The story of man: Darwinism, in its modern form, goes from strength to strength. Excerpted from an editorial in ‘The Economist’, December 20 The Indian Express Thursday, December 22, 2005
In those parts of the planet that might once have been described as Christendom, this week marks the season of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. A nice idea in a world more usually thought of as seasoned by the survival of the fittest. But goodwill and collaboration are as much part of the human condition as ill-will and competition. And that was a puzzle to 19th-century disciples of Charles Darwin, such as Herbert Spencer. It was Spencer, an early contributor to The Economist, who invented that poisoned phrase, survival of the fittest. He originally applied it to the winnowing of firms in the harsh winds of high-Victorian capitalism, but when Darwin’s masterwork, On the Origin of Species, was published, he quickly saw the parallel with natural selection and transferred his bon mot to the process of evolution. As a result, he became one of the band of philosophers known as social Darwinists. Capitalists all, they took what they thought were the lessons of Darwin’s book and applied them to human society. Their hard-hearted conclusion, of which a 17th-century religious puritan might have been proud, was that people got what they deserved albeit that the criterion of desert was genetic, rather than moral. The fittest not only survived, but prospered. Moreover, the social Darwinists thought that measures to help the poor were wasted, since such people were obviously unfit and thus doomed to sink. Sadly, the slur stuck. For 100 years Darwinism was associated with a particularly harsh and unpleasant view of the world and, worse, one that was clearly not true at least, not the whole truth. People certainly compete, but they collaborate, too. They also have compassion for the fallen and frequently try to help them, rather than treading on them... Modern Darwinism’s big breakthrough was the identification of the central role of trust in human evolution. People who are related collaborate on the basis of nepotism. It takes outrageous profit or provocation for someone to do down a relative with whom they share a lot of genes. Trust, though, allows the unrelated to collaborate, by keeping score of who does what when, and punishing cheats... Of the three great secular faiths born in the 19th century — Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism — the second died swiftly and painfully and the third is slipping peacefully away. But Darwinism goes from strength to strength. If its ideas are right, the handful of dust that evolution has shaped into humanity will rarely stray too far off course. And that is, perhaps, a hopeful thought to carry into the New Year.