Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Why I'm Not a "Darwinist"

I don't like to be offered false choices, and this leads me to address - somewhat hesitantly - our culture's false dichotomy between fundamentalist religion and Darwinism.

First, let me assure you that I'm not talking here about evolution, and I will certainly not be weighing in on the battle between evolution and creationism (a battle which I happen to think is both utterly inconsequential, and boring beyond endurance). Nor am I talking about the specific collection of scientific beliefs that Darwin himself held (some of which science rejected in streamlining his theory, like pangenesis and Lamarckism).

What I'm talking about is a particular subset of dubious and ugly assumptions about the human condition, which come from a politicized interpretation of biological data rather than from the data themselves, and which have been allowed to bask in the reflected glory of science while remaining thoroughly speculative. I could call it Social Darwinism, but I think that's a bit too explicit and political a term for what is more of a cultural miasma at this point. I prefer to describe Darwinism as any philosophy of human interaction that cites Darwin as its central authority, and posits competition and selfishness as the root causes (and, too often, as the justification) for human behavior.

Whenever I find this influence oppressive, I wonder what our life might be like if Alfred Russel Wallace, who postulated the theory of natural selection independently of Darwin - and received joint credit for it when the theory was first presented - occupied Darwin's current place in our pantheon of immortals. Wallace was a fervent champion of Darwin, and the two men were on good terms, though their friendship was made somewhat uneasy by their radically different views of the world (and later, by Wallace's growing conviction that the development of human consciousness was beyond the scope of natural selection, as commonly understood).

Darwin was a staunch Malthusian, whose preoccupation with the struggle for existence and the "quality" of breeders did much to encourage the nascent pseudoscience of eugenics. Here's a famous passage from The Descent of Man:

We civilized men...do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the mained, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
To me, what's most notable about this passage is Darwin's claim that "civilized men" routinely did their "utmost" to save the lives of the poor. This is absurd to anyone who has the slightest familiarity with the social policies of Victorian England, unless one cares to argue that obliging seven-year-old girls to work 14-hour shifts in coal mines is doing one's "utmost" for humanity. The idea that laissez-faire Britain was not being sufficiently hard on the poor - or that the "utmost skill" was used to save the life of any person who was injured or fell ill, or that the era's agonizingly slow steps towards reform represented the apex of moral engagement with suffering - is simply not a product of rational thought.

By contrast, here's Wallace speaking against eugenics:
Segregation of the unfit, indeed! It is a mere excuse for establishing a medical tyranny. And we have enough of this kind of tyranny already....Eugenics is simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant, scientific priestcraft.
Given the horrors of the last hundred years, I think most of us will have far more sympathy for Wallace's point of view than for Darwin's. And in fact, Wallace remained strongly, and often effectively, engaged with social problems 'til the end of his life. (This site has a wonderful collection of Wallace's writings, as well as a great deal of biographical information.)

Wallace has been painted as something of a crackpot, mainly because of his interest in spiritualism. I'm not particularly troubled by this foible, especially when I consider that his excursions into metaphysics and evolutionary teleology tended to be clearly labeled as such in his writings, which even today is a courtesy seldom observed by theorists on the alleged social implications of evolution. Wallace's religious notions - what little there were of them - were somewhat similar to Einstein's or Schrodinger's in their vague impersonality, and their practical consequences amounted to little more than compassion, humility, and a distaste for the more glaring excesses of his era's positivist dogma.

Given the inevitable limitations imposed by personality and place - which weigh just as heavily on us as they did on our forebears - Wallace's views were generally modern, sensible, and humane. He wrote voluminously and reasonably on capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, greed, laissez-faire economics, the subjection of women, pollution, misuse of land, and a host of other ills, and he was very often not merely right, but prophetic. That Darwin preferred science to fighting for social justice is no reason to condemn him, but it's hard not to feel that Wallace's passionate progressivism might've been a better tutelary spirit for the early 20th century than Darwin's remote and gloomy Malthusianism. Both men had their qualities, but there's no question in my mind as to who was more worthy of real admiration.

Another figure I admire is Petr Kropotkin, whose impatience with some aspects of the doctrine of Universal Struggle led him to write the great book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Despite this title, which is scrupulous in stating the limited scope of the book's exceptionally well-researched argument, some Darwinians sneered at the idea that cooperation, rather than competition, was the primary motive force behind evolution, without noticing that Kropotkin had never that said it was. I think it's possible to detect the outlines of a specific philosophical agenda behind that sort of obstinate misrepresentation, and I fear that even today, neither the agenda nor the misrepresentation has been completely abandoned.

Both Wallace and Kropotkin were scientists, and both accepted the central role of natural selection in evolution (Wallace, in some ways, was more staunch in that regard than Darwin himself). But the progressive and nonexploitative inferences they drew from the data - their answers to the question "How then shall we live?" - were never really engaged with by the Darwinists, let alone accepted. For some reason, the belief in morality as an integral aspect of nature (often operating, in Wallace's opinion, independently of individual "experiences of utility") seemed far more airy and speculative than the equally fanciful assumption of a universe that favors only selfishness (or at best, tribalism). But if both views are quasi-teleological extrapolations beyond the data, the former is at least as well supported, and far more socially useful.

The logical assumption here, which I did not invent and which will probably not shock anyone, is that the most successful philosophical interpretation of scientific fact is often the one that best serves the needs of its age, regardless of whether or not it's true. For some reason, Darwinian philosophy is seldom seen by liberals as part of an official apparatus of exploitation, possibly because it's been artificially set up as an opposing force to religious irrationality. But Darwinism never overthrew religion; in some cases, it actually conjured up a new set of metaphysical leaps, wild teleological claims, and unpardonable sins. At its worst, it even combined with religion to create noxious amalgams like Manifest Destiny, or Hitlerian race-mysticism.

At its advent, the philosophy of Darwinism simply confirmed what few of the era's great men had ever really doubted, which was that Caucasian men were intended by nature to rule the world. Indeed, Darwin suggested as much himself:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.
This, of course, begs an important question: What is a savage? I'd argue that a savage is an irrational person who is driven by fear or ignorance to destroy anything to which he or she cannot - thanks to a total failure of imagination - assign value. (This behavior, by the way, is actually fairly rare in primitive societies, which tend to assign value to virtually everything.) Surely there's less to regret in being a victim of this savagery than in being an agent of it, and yet the agents of this looming extermination are specifically defined by Darwin as "civilized races."

It's important to understand that this is a fallacy that Darwin was under no logical compulsion to accept, let alone to promote; Wallace, to his lasting credit, rejected it entirely. As a final contrast with Darwin's bloodcurdling vision of the White Man's Burden, here's Wallace speaking against the application of Darwinian theory to social engineering:
The principle of competition - a life and death struggle for bare existence - has had more than a century's unbroken trial under conditions created by its upholders, and it has absolutely failed. The workers, now for the first time, know why it is that with ever-increasing production of wealth so many of them still suffer the most terrible extremes of want and of preventable disease. There must, therefore, be no further compromise, no mere talking. To allow the present state of things to continue is a crime against humanity. Any Government that will not abolish starvation in this land of superfluous wealth must be driven from power.


joshowitz5 said...

Since you brought up darwinism, I thought you might get a kick out of this. In college, I worked on a paper called "Genetic Algorithms for Multi-Valued Functions." This paper postulated the value of using Genetic Algorithms (AKA, Survival of the Fittest) to discover better functions. You take a family of functions and merge them to produce some number of similar, related functions. These "children" are then subjected to a fitness scale, and those at the highest end of the scale get to produce "children" of their own, while the ones on the lowest rung are eliminated.

For basic functions (AND, OR, NOT), this works very well, and the few best functions quickly get produced from even the lowliest of function-ancestors.

For complex functions, where the pool of functions reaches into the thousands (or millions), using this method works badly, or more specifically, too well. The functions quickly produce several "best" functions without adequately traversing across the spectrum of available functions.

Basically, the children quickly become elite and don't have a chance to breed with other specimens that may lead to an even better function. Local groupings of "elite" functions would eclipse the local function spectrum and wouldn't "reach out" to other groups, since it would easily find a good "local" mate.

We tried lots of different strategies to get the functions not to form these cliques, but to no avail. In large populations of functions, darwinistic algorithmic reproduction didn't work.

So it could be that people aren't so different from functions, or we are functions (and I read too much Asimov). Besides, it's all a matter of what you value. Functions are easily quantifiable, but people? I can't imagine that African Americans think white people are the be-all of human evolution.

Anyway, I liked your post and it reminded me of that fun GA/MV project.

Phila said...

That's absolutely fascinating, Joshowitz...thanks! I hear a lot about computer modeling of evolutionary scenarios, which seems problematic to me in some ways, but I've never heard of this particular outcome. Definitely something I'll have to devote some thought to!

echidne said...

Excellent analysis, Philalethes! And I agree with what you are saying, based on my readings. There is a book (by an author I can't name as usual, but it was a woman) on the evolutionary science as a "hero myth". She did a lot of work on the nineteenth century writings and showed how they are arranged to see our current state as victory and human beings, especially white men, as evolutionary victors and heros.

Gould talks about this, too, pointing out that bacteria are the actual winners along most criteria.

There is an overemphasis on the idea of precise solutions as most efficient in evolutionary theory and a similar underemphasis on the idea of flexibility as crucial for survival when circumstances change. And yes, a lot of evolutionary psychology is just creation myths, each intended to show how the present is the only evitable outcome and how everything that is is the only way it can be. Have you read The Darwinistic Left? Or something similar by that guy whose name I can't recall again (Peter something). It's a truly inane book. Peter Singer!!! I was so disappointed in his arguments or rather the lack of them.

Phila said...

Thanks, Echidne! I haven't read the Singer book, but I'm sure it's as bad as you say. I have enormous problems with his theories, and I don't feel quite right about him as a person, either. He really doesn't seem to be all there.

Anyway, thanks again. Obviously, the feminist critique of what I'm calling Darwinism is an absolutely necessary & ongoing project...I didn't go into Wallace's views on the matter, but they're very interesting and far more palatable than those of most of his contemporaries.