Origins, of different kinds

I’ve read The North by Paul Morley on this trip. It’s a big book that has sat on the pile for a while, waiting for a suitable journey. Although Morley’s writing style is pretty florid, long lists a speciality, I enjoyed it. He grew up in a Manchester satellite – closer to the city than I did, a few years earlier – there’s enough familiarity in the description to make it grittily Proustian for me. Eccles cakes, not madeleines, naturally.

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Among other things, this quotation from Gertrude Himmelfarb (in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution) leapt out:

“The theory of natural selection, it is said, could only have originated in England because only laissez-faire England provided the atomistic, egotistic mentality necessary to its conception. Only there could Darwin have blandly assumed that the basic unit was the individual, the basic instinct self-interest and the basic activity struggle. Spengler, describing the Origin as ‘the application of economics to biology’, said that it reeked of the atmosphere of the English factory. … Natural selection arose… in England because it was the perfect expression of the capitalist ethic and Manchester economics.”

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There’s nowt wrong with Manchester economics of course. I think this Spengler claim doesn’t stand up to a bit of thought. But the intereaction between biology and economics is interesting. Darwin was very interested in Malthus – Janet Browne discusses this in her wonderful Darwin biography. In turn, Marx was very influenced by Darwin, and the mutual influence has continued through game theory and beyond.

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As a by the by, someone on Twitter linked to this fabulous talk by Richard Hamming about how to do good work in science & I particularly loved this:

Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind”

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