I am a social Darwinist. How’s that for a controversial start? But let me explain. Perhaps the most famous example of “social Darwinism” is Adolf Hitler and “die Endlösung der Judenfrage” (The Final Solution to the Jewish Question). The Nazis set out to kill all the Jews as well as many other groups they saw as being inferior (they used the term Untermensch, meaning subhuman). This was the holocaust which took over 6 million Jewish lives (civilian men, women and children) during World War II. But this has nothing to do with Darwinism. It is genocide and it is deplorable, evil and sickening.
We need to first understand Darwinism which means understanding the theory of evolution. It’s actually a very tame concept but is nevertheless widely misunderstood. One of the core ideas is that there is no central planner or conscious being overlooking or directing the process. Hence why some religious groups feel greatly threatened by the theory – it directly contradicts their explanation that God created everything, say, six thousand years ago. But importantly, it doesn’t contradict the existence of God himself. Science tells us about the real world, not what values we should have or how to live our life. On the other hand, religion can offer a philosophy of life, a set of values or beliefs to carry, but it cannot tell us about the real world. More on that another time…
The main thrust of Darwin’s theory consists of two complementary processes: 1) random variation and 2) non-random survival and reproduction.
The first simply means that small random changes from the norm can and do occur. We call these mutations. With modern science we can explain these as being due to slight alterations to genetic code, some being caused by cosmic rays but many by more mundane things like errors in copying. Most mutations will tend to be either harmless or harmful since most changes to a finely tuned machine tend to make it worse. But some small percentage of mutations may be helpful in some way. This brings us to the second process.
In the real world, not all living things have an equal chance of surviving and reproducing. Certain attributes will tend to be more useful depending on the surrounding environment, including climate and other living things. In animals, these can include speed, strength, tough skin, sharp teeth and claws, stealth, sensitive hearing, camouflage, good eye sight, wings, fins, fertility, sexual attractiveness, resistance to disease, SONAR, intelligence and many other things. You may have noticed that several of those qualities form competitive opposing pairs that become pronounced in predator/prey arms races. Also, many important attributes may be internal, for example the size and efficiency of various organs. Cows have 4 stomachs but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.
Also, these qualities usually involve trade-offs. Speed may require stronger muscles meaning a bigger diet or one that includes more protein. Any special attention to one part of the body will tend to draw attention away from others. A stronger heart may come at the price of weaker legs, a larger body may come at the price of less oxygen per cell. These are more exaggerated trade-offs but the point is that there’s no free lunch. In humans, the brain uses about 20% of the body’s total energy – that’s the cost of intelligence and part of why we’re relatively physically unimpressive compared to many other animals. That’s also why we don’t see super animals, like a dragon, pegasus or Mary Poppins, with practically perfect versions of everything.
So mutations give a species random variations, most of which are useless and tend to quickly disappear. But some give better chances of survival and hence tend to get passed on. The word “tend” is a key word here. Some “strong” individuals may die nevertheless and not pass on their useful mutations. “Weak” individuals may survive and produce many offspring with less useful mutations. But the general TENDENCY will be for the useful qualities to be passed on and spread through the population over generations. Combine a tendency with a long period of time and you can get incredible change. It must be emphasised that none of this change is planned in advance. It has no overarching aim. It isn’t necessarily “progress” unless you simply mean the species is becoming better adapted to its current environment.
It is absolutely amazing that somehow, over thousands of millions of years, life developed on Earth from single-celled organisms to all the living things we can now observe (and the original start remains mysterious to this day with no single unanimously accepted theory). But evolution is a powerful and adequate explanation. Moreover, there is no competing theory that comes close to offering an alternative explanation.
We might ask, are whales better than ants? Well, they’re bigger. But unless you have a clear, objective way to measure “better”, it’s a hard question to answer. Fish are not renowned for their ability to climb trees but they are great swimmers. The bottom line in evolution is survival and in that sense, all living species today have “made it” and that’s an incredible achievement. I might go more into detail about the wonderful world of evolution another time but for now let’s move on to the next thing.
Humans are special. We are the most intelligent species we know of in the universe. We COULD make jokes about how stupid people can be and refer to whichever dumb celebrity everyone’s currently making fun of at the moment. But any serious analysis has to reach the conclusion that other species don’t even come close in intellectual power to homo sapiens. What’s the most intelligent sentence by a chimpanzee using sign-language after years of training? Something like “me food food me give me food now give give food you give food me”. Three-year-olds routinely construct far more complex and grammatically correct sentences. Does that make us better than other animals? Well, moral questions can be tricky. I’d say most people put human life on a higher pedestal than animal life and I think that’s logical. But let’s analyse why.
I think it’s all about consciousness. I think therefore I am. That’s why we don’t feel pangs of guilt when pulling out a weed – we’re pretty confident it doesn’t think or feel. But when we see an animal being abused, we often feel upset – we know or believe that it feels pain. Suffering can only exist when there’s consciousness. That doesn’t mean we can kill someone in their sleep – I’m referring to the overall potential for consciousness, for being self-aware, thinking, feeling and acting (roughly summarised as being alive).
But consciousness isn’t a black-and-white concept. It exists in degrees. We worry a lot more about a human getting crushed to death than an ant because the human is so much more alive to us – they can love, laugh, cry or be a productive member of society. We’re not really indifferent to ants (most would prefer not to kill one) but we recognise that their lives are perhaps not as profound – they probably aren’t self-aware in any real, measurable way. This isn’t just a relative thing, as if we’re biased to our own species, since we clearly care about many animals. Generally, if asked to rank animals in moral value, I think most people will come up with a similar hierarchy roughly based on intelligence (although many cultures and religions do worship random animals). To be clear, I think all life should be valued, but the point is that we tend to value conscious or self-aware living things more than others.
Humanity lies on a cusp. We are both a part of nature, but also above and beyond it. We are mortals and Gods. One real result of this power of humans has been a new type of evolution – artificial selection. Technically, this might not be counted as part of true evolution by scientific experts. But you might accurately call it a newly adapted version of evolution itself. Now, instead of NATURE culling the weak (so to speak), HUMANS decide which individuals reproduce while strongly influencing their environment as well. In essence, we can consciously select which qualities get passed on and which do not.
We choose cows that produce tonnes of milk, crops that grow to enormous sizes or grow in every season, chickens that lay heaps of eggs, wolves that are docile (we call them dogs now) and many other examples. To some degree, we also artificially select human beings, simply in the sense that humans can often consciously select their partner, applying scrutinising intelligence to a process that was unthinking in the past (even if birds are very picky, there’s no substantial intelligence behind those picks).
So that brings us to modern society and our new technology-rich environment. A convenient phrase summarising the idea of evolution is “survival of the fittest”, coined by Herbert Spencer after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). This phrase is very useful, as long as it is properly understood. By survival, we mean both survival and reproduction – the passing on of genes to the next generation. By fittest, we really mean (in a circular kind of logic) whatever qualities help a species survive and reproduce.
So, what qualities count as “fit” in modern society? We’ve seen the kinds of qualities that were useful in the wild. Many of those are still useful, but not to the same degree. Our intelligence has changed the nature of the game a huge amount. Before I give my opinion, please take a minute to try to think of what qualities YOU think help people progress these days, economically and socially.
Done? Okay, here’s what I thought of: being a hard worker, learning from mistakes, keeping options open, not being racist/sexist, being intelligent, being good at communicating, being useful to others, being skilled or creative, being open to new ideas, thinking, standing up for one’s self, giving up on bad ideas (not being stubborn), being friendly, caring for one’s children, being respected (by having qualities other consider worthy of respect) and many other things. Hopefully you came up with some similar things, maybe a bunch that I didn’t think of and maybe you disagree with some of mine. But in my opinion, these are among the most important qualities that can generally help people progress in a wide variety of human environments.
Being strong used to be more valuable when there was more manual labour. But now there are machines and robots to do the heavy lifting so strength is less important (greatly affecting women’s usefulness in the work force). Being attractive may also help but only a small proportion of the most attractive people can actually make money from it. In fact, rich people are often stereotyped as being old, average-looking men with some accuracy. On the other hand, I think the more abstract quality of learning from mistakes is invaluable in most contexts, especially if you can learn from the mistakes of others as well. Not being racist/sexist has the virtue of greatly increasing your options – the employer that hires the very best will slaughter the employer that hires only from the groups he likes.
So, in what sense am I a social Darwinist? I think racism should be allowed to die. Not necessarily racists themselves, but the racist attitudes that live within them. Along with sexism, arrogance, laziness, stupidity and many other opposites to the qualities listed above. So am I saying we should categorise people based on these qualities and then kill all the ones I deem “unfit”? Absolutely not. Remember, evolution involves no central planner so as soon as you try to consciously act to define its path, you’re going against the central idea. Now, with artificial selection we may very well have end goals in mind, but to do the same with humans crosses a line. Humans have their own wills so why should a separate person get to decide who mates with who or even who lives or dies? Of course, even in the case of animals, there are plenty of moral questions which should be considered (perhaps another time). But just as parents are considered to be responsible for looking after their kids, so humans are often granted responsibility over animals with the expectation that they are not overtly cruel.
Hitler may have felt Jews were somehow inferior, but Jews are a whole religious/ethnic group. My sample list of fitness qualities is of a different nature completely. Surely many Jews are hard-working and many are lazy. So that was a big mistake, to lump all Jews in together as if they’re all fit or unfit (in whatever sense). Hitler was also inconsistent, promoting blonde hair and blue eyes which he and many Germans didn’t have and which some Jews may well have had. But the far bigger problem was the huge concentration of power Hitler obtained and the immense hubris he had to undertake to use that power to orchestrate mass murder. That’s completely against the concept of evolution. The whole idea is that evolution happens automatically, either under the rules of nature or the rule of law, not under the arbitrary rule of a dictator.
So the idea is to simply let things play out. The best examples of real social Darwinism are the places which have had free trade and which protect private property rights. The USA is a relatively good example overall (especially after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, since slavery is counter to what I’m talking about, and before FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s) but many other capitalist countries are also good examples, despite gross government intervention. Under free markets, no conscious actor needs to direct the hand of evolution. In fact, it is Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” which will guide individuals to do whatever it is that other individuals most value them doing (and are hence willing to pay them to do). Those who can make themselves useful will find themselves earning healthily and those who learn to make adjustments will tend to progress rapidly on the economic scale (all other things being equal).
This version of social Darwinism I’m speaking of has nothing to do with moral superiority or inferiority. It’s all about emphasising freedom and allowing people to develop and use whatever qualities help them progress, as long as they don’t hurt others. And just as no engineer designed the incredible lifeforms we find in nature, so no social engineer needs to design a masterclass of humans. In fact, evolution has many advantages over conscious design. Ideas can be found that nobody even thought of. Da Vinci may have dreamt up vehicles like the helicopter but to get one actually flying undoubtedly involved a huge amount of trial and error. Eventually some combination of parts worked, maybe partially by accident and we may not fully understand exactly how or why some models worked better than others for a long time.
Cheetahs can sprint with no conscious understanding of Newtonian mechanics. A child can master a ball game without ever hearing the words “gravity” or “acceleration”. They just have to notice some patterns and find what works. Some of the most exciting areas of computer research involve neural networks which similarly make guesses and adjust based on feedback until some combination works. It’s like a sieve being shaken, letting small things fall through and leaving behind the large objects. We test and adjust, test and adjust. All the ineffective ideas fall through while the ones that work stay. Now, who’s to say exactly what qualities are most important in humans? I suggested some reasonable ones but if some strange habit I didn’t mention turns out to be helpful, so be it. We might not understand why until much later. The best or perhaps only way to find out is to test these things in the real world – by letting people freely act and try their best to succeed.
I believe many negative qualities are already well on the way out, things like violence, prejudice, bullying and stupidity. This is not always appreciated since our access to information is heavily biased towards the present. We see modern-day stupidity all the time with no context for the equivalent in the distant past other than things like movies and history books, even the most accurate of which will leave out a tonne of detail. Twitter may seem like a hive for moronic comments, until you reflect on literacy rates just a couple of hundred years ago and wonder what kinds of bright ideas you might have heard back then from random people.
Finally, let me tie this up with some parallels to Nolan’s great film Batman Begins (2005). Spoilers afoot. Bruce Wayne plans to murder the person who killed his parents. He misses the chance and gets slapped by his close friend. He throws the gun away and is lost and confused for years, trying to find the meaning of justice and some purpose for his life. He becomes Batman and fights crime and corruption. But he’s no executioner. He refuses to kill. He doesn’t have all the answers and may acknowledge that the legal system isn’t perfect. But that’s no excuse to compromise his personal principles. He fights Ra’s Al Ghul who believes in some kind of occasional cleansing of society. In the movie’s climax, Batman says:
“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”
This summarises things well. The great thing about evolution is that it just happens. I condone no deliberate initiation of violence against others, no limitations on freedom other than limiting the freedom to hurt others. But if people choose to be lazy, to not learn from mistakes, to stubbornly stick with bad habits, we don’t have to save them. With great power comes great responsibility. With the freedom to act come consequences. Let people face the consequences of their actions and let the ugliest aspects of humanity die out. Not necessarily the humans with those aspects, if they learn to let them go, but the aspects themselves.