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Does Darwinism Favor Selfishness or Cooperation?

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.

Political 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 compete for power, prestige, and wealth because it improves our attractiveness as mates. A Darwinist might 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, this definition of Darwinism implies that the weak and feeble should be exploited, prevented from mating, and allowed to perish: a callous and oppressive mentality that 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 political system. Clearly (and thankfully) it is not.

Fortunately, the strongest nations are typically liberal democracies with welfare programs. Dictatorships and other oppressive regimes 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, human beings have established altruism, charity, and morality, and we widely apply these virtues in everyday life. We have also developed culture, art, and religion, demonstrating a will to behave in ways that do not directly aid our survival.

Do these human traits go against our nature or are they integral to it? 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?

To answer these questions, one only needs to recognize the success of groups, tribes, and civilizations in our planet's history. Clearly, humans and other cooperative, social animals are favored in natural selection.

For example, 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. We even appear to cooperate (and punish people who don't) when there is no individual advantage to ourselves: something that anthropologists call "strong reciprocity."

This may be because, even if another person 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 to build schools, hospitals, and agricultural tools might create strong allies.

Over time, investing resources in weaker individuals and groups can prove worthwhile. Ultimately, this is also how we make our children into adults who, in turn, care for us in our old age.

Of course, a caveat is that aiding a weak society without a desire to make them strong may still be a waste of resources. For example, a great deal of charity work 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 the archaic cruelty of our defunct ancestors.

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Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

— Ancient proverb

What Drives Natural Selection Today?

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

Threats to survival are what drives 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 organisms are also compelled to ensure the continuation of their species. After all, extinction clearly prevents reproduction!

As global threats do not distinguish between individuals, it is a waste of resources to engage in infighting and weeding out the weak. Rather, global threats require a reduction in competition and a greater disposition for cooperation.

Would a large impact event only threaten the weak and feeble?

Would a large impact event only threaten the weak and feeble?

If an extinction-causing asteroid were to strike the Earth in a thousand years, survival would depend on our ability to produce the necessary technology in time to divert it. To achieve this, we would need to ensure that all human beings have the best chance to reach their potential.

Likewise, 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?

The Future of Society Under 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.

Unfortunately, our ancestor's compulsion to dominate the weak still clashes with our present societal duty to empower them. Even today, some people do not value the survival of the species over their short-term gains. Some prime examples are the billionaires and oil barons who would happily destroy our world as long as they don't have to see it burn.

These people would rather maintain the inequalities that they have successfully traversed or inherited, and the antiquated, capitalist system that has made them successful. Unfortunately, unchecked capitalism is a recipe for extinction because it ensures that the vast majority of the population does not reach their potential.

The political spectrum replicates this divide, with liberals demonstrating a greater disposition for social ideals than conservatives. However, social ideals can be easily corrupted or distorted.

For example, some people believe that liberalism requires a simple welfare state or a redistribution of wealth. As we have seen, aimless charity does not give people the means to succeed and reach their potential independently. Liberal Darwinism should be the desire to strengthen the weak, creating strong, capable allies.

Darwinism does not condone some liberal ideas, such as a welfare state that creates dependent subjects.

Darwinism does not condone some liberal ideas, such as a welfare state that creates dependent subjects.

Rather than oppressing the poor or making them dependent on a welfare state, modern Darwinism requires the empowerment of the poor via quality education, public health care, improved social mobility, publicly built infrastructure, and greater opportunity for all.

Furthermore, given the threats we face, Darwinism does not require the elimination of greed. Rather, it requires a transition to collective greed, in which the beneficiary is humanity rather than oneself.

Only by giving everyone the tools to succeed can our species maximize its potential and address its challenges. 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

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