The three legacies of Darwin

14 January 2010

The legacy of Darwin is not only the knowledge that there is a biological continuum between the animal and the human worlds, but also that there is a link between culture and nature. If only mainstream economics could learn from the life sciences which Darwin did so much to nourish, it might recognise that you cannot have unlimited growth in a finite world.

1.    On this occasion when we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s classic, The Origin of the Species (1859), I would like to take the opportunity to speak of what I see as the three legacies of Darwin, one positive, the second negative and the third ambivalent and open-ended. But we start, of course, with his discovery of the principle of natural selection at the heart of his theory of evolution. Actually, in this his great book he never refers to human evolution except in the very last sentence. Instead he talks throughout of “descent with modification”. What I understand by natural selection is that every living being is unique in that there will be at the least infinitesimal differences between one member of a species and another. In fact there will be many differences along many different axes of variation. What is common then to members of a species is that they have a common ancestry. Over a gradual and prolonged period there will be the progressively greater reproduction of those characteristics that better promote adaptation to the environment, i.e., the survival of the fittest. Here we have the foundation for an extraordinarily powerful explanation for how species change, how they emerge, how they die out.

In fact, Darwin established that there is a biological continuum between the animal world and the human, between the higher apes and humans, thus among other things posing a challenge to religiously based creationist understandings of the world. Having established the fact of a biological continuum between the animal and human worlds, he also recognized the biological unity of the human species as well as its distinctiveness vis-à-vis the animal world in terms of its unique power of reasoning, based though it was on the evolution of the complexity of the human brain and of the upright skeletal character of the human body. This stress on the basic unity of the human species despite differences, physical and cultural, (Darwin was an abolitionist) could then reinforce the Enlightenment beliefs of a universal humanity and of its associated notions of the equal dignity and worth of each and every human.

In brief, Darwin’s evolutionism established a new science of differences and similarities which must however be handled extremely carefully when applied to the human and social world, which caveat unfortunately Darwin himself did not fully respect.

2.    In 1871 he published a very different book, The Descent of Man, where he does focus on human evolution but in a way which is now repudiated, and deservedly so. For what he did here was to try and give a scientific foundation to the idea of ‘higher and lower races’, of how Europeans were indeed superior to what was then patronizingly and offensively referred to as ‘savages’ even if the differences between them were of fine gradations. In short, Darwin was also a man of his times not entirely free from the prevailing cultural and imperialist prejudices. He himself therefore is a source of a milder version of Social Darwinism and of an unbalanced determinism that gave exaggerated weight to biological differences compared to cultural, historical and environmental differences in the shaping of human societies.

Today, we, or most of us, or at least many of us, do not subscribe to the view that hunter-foragers or pastoralists have a more primitive brain than modern man or woman but that it is culture, history, environment that best explains these social variations. Indeed, just as so-called primitives cannot do what people in modern societies can do in terms of skills and capacities, we cannot do what they can do in their societies in terms of skills and capacities.

Nonetheless we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that we also have a depressing history of the prevalence and pursuit of Social Darwinist beliefs and practices in the human and social order that has taken forms both milder and more extreme. These range from the view that social inequalities are biologically-genetically rooted, e.g., that blacks and women have lower intelligence levels than whites and men, and that changing social arrangements therefore cannot really erase or seriously reduce these so-called natural inequalities. In more extreme forms we have had eugenics or the supposed science of human breeding as well as different forms of ethnic cleansing, all carried out in the name of purifying and improving the human species.

3.    Given these two directions that Darwinists have taken, where should we go? Of course we should go in the direction of recognizing that humans are cultural and historical creatures in a way that animals are not. Humans have a history, animals have a past. It is culture, history and environmental location that are far more important, indeed decisive, in explaining the diversities among human societies, the developmental paths taken or not taken. Understanding the relationship between what is common and different among humans is vital. Our common minimal rationalities, our common minimal needs, our common minimal instincts, our common minimal capacities, our common minimal emotions are always expressed in distinct, specific and particular cultural and historical ways. However, we humans are culturally distinct not in spite of our nature but because of our nature!

Because the period between birth and even a degree of physical self-autonomy is so uniquely prolonged in the human species we are uniquely dependent on being cared for by others and such caring always takes particular cultural forms. Post-modernists go to the extreme of counterposing culture to nature, denying the importance of biology and claiming in effect that culture is our nature, i.e., that we are cultural all the way down. This is wrong. Culture is not our nature. Rather culture is of our nature. The term that properly connects nature and culture is of course, nurture. We are different because of what we share. And our differences help in the creation of what we can share. It is precisely because of these differences that we can learn from each other and therefore collectively ‘progress’. Indeed, culture, biology and environment interact in extremely complex ways that we have yet to fully understand.

It is this legacy of Darwinism that we need to appropriate because it reinforces the Enlightenment virtues of belief in the possibility of progress, the importance of reason, and of science as a distinctive form of reasoning, of a universalism that respects and incorporates particularisms. This means that if we must in some respects treat people equally, e.g., equal citizenship rights and equality before the law, it is far more important to treat people as equals, which is not the same as treating people equally. Indeed, to treat unequals equally is an injustice! It is vital therefore to have affirmative action, to carry out practices of social inclusion, organizational democratization and governmental policies of redistribution.

4.    Darwin’s theory of evolution gravely undermined the religiously based view that there was a fixed ‘great chain of being’ determined by God, i.e., that each living species including humans were separately created and placed by God in his hierarchical or plural scheme of things. Darwin revealed the reality of natural laws of evolution. You could still believe in God as Darwin himself did – he was a devout Anglican -- but given the extraordinary explanatory power of his theory of evolution when applied to the real world, sensible believers would now have to subscribe to the view that God took a rather indirect route, not of establishing the ‘great chain of being’ but of creating the natural laws that Darwin and others were discovering.

This meant that whether one was a believer or an atheist or non-believer you would have to recognize the indeterminacy and open-endedness of evolution in the animal world. And if this was the case in the animal world then one could hardly doubt or deny that there would be even greater indeterminacy and open-endedness in how human societies would develop or evolve, in what directions they would take in the future. Humans would now have to take responsibility for the kind of world they would shape and they could now do this with the knowledge provided by science. Progress, reason, science, universalism should be seen as the enduring legacies of the Enlightenment.

However, the directions taken by advances in pure and applied sciences, when allied with certain social science beliefs have led to an unbalanced effort at ‘mastering’ the natural world to serve this new human master. And the confidence of Enlightenment beliefs to which Darwin was such an important contributor cannot be absolved completely of the charge of striving for such unfortunate mastery. We must learn to speak much more modestly and critically of these Enlightenment virtues even as we must not ever discard them. We must learn to speak of progress with a small p, of reason with a small r, of science with a small s, of universalism with a small u. The Enlightenment thinkers thought that the certainties of custom, religion and tradition would be replaced by the newer, more truthful and productive certainties of knowledge and reason. Instead, the old certainties of custom, religion and tradition have been replaced by the uncertainties of reason and knowledge! The modern age is above all the Age of Doubt, of a rate, depth, scale and scope of change that is deeply unsettling, de-stabilizing and alienating.

In a world of such great flux the most important challenge is how we are to live in harmony with our fellow humans and with our personal selves, that is, how to create and sustain social harmony, as well as living in harmony with our environment. This means living with respect for the eco-system to which capitalism, in fact, represents the biggest threat. This is because the very source of capitalism’s dynamism and its strength – its relentless competitive drive for profits and therefore innovation—is also the very source of its profound weakness. The endless pursuit of profits is what defines capitalism. And the endless pursuit of profits requires the endless pursuit of growth, for there can be no stationary state capitalism. After all, what are economic processes all about? It is ultimately and simply about the conversion of matter and energy into other forms of matter and energy.

But the natural sciences rightly forewarn us that there are limits to this process – the law of entropy, while the dominant discourse of mainstream and conventional economics from Harvard to Cambridge to Beijing University to Delhi University has no theoretical notion of limits and is therefore the most dangerous of all social science disciplines when it comes to thinking about ways to live in harmony with our environment. It is not for nothing that one of the earliest and most thoughtful and ecologically sensitive of economists, Kenneth Boulding, way back in the 1950s said, that to believe in unlimited growth in a finite world one had to be either a fool or an economist!

In the dominant forms of economic discourse today, neither the resort to mathematical modelling (however rigorous its internal logics) nor the unwarranted prestige given to it by it being the one social discipline that is awarded Nobel prizes, can successfully conceal its essential barrenness of thought, when it comes to adequately addressing some of the most profound problems of our times. More than any other discipline, conventional mainstream economics desperately needs to be irrigated by the multiple streams of inter-disciplinarity. From the other social sciences certainly; but if perchance enough economists of our times could become more sensitive to the more positive legacies of Darwin and Darwinism then perhaps there can be some hope that they will want to learn from the physical and life sciences as well. Now wouldn’t that be something!