Dangerous Intersection Blog


By Erich Vieth on October 18th, 2009


The nasty brutish “Darwinism” concocted by I-don’t-give-a-crap free-marketers


Many conservatives have a “hate-love relation with biology.”  Primatologist Frans De Waal terms this “the first great paradox of the American political landscape” in his new book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.  In this new book, De Waal has produced another tome of lively writing and thoughtful analysis, reminding us of our exquisite human animal roots.  He is out to set the record straight on a gnawing social issue: too many people invoke “evolution” to justify treating each other in contemptuous ways. This has got to stop, because this modern version of “Social Darwinism” paints a highly selective and distorted view of the kind of animals we humans are based on a wildly inaccurate distortion of how natural selection works.

Although I am not even halfway into De Waal’s book, I can see that De Waal has launched a sustained broadside against the commonly expressed perspective that evolutionary theory equates to “social Darwinism,” an approach embraced by many conservatives.  The idea of social Darwinism is that “those who make it [successfully in life] shouldn’t let themselves be dragged down by those who don’t.” The idea was championed by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer in the 19th century. Spencer “decried attempts to equalize society’s playing field,” and said of the poor that “the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.”  De Waal comments that the business world fully embraces this idea and characterizes competition as a “law of biology” that will improve the human race. We thus have “the second great paradox of the American political landscape”:

Whereas the book found in most American homes and every hotel room urges us on almost every page to show compassion, social Darwinists scoff at such feelings, which only keep major from running its course. Poverty is dismissed as proof of laziness, and social justice as a weakness. Why not simply let the poor perish?

Many of these conservatives embrace the metaphor of the invisible hand, arguing that this invisible hand “we’ll take care of society’s woes.” De Waal notes, however, “the invisible hand, however, did nothing to prevent the appalling survival-of-the-greatest scenes in New Orleans” following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

De Waal’s main message is that we are NOT condemned by nature to treat each other badly.  Rather, we have also evolved to be predominantly groupish and peace-loving beings who are well-tuned to look out for each other. Not that we always look out for each other admirably, but there is plenty of reason to conclude that human animals are highly social in an empathetic way.  Keep this book handy for the next time someone claims that they don’t need to care about people who are struggling to make it nature is “dog eat dog.”  That approach to life is a cop-out; it is certainly not justified by Darwin’s work.

De Waal is an excellent writer who presents us with thoughtful nuggets and challenges on every page of his book. Speaking of Katrina, De Waal writes (on page 2) that his morning newspaper screamed “Why have we been left behind like animals?”, which was a quote from one of the people who was stuck without food and sanitation at the Louisiana Superdome. De Waal takes great issue with this headline because “animals don’t necessarily leave one another behind.” De Waal backs up his claim with dozens of anecdotes illustrating that evolution has honed many animals, including primates like us, to take care of one another. Animals aren’t always at war with each other. “We tend to focus on wars, terror threats, globalization, and petty political scandals, yet the larger issue is how to combine a thriving economy with a humane society. It relates to health care, education, justice, and-as illustrated by Katrina-protection against nature.” (Page 3).

It frustrates De Waal that so many people invoke evolution to treat each other in contemptuous ways. He points out that in earlier times, rich people didn’t need any justification to mistreat poor people. “With their blue blood, the nobility considered itself a different breed . . .Not that they felt absolutely no obligation toward those underneath them-hence the expression noblesse oblige-but they had no qualms living in opulence, feasting on meat, slurping fine wine, and driving around in gilded carriages, while the masses were close to starving.” (Page 31)

In the industrial revolution, the newly created upper-crust had a more difficult time ignoring the plight of the poor. Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism really came in handy to them. What do you do about the poor?  “It was perfectly honorable to climb the ladder of success without looking back. This is how nature works,” Spencer assured them, thus removing any pangs of conscience the rich might feel.”  That same message was picked up by Ayn Rand, who “scoffed at the idea that success comes with moral obligations. She reached millions of enthusiastic readers with her message that egoism is no vice, but rather a virtue.”

It is at this point that De Waal’s story is really only getting started. He draws upon nonhuman primate behavior in great depth as he demonstrates a powerful and ubiquitous communal principle at work in nature. “The ability to function in a group and build a support network is a crucial survival skill.” (Page 33). What animals naturally develop these trusting alliances?

All primates have this tendency, and some even invest in the community as a whole. Instead of just focusing on their own position, they demonstrate group-oriented behavior. This is most evident in relation to social harmony. In many species of primates, you see altruism, reconciliation, conflict resolution and attempts to break up fights and maintain order. This has been shown in carefully controlled situations (page 35).

The bottom line is that “group oriented behavior improves the quality of the social environment not just for the individuals who show it, but for everyone else as well.” (Page 36).

In short, the next time someone claims that “the free market takes care of everything” or that evolution means that the poor should fall to the wayside and that we have no naturally imposed obligation to care one whit about it, we need to point out that they are not talking about the type of nature commonly displayed by real life social animals like us. Instead, they are ignoring legitimate science and merely expressing their short-term self-centeredness.