The Chaotic Word Blogging with a Hammer


Darwin’s idea was truly dangerous and his admirers should admit it

"The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient."

"In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment."

" Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress."

Charles Darwin

It is very frequently the case that proponents of Darwin (who was by any estimate a great scientist) refuse to take responsibility for the misguided social policies that emerged on the heels of his revelations, although they are quick to blame religious institutions for their sins. Implicit in Darwin's statement is the idea that "fittest" exists and that it is "better" (given "the struggle for survival").

The idea that fitness exists and that it is better is very much in keeping with the Victorian attitude. The typical English aristocrat (like the genius Galton, Darwin's cousin) was absolutely a believer in a hierarchy of rank among animals, among cultures, and among individuals within those cultures. English aristocrats were at the top, at the very pinnacle of evolution. Galton was clearly a eugenicist, even coining the term.

The idea of "fitness," as an absolute, is predicated implicitly on the idea that there is an absolute "environment." As species develop over time, according to this view, they become "more fit." Thus, they progress, towards some state of hypothetical perfection.

Unfortunately for the proponents of this view, the environment changes as much as the species, partly because "the environment" for many animals is made up of other animals (conspecifics, predators, prey animals, parasites, bacteria, viruses, etc.) and partly because of physical changes (climate shifts, geological or cosmological events). So the species and the environment are locked in an ever-changing arms race. What is "fit" one year, or one epoch, may not be fit at all the next.

Thus the idea of progress, as such, cannot be derived from the theory of natural selection, which is more an explanation for life's continuity than for its manifest destiny. Now, it is the case that many of the organisms that exist today are more complex than those that existed hundreds of millions of years ago, at least within the confines of their own skins, and that may look like progress, particularly to the most complex of those organisms: human beings. But there are explanations that are not predicated on the general idea of progress to account for that.

Modern evolutionary scientists and commentators, such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould, have explicitly abandoned the idea that there is progress in evolution. This position, although correct, as far as can be determined today, has its own pathological political implications, which such thinkers simply refuse to face. Do we abandon the notion of a hierarchy of values, in consequence of our belief in non-directional evolution? If so, how do we justify the fact of our necessary goals, as the establishment of goals implies value? If not, on what do we base our beliefs about how that hierarchy should be constructed?

Evolutionary theorists are completely undermined in their ethical presuppositions by the arguments of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, who made a careful case for the grounding of Western morality in Christianity. Nietzsche certainly said, "God is dead." But he also said, "What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time?" He meant that the death of God meant the death of value, and was courageous enough to admit that that meant trouble.  Nietzsche predicted, in The Will to Power, that millions of people would die in ideological wars in the twentieth century because of this death.

Dawkins cannot answer Dostoevski's question, underlying three of his great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Demons: why should the individual not live a psychopathic life, devoted solely towards the self, if there are no ultimate values? Why not pursue selfish pleasure, to the exclusion of all else? After all, there are credible evolutionary arguments for the survival of genes linked to psychopathy.

Life without values is nothing but unstructured chaos, overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, painful and without reward. If there is no teleology within evolutionary theory (not even to the degree that Darwin presumed), but if values are necessary, pragmatically speaking, on what are they to be grounded?

The answer that Dawkins provides, rational thought, Enlightenment thought, is simply wrong. His moral philosophy is a century out of date. The frame problem cannot be solved by rational means. Rationality simply has to be grounded in values. Where are these values to come from, in a value-free universe?

Until the evolutionary theorists take the problem of values seriously -- and until they apologize, publicly, for the unfortunate historical consequences of Darwin's errors -- they will fight forever and dangerously with conservatives (fundamentalists, even), who understand that values are necessary, presume that they should be grounded in tradition, attempt to live by those values (at least at their best), but are very poor scientists.

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  1. Why should modern evolutionary theorists apologize for the eugenics and social-Darwinist movements?

  2. I don’t think that modern evolutionary theorists should apologize. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about that. I think, specifically, that admirers of Darwin should note that Darwin did believe in a hierarchy of fitness, and that such a belief was grist for the eugenics mill.

  3. Reread your last paragraph. You suggested that “evolutionary theorists” need to “apologize, publicly, for the unfortunate historical consequences of Darwin’s errors.”

    Although I agree it’s useful for any intellectual to be aware of the uses to which his theoretical framework has been and can be put, I don’t think a public apology is in order.

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