Darwin’s Challenge

February 12 was the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He would have been 212 years old, no age at all in Darwinian terms. He remains a major figure, but as you will see, hardly a bundle of laughs.

I once heard a professor of intellectual history declare that the Victorian era produced three giants with whose ideas modern man had still to wrestle: Marx, Freud, and Darwin. One can argue for others to be added, but these three are hard to displace. Each is more cited than read, and quite often misunderstood. It is famously reported that when Karl Marx attended a meeting at which a speaker explained the import of the great man’s economic and political analyses, he was not impressed. At the end, Karl confided to a friend: “If this is Marxism, I am no Marxist.”

Similarly, Darwin was uneasy about the public response to his book On The Origin of Species (1859). It seemed at times that his critics were eager to present him as a demonic figure determined to undermine Christian civilisation. How could his account of life on earth be reconciled with the Scriptures? His time span went well beyond a 7-day creation or even a Methuselah-like longevity. This controversial aspect of his work has never entirely subsided, and is evident still in some American school districts that require students to study Biblical creationism as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. Even more sobering is the underlying message that in the Darwinian model, mankind is just another species trying to survive, and not God’s special project. The latter is life, the universe, and everything; as befits a deity defined as infinite.

Equally troubling for Darwin’s long-term reputation, the application of his theories to society — so-called Social Darwinism — is associated with harsh approaches to welfare and public health. Darwinism was quickly used to justify classic “laissez-faire” policies that insisted that a healthy economy was a realm of unregulated competition where only the fittest survived. Businesses that failed and workers who became unemployed, through deskilling or technological redundancy, for instance, should be allowed to “disappear.” This celebration of winners in a ruthless marketplace has never entirely faded; it is one of the ingredients in the odious Trump movement. Although personally I wonder: if he is one of evolution’s star acts, maybe we should backtrack a little?

Still bleaker versions of Social Darwinism gained notoriety during the twentieth century with the eugenics movement which argued that Darwinian “natural selection” should be boosted by policies that encouraged reproduction of “healthy” human specimens and discouraged, even to the point of forced sterilisation, births among the “undesirables.” Vestiges of this approach still surface in contemporary discussions of birth control and abortion policies and the mistrust they generate.

In one sense, the global response to the current pandemic can be read as a glorious rejection of these kinds of Social Darwinism. Darwin himself reported taking his inspiration from the demographer Thomas Malthus who felt that all societies tended to increase their numbers and then face a crisis that reduced what he termed the “surplus population.” Not long after Darwin read him, Malthus was famously satirised in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) through Ebenezer Scrooge’s blunt retort to an unwanted seeker after charitable contributions. When the caller remarks that many would rather die than enter the workhouse, Scrooge responds: “If they would rather die… they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Thus, at first glance, the efforts across the world to prevent the pandemic killing even more people than it has done, suggests that while global leaders certainly vary in their humanitarianism, none have fully embraced a Malthusian conviction that a massive collapse in the human population would be no bad thing.

This welcome refusal to embrace this Social Darwinist position is amplified if one considers the widely reported variation in fatality rates across age and health groups. Severe, life-threatening COVID-19 is more prevalent among the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions who are thereby more vulnerable to its effects. Many “developed” nations have health and welfare systems that have (from a Malthusian viewpoint) recklessly supported a large and growing number of people who tend to be viewed as outside the “working population,” and thus arguably within Malthus’s undesirable or “surplus” category (I recently joined it). Striving to ensure that such people do not succumb to the virus generates the pressures that threaten to overwhelm healthcare systems, and trying to reduce the infection rate with all its dire consequences for vulnerable groups is the reason for the closure of so many economic activities. Saving granny puts a ban on your bar and restaurant visits. Social Darwinists of a certain stripe would argue for a very different approach.

Of course, there has always been more than one way of interpreting Darwin’s ideas. Society itself, both in terms of the collective action it permits and the invention it nurtures, can be seen as a vital trait in human evolution. Accordingly, some Social Darwinists have insisted that the challenges of survival demand more, not less government intervention, and point to science’s ability to defend the species from life-threatening illnesses as a key measure of human progress. Human success has rested on its collective capacity. Darwin’s language partly explains the sharply contrasting interpretations.
Consider the phrase “survival of the fittest.” As the above makes clear, if you equate fitness with survival due to individual physical health and success then you can quickly stray onto a bleak path. But Darwin’s emphasis on the importance of the ability to adapt to a changing environment, makes the meaning of “fit” clear since it is rooted in the question: how well do we as a species suit or fit our circumstances? And here the question becomes more difficult to answer. Selective breeding of certain crops, for instance, has resulted in types that produce a rich crop under normal conditions but which are also less resistant to disease and less resilient to adverse weather conditions. This has prompted some growers to reintroduce older varieties; fitness depends on what you want. Darwin’s model would favour resilience.

As a geologically recorded process, evolution is a series of episodes of change and adaptation and we have a less than perfect record. One big obstacle to comprehending evolution is its enormous time scale: millions and thousands of years. Even if one accepts the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” — the idea that there are periods in the fossil record that indicate multiple species adaptations in one era, and other periods that seem to indicate relative stability, even the “rapid evolution phases” don’t match the short calendar bites of time that make up our lives. To think Darwinian-style means — in Aldo Leopold’s phrase — thinking like a mountain. As an aside, if you, like me, find that your partner complains occasionally when you have failed to listen to what they have been saying, you could try the reply: “sorry, dear, I was trying to think like a mountain.” It may give them pause, but be ready to duck!
Anyway, to return to more challenging matters: Darwin’s insistence on environmentally driven adaptation as the key engine of change has become more daunting with the recognition that the Earth has been materially changed by human activity in the last five hundred years. The burning of fossil fuels has altered the atmosphere, the use of plastics has changed the composition of the seas, and massive shifts in the character of land use have triggered changes in our soils. Wilderness is even more of a myth today than it was when Darwin was alive. We have altered our environment consciously and inadvertently in ways that have resulted in extensive and accelerated rates of extinction for other species. They could not adapt to the environment we had created. We have blindly chosen winners and losers. You may have noticed that some species, like small song birds, that thrived in now ravaged ecosystems have declined in number, while gulls and city pigeons, who live mainly on our garbage, are more numerous than ever. Pigeons are nonetheless often regarded as stupid — mainly by the humans who work for them.
At an entirely different level, certain strains of bacteria have adapted so that they are resistant to the antibiotics we originally developed to eliminate them. And today, our headlines blare that the COVID-19 virus is showing the ability to adapt in ways that may diminish the effectiveness of the vaccines we have invented to protect ourselves. Some of the latter are the product of gene manipulation that allow labs to grow a selected part of COVID’s cellular structure so that our bodies can be induced to produce antibodies against the virus before we contract it. The vaccine war in this sense is the evolutionary struggle in microcosm and possibly at hyper-speed. In a galaxy far, far, away in time, the history books of the future may recount how 2020 was the year when the great COVID-based civilisation began.

Against gloomy trends, there are some slender reeds of hope. Already many countries are grouping their future projects under labels like Green New Deal or ecological transition. This suggests that human societies collectively can adapt to the massive environmental changes that are already detectable and do so in a way that prevents them reaching a tipping point beyond our ability to survive. We can become fit enough to survive if we collectively adapt. In the same breath as these projects are announced, however, some warn that they are too little, too late, or that efforts by some nations will be offset by the abstention of others. Darwin doesn’t offer much consolation, I’m afraid. His research showed that environmental changes had repeatedly proved too great for species great and small. But since part of his evidence was the fossil records, it should not be surprising that such a graveyard did not provide happy reading. And there are still some of the wrong sort of Social Darwinists. It is also sobering to realise that recent extreme weather conditions can trigger comments that come out of the older harsher Social Darwinist tradition. Mayor Tim Boyd of Colorado City, Texas, responded angrily to residents who complained of a weak official response to the power-cuts caused by freezing temperatures. He demanded that ‘lazy’ residents find their own ways of procuring water and electricity, and warned ‘only the strong will survive.’ We cannot assume therefore that politicians will listen to their better angels.
In the end, Darwin presents us with a profound challenge; deeper than some would like to admit. If one accepts, however begrudgingly, that we cannot continue to exploit the Earth’s resources as we have done, then our future is one where humans consume less and leave a lighter footprint; and where we leave more space for other species to survive. Some of them may be inconvenient to us at first glance but vital to the environment when viewed ecologically. For understandable reasons, given the inequalities within and between nations, there are also many underprivileged people who don’t want to surrender their dreams of the consumer culture that dominates the globe before they have tasted their share. And their dreams are largely defined by western saturated media. Marxists may point to corporate greed as driving all this consumption, and Freudian psychology may detect subliminal impulses fostered by deprivation of many kinds. But unless we can learn to live differently, Darwinian evolution may have the last word.

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor

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