Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why some people hate Darwin

Mark Sumner writes on the front page at Daily Kos, the contentious, fractious and occasionally illuminating site for progressive Democratic Party bloggers. But this is a guy who, long before jumping into that mosh pit, wrote 32 books mostly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. He's thoughtful himself and he induces thinking.

His The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, is a non-fiction exposition of how the mechanisms of evolution which Darwin described have analogies throughout societies.

According to Sumner, Darwin was an egalitarian revolutionary.

Darwin's ideas were dangerous. They were dangerous not just to those who counted on a rigid understanding of theology to give them purpose, but dangerous to the whole social order. It wasn't that Darwin's ideas promised to drive mankind along a path toward some dystopian ideal -- it was that he threatened to topple the social pyramid. Darwin revealed that the emperor was indeed just as naked as the rest of us apes. His ideas run counter to philosophies that predate Plato and traditions older than the Christian church. His ideas were, and are, the greatest threat to the system since a Jewish healer and rabbi preached an upending of the social order in first-century Palestine. Members of the aristocracy of Darwin's day -- and of ours -- were aghast at his ideas not because he left out God, but because he left out them.

He describes Herbert Spencer's corruption of how evolution works -- the caricature encapsulated in the muscularly imperialist phrase "survival of the fittest" -- as the ruling elite's riposte to Darwin's democratic insight:

In a neat example of literary adaptation, [Herbert] Spencer took Darwin's terminology, made it his own, and then proceeded to ignore the actual ideas at the heart of Darwin's work. Spencer's editing of Darwin turned evolution into a mishmash of Lamarckian mechanisms and natural selection catch phrases. Accuracy gave way to popularity and the perpetuation of classism and racism. ...

But you can't shake an idea that clicks. Spencer's theory was much more palatable for those who were used to the Great Chain of Being. It retained the order, the drive, and the neat location of man on top and apart from the "lower" animals. Darwin's views on natural selection proved right; Spencer's ideas on Lamarckian inheritance proved wrong. But you wouldn't know it from the influence each man had on society. ...

Spencer's ideas stick because they fit the built-in prejudices and concerns that the well off have always had about immigrants and the poor. In his writing, he managed to invent Social Darwinism before there was such a thing as Darwinism, so it seems only appropriate that among Spencer's followers was The Time Machine author, H. G. Wells. Wells based his vision of future society on Spencer's work: the childlike Eloi and the trollish Morlocks were the end results of Spencer's division of labor driving humanity into separate species.

I can't claim Sumner's little book on evolution entirely worked for me. Some of his contemporary social analogies to Darwinian processes seem a stretch, even if happy ones. Here's an example of one that works -- one I think plausible, though audacious.

Wal-Mart itself is undergoing a kind of phyletic gradualism, growing from merely Brobdingnagian to an absolutely Galacticusian scale. Maybe that change will serve to keep the giant ahead of the circling Davids, but I wouldn't place a bet on it. Over the long term, evolution is particularly unkind to giants. Only 27 years after their discovery, someone ate the last Steller's sea cow. No matter how powerful it appears at the moment, it would be risky to bet that any retail giant would survive much longer. ...

I like the idea, but millions of thoughtful people who have staked their thoughts and even their lives on the inability of sclerotic regimes to adapt have been dumbfounded by the flexibility of apparent dinosaurs. But then, sometimes they do disintegrate.

This book is great fun, even if every line of it doesn't entirely hold up. Enjoy.


Darlene said...

I love this post. I have always been amazed at why some people feel threatened by the evolution theory. This explains it for me. I must read that book.

Paul said...

I love Darwin...I am a product of evolution...:-)

Anonymous said...

Anyone who likes Darwin is an enemy of mine.

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