If I take a turn and throw a dart at a dartboard and then someone else takes a turn and throws a dart at the dartboard, we don’t say that the darts competed – we say that the players competed. Competition, here, is rooted in games played by humans – its old, situated meaning. It is not projected onto nature, or that part of nature which is constituted by an artifact of a plastc stick with a metal point at one end and little fins on the other end. Nor would we say that the dartboard competed with the darts.
Yet competition, as we all know, has long overflowed the agone. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the game has long been recognized as a prototype for other, “serious” kinds of social activity.
We automatically associate competition in nature with Darwinian evolution. That model of competition, as Marx saw, owes a lot to the classical economists. Marx meant this as a criticism of the whole theory of Darwinism, as though a model taken from a temporary form of social practice was inherently falsifying when applied to natural science. Engels, more sympathetic to Darwin, tried the same trick by applying dialectical materialism to natural history, although without really delivering himself of some serious, systematic book. Marx of course forgot his own huge debt to the classical economists as wel, which showed, at the very least, that a systematic reference is not an act of allegiance or an unconscious surrender to ideology. In any case, Marx’s notion has been taken up by intellectual historians to the point where it has become a truism – as Stephen Jay Gould put it, “Darwin grafted Adam Smith onto nature”. However, as Trevor Pearce has tried to show, the idea of competition in nature between “species” is backgrounded by more than the Scots philosophers. He points out that the idea of competition relies on the larger notion implied in Darwin’s famous phrase in the Origins: “all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature.” It is within this framework that we speak of the “competition” of, say, the quagga mussel which has “invaded” the Great Lakes econsystem and outcompeted another invasive, the tiger mussel.Pearce, while acknowledging the influence of Malthus on Darwin, claims that not enough is made of the influence of other natural philosophers, and in particular, Linnaeus. When Linnaeus wrote of the oeconomy of nature, he did not have in mind incipient capitalism. He had in mind a notion that was connected to the great chain of being and the metaphor of the household – and ultimately, of the court.