Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mises Flunks Evolution 101

From Human Action:
“Within the frame of social cooperation there can emerge between members of society feelings of sympathy and friendship and a sense of belonging together. These feelings are the source of man’s most delightful and most sublime experiences. They are the most precious adornment of life; they lift the animal species man to the heights of a really human existence. However, they are not, as some have asserted, the agents that have brought about social relationships. They are fruits of social cooperation, they thrive only within its frame; they did not precede the establishment of social relations and are not the seed from which they spring.

The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth. But for these facts men would have forever remained deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature. Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors. No sympathy could possibly develop under such a state of affairs.” (Mises 1998: 144).
According to Mises, feelings of “sympathy” or what can be called “altruism” did not bring about “social relationships”: they are the results of “social cooperation.”

And the “division of labour” – that almost obsessive economic fetish – transformed our animal ancestors into socially-cooperating human beings.

Unfortunately, Mises’s ideas are destroyed by what we now know from evolutionary biology. I suspect that if he had known more evolutionary theory even in his own day, he would probably have been able to discover he was talking rubbish.

Just have a look at the video below of a talk by Patricia Churchland.

First, the emergence of social animals has a lot to do with evolutionary forces that selected traits of altruism and emotion directed first at offspring, then close family (kin), and then extended social groups (kith). The process is related to the chemical oxytocin and how in animals self-care extended to kin care and then how emotions (like distress and pain) could be triggered by events in the social domain.

Secondly, it was the expansion of the forebrain in mammals and in humans that allowed greater prediction and anticipation of future events and social problems. These were no doubt a cause of the successful ability of humans to be social and to live in groups.

Mises has it the wrong way around. Feelings of sympathy preceded complex social cooperation. It was not “division of labour” but just the success of individuals being more altruistic towards each other that was the driver of emergence of social animals.


Mises, L. 1998. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. The Scholar’s Edition. Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.


  1. Did Mises "get it wrong" or just have a theory that differs from Churchland's ?

    1. The crucial word is "theory", isn't it.

      Churchland's views are a hypothesis now confirmed by an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence.

      Mises's hypothesis is one refuted by the evidence. Therefore Mises's hypothesis is a discredited one.

  2. He wouldn't even have to look to evolutionary biology -- which at the time was largely arguing along the "selfishness" line to a large extent (even though Darwin wasn't). He could have looked to the anthropologists of his own day. You can already find the ideas of structural anthropology sketched out in the work of Marcel Mauss, but the later stuff published in the late 1940s crystallised the theories which now dominate the field.

    Basically, kinship relations are primary and these arise out of the incest taboo (the ONLY universal cultural pattern -- and one stressed by Freud, of course, in the individual). Kinship relations then give rise to a sexual division of labour, but this has far more to do with kinship and familial relations than it has to do with economic "laws". The Wikipedia page summarises this well:


    "Lévi-Strauss' model attempted to offer a single explanation for cross-cousin marriage, sister-exchange, dual organization and rules of exogamy. Marriage rules over time create social structures as marriages are primarily forged between groups and not just between the two individuals involved. When groups exchange women on a regular basis they marry together, with each marriage creating a debtor/creditor relationship which must be balanced through the "repayment" of wives, either directly or in the next generation. Lévi-Strauss proposed that the initial motivation for the exchange of women was the incest taboo, which he deemed to be the beginning and essence of culture as it was the first rule to check natural impulses; and secondarily the sexual division of labour. The former, by prescribing exogamy, creates a distinction between marriageable and tabooed women and thus necessitates a search for women outside one's own kin group ("marry out or die out"), which fosters exchange relationships with other groups; the latter creates a need for women to do "women's tasks". By necessitating wife-exchange arrangements, exogamy therefore promotes inter-group alliances and serves to form structures of social networks."

    It is clear that the sexual division of labour -- which is THE primary division of labour -- is an "effect" of other more primal social institutions; namely, marriage and kinship structures.

    Mises was just making stuff up. He was a mythmaker in the Levi-Straussian sense, that tried to veneer over the truth to spread his political ideology. Much like a vulgar Marxist.

    1. "He wouldn't even have to look to evolutionary biology -- which at the time was largely arguing along the "selfishness" line to a large extent (even though Darwin wasn't)."

      Perhaps that is true, but more generally I think Dawkins' work has been misunderstood:


  3. So.The caveman von Mises,fail even on evolution.Thanks Lord Keynes for your patience,diggin in the muddy "thoughts" of that school.The more i learn about them,the more i dislike them,and wonder how the heck this "economic philolosophy" could attract anyone .It is a true mystery to me.

  4. Division of labor existed long before humans and human feelings for one another ever appered. The idea that human feelings for their children could bring about our society based on division of labor is a nice fairy tale and comforting to humans but blatantly false. Cells have evolved in a way that divides the labor among compartments within the cell. Organisms are formed by specialized cell that perform one function very well.
    Today our society does not depend on feelings for each other. We trade in an almost completely anonymous way.
    In fact, feelings drive the destruction of markets as the loss of loved ones leads to revenge and wars that destroy societies and kill millions more leading to more feelings of loss.

    1. You are stretching the concept of "division of labor" to a ridiculous level.

      The emergence of eukaryote life and complex life involved absorption of one living thing by another and symbiont relations, not just some crude economic notion of "division of labour".

      Anyway, the scientific evidence is clear: emergence of complex social animals was caused by evolutionary forces that selected traits of altruism and emotion directed first at offspring, then close family, and then extended social groups.

    2. It is life that stretched the concept to a ridiculous level not me. Absorption of other life forms that allowed both the absorbed some protection and the chance to specialize and the absorber the opportunity to strictly compartmentalize functions. A very powerful discovery of life that is probably unparalleled in evolution! The only other thing that comes close is neural networks (brains) that allow life the capability of purposeful reasoned manipulation of matter and memes.
      Feelings can just as easily lead to destruction as cooperation.
      I do not go to work because of feelings for my fellow man, but fellings for my own well being.
      I know a lot of people that feel more for a wider group than their own children. This is quite common. Strange that feelings for children are so easily trumped as it evolved first in your narrative.