The Accidental Economist

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) at age 7
Charles Darwin at age 7; Artist: Ellen Sharples

Gilbert White was an 18th century parson-naturalist who devoted his time studying the interactions within the natural environment of his local parish, Selborne. In retrospect, he can be regarded as today’s amateur ecologist. Notable for his eccentricities (White is rumoured to have played the trumpet to his pet tortoise Timothy), he is also famous for his epistolary, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. One of his entries marvels at how cattle retire to water during the hot weather, leaving behind dung that then attracts insects to feed the fish – “Thus Nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another!”

He is not the only one to stumble upon Nature’s economy. In 1837 when Darwin was working on The Origin of Species, he had already convinced himself that the transmutation of organisms really did occur, but he lacked a natural mechanism that would explain why and how this was – until he read Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. One of Malthus’s theories was that when a population exceeds the size that its resources can provide for, natural forces come into play to keep it in check. When there is a food shortage, for example, those who are weaker starve and, put crudely, die. Those who survive are the ones who are physically strong, or have effective means for attaining food. In short, it is survival of the fittest, and from this Darwin developed the idea of natural selection – whereupon stronger organisms of a species have a higher chance of survival and procreation, thereby passing their genes onto future generations, and hence a species gradually adapts to the harshness of its environment.

Darwin’s publication was very relevant to its period. During England’s Industrial Revolution urban population densities were swelling and poverty was widespread. Malthus opposed poor relief because he believed it encouraged the working class to reproduce, which would in turn endanger the whole population as resources became scarcer. With accidental timeliness, Darwin proposed that natural selection is perhaps a species’ best chance of survival. What Darwin unveiled was a competitive economy in nature – the struggle for existence was won by those who had the means to win – and there were many who supported Darwinian Theory because they sympathised with the laissez-faire economics it reflected.

The notion that natural selection is a species’ best chance of survival runs parallel to the idea that free markets can produce the most effective economic outcomes, both see individuals gain (or survive) according to their own ability. This is only one of infinite cases where economics can be used to study behaviour pertaining to deceptively irrelevant disciplines. Contemporaries of Darwin were offended by the thought of being descended from apes, but those who saw the wider implications (albeit in a novel direction) recognised how Evolution Theory engaged with the doctrines of nineteenth-century liberal economics.

So it may be that Darwin was a liberal economist. As for Gilbert White, he was part of a circle of eighteenth century English parson-naturalists who all had multi-layered family ties, in particular it was common for one to marry the spouse of a dead male relative – another instance of economy perhaps?