Social Darwinism and the "Cachet of the Cutthroat"

i-c28c195f3a51db4dceee74022549cd8a-Democracy_(cover).gifHarvard Medical School physician and researcher J. Wes Ulm has a fascinating paper in the new edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, the quarterly academic periodical put out by Johns Hopkins University. His paper "The Cachet of the Cutthroat" investigates the legacy of ideas that formed the basis of laissez-faire social Darwinism:

Ultimately, Social Darwinism fails in practice because it never succeeded as a theory. It's not even Darwinist-Herbert Spencer, after all, had sketched out its contours even before Darwin published his own work. And when the great naturalist outlined a mechanism of natural selection so ostensibly cold and selfish, he never meant it to go further-even he felt it a faulty oversimplification to apply the same mechanism to the human struggle.

I have argued a similar point in my series Deconstructing Social Darwinism in that the tenets of laissez-faire social Darwinism were, not only a perversion of Darwin's ideas, but had their foundation prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species. Racist assumptions followed from Spencer's misuse of evolutionary ideas despite the fact that Darwin, to quote Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their wonderful book Darwin's Sacred Cause, had an "abhorrence of racial servitude and brutality, his hatred of the slavers' desire, as he jotted, to 'make the black man [an]other kind', sub-human, a beast to be chained." Darwin saw his Origin, and particularly his Descent of Man as a way to undermine, not promote, scientific racism:

While activists proclaimed a 'crusade' (his word) against slavery, he subverted it with his science. Where slave-masters bestialized blacks, Darwin's starting point was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a 'common descent'.

Ulm's paper goes on to highlight the side of Darwin's science that has finally been addressed more fully: the evolution of cooperation and mutual aid. He highlights that the early work of such researchers as Peter Kropotkin has now been rediscovered by scientists like Frans de Waal, Samuel Bowles, Marc Bekoff, and Robert Sussman. I have emphasized the importance of much of this work for several years (and is what my academic research primarily focuses on). Given that, I was excited to find the following passage in Ulm's paper:

Most of this literature is recent and the case is far from settled, but there is a common thread streaming throughout this body of work: As an association of individuals attains higher orders of complexity, so does the corresponding need to ensure trust and solidarity among its constituents. As Eric Michael Johnson remarked in Seed magazine, in reviewing de Waal's work, such collaborative units "thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members." In such a state, the callous precepts of Social Darwinism-which may be adaptive in simplistic, isolated competitive scenarios-become fundamentally maladaptive.

I'm thrilled to have been included in Ulm's paper and I highly recommend it to those of my readers who are interested in this topic (my Seed article can also be found here). The right-wing fundamentalists and economists that try to misuse Darwin's legacy are not only rebuffed in this paper, it demonstrates that looking towards Darwin may be exactly what is needed to address some of our dire political and economic problems.

These principles are of far more than mere academic interest; they are pivotal to guiding the real world of fiscal and public policy amidst the tumultuous uncertainties of the twenty first-century economy and the Great Recession. Our system's destructive zero-sum adversarialism has reached a disastrous logical endpoint: suffocated by ideological polarization, fruitless partisan bickering, juvenile finger-pointing, stifling parliamentary obstacles (not just in the Senate), and the iron grip of moneyed interests at home and abroad, further empowered by the Supreme Court's recent undermining of longstanding campaign finance law.

Perhaps, by better understanding what evolutionary factors promoted our innate cooperative tendencies, we can find a way to organize our society in such a way that it encourages this mutualistic side to our nature. In the final analysis, as Darwin himself wrote, "If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."


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Perhaps, by better understanding what evolutionary factors promoted our innate cooperative tendencies, we can find a way to organize our society in such a way that it encourages this mutualistic side to our nature.

That is the basic theme of a recent book by Frans de Waal.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink