12 January 2009

Darwinism has all the answers - but what are the questions?

When I was an undergraduate I had an argument with a fellow student about racism. He was majoring in botany and zoology, and was convinced that some races were more evolved than others, and was in fact a Social Darwinist. He recommended that I read the works of Ayn Rand, whom I had never heard of before then. He said that if I read her works they would change my mind on the topic.

One result of his argument was that I avoided reading anything by Ayn Rand for about ten years, believing that if they contributed to his ideas, they were not worth reading. Later, when I realised that Ayn Rand's ideas were becoming more influential in the world at large, I did read some of her books to understand what was going on. I believe they contributed to the spread of neoliberalism, for example.

And today, thanks to The Western Confucian, I came across this piece.

Mercatornet: Darwinism 2.0 has all the answers:
The Economist’s contention is that all social policy ought to be framed in evolutionary terms. Otherwise, it is destined to fail. Traditionally, policy has been shaped by philosophy, sociology or even religion. But these are inadequate tools, it says:

They describe, rather than explain. They do not get to the nitty-gritty of what it truly is to be human. Policy based on them does not work. This is because they ignore the forces that made people what they are: the forces of evolution.

Welcome to social Darwinism 2.0. SocDar 1.0 used the ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest to promote racism, eugenics, and robber baron capitalism. What fearsome ideas will emerge from 2.0?

The problem with Darwinism of any hue, at least when applied to society, is that its enthusiasts can cook up an explanation for everything in terms of survival and reproduction, the two pillars of Darwin’s theory. Whatever exists must somehow be necessary for survival, no matter how debased it may seem in old-fashioned moral terms.

This leads to some sticky problems. One of these, for instance, is genocide. Since it exists, it must confer an evolutionary advantage -- which is about as close as Darwinism gets to the old-fashioned notion of ethical goodness. Some evolutionary theorists even think that humans are programmed for genocide and war. Indeed, the old man himself seems to have thought genocide something between a jolly good thing and a regrettable necessity. As he wrote in his other great text, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”

It seems to me, however, that Darwin failed to see the implications of his own theories. Civilisation may confer a short-term advantage, but not really a long-term evolutionary one related to survival. A lot of our "civilisation", for example, is built on the use of fossil fuels, which enable mechanised farming and conveying of food and other goods over vast distances. But what happens when fossil fuels are exhausted? Perhaps civilisation will collapse. In civilised societies the development of optics has allowed short-sighted people to survive and breed. In hunter-gatherer societies, such people would be less likely to survive. And if civilisation collapses, perhaps the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the Amazon jungles will prove fitter to survive.

Similarly, in civilised societies medicine has allowed babies with birth defects to survive and breed. There are endless news stories about parents of babies with defective hearts or other organs appealing for money for an operation that will save the life of their child. "Civilisation" does not necessarily confer a survival advantage, in the Darwinian sense.

And Mercatornet goes on to say

While evolutionary thought may shed some light upon why young men commit more murders than any other age group, the far more interesting question is why most of them do not. Human consciousness clearly indicates that man has a spiritual dimension which is not determined by the iron law of survival of the fittest. Even some of the more intelligent Darwinists acknowledge this.

Capitalism as an economic system evolved, without too much thought being given to it. Then some people realised that the system encouraged behaviour that was regarded as immoral on the basis of phlosophy, religion or social values. In response to this various forms of socialism were proposed as alternatives to capitalism. By the 19th century capitalism seemed to have developed into a "dog eat dog" society. For some, it seemed natural, and indeed, for Social Darwinists, it was seen as part of "natural selection". Socialist ideas took many forms, but most were based on the idea that cooperation is a better basis for economic activity than competition.

In some cases the ideas became ideologies, as in Marxism, which was linked to a deterministic philosophy. And in reaction to this, people like Ayn Rand decided to provide an ideology for capitalism, which led to the neoliberalism of today.

From a Christian point of view the problem with all this is that the economic ideologies, of both Marxism and neoliberalism, assert that man ought to be subjected to economic powers. Is that what St Paul was saying when he said "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers" (Romans 13:1)? Or did he also envisage a strouggle against them, as he says in Ephesians 6:10?

Perhaps there is indeed a Kulturkampf, and in the West there is an increasing divergence between Christian values and those of society. But many Christians tilt at windmills, and argue about things like how the world was created, arguing over things like "old earth" and "young earth", yet accept without question the values propagated by the likes of The Economist, showing that they have already capitulated. That is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think of "Darwinian" forces in much the way I think of "markets" -- things we need to understand because they describe something real, but not necessarily things that imply "goodness". So I have no problem applying "darwinianism" to anything, as long as we understand it's just part of the analysis. Gravity's a real force, but I still want my airplane to stay above the ground until it's time to land.

Actually, I think the forces behind darwinian natural selection might well be a good way to think about Original Sin. Natural selection works because we want to survive, and we want those closest to us to survive. But "greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for a friend" -- a completely anti-evolutionary idea. Ditto all Jesus' negative talk about biological family ("who are my mother and sisters and brothers? Those who do the will of God.") And the mechanism behind evolution is centered around reproduction -- just as Original Sin has traditionally been taught to be passed along. Maybe the Christian message is precisely about the call to transcend the (selfish, clanish) evolutionary forces that shaped us.



The Western Confucian said...

Very good point about the evolution and later ideologicalization of capitalism.

The Scylding said...

The way the Social Darwinists try to explain the world, and formulate their agenda, is similar to some (radical) Calvinists: In either case there is this inevitable, unchanging drive that controls everything. So whatever happens, happens - so why the big issue with controlling what happens? Who says that evolution did not "create" a social darwinist vs. classical theist battle?

It all becomes rather pointless, and stupid.


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