Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life lines 8


Darwin remarked that natural selection was “Malthus writ large.” What he intended in that phrase was his appreciation of the capacity of living things to increase in population until checked by natural constraints such as land to live on and food to eat. Darwin’s views were, to his dismay, applied to human social behavior by some of his most enthusiastic supporters like Herbert Spencer who shaped what later was called social Darwinism. In its worst form social Darwinists argued that the competition among capitalists and the strife between owners and laborers was a necessary process leading to social progress. Some critics of science have claimed that Darwinian natural selection is “capitalism writ large,” and that evolutionary science is a social construction inspired by capitalism.

When a science is reduced to a sentence or a slogan, it is easy to jump to such conclusions. Reflection on what natural selection predicts easily refutes this mistaken interpretation. Darwin showed that natural selection involves the replacement by better-adapted variations of those with less able variations. Those who react faster, have more efficient metabolism, and who are fertile will leave more offspring than those who are not alert, who cannot survive stress, or who are infertile. This is not capitalism; it is biology. By contrast the rich and allegedly more successful capitalists have fewer offspring than the laborers whom they employ. This is the reverse of what evolutionary biology predicts and observes.

Consider how nature works. Those plants and animals with a burden of mutations are usually less likely to survive and those with happier combinations of genes are the survivors ready to produce the next generation. In capitalism it is nepotism and cronyism, which not infrequently determines who heads corporations or prestigious and powerful organizations. Evolution acts on biological traits associated with specific genes. Capitalism works on education, acquired skills, and social systems. The connection to biology for such traits is thin. No one is born with the skills to amass money, manage people, buy and sell stock, or have a thrifty outlook. Would we argue that those living in socialist countries have genes for sharing wealth, for social equality, or for putting the state ahead of the individual? Curiously, one of the architects of capitalism, Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations saw capitalism as a common good, benefiting worker and owner. It was Karl Marx in Das Kapital who saw it in social Darwinian terms of exploitation and greed. Note how different science is at its best in its reliance on observation, accurate factual description, use of predictions, lack of rigidity, and rejection of political ideology in its attempt to understand nature. Also note that when evolution is applied to humans, it skates on thin ice and plunges into social theories based on alleged altruism, nepotism, xenophobia, or selfishness as genetically driven forces of human behavior. Until the genome is analyzed for actual genes involving our behavior, a healthy skepticism is good science and avoids the possibility of unconscious bias guiding our interpretations of human behavior. It is also healthy skepticism to bear in mind that biological Darwinism (the theory of natural selection) is not the same as social Darwinism (Spencer’s philosophy of social dominance associated with unregulated capitalism).

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