Evolution Hayek and Scientific Progress

Portolani  Books  Volume 1  Anthology



Interested readers will find the views of Gerard Radnitsky of special relevance. His web site is here.

An important paper by Professor Radnitsky on  Hayek's evolutionary epistemology is: 

An Economic Theory of the Rise of Civilization and Its Policy implications: Hayek's Account Generalized




Evolution, Hayek and Scientific Progress*


By Patricia Lança


Many liberals of all stripes persist even today in seeking justification for their beliefs in the concept of so-called Natural Law. As Friedrich Von Hayek pointed out it is a fruitless search and to understand how society really works requires looking in other directions.  What he himself favoured was an evolutionary approach both to epistemology and cultural history. A firm opponent of scientism, he wrote an entire book, The Counterrevolution of Science, criticizing  the mechanical use of scientific methods in the social sciences. Hayek was nevertheless a lifelong defender of the scientific method along the lines proposed by his friend Karl Popper.  Hayek described the conclusions of a lifetime’s study in his last great work Law, Legislation and Liberty.


Progress in science is often blocked by the absence of appropriate instruments. Think of astronomy without the telescope; navigation without sextant or compass; medicine without the microscope.  In their turn the social sciences are handicapped by gaps in information from the natural sciences. If this is absent or faulty they too are blocked.


Rousseau was convinced when he wrote his Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité in 1755 that he was producing a scientific work in the field of anthropology. Hobbes before him, while reaching different conclusions, was similarly convinced he was writing scientifically about man in the state of nature. Since classical antiquity philosophers, later followed by theologians, looked to ‘Natural Law’ for a guide to jurisprudence, ethics and politics. In the eighteenth century Rousseau and some of  his contemporaries  popularised the idea of the rights of man as being ‘natural rights’.  Through no fault of their own they were basing themselves on false premises regarding the origin of man and the age of the earth.


Even in the time of the Encyclopedists anyone brought up as a Christian accepted the Old Testament narrative while the Greeks and Asiatic civilizations had their own mythical explanations. So despite fleeting consideration by Augustine and then Aquinas of incipient evolutionary ideas, we had to wait for Wallace and Darwin in the nineteenth century for the door to be opened to a scientific explanation.  It was only in the twentieth century, with new technology, that more soundly based knowledge was attained about the age of the earth and its various forms of life. The discovery of radioactive  decay in organic matter and the invention of instruments for its measurement (radio-carbon dating) revealed astounding facts which illuminated and advanced palaeontology. With these tools research into the Pleistocene period provided solid indications that the human race, homo sapiens sapiens, is immensely older than had been thought: that people physiologically  like us roamed the earth as long as 150,000 to 250,000 years ago.  Pre-history began to give up its secrets. Remains left by time, fossils, geological strata, etc., could now be observed and and dated with modern technology.  In the last fifty years we have at last been able to pursue scientifically based revision of a whole swathe of assumptions.  In consequence most of these have crumbled along with their philosophic extrapolations.


As always resistance to the new knowledge has proved  stubborn. In recent years there has been a revival of hostility to Darwinism, perhaps related to the growing political strength of the Christian Right in the United States and the strident opposition to it of leading Left ‘Liberals’. Recent polls in the USA show that half the population still believes the earth to be no more than 6,000 years old and the theory of evolution to be a wicked heresy. These beliefs are especially characteristic of members of protestant fundamentalist sects, some of whom even own and run universities and have members in federal and state government. The media report renewed disputes reaching the courts over how biology should be taught in schools, reminding us disagreeably of the infamous Scopes trial of 1925 when a  school-teacher was tried in court  for teaching Darwinism in his biology classes.


Considering that some eminent researchers in palaeontology and genetics are themselves priests; it is perhaps not surprising to find that the Catholic Church has a very different approach. When school authorities in Italy recently recomended that a form of creationism be taught in biology lessons, the Vatican intervened rapidly. It advised against the recommendation pointing out that the Bible and science belong to different categories and should not be confused: the Divine does not belong to the area of science nor does the latter to that of the Divine.  Recent Popes have given their views on Darwinism and these are in marked contrast to those of the protestant fundamentalists.


Pope Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis (1959) admitted the fact of human evolution. In 1981 Pope John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to point out the distinction between, on the one hand, the Bible as a religious text which conforms to the cosmology of its time and, on the other, a scientific treatise.


The present pope, Benedict XVI who is particularly interested in following the controversy in America, accepts as scientific the discoveries concerning the Pleistocene and also insists on the separation of the scientific and the divine. There is, however, no basis for reports in the American Press that the Vatican agrees with the American school of thought known as ‘intelligent design’ and in fact criticizes it for presenting itself as part of science. Vatican documents in English  on these questions may be consulted on the internet site: www.chiesa.espressonline.it


So notwithstanding what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has to say in his strident campaign against God, it is clear that taking the theory of evolution seriously does not necessarily imply being an atheist or reneging on religion.  


In the light of these developments it is now evident that some aspects of political science, jurisprudence and ethics require new approaches. All these areas  were  developed on the basis of pre-scientific notions regarding the age of the earth and of human society and the time has come to dispose for good of  myths about the noble savage, the superiority of tribal society  or any kind  of ‘golden age’ before the ‘unfortunate’ advent of civilization.  The corollary follows that the concept of Natural Law and the related doctrine of natural rights are now archaic and constitute legal fictions which may have been of use in their time but have now been definitively overtaken.  Another  related myth  which should also be destined for the scrap-heap is that of multiculturalism.


It is clear that Hayek was on the right track when he developed his evolutionary approach to the interpretation of culture, social institutions, politics  and ethics, whose roots  should not be sought in what amount to  legal fictions, but in a scientific analysis of human cultural evolution.  In any event, the traditional approach was always problematical and frequently led directly to relativism so as  to conciliate the inherent contradictions in the concept of some sort of natural law that would be applicable to all humanity.  It was always only too painfully obvious that this could not be done.


An analysis of the implications of the new paradigm offers a wealth of hints for a more convincing interpretation of social and political phenomena. The possibility is opened in the field of ethics for a genuine universalism susceptible of general acceptance and the clarification of the concepts of good and evil.


Paul Rubin, in his book Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers University Press, 2002) offers a valuable contribution to the discussion of the repercussions of the new scientific disciplines.  The author is professor of Economics and Law at Rutgers University in the US and a self-confessed former libertarian whose mind was changed by studying evolutionary sciences.   He shows impressive familiarity  with them and a list of his chapter titles indicates the scope of the book and its relevance for liberals:


Evolution and Politics;

Membership and Conflict;

Altruism, Cooperation and Sharing;


Political power;

Religion and the Regulation of Behaviour;

How Humans Make Political Decisions;

Relevance of the Pleistocene for Today.


Ruben describes what specialists in evolutionary psychology call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA,  the name given  to the last  150,000 to 200,000 years of the Pleistocene. During this period humans lived in bands of 50-150 individuals and made their living as hunter-gatherers. The conjecture is  that in the course of this immense  stretch of time humans experienced genetic changes which became to some extent ‘hard-wired’.  In other words, characteristics favourable to the survival of our ancestors (the others would obviously not leave descendants) would tend  to be perpetuated and become inbuilt dispositions (not qualities) which, depending upon the environment in which they developed, would result in  behavioural manifestations some of which persist to this day.  Needless to say what might have promoted survival in groups of 50-150 are likely to be unsuitable for life in communities of millions.


A fortiori, adaptiveness at the cultural level   favourable to survival of the group would follow the same type of pattern. Habits and institutions that were successful in promoting group survival would persist and become traditional without anybody decreeing this should be so. This was of course the point of view of Hayek whose insistence on spontaneous rather than deliberately managed order and the development of culture according to implicit rules of adaptability did not please some members of the extremist school of libertarians.  He especially provoked the wrath of the father of anarcho-capitalism, Murray Rothbard who was an adept of Aristotelian and Thomist interpretations of Natural Law. Rothbard proposed a deductive system based on the tautological principle of self-ownership as the philosophical basis for his brand of libertarian philosophy. Inevitably he became a ferocious critic of Hayek.


The latter considered Rothbard to be guilty of what he called ‘constructive rationalism’: the construction of a deductive system on the basis of a priori principles. It was a collision between a sophisticated version of British empiricism  and a primary form of French cartesianism.  Hayek held  that constructive rationalism, as opposed to his own critical rationalism, had always been the enemy of freedom.  Rothbard, a stubborn believer in Natural Law and an outworn epistemological framework, considered Hayek to be an irrationalist.considered


In a written review in  1958 of the manuscript of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, he classified it as being: ‘surprisingly and distressingly, an extremely bad, and I would even say evil, book.’* *


Ruben, however,  is clearly in tune with Hayek. The intention in his book is  to show readers how much we have to learn from the new evolutionary disciplines. We can find profound roots in pre-history for much behaviour of contemporary humans and hence better understand how to cope with them.  Similarly many social phenomena now become understandable as vestiges of stratagems developed over the millennia to protect society and life in common.


For example, there is no indication that pre-historic man lived in a state of primitive communism or matriarchy as claimed by Marxists and radical feminists. What there is in reality is confirmation that the scarcity of resources imposed  some rules of sharing and a kind of equality in consumption that would prevent death from starvation and ensure group survival. Other examples of the evolution of customs tending to favour the survival of societies are the replacement in successful societies of the natural polygamy of primates by a regime of monogamous marriage.  Polygamy may occasionally have been a favourable cultural practice for the solution of the demographic problem in the case of war or disease decimating the male population. Nevertheless every polygamous society tends to be unstable because part of the young male population is deprived of the possibility of marriage. Ruben suggests that this may account for the fact that polygamous societies are generally governed by dictatorships, because strong authoritarian rule is the only way to manage large masses of rebellious and unhappy young men. One might add that here may be a clue to the attraction of terrorism in certain types of society.


The origin of envy may lie in an innate tendency which  might have been useful for inspiring the indolent or less talented towards greater effort in hunting or productive activity. Ruben suggests that it is here perhaps that we may find the roots of class conflict which the Communist Manifesto considered to be a permanent feature  of History. On the other hand our persistent tendency  towards altruism and sharing may explain the lasting fascination, against all the evidence, with the  idea of socialism.


The absence of the State during the Pleistocene until the beginnings of agriculture and sedentarism, implies that the human race spent the overwhelmingly greater part of its existence in conditions of relative freedom in the wilderness, conditioned only by those rules evolved to promote   the survival of the group. Hence, according to Ruben, our preference for the absence of coercion and our love of liberty.


He provides many more examples and the reader can probably tentatively add still more.  It is, of course, clear that these are untested conjectures but they are highly suggestive and  indicate paths for both genetic research and sociological theorizing.  If they prove fruitful they could be decisive for a new advance of the classical liberalism that should be the inspiration of conservatives instead of its name being hijacked by the Left. They should also inspire a widened recognition of  the work of Hayek and deepened appreciation of his extraordinary foresight.

ª  Published in Salisbury Review, London, June 2007

ª *  David Gordon, Von Mises Institute