Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Evolution and Poverty: Great is our Sin

Wednesday 15th October is Blog Action Day 2008, with the theme of POVERTY. Although I have missed the boat according to Greenwich Mean Time, as far as my Hawaiian readers go it is still a little after 9pm on the 15th (and Google analytics shows that there have been visits to the Blog from the fiftieth state), so here goes...

In the Rough Guide to Evolution, there is a whole chapter on evolution and politics. Here are a few pertinent excerpts:
The earliest and most notorious extension of evolutionary thinking to politics was social Darwinism – the view that competition between individuals and between nations could, and should, drive social and economic progress in human societies. Inherent to social Darwinism was the suggestion that the richest and most “socially developed” should be allowed to flourish in society, while the poor and the weak should be left to fend for themselves, even if this meant suffering and death...
One key influence was the Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by Thomas Malthus... [but] even stronger influence on social Darwinism was English philosopher Herbert Spencer who, as early as 1851, had attacked what he called the “spurious philanthropists”, who “[b]lind to the fact that, under the natural order of things, society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, …advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation – absolutely encouraging the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident.”
Social Darwinism is generally linked to laissez faire economics and non-interventionist politics. American industrialists readily adopted evolutionary language. John D. Rockefeller said, “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest”, while Andrew Carnegie claimed that the law of competition “is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore… great inequality of environment, the concentration of wealth, business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race..."
Social Darwinism fails both as hypothesis and policy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it equates evolution solely with competition, when co-operation and altruism are also the products of evolution... A second problem with social Darwinism is that it confuses economic and social success with biological success and what is natural with what is desirable... In fact, a more palatable interpretation of evolution sees natural selection as an enemy of the values of a civilized society. As Thomas Huxley stated in his 1893 lecture Evolution and Ethics: “Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it."
A third problem with social Darwinism is that it implies a rigid biological determinism in which one’s station in life is set by one’s innate unimprovable abilities. However, even at the height of social Darwinism, evolutionists like Huxley expressed a more enlightened view of the improvability of humans and human societies. 
Huxley wrote in his 1888 essay, The Struggle for Existence:
…the endeavor to improve the condition under which our industrial population live, to amend the drainage of densely peopled streets, to provide baths, washhouses, and gymnasia … to furnish some provision for instruction and amusement in public libraries … is not only desirable from a philanthropic point of view, but an essential condition of safe industrial development....”  
and he closes the essay with:
 “There is, perhaps, no more hopeful sign of progress among us, in the last half-century, than the steadily increasing devotion which has been and is directed to measures for promoting physical and moral welfare among the poorer classes…” 
The descendants of those that Spencer counted as the “excrement of society” nowadays enjoy levels of health and wealth, education and intellectual achievement far beyond his imagination. However, these improvements have come about not through the effects of natural selection, but because of deliberate efforts to improve the lot of the poorest and most vulnerable in society through the kind of measures Huxley advocated, twinned with modern innovations such as vaccination and contraception.
Of course what I have written above applies to Western societies, where we have seen an astonishing rise in the standard of living since Darwin and Huxley's time. It should not be seen as a Panglossian smugness that all is now right with the world. In developing countries, poverty is just as bad if not worse than it was 150 years ago and the Third World poor are engaged in a relentless "struggle for existence", particularly in the face of infectious diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. But the point here is that change is possible--as Barack Obama puts it: "yes we can to opportunity and prosperity". Poverty is not inevitable and biology does not equal destiny. I leave the last word to Darwin, who, in the Voyage of the Beagle, compared poverty to slavery and dismissed the inevitability of both conditions (my emphasis):
It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

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