In the early 18th century, the poet Bernard Mandeville wrote a poem, “The Grumbling Hive.” This poem was not an outstanding piece of literature and had little influence at the time of its writing. However, it contained an interesting and highly controversial message that was supported in his two-volume defense of the poem, The Fable of The Bees, written nine years later. This later work revived interest in the poem and it became an extremely influential piece of literature. Among the ideas most influenced were those of the Scottish Enlightenment, and perhaps most notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bernard Mandeville’s work, The Fable of the Bees, put forth the idea of a social order which did not rely on a central design to function, but rather on the individual actions of its constituents; this was adopted by Charles Darwin in his theory that life creates order and change not because of a providential guiding force, but through its own existence.
The poem was about a hive of bees that was morally decayed. The politicians, lawyers, physicians, etc., were all totally corrupt and criminals abounded. Even though the society was immoral, the economy flourished. Eventually, the people became tired of the corruption and called to their god, Jove, to end the vice. He did, eliminating from their hearts all traces of evil, and everything crashed. Lawyers went out of business, as did taverns and fine clothing manufacturers; the arts were neglected, international trade stopped, debt disappeared, the state collapsed. In short, society stopped functioning. With no vices, the demand for goods that satisfied these vices ceased to exist, so innumerable businesses and services went bankrupt. Mandeville’s conclusion was that the personal immorality of the people was central to the functioning of society. This idea had implications far beyond its obvious challenge to traditional morality.
Mandeville’s implication was that the driving force of society lay not in the central planning of a lawmaker or a social engineer, but in the actions of individuals. The relationship between buyers and sellers, their moral choices, and other interpersonal factors determined the way that society functioned. The success of a country depended not on the laws of its legislators, but on the behavior of its citizens. This idea of society as a spontaneous occurrence of human activity spread to the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, notably Adam Smith, and became their staple.
Charles Darwin was inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment and applied its ideas (and consequently those of Mandeville) to the field of biology. The fundamental difference between Darwin’s thought and tradition was not the fact that species change over time, a position held by the ancient Greeks, but that species change because of their individual circumstances. Life sprang not from an intelligent designer, according to Darwin, but from random interactions between individual members of species and their environment. Mandeville’s social thought is easily seen in Darwin’s theory. The parallel between the Scottish Enlightenment’s theory of society not originating from a legislator and Darwin’s theory of life without God is very apparent.
Bernard Mandeville’s radical social theory went deeper than it may have seemed at first. It did not only question traditional morality; it posited that the form society takes comes not from a central source, but from the individual forces of the people who make up that society. This idea was adopted by Charles Darwin and applied to his theory of evolution, as can be plainly seen. This idea was also adopted by the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, whose economic and social theory has shaped the world we live in today. This idea is probably best embodied in Adam Ferguson’s statement, “Society is the product of human action, not human design.”