scended from Newton’s codification of what was then known as natural philosophy, modern economics is the offspring of Adam Smith’s treatise on political economy. And though their major works were separated by nearly a century, the philosophies they articulated merged to forge a new worldview coloring virtually every aspect of European culture in the centuries that followed.
While Newton established the notion of natural law in the physical world, Smith tried to do the same in the social world of economic intercourse. Newton’s unexplained law of gravity reached across space to guide the motion of planets; Smith’s “invisible hand” guided individual laborers and businessmen to produce the wealth of nations. Together, Newton’s and Smith’s works inspired great thinkers to believe that all aspects of the world—physical and social—could be understood, and explained, by science. When Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the Age of Reason reached its pinnacle.
Nowadays, of course, physics has moved beyond Newton, and most economists would say that their science has moved far beyond Adam Smith. But Smith’s imprint on modern culture persists, and his impact on economic science remains substantial. If you look closely, you can even find echoes of Smith’s ideas in various aspects of game theory.
For one thing, Smith ingrained the idea that pursuing self-interest drives economic prosperity. And it is pursuit of self-interest that game theory, at its most basic level, attempts to quantify. At a deeper level, Smith sought a system that captured the essence of human nature and behavior, a motivation shared by many modern game theorists. Game theory tries to delimit what rational behavior is; Smith helped deposit the idea in the modern mind that minds operate in a rational way.
It was one thing for Newton to assert that rational laws governed the motions of the planets or falling apples. It was much more ambitious for Smith to ascribe similar orderliness to the social behavior of humans engaging in economic activity. As Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish observed in a now old, but still insightful, book on Western thought, Smith took a bit of an intel-