Interpreting Darwin’s Work Today

The Enlightenment era ushered in revolutionary ways of thinking. Following Issacc Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation, many believed that by applying reason it would be possible to unlock the laws of the universe. Eighteenth century philosophers believed they had discovered the formula for perpetual happiness; on one hand, the pursuit of self-interest would benefit society, while on the other hand, a free human reason would produce sound moral judgment – individual freedom allowed the operation of natural laws. There was a belief that general models of human behaviour could be derived from rational thought. Adam Smith set forth a number of invariable principles of economic behaviour, based on the belief that people act according to their self-interest, but through competition work to promote general economic advance. In this system government should avoid regulation, in favour of the operation of individual initiative and market forces – so-called laissez-faire.

Charles Darwin published his theory on natural selection in 1859, and it took two decades before it was generally accepted because of resistance from the established church. Established elites, slow to accept radical changes, were wary of new ideas that challenged traditional views of the “natural order” and mankind’s place in it. Darwin’s theory was responsible for the transformation of the Western world view and provided fact-based scientific framework within which to understand life. The Copernican worldview that the earth evolves around the sun allowed humans to think they were the centre of the universe, was replaced with the view that humans were no longer at the centre of the universe, as Darwin’s theory applied just as much to humans as to animals. He achieved a radical revolution in modern thought, that history was important in understanding science.  Others used Darwin’s theories to support their own causes, and in particular, applied it to social issues.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that human society reflects the same evolutionary principles as biological organism do in their development. Natural growth of the organism, Spencer believed, requires liberty, which justifies individualism, hence the need to defend the existence of individual rights. This thinking, social Darwinism, supports laissez-faire capitalism. For Spencer, “liberty is to be measured not by the nature of the government machinery he lives under …but by the relative paucity of restraints it imposes upon him.” This left the only function of government to be policing and protecting of individual rights. The belief was what was natural was morally correct, was used by Spencer’s followers to justify opposition of support for the poor, as it was believed that welfare programs corrupt morals, as well as fitness. Spencer’s skepticism about the ability of government to do more good than harm, made him an important inspiration to many libertarians.

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), an explorer and anthropologist with an interest in mathematics and techniques of measurement, used Darwin’s theories to support his own cause and, in particular, applied it to social issues. From Darwin’s description of the selection of physical characteristics, Galton set about developing the idea of the ideal man. He became known for his precise quantitative measurements that led him to develop statistical measurement of hereditary predisposition as a way of predicting and improving the population. His work led to the ‘bell curve’ being the starting point for modeling many natural processes. Charles Murray, FA Hayek Chair in Cultural Studies, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America (1994) which is not a work of scientific research but rather a political book, concluded America should stop trying to improve poor kids’ material living standards because doing so encourages poor, low-IQ women to have more children.

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) applied the Darwinian evolutionary theory to societal changes that he called “institutions” and found that laissez-faire capitalism created two groups, with the rich getting richer and the income gap between the rich and the poor widening. Veblen pointed out that that Darwinian evolution did not guarantee progress; the leisure class reacted differently than the middle class from the environmental stimuli in a system in which each individual looks after his own interests. Veblen described the rich or leisure class as sheltered from economic pressures that prevailed. From this privileged position, as a class, they were less responsive to the demands required to change society. The pressures of the downturn in the economy do not directly impact the wealthy. There is no penalty for not changing, hence no uneasiness with the existing order of things or pressure to change their worldview.1

Floyd Arthur Harper (1905–1973), a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, was present at the group’s first meeting in 1947 along with Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Karl Poppe. He helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. The unique thing that Harper brought to the table was a social Darwinian account of human progress. Harper believed that progress was generated by the “variation,” i.e. the bell curve distribution, which “seems to pervade the universe”. Mentoring a network of classical liberal scholars, building institutions, encouraging scholarship, and laying out strategy and practice for the libertarian movement is where Harper’s influence is visible today. However, the ideas of the neoliberal thought collective led to a neglect of social goods not captured by economic indicators, an erosion of democracy, an unhealthy promotion of unbridled individualism and social Darwinism.

The polarizing of American politics has its strongest roots in Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged, where a capitalist elite engage in a perpetual cultural warfare for the soul of America, fighting society’s “moochers, looters and parasites,” anyone and everyone demanding government money to solve their problems. Ayn Rand was defined by her rage, not her advocacy of a fantasy version of capitalism. By choosing Rand’s theory of objectivism, which turns selfishness into virtue, libertarians get around the need to explain social Darwinism. Trump’s culture of cruelty views violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and organizing society. His cabinet and donor lists are full of Rand fans who support neoliberal cruelty. The cure for economic crisis is more cruelty, through which feelings of resentment, fear, anger, and loathing are enacted against the weak, who are considered a drain on the worthy.

‘No bourgeois, no democracy’ is the racy formulation penned half a century ago by the American historian Barrington Moore Jr. It’s a well-known political maxim, one that’s often used in support of the view that to be middle class is to be solidly, instinctively on the side of parliamentary democracy. As the middle class shrinks in size, it loses its bearings, or suffers potential outright social disintegration. Fukuyama observes ‘globalized capitalism’ is today eroding the middle-class social base on which ‘liberal democracy’ rests. We’re moving, he said, back into societies where extremes of wealth and poverty are fueling ‘oligarchic domination’ and nasty forms of populism. Middle class earnings are declining, despite longer working hours and rocketing numbers of two-income households. Middle class optimism has waned. Few of its members now believe the old precept that rising tides raise all boats. Saving for a rainy day belongs to a past gilded age. Today, the middle class owes more than its disposable income.

Americans for Prosperity, founded in 2004, is a libertarian conservative political advocacy group in the US funded by David and Charles Koch. The AFP Foundation describes its mission as “educating and training citizens to be courageous advocates for the ideas, principles, and policies of a free society — knowing that leads to the greatest prosperity and wellbeing for all – especially the least fortunate.” In reality, it is part of a network that uses dark money to fund an interlocking array of organizations that can work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses and Congress. This system eliminates the need to debate libertarian ideas in elections; but ensures that libertarian views on regulation and taxes are ascendant in majority of state governments, the Supreme Court and Congress. These activities account for the fact protections for employees have been decimated, and hedge fund billionaires pay a far lower tax rate than middle class workers.2

The idea that every American has an equal opportunity to move up in life today, is false. Social mobility has declined over the past decades, median wages have stagnated and today’s young generation is the first in modern history expected to be poorer than their parents. The lottery of life – the zip or postal code where you were born – can account for up to two thirds of the wealth an individual generates. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, the old and the young has been largely ignored by policymakers and investors. The risk is that rising inequality, lower social mobility and the disenfranchisement of younger generations could result into even more polarized and short-sighted politics, creating a populist trap. Capitalism has been incredibly successful at boosting wealth, but it has failed at redistributing it. Today, without a push to redistribute wealth and opportunity, the present model of capitalism and democracy may face self-destruction.

Conservatives focus on supply-side measures, favoring economic growth by reforming and lowering taxes, lighter and smarter regulations, and a business-friendly environment. Present patterns and trends are not unalterable – it is necessary to shift the balance of power: reform labour laws to make unionization easier; strengthen and enforce employment standards so that vulnerable workers are paid that they are owed; stem the use of temporary foreign workers; and ensure workers have access to employment insurance and welfare when in need, so that they are free to push for better pay and working conditions. In addition, tax more from all the folks at the top to spend money making investments in the people who are being left behind – a more progressive tax system. This includes access to affordable health care, job training, apprenticeships and vocational education. Most important is improved basic education, beginning with prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Economic elites and their proxies practice social Darwinism in all but name – the poor and the lower middle class are expected to live within their dwindling incomes, even as the gap between the rich and poor widens. Thorstein Veblen repeatedly proclaimed the need for a “post-Darwinism” economics – to apply evolution of social phenomena. This means applying the evolutionary approach – Darwinian principles to socio-economic evolution – to the study of economic institutions. We need a mechanism that will raise the wages of the lower-paid, and also narrow the large and growing income gap between ordinary workers and the top 1% made up of the corporate and financial elites. That mechanism is called stronger unions … especially if the labour movement fights for greater equality, not just in the workplace, but in the wider society by advancing a progressive political agenda of fair taxes, income security, and quality public services for all citizens.

Ronald Reagan’s policies called for widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, increased military spending, and the deregulation of domestic markets. After following this path, a Darwinian world emerges – it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress. Meanwhile, the economic elite use a purely scientific theory for a completely unscientific purpose. In doing so they misrepresent and misappropriate Darwin’s original ideas. Social Darwinism has been heavily criticized and widely rejected by the scientific community for its lack of adherence to Darwinism, as well as in its use in justifying social inequality, imperialism, and eugenics. Nonetheless, social Darwinist beliefs still persist in public conscience. We must recognize that the pseudo-science of social Darwinism as a significant force in political decision making today.

1 Horsman, Greg. (2013) Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment

2 Mayer, Jane. (2016) Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

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