Monday, 8 April 2013

Evolution, Stress & the Limits of Individualism

Some underlying problems in Chris Draper's theory

Through Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shrieked against his creed...

Are God and Nature then at strife
That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, LV-LV1

IN the Financial Times, sometime last year, Harry Eyres in his 'Slow Lane' column made a comparison between Castro's Cuba (see my review earlier this month on this Blog of Chris Draper's article in Anarchist Voices entitled 'Surviving Political Hypocrisy in Hard Times') and our own UK version of neo-liberalism; Mr. Eyres writes:
'If Castro's Cuba has been an exercise in stress-reduction, then the extreme versions of neo-liberalism unleashed over the western world, starting in the US and Britain in the early 1980s, could be seen as experiments in the maximisation of stress, both on people and the environment.'

Mr. Eyres explains further:
'Neo-liberals believe, in theory at least, in an unfettered market, with the minimum of regulation and of protections for workers and the environment, both viewed as resources to be exploited.'

Which system is best and which will survive?

Charles Darwin & the 'Escalator Fallacy'

The neo-liberals can, and often do, invoke evolution on their side, and the sociobiologist M.T. Ghiselin in 'The Economy of Nature & the Evolution of Sex' (1974) writes:
'The evolution of society fits the Darwin paradigm in its most individualistic form. The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end. Understand that economy, and how it works, and the underlying reasons for social phenomena are manifest. They are the means by which one organism gains some advantage to the detriment of another.'

In fact, it seems that Darwin distrusted the idea of 'evolution' as an 'escalator' with life proceeding steadily upwards from lifeless matter through plants and animals to man: this he regarded as vacuous and avoided the term; conversely the concept was promoted by Herbert Spencer (quoted approvingly by Chris Draper in an essay on this NV Blog), who first coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest', that was given currency by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck at the beginning of the 19th century. Of Lamarck, Mary Midgley writes of what she describes as a 'Panglossian distortion' or 'Escalator Fallacy', in which she argues:  'It is the idea that evolution is a steady, linear upward movement, a single inexorable process of improvement, leading (as a disciple of Herbert Spencer's put it) "from gas to genius" and beyond into some superhuman spiritual stratosphere.'  Midgley claims Darwin was not convinced by this or what she calls a 'cosmic insurance policy to bail out the human race'.

And yet, this crude view has now been transformed into the 'Social Darwinist' idea, put forward by people like Ghiselin, that life has been scientifically proved to be essentially competitive, and in some respects exposing social feelings, altruism and mutual aid as more or less humbug and illusion. As a philosopher, Mary Midgley (see 'Evolution as a Religion' [1985]) claims this view of Ghiselin has often been shown to be nonsense:
'since many very successful species of social animals, including our own, have evolved these traits, have survived by them and continue to live by them their unreality cannot be the message of evolutionary theory.'  Yet, Ms. Midgley writes: 'because of of its strongly dramatic force, as well as its various political uses, this notion (survival of the fittest) persists through repeated attempts to correct it...'  Darwin saw no reason to put forward a law guaranteeing the continuation of any changes he noted, but Spencer hatched a bold picture of an 'evolution escalator' that has prevailed over Darwin's more complicated concept.  In the 19th century Spencer, with only a sparse acquaintance with biology, promoted the notion of the 'survival of the fittest' as a social ideal having the result in the United States of outselling every philosopher in his day.  Yet, it is not just Joe Public that is hooked on Spencer's oversimplified evolutionary escalator but also, Mary Midgley argues, it is often popular among scientists who ought to know its limitations.

Millionaires & Hitler's Table-Talk

Out of Spencer's seductive melodramatic concept of evolution in the United States and Europe came its political populisers, and Ms. Midgley quotes from one of Spencer's American disciples: 
'The millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done... It is because they are thus selected that wealth - both their own and that entrusted to them - aggregates under their hands... They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get higher wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society.' (William Sumner, The Challenge of Facts [1887])

Then Mary Midgley gives us a European example from Hitler's Table-Talk:
'If we did not respect the law of nature, imposing our will by the right of the stronger, a day would come when wild animals would again devour us - then the insects would eat the wild animals, and finally nothing would exist except microbes... By means of the struggle the elites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle by allowing survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature.' (Hugh Trevor Roper [ed] Hitler's Table-Talk [1963])

Mary Midgley insists that Darwin resisted this kind of thing, and in his The Descent of Man tried to show the difference between 'the kind of qualities which make it possible for a social group to survive over many generations, and those that might keep a single individual afloat for his lifetime.'

Cookbook Ideas Are No Answer!

Of Cuba, Harry Eyres in the FT writes:
'The political and economic regime of Fidel and now Raúl Castro's Cuba might have its severe limitations and its longueurs (not least the leader's own speeches, broadcast at interminable length on state television and quoted in the turgid official newspaper Granma) but it was designed to minimise certain kinds of stress, at least for those who were not vocal critics of the revolution.'

Of course we should be careful what we wish for here, as this kind stress reduction can equally apply to other dictatorships such as that of General Franco's Spain in the 1960s: in 1964, I was in the mountain town of Ronda just as the Franco régime was celebrating '25 años de Paz' ('25-years of Peace').  It is too early to say which political model, the Castro's Cuban/ Franco's 'stress reduction model' or the hectic US/ UK 'neo-liberal model', will triumph in the years to come but Mr. Draper, in so far as his article in Anarchist Voices represents a challenge to cookbook politics and stale thinking of the British left, is justified in making us aware of the dilemmas that confront us.  

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