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