contrary to what most people, including scientists think. To make a analogy, Variation, the production of genetic changes is like the engine of a car. The drive train is like Natural Selection which takes the changes of Variation and uses them to adapt to the environment so alleles can survive and flourish. Variation works separately from Natural Selection, but working together they create Evolution. Similarly the Engine is a separate mechanism from the drive train, but working together they make the car travel wherever the driver chooses to go.

Biology understands Variation pretty well, but Natural Selection not so much. Natural Selection, like the Invisible Hand is a verbal image. I would not say that it is a scientific concept. We know from real experience that the Invisible Hand does not maximize economic benefits in real life as Smith said it would. The task of the science of economics is how this system works, and it has been criticized for its inability to understand how it works.

On the other hand Evolution says only that Natural Selection is based on the Survival of the Fittest. The utility of cooperation flies in the face of the struggle for survival claimed by Smith and Darwin. Convergent evolution demonstrates that evolution is not based on conflict, but symbiosis. It proves that the views of Smith and Malthus do not really apply to natural Selection and evolution.

I am not against evolution. I am not against Darwin. I am for the recognition that these older views have not been scientifically validated, and we need a new understanding of how evolution works, and that can be found in ecology. If ecology and symbiosis are false, then please show me how and why.

Didn’t Wallace in the end break from traditional evolution for the answer to humans saying that we humans are just too complex to be accounted for my random mutations?

Hi @Relates,

In some situations the fitness of a trait can be measured using the tools of population genetics. Suppose a species of moths has 2 color traits: black and peppered. If the black moths increase from 5% of 95% of the population in a particular location over a period of x generations, we can calculate that the black trait conferred a fitness advantage of y% over the study period.

In this case we would quite reasonably infer that natural selection had acted on the color trait of the moth population.



Thank you Chris,

True enough, but it is obvious to all that it isw not the color per se that made the moths fit, but the ability to adapt to their environment.

There is a prime example cited on the internet concerning pocket mice in Texas I think. The sandy soil on which they lived was tan and most of them were tan colored, but then the soil changed to black, and they began to become predominately black. Researchers found that they had both brown and black hair genes in their genetic make up so it was not hard to change from one to another.

The fact is that that traits per se do not convey fitness. The right trait for the right niche conveys fitness. The wrong trait for the wrong niche conveys unfitness.

The dinosaurs went extinct because they were unable to adapt to climate changes that destroyed their habitat. This is a prime example which is very appropriate for our day that the ecology drives evolution. It is really very simple, Those flora and fauna which are better adapted to their ever changing ecological niches will thrive and those who aren’t wouldn’t. This a testable scientific theory which has been tested many times in the history of life.

Hi Roger,

I agree completely with you. The fitness of a trait depends very much on the environment in which a population finds itself.


1 Like

“His solution? Marry later in life, so that fewer children would be born.”

I haven’t read all the comments above, so my apologies if this repeats what someone else has said.

It’s interesting that Malthus’ suggested solution seems to be exactly what human beings have settled on as their preferred response to increased population density. Fertility rates (number of children per woman) have been falling drastically over much of the world for quite some time (from as high as 7 or more to below the replacement rate of just over 2 per woman), although there are parts of the world where this isn’t happening. People are marrying later and having far fewer children, who receive more resources in turn than they could in a large family. All this seems to be happening with no conscious thought of Malthus at all.

I know there are instances among animals where the loss of a top predator on an island has been followed by peaking of prey population, followed by mass starvation and recovery of a small residual population. Thus it would seem that the human response does require human capacities like intelligence, even if the general demographic response turns out to be too little too late.

I just noticed this because the historian Philip Jenkins recently wrote a series of blog posts on this and the disruptive effect that it has on organized religion of all types.

and following posts.


If that is correct, then we would expect the religious character of those other non-European areas to be transformed much like Europe itself, that is, in the direction of sweeping secularization.

From the article Fertility and Faith

This article demonstrates how bad theology and bas theology interact. Science is not against faith. Science supports Christianity.

If the meaning evolutionarily fit is able to reproduce, then it is clear that those areas of the world where human population is growing most rapidly, is where humans are poor, undereducated, and faith does not teach restraint. Now this is not the type of fitness that Christi9ans should encourage.

It is strange to me that the Catholic Church is against “artificial” birth control. Humans are at the top of the food chain, there is not predator above us to “control” the population. That is what it means that Humans are viceroys for God or we are created in God’s Image.

We are called to manage nature and ourselves. When humans reject that call and insist that we must allow nature to rule us, we are going against God. This Catholic theology is terrible. We need to accept science and use it as God intended, rather than rail against “secularization.”

God made us to govern nature through science, rather than be governed it as conservative religion says.