Social Darwinism argued that biology was destiny and that a broad spectrum of socially undesirable traits, ranging from ‘pauperism’ to mental illness, resulted from heredity. Rich people were successful because they were superior. Poor people were failures because they were inferior. Thus social policies to help the poor were a waste of time.
This philosophy naturally gave rise to the "science" of eugenics, which was devoted to improving the human race by getting rid of the “unfit.” It was just a short step to Hitler and the Holocaust.
Social Darwinism isn’t talked about much today, yet it still underlies many people’s thinking: it justifies laissez-faire economic policies, for example. Modern-day conservatives love the idea that science proves that the rich and powerful deserve to be rich and powerful because they are inherently more “fit” in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way. Look at the success of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that racial differences in intelligence could be genetically based.
How much of our thinking about our interactions with each other, both in our individual relationships and in the larger societal sphere of economics and politics, has been warped by this pseudo-scientific thinking that competition is the sole basis for life?
Biology classes still teach that Darwinian evolutionary theory is based on competition. However, research in the last couple of decades shows that cooperation and reciprocity are extremely important factors in human evolution, as well as in the evolution of other species. Cooperation and sharing are among the traits that distinguish humans from our primate cousins and are major reasons for our species’ success. A recent article in the New York Times provides a guide to some of the new findings.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Dr. Jim Costa, the Director of the Highlands Biological Station and Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University about his book, The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 2009 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. I asked Dr. Costa to start by explaining Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and he surprised me by saying that Darwin himself wrote about cooperative mechanisms for evolution.
The “destructive” aspect of competition winnowing out the weak and leaving the fit is an aspect of Darwin’s theory that we are all familiar with, he said, but Darwin elucidated another mechanism. This has the name of “niche partitioning,” and it means, Dr. Costa said, a “division of labor,” whereby organisms find a way to share an ecosystem without directly competing with each other. For example, a famous study was done of warblers that have divided up the space of a tree; some live in the top of the canopy while others live in the lower regions. Competition drives this mechanism, but the result is an increase in diversity of creatures that thrive by not directly competing with each other.
He also mentioned additional mechanisms for evolution that work through cooperation. These are called mutualism and symbiosis; in these situations mutual assistance results in the greater survival of both parties.
Mutualism examples are easy to find: a large percentage of herbivores, like cows, have mutualistic intestinal bacteria that help them digest plant matter. The bacteria benefit because the cows bring the food to them, the cows benefit because their food is partly digested for them. Most land plants rely on mutualisms with mycorrhyzal fungi growing on their roots.
Every creature on earth with cells that include nuclei—that’s basically everything except bacteria—are the products of symbiotic evolution. All animal cells contain mitochondria which have been shown to be descendants of bacteria; they still have a semi-autonomous life inside our cells, with their own DNA. They are our cell’s energy factories.
When I asked about Social Darwinism, Dr. Costa asserted that Charles Darwin found the philosophy abhorrent.
Lynn Margulis, who is famous for her work on the theory of symbiotic evolution, contends that the notion of evolution driven by competition is incomplete. She claims that evolution is strongly based on co-operation, interaction, and mutual dependence among organisms. She has said, “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” (see her book Symbiotic Planet: a new look at evolution)
What would it mean to our political, social, educational, and economic systems if we stopped looking at nature as exclusively competitive warfare and instead told it as a story of cooperative interdependence?
The New York Times article mentioned above, “Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive,” by Natalie Angier, is mostly focused on the issue of fairness and how the development of a sense of fair play and reciprocity contributed to our species’ success. Ms Angier writes:
Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match. As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together…
Studies have found that the thirst for fairness runs deep. As Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and his colleagues reported in the journal Nature, by the age of 6 or 7, children are zealously devoted to the equitable partitioning of goods, and they will choose to punish those who try to grab more than their arithmetically proper share of Smarties and jelly beans even when that means the punishers must sacrifice their own portion of treats...
David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, sees the onset of humanity’s cooperative, fair-and-square spirit as one of the major transitions in the history of life on earth, moments when individual organisms or selection units band together and stake their future fitness on each other. A larger bacterial cell engulfs a smaller bacterial cell to form the first complex eukaryotic cell. Single cells merge into multicellular organisms of specialized parts. Ants and bees become hive-minded superorganisms and push all other insects aside.
“A major transition occurs when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups, so that it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group,” Dr. Wilson said. “It’s a rare event, and it’s hard to get started, but when it does you can quickly dominate the earth.” Human evolution, he said, “clearly falls into this paradigm.”
Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside. “In a typical primate group, the toughest individuals can have their way and dominate everybody else in the group,” said Dr. Wilson. “Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust.”
Our ancestors had to learn to trust their neighbors, and the seeds of our mutuality can be seen in our simplest gestures, like the willingness to point out a hidden object to another, as even toddlers will do. Early humans also needed ways to control would-be bullies, and our exceptional pitching skills — which researchers speculate originally arose to help us ward off predators — probably helped. “We can throw much better than any other primate,” Dr. Wilson said, “and once we could throw things at a distance, all of a sudden the alpha male is vulnerable to being dispatched with stones. Stoning might have been one of our first adaptations.”