The Evolution of Everything

Borodin was an amateur. So was Charles Ives. Bobby Jones was an amateur. Bill Tilden was an amateur, at least until he was 37 or 38. Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson were amateurs. According to Publisher’s Weekly, so is Mark Sumner.

Sumner is the author of the book The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature. It is difficult to classify this book, but if I had to do so, I would say that it not only tells the history of natural selection in biology but also relates it to business and commerce. And it does so in an interesting, compelling way: Even though I thought I knew something about the contents of many of the chapters, Sumner managed to introduce some tidbit, some wrinkle that I did not know into virtually every discussion.

The book presents a very readable history of the theory of evolution, beginning long before its conception as a fully fledged theory, passing through Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories and Mendel’s laws, and on to the modern synthesis and punctuated equilibrium. Sumner is especially hard on Spencer’s social Darwinism, Galton’s eugenics, and Haeckel’s racism, and he makes very clear that these are not consequences of Darwin’s ideas but rather perversions. Social Darwinism, for example, has nothing to do with Darwin and was no more than a device to justify the class structure or social order as it existed at the time; the rich and powerful were rich and powerful because they deserved to be rich and powerful. No such conclusion can reasonably be justified by natural selection, which is entirely descriptive and not at all prescriptive. Indeed, social Darwinism or its equivalent long predates Darwin himself; it was merely the most recent successor to the divine right of kings.

Francis Galton, who was a cousin to Darwin and an important mathematician, took social Darwinism one step further and advocated human breeding by artificial selection. Sumner details how his eugenics led to atrocities such as forced sterilization of people perceived to be mentally handicapped. According to Sumner, Keynes, Wells, Shaw, Churchill, and Woodrow Wilson were all taken in by eugenics. As he says, those in power “were not just richer than the people who work for them—they were better. Genuinely superior right down to every cell of their bodies.” Sumner is correct, however, in his assertion that the eugenicists (not to mention the Nazis) have it exactly wrong; a failure to interbreed leads to weaker stock, not stronger. He deftly uses the banana to make his point: for the first half of the 20th century, there was primarily one kind of commercial banana, the gros Michel. Commercial bananas had virtually no genetic diversity and the gros Michels were wiped out by a fungus infection. It took years to replace them with the Cavendish banana, which is the major commercial banana sold today. The Cavendish is now threatened by a similar fungus. I could not help wondering what Ray Comfort would have made of this chapter.

Sumner is on somewhat shakier ground when he tries to apply natural selection to manufacturing and commerce. In a chapter that is concerned with the (biological) horse, he also discusses the Ford Mustang. The Mustang, he says, was not especially fast, not especially sporty. But it was attractive and inexpensive and evidently filled a niche. Whereas Ford’s marketing department predicted sales of 100,000 Mustangs in its first year of production, in fact the company sold 1 million in the first year and a half. The car speciated and grew larger for several years, just like biological organisms. Then came the oil embargo in 1973, and many of the Mustang’s competitors disappeared. The Mustang, however, had speciated only months before, this time to a smaller, snazzier model. Of all the “pony cars,” as Sumner dubs them, only the Mustang survived. Sumner likens the survival of the Mustang to the survival of the real horse, the genus Equus, both of which simply happened to have the right stuff to survive when their respective ecologies changed.

The story of the Mustang is a good yarn, and it is one of many. I suspect Sumner’s interpretation is correct, and I hope that he can help to inject a little selectionism into economics. But his work will be criticized in much the same way as sociobiology is criticized: it is easy to make up stories but hard to gather evidence to support them. Indeed, his claim that the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius are examples of convergent evolution would be more convincing if the designers of the Insight had never seen a Prius, or for that matter if the designers of the Prius had never seen the old 2-seater Insight. Nevertheless, Sumner’s stories have a ring of truth to them, and it seems to me that a large number of detailed, carefully constructed stories may be considered to have explanatory power (provided that you could not construct the opposite story if the opposite had happened). But then, I suspect that if I were a biologist, I would be considered an extreme adaptationist.

The last chapter in the book was one of the more interesting. Here Sumner examines a headline that says that, according to a Gallup poll, 4 in 10 people believe in evolution. The headline is presumably correct, but what is omitted is that 4 in 10 (39 %, in fact) was a plurality, and only 25 % disbelieved in evolution. The other 36 % had no opinion. Sumner says that the headline should have stated that only 1 in 4 does not believe in evolution. And, in case you thought that decisions about scientific matters were made on an intellectual level, Sumner describes a poll question of his own: “Do you believe that America and Africa were once part of the same continent?” Guess what? 50 % of people in the Northeast answered yes and 32 % in the South, with intermediate numbers in the Midwest and West. Those who answered “not sure” were about constant at 31-33 % across all regions.

One thing I did not like about this splendid book: It is an anthology, and I think all of the chapters were originally published as essays or blog entries in the Daily Kos. They all have the same formula: start with an anecdote, don’t tell where you are going, proceed with your main point, then conclude by in effect finishing the anecdote. The formula may work on isolated blog entries, especially if the other reporters do not constantly use that formula, but by the time I got halfway through the book, I was tired of it and kept gnashing my teeth and exclaiming, “Tell your readers where you are going!”

With that, I return to the anecdote with which I began this essay. I do not believe that Publisher’s Weekly was being complimentary when it called Sumner an amateur. All I can say in response is, I should be such an amateur.

Full disclosure: I saw a prepublication copy of this book and wrote a blurb for the back cover. Mr. Sumner very kindly reviewed my book in the Daily Kos.