Edited by John Laurent and John Nightingale
Chapter 3: The Strange 'Laissez Faire' of Alfred Russel Wallace: The Connection between Natural Selection and Political Economy Reconsidered
3. The Strange ‘Laissez Faire’ of Alfred Russel Wallace: The Connection between Natural Selection and Political Economy Reconsidered William Coleman Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) is remembered as the naturalist who devised the principle of natural selection independently of Darwin. But Wallace spread his intellectual energies well beyond the subject of biology. He was the author of a profusion of speculations, on matters stretching from vaccination and astronomy to spiritualism and phrenology. Wallace also had a strongly expressed suite of economic ideas. These ideas are of slight value in themselves. They lack both originality and depth; they made little or no contribution to the development of economic thought. But Wallace’s economic ideas are relevant to the drawn-out debate over the connection between political economy and Darwinism. Many commentators have contended that there is a close connection between political economy and Darwinism. This supposed connection has two distinct characterisations, and they are worth distinguishing. The first maintains that the connection is merely one of ‘transference’: Darwinism transferred ideas from economics to biology (e.g. Cowles, 1936, p. 341). The second maintains that Darwinism amounted to a ‘transcription’ or ‘projection’ of political economy on to biology (e.g. Schweber, 1980, p. 277).1 The first characterisation is more modest, and the second more radical. Whereas the first assumes that biology was prior in the minds of natural selectionists, and the transference amounted to no more than the opportune exploitation of ideas in another field (political economy), the second believes that political economy was prior...
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