No other idea in human history has had a more profound impact on modern society than the evolutionary theory, independently conceived by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace 150 years ago. In neat, concise, transparent terms, it explains the multiversity of lifeforms that have replenished Earth since billions of years, the shooting of species from other species and, ultimately, the emergence of human beings. Its explanatory power is omnipotent. Evolution occurs because of natural selection. In the ever-changing environment of our planet creates conditions where certain, randomly appearing, traits in a species favor particular individuals over others, who then go on to procreate more often. By procreating they pass those favorable traits to their offspring, and this, over time, changes the whole profile of the species. A new species is thus born. From humble bacteria and viruses to sophisticated, intelligent, car-driving mammals, there has been not a single case in biology that has countered evolutionary theory. On the contrary, evolution has been confirmed again and again, not only by fossil records and discoveries in geology and the past climate of Earth but, more importantly perhaps, by probing into the nexus of life, the cell itself. The discovery of DNA as the principal promulgator of genetic information across generations has confirmed Darwin and Wallace beyond any doubt. We, and the apes, and the fish and the trees and every living thing, are indeed the products of natural selection, the descendants of a common unicellular great-great-grandfather that appeared on Earth some four billion years ago.
It is therefore not at all surprising that such a powerful idea spilled over quickly from the curious observation of amphibious lizards and garrulous birds in the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon forest, and entered the controversial realm of human society. Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, was first to coin the term “eugenics” and reinterpret evolutionary theory as political philosophy. Faced with the dilemma of altruism that lead to medicine being supplied to the “poor”, the “feeble-minded” and the “sick”, and therefore ease the propagation of “inferiors”, he suggested that human society should develop towards a world of “superiors” by selectively breeding the best with the best. Being a liberal, Galton proposed that active measures should prune amongst the “poor” for those with talent.
His proposition inspired, several decades later, the instigation of the welfare state in the UK. In the US, a virtually apartheid state in the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics were taken more literally and several States introduced forced sterilization of mentally-ill patients and others who were deemed “inferior”. Interestingly, Karl Marx was very excited about evolutionary theory. He sent Darwin a copy of his book “Das Kapital”, and wrote to his friends how evolution and class struggle seemed to go hand in hand happily. As species evolved through strife towards perfection so would human society, ultimately arriving at a classless utopia through the uprising of the oppressed workers. And yet later on, in Soviet Union, Darwinism fell quickly out of favor. Orthodox communists of the Stalinist era supported instead the acquisition of new genetic characteristics during one’s lifetime, which could then be passed on to one’s offsprings. This idea is called “Lamarckism” (from the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) and it made more sense to communist visionaries who dreamt of shaping man as the ultimate altruist. Trofim Lysenko, a notorious charlatan agronomist, denounced Darwin with the full support of the Communist Party and applied the flawed Lamarckian theory in Soviet agricultural projects, with disastrous effects.
Evolutionary theory trumps all other explanations about life on Earth. Nevertheless, it is one thing to scientifically and unequivocally explain why bats have wings, or why we have five fingers in each hand instead of six, and totally different why the variation in intelligence, or prowess, or beauty. Implying a genetic cause for such inequalities – as evolutionary theory surely does – smacks of biological determinist: i.e. that you are who you are because you were born like this, and there is nothing you can do about it. Which goes against the liberal ideology of freedom to chose and the right to prosper, as well as the socialist ideal of equality and justice. Thus, Social Darwinism, the idea that competition drives evolution in human societies, ultimately collided with almost every color in the political spectrum of the 20th century, except perhaps fascism and Nazism which saw in the “survival of the fittest” the foundation of their totalitarian and racist ideologies. Eugenics, originally inspired by a liberal thinker in Victorian England, was corrupted and ultimately led to the crematoria of Auschwitz. That tragic event alone was enough to tarnish Social Darwinism with a terrible reputation which persists to our day.
Enter sociobiology, which many critics consider as Social Darwinism in disguise. Originally inspired to explain complex behavior in the animal world, sociobiology is routinely applied to interpret just about everything, from the dot com and real estate bubbles, to why rich men attract women more and why wealth is relative and never absolute. A new breed of economists, inspired by evolutionary thinking, takes issue with Adam Smith’s original assumption of rational players in the economy. These “behavioral economists” explain the stock markets in terms of instincts genetically inherited from our hominid ancestors that rummaged the ancestral savannas of Africa. Greed that drives markets up is seen as a battle for status amongst players who want to increase their wealth and therefore their chances of mating with a preferred member of the opposite sex. Fear – the factor that swings markets down – as the result of not wanting to lose high status, which in human societies is determined, and defined, by money.
Notable sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, contend that sociobiology is science, not ideology. That, unlike Social Darwinism, it does not say what ought to be done butwhy something happens. Yes, but surely if one has an explanation for social behavior then oneought to be compelled to take action according to that scientific knowledge. If Darwinism explains, for example, murder as a way for hierarchically-low (i.e. poorer or destitute) young males to assert their dominance, then punitive measures should be restructured accordingly. Moreover, critics of sociobiology, such as the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, argue that traits such as genre or identity are social constructs and have nothing to do with inherited genes. It is nurture not nature, they say, that carries the day and therefore a socialist utopia of socio-economic equality is ultimately feasible.
The debate of nature versus nurture is bound to define political thinking in the current century too. For, if evolution provides us with a scientific insight to human nature, we must rid ourselves of ideology, whether liberal or socialist, and embrace a neutral, scientific perspective on society. The only caveat, alas so common in science, is to distinguish between cause and effect. Are we humans what we are because of our genes? Or are we because of what we think ourselves to be?
published in the Athens News, on Friday 30th January