Darwinism 2.0 has all the answers

Euphoria is no excuse for sloppy thinking in the world's most influential news magazine, The Economist
Michael Cook | Jan 10 2009 | comment  

illustration by Norma Bar / The Economist2008 marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1808 and the sesquicentenary of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1858. Around the world commemorations and festivals and seminars are scheduled. A torrent of features is gushing through the popular press, as well, about the man who may have been the most influential intellectual of the last 150 years.

Despite the euphoria, it was still surprising to see that The Economist, the world’s most influential news magazine, has marked the event by adopting Darwinism as its official ideology. After promoting evolution sotto voce for many years, it burst out of the closet in its special Christmas issue and declared that Darwinism can explain everything about human nature.


Well, for such an erudite publication, it’s embarrassingly naïve, but, Yes, everything. For too long, The Economist says, Darwin has been on the nose because eugenicists, racists and “social Darwinists” claimed to have been inspired by him. But recent research has shown just how powerful his ideas still are: “Man is an evolved species. His behaviour makes no sense unless its evolution is comprehended.”

Highlighted by The Economist is a very broad range of nice and nasty human activity: music, murder, shopping, health, date rape, baby killing, a sense of justice, the gender gap in pay, racism, obesity, and even language (which evolved from mutual grooming). Its leading article, with the revealing headline, “Why we are, as we are”, concludes with a cursory curtsey to humility: “No one is suggesting Darwinism has all the answers to social questions.”

Well, you could have fooled me. In fact, The Economist’s contention is that all social policy ought to be framed in evolutionary terms. Otherwise, it is destined to fail. Traditionally, policy has been shaped by philosophy, sociology or even religion. But these are inadequate tools, it says:

They describe, rather than explain. They do not get to the nitty-gritty of what it truly is to be human. Policy based on them does not work. This is because they ignore the forces that made people what they are: the forces of evolution.”

Welcome to social Darwinism 2.0. SocDar 1.0 used the ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest to promote racism, eugenics, and robber baron capitalism. What fearsome ideas will emerge from 2.0?

The problem with Darwinism of any hue, at least when applied to society, is that its enthusiasts can cook up an explanation for everything in terms of survival and reproduction, the two pillars of Darwin’s theory. Whatever exists must somehow be necessary for survival, no matter how debased it may seem in old-fashioned moral terms.

This leads to some sticky problems. One of these, for instance, is genocide. Since it exists, it must confer an evolutionary advantage -- which is about as close as Darwinism gets to the old-fashioned notion of ethical goodness. Some evolutionary theorists even think that humans are programmed for genocide and war. Indeed, the old man himself seems to have thought genocide something between a jolly good thing and a regrettable necessity. As he wrote in his other great text, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”

The racism in The Descent of Man is shocking to a modern reader, but it hardly raised eyebrows amongst Darwin’s colleagues. “Civilised races can certainly resist changes of all kinds far better than savages,” said Darwin dismissively of the aboriginal Tasmanians who had all died of disease, warfare and ill-treatment within a few years of European settlement of Australia. The Economist’s updated Darwinism may someday sound just as brutally cynical.

And as naïve. While evolutionary thought may shed some light upon why young men commit more murders than any other age group, the far more interesting question is why most of them do not. Human consciousness clearly indicates that man has a spiritual dimension which is not determined by the iron law of survival of the fittest. Even some of the more intelligent Darwinists acknowledge this.

By way of example, The Economist was not the only publication to celebrate in December. The Lancet, one of the world’s premier medical journals, had a special issue on Darwin’s influence – and its editor poured scorn on vulgar popularisations of Darwin’s theories. He must have had The Economist in mind.

Many non-biologists, wrote Steve Jones, a leading British scholar of Darwin -- and 2006 Secularist of the Year -- “are convinced that Darwin’s science is a universal solvent that can sort out the most recalcitrant problems of society, consciousness, politics, literature, and more. They mislead themselves.” And, he continued, “The most important talent for a Darwinian is to know where his subject stops. Many pan-Darwinians, alas, fail to realise that central fact.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

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