Friday, February 13, 2009

The Survival Of Misunderstanding

This post is, in a way, about something Charles Darwin said.

Mostly, though, it is about something Charles Darwin didn't say.

There were two important 200th birthdays yesterday: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Both born on February 12, 1809, they had their bicentennials celebrated this week. In the USA, it seems that (perhaps understandibly) that the Lincoln celebrations overshadowed those for Shrewesbury's favorite son.

As for Lincoln, by the way, check out this balanced assessment of Lincoln's legacy and this book
that connects Darwin and Lincoln and their influence on the modern world.

The media coverage of Darwin this week (and any time that Darwin's name gets mentioned) always seemed to mention the two key phrases connected to Darwin and his ideas: "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest."

Well, that's what Darwin was all about, right?

Not exactly.

Darwin did use the phrase "natural selection." As for "survival of the fittest," it is more complicated.

Darwin DID use the phrase "survival of the fittest," but it didn't have the connotations that have become ascribed to this loaded concept. In Origin of Species, Darwin uses "survival of the fittest" as a metaphor for his idea of natural selection, not as a scientific concept or description.

The meaning of "survival of the fittest" as we have come to know it traces its origins to the British philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Spencer used the phrase in his 1864 book Principles of Biology after having read Darwin's work. He used the phrase as a characterization of Darwin's ideas. In fact, Spencer disagreed with Darwin's notions, preferring Lamarck's idea of use inheritance, which argues that the use or disuse of an organ or trait could be inherited by subsequent generations (Jenks, did I get that right?)

That's not the way, incidentally, that "survival of the fittest" is usually used, though. The more popular use is more polemical, incendiary and mistaken.

"Survival of the fittest" is bandied about as a catch-phrase for all that is wrong with society and all this wrong is blamed (mistakenly) on Darwin and (also mistakenly) on Spencer.

What is this great societal wrong, you ask? Well, social Darwinism, that's what.

Social Darwinism is often linked with the (perceived) evils of capitalism. This is done thusly: if capitalism is based on competition between competing parties in pursuing incentives, then it is no small step to see that those who are successful are in some way inherently better than those who are not. This means that capitalists believe that the poor are somehow inherently deficient and therefore lesser beings than the rich.

Spencer believed this. Francis Galton, the originator of the idea of eugenics, believed this. Thomas Malthus may have hinted at aspects of this.

But...is this connection appropriate?

While it is certain that Herbert Spencer thought that society was evolving toward greater freedom for individuals, it is less certain that he believed that he thought the poor were inherently inferior. Francis Galton, while he believed that "more fit" people should reproduce more, he certainly didn't advocate genocide on the poor. He merely wanted to reform morals so that the poor would (in his estimation) become more fit. Thomas Malthus, while related to these notions, was more concerned with food supply and land reform. In any event, furthermore, he might have been wrong.

These qualifications, while interesting, do not answer the above question. So, is capitalism inherently flawed and elitist?

The best answer to this (in this situation, anyway) comes from Ludwig von Mises, one of the leading lights of the Austrian school of economics.

Mises argued that social Darwinism fundamentally contradicts the classical liberal ideas that helped give birth to our modern notion of capitalism and competitive markets. He says this is the case because the traits that lend to social cooperation (rather than "natural" aggression) are those that lead to maximize offspring in a given environment.

So, great. Where does this leave us?

It leaves us with the idea that, before using a phrase as loaded as "social Darwinism," it would behoove all of us to understand what it means and that in reducing complex ideas to tag-lines, we often do those ideas a disservice and make them less (rather than more) clear.

So, keep it simple, stupid, but don't make it so simple that it becomes stupid, stupid.

1 comment:

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Yeah, that's pretty much Lamarck in a nutshell.

When in doubt, you can always use the notion put forth my Lamarck that a Giraffe's neck grew longer because its ancestors stretched to get higher leaves.

Counter that with Darwin in that the ancestors of the giraffe with the longer necks were able to out compete other ancestors, and were therefore stronger and better suited to survive and pass along their traits.

With Lamarck, the ancestors are doing the changing whereas with Darwin, the descendants are doing the changing.