From Adam Smith to Darwin

Abstract

In this paper I call attention to Adam Smith’s 'Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages' in order to facilitate understanding Adam Smith from a Darwinian perspective. By ‘Darwinian’ I mean a position that explains differential selection over time through natural mechanisms. First, I argue that right near the start of Wealth of Nations Smith signals that human nature has probably evolved over a very long amount of time. Second, I connect this evidence with an infamous passage on infanticide in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in order to argue that Smith is committed to group selection. Third, I argue that in Dissertation on Languages one can find building blocks for the claim that mind and language co-develop over time. More controversially I claim that in TMS there is a distinction between natural sentiments and moral sentiments. Natural sentiments are evolved (presumably through cultural selection) and moral sentiments are developed (through acculturation within society). Along the way, I argue that this distinction would have improved Darwin’s Descent of Man by blocking a move toward eugenics.

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Eric Schliesser
University of Amsterdam

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