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Liberal Darwinism: Successful Species Cooperate to Survive

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.

Some see Darwinism as justifying the eugenics programs of fascist regimes.

Some see Darwinism as justifying the eugenics programs of fascist regimes.

Perceptions of Darwinism

Conventional wisdom regarding Darwin’s theory of natural selection tells us that organisms behave in a manner conducive to passing on their genetic material to the next generation. For example, humans will compete for power, prestige, and wealth because it improves our attractiveness as mates. A Darwinist would contend that deviating from this natural course invites calamity. Indeed, if we allowed the weak and powerless to prosper, our species would risk extinction at the hands of rival organisms.

Despite the apparent logic, the definition of Darwinism offered above suggests the weak and feeble should be exploited, prevented from mating, and allowed to perish. This cold and oppressive mentality finds an easy ally in fascism and the extreme right-wing. However, if this connection can truly be made, fascism should be the most successful form of government in history.

Fortunately, the strongest nations are typically liberal democracies. Dictatorships tend to antagonize the masses, leading to their overthrow at the hands of local or foreign forces. Indeed, the Nazis were unable to prevail in WW2 despite their eugenics program. Given this historical evidence, could true Darwinism be more aligned with left-wing politics?

Liberal Darwinism

In becoming the most dominant species on Earth, humanity has established altruism, charity, morality, and self-sacrifice and widely applies these virtues in everyday life. We've also developed culture, art, and religion, demonstrating a will to behave in a manner that does not tangibly aid our survival. Are we going against our nature? Have we dominated our rival species so emphatically that we can indulge in these costly exploits, or is Darwinism more complicated than it first appears?

One need only look at the success of groups, tribes, and civilizations to know that cooperative species are favored in natural selection. Studies have shown that antelope on the edge of a herd watch for predators while those in the middle graze peacefully. One alarm call warns the entire herd, and each animal takes turns as a sentinel. This form of cooperation benefits the entire group.

Herd animals cooperate to survive.

Herd animals cooperate to survive.

Humans go several steps further, trading goods for mutual prosperity and forming alliances for mutual dominance. Even if the other party is weak and feeble, your cooperation could lead to them becoming a strong ally in the future. For example, offering a hand to someone hanging from a cliff or helping a developing culture build schools, hospitals, and agricultural tools are ways to create strong allies. Over time, investing resources in weaker individuals and groups can prove worthwhile.

A caveat is that aiding a weak society without a desire to make them strong is a waste of resources. Unfortunately, a great deal of charity work (e.g., food drives) goes into producing societies that are dependent on further aid. Nevertheless, Darwinism clearly provides many avenues for ensuring the survival of the self by helping others. If one considers the weak as potential strong allies rather than inferiors to be stepped on, there is little need for our ancestors' archaic cruelty.

What Drives Natural Selection?

There's still the suggestion that altruism may weaken the gene pool, opening the door to extinction. This argument may have been valid when humans were competing with other species, and predators were picking off the weak. Today, there is nothing that can threaten our standing as the dominant species on Earth.

Threats drive natural selection, and the types of threats we face determine the type of selection that must occur. In today's world, we aren't concerned with rival species; our principal concerns are pandemics, resource depletion, global warming, asteroid impacts, and self-annihilation through war or acts of insanity. These global threats rarely distinguish between strong and weak; they kill all with equal gusto!

Would an asteroid impact only threaten the weak and feeble?

Would an asteroid impact only threaten the weak and feeble?

Beyond the survival of the self and the preservation of one’s lineage, Darwinism tells us that all organisms are compelled to ensure the continuation of their species in the face of global threats. After all, extinction clearly prevents reproduction! As global threats do not distinguish between individuals, infighting and weeding out the weak is a waste of resources. When such threats are salient, there is very little to drive natural selection on an individual basis.

Overcoming global threats requires a reduction in competition and a greater disposition for cooperation. Indeed, if an extinction-causing asteroid were to strike the Earth in a thousand years' time, survival would depend on our ability to produce the necessary technology in time to divert it. To achieve this, we must ensure that all human beings have the best chance to reach their potential. If a cure for the next pandemic can only come from the mind of someone born in Africa, what chance does our species have if that person is restricted from getting an education?

Modern Liberal Darwinism

Humanity’s only present threat comes from our never-ending race against what the Universe can throw at us. If we enter another Dark Ages and lose another thousand years, the race may be lost by the time the next extinction event presents itself. However, even today, our individualist compulsion to dominate and exploit the weak clashes with our societal duty to empower them. The political spectrum replicates this divide, with liberals demonstrating a greater disposition for social ideals.

Unfortunately, social ideals can be easily corrupted or distorted. For example, some believe liberalism requires a welfare state or a redistribution of wealth. However, as we have seen, aimless charity doesn't give people the means to succeed independently. Liberal Darwinism should be the desire to strengthen the weak, creating strong, capable allies.

Darwinism does not condone some liberal ideas, such as the welfare state.

Darwinism does not condone some liberal ideas, such as the welfare state.

Others make less humane criticisms. They demonize liberalism because it threatens the antiquated, capitalist system that made them successful. These parasites seek to maintain an inequality that they've successfully traversed or inherited. As we've seen, unchecked capitalism is a recipe for extinction because it ensures the vast majority of the population doesn't reach their potential.

Rather than oppressing the poor and weak or forming welfare states, liberal Darwinism encourages the empowerment of the poor via quality education, public health care, improved social mobility, publicly built infrastructure, and greater opportunity for all. Only by giving everyone the tools to succeed can our species maximize its potential. Darwinism in today’s world requires liberalism because the threats we face do not distinguish between strong and weak. Either we work together to strengthen our species as a whole, or we fight among ourselves until the victors are extinguished by an insurmountable threat.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


mgt28 on August 26, 2014:

Well done. I really enjoy Darwinsm and will read a lot on it where I get a good article.

Embracing and understanding Darwism is the easier part, what is difficult in most cases is to classify what is weakness and what is strength. I find that very interesting. Traits that we call strength may not be so just as those that we call weakness. Someone above rightly said maternal care is a much more crucial strength than male aggression. That is eye opening.

Subjugating others through imperialism and colonialism may have appeared as strength and may still imply so to the off springs who benefited but it may now be seen as weakness. That is the reason why eugenics never works only because it presupposes that we can classify traits as weaknesses or strengths, no we cannot.

Often the eye of the supposed weak is as good at judging weaknesses and strengths as that of the supposed strong. That is why you are right in saying that helping society by just giving them will not be useful without strengthening them. It may be important to leave people alone without judging them than to misjudge and prescribe wrong aid.

I liked reading your article.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 03, 2013:

Thank you for the nice comments GoForTheJuggler, Shyron, MPG Narratives, and Ralph. Yes, the notions of greed, selfishness, and `social Darwinism' have been too readily associated with evolutionary theory. I suppose books like "The Selfish Gene" didn't help matters either. So I guess this article was a way of saying that cooperation and altruism can be (and are) successful. We wouldn't rule the Earth otherwise! Thanks again for the great comments.

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on November 03, 2013:

Well done. Cooperation for the common good is a much more powerful ethic than Herbert Spencer's and the Koch brothers' social Darwinism.

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on November 03, 2013:

"Humanity’s only present threat comes from our never-ending race against what the Universe can throw at us."

I really enjoyed reading this hub (congrats on the HOD) and the line above is so true of what humans should be doing. There is no need for humans to be against other humans because nature has its own way of culling through fires, floods and other disasters. Let's work together as human beings for the good of all. Thanks for sharing your work with us ThomasSwan. Voted up, awesome and shared.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on November 02, 2013:

Congrats Thomas, this is very interesting. I don't think Darwinism and greed are the same thing.

Voted up, interesting, and shared.

Joshua Patrick from Texas on November 02, 2013:

"Either we work together to strengthen our species as a whole, or we fight amongst ourselves until the victors are extinguished by an insurmountable threat."

I wish more people were capable of thinking like this, but human nature often gets in the way.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 02, 2013:

Thank you Hulda, Buildreps, Tom, DreamerMeg, and Kathleen for your kind and insightful comments.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on November 02, 2013:

Wow. Haven't seen an HOD like this one before! Thanks HP for encouraging hubs that make us think and reconsider our positions on big ideas. Congrats to the author as well! Must read more of your work.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on November 02, 2013:

Very interesting hub and you make some very valid points. Definitely the extinction asteroid will not distinguish between strong and weak!

Tom Mukasa from Lives in USA on November 02, 2013:

Thanks Thomas. Political and social darwinism presuppose political and social ecosystems. Knowledge is the prey and empowerment the predator. They have evolved in such a way as to be elusive. Working the abstract is where our technologies should lead us. These technologies are the ones humans need to be obsessed about. Belligerence that institutionalized bullying and subjugation was vogue eons ago. What we need to do is embrace a paradigm shift from this form of belligerence to a knowledge, social infrastructure and network building as the new and emerging technologies (nets). These we need to share. This is where darwinism is taking us. Thanks for sharing with us your article.

Buildreps from Europe on November 02, 2013:

Great article indeed, flawless style and justly selected as Hub of the Day. Congratulations. Very interesting the way you ventilate your view on Darwinism, although I think natural selection as well as opportunism is dormant in our society covered under sweet words of equality. So I think the distance present humanity took from Darwinism is rather thin and perhaps it will take Millennia to evolve to true equality.

H Clark from Austria on November 02, 2013:

Wow great hub. I especially love this portion "Our threats come solely from the environment or from ourselves. Our principle concerns are pandemics, resource depletion, asteroid impacts, and self-annihilation through war or acts of insanity." We are our own predator, we have not taken care of our environment, and every time we are on war.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 17, 2013:

Cheers Karmallama, always nice to be told I've written something intellectual! I agree that wabond made a very good point, and I like how it connects with the deductions I made in the hub.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 17, 2013:

Thanks for commenting jandee!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 17, 2013:

wabond, I agree that we need to consider the nurturing female quality more, but not at the complete expense of the aggressive male quality. I think both are valid because both contribute to survival, though I accept that the former is often ignored.

Dreen Lucky from St. Paul, minnesota on September 16, 2013:

What a wonderful intellectual hub! I loved it! I especially appreciate the debate about the roles of women in your comments. I think this is probably one of the best hubs I have read here, I really appreciate the connections you made and the compassion you share. Voted up!

jandee from Liverpool.U.K on September 16, 2013:

Thanks Thomas ,

regards jandee

William Bond from England on September 14, 2013:

Hi Thomas, I think it is true that both parents have a role in bringing up their young in birds, but not in mammals. In many species of mammal the only role the male has, is fertilising the female. This is partly true with the human male. Yes, some men will stay around to help bring up their children, but others will run away the moment the woman is pregnant. But it is very rare for a woman to abandon her baby willingly.

The point is, without the very powerful maternal instinct of mothers, to care for their young, most species would quickly become extinct. So when we talk about, "the survival of the fittest" we should be thinking in terms of the most caring and nurturing mothers.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 14, 2013:

Thanks for commenting wabond. That's an interesting perspective and you could be right. I sometimes fall into the trap of referring only to the male gender. If women ruled the world, would it be different, or does leadership require a domineering disposition that can be found in both genders? What I've talked about in the hub regarding strengthening the weak is similar to the relationship between a parent and a child. Parents invest time and resources to create a human being that can one day protect them in return. I feel that both parents have a role in this, though I agree that the mother traditionally takes most of the duties.

William Bond from England on September 14, 2013:

Great article Thomas Swan, like it very much. The problem with the way social Darwinism is interpreted is that they leave out the role of the female. The survival of any species depend far more on the maternal and nurturing skills of the mother than the aggression of the male. If we thought more about the role of the mother, we would see Darwinism in a completely different way.

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