Darwinism (or DarwinIsADouche.com)

I have a love/hate relationship with Darwinism. I love the idea, application and process of evolutionary theory – one can’t, and won’t, deny the beauty and mind bending revolution of Chuck’s vision (especially taking into account the arse clenching theology of the Victorian era). Yet I hate with profound passion the ubiquity of it as a metaphor (incorrectly, more often than not) and the misplaced faith in that metaphor as an ultimate endorsement. As a metaphor it’s usually employed to prop up lazy reasoning and convenient beliefs; Darwinism intoned in the hope that through its power it will lend an argument credence, a statement validity or, more commonly, imbue some cynical societal prescription, guaranteed to cure our indulgent ills, with the power of evolution’s place in the firmament of scientific and intellectual certitude.

Again, I’m not picking a fight with Darwinism, rather the casuist plodders who employ it as a wagon of expedience for their preferred convictions. That Mr. Darwin coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’ to describe his theory makes me want to weep and rage in equal measure. Ironically On the Origin of the Species suffers from the same problem the Bible does in the hands of their respective fundamentalists; a problem anchored in the refusal to recognise how embedded in the assumptions of the times the writers were. Darwin was a product of Victorian England, at the height of an empire that sought to benevolently conquer the world for its own good, because, obviously, the English were the pinnacle of civilisation. It was their duty as the highest representative of the human race. The believed cultural supremacy of the times is perfectly captured in the penultimate sentence of Darwin’s most famous tome: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” The arrogance and assumption, not to mention the hideous anthropomorphism of nature in its entirety, contained in that one sentence is quite staggering. But, and this is quite important, in our relativist wisdom we are quite capable of contextualising that statement within the prevalent cultural standards of Darwin’s lifetime, taking from it that if you stick monkeys in one end of a habitat, given an opportune environment, you might get Andy Warhol out the other. Which is my point – it isn’t the survival of the fittest, it is the survival of those with the most opportune mutations in that environment.

The word fittest is highly dependent on context, deeply in need of qualification. The way we use it has far too much of the smell of triumphalism about it; that those that fall are unworthy, and those who remain are right. It is putting the cart before the horse on a quite impressive scale, leading to conclusions based on a syllogism; they didn’t make it, we did, thus we are superior. A beautiful example is capitalism vs. communism, as Norman Manea wisely said, “Yet on the other shore, a self congratulatory society took the collapse of the other side as a vindication.”

Our vesting ‘Survival of the Fittest’ with power beyond its context has given us some pretty fucked up ideas of what the survival of a thing actually means, not to mention the context it survives or dies in. We have to save the ecosphere due to our biological need of it, because we’re quite important, being a higher animal, but the lower animals that can’t hack it in our climate altered wake, urban environs, polluted waters, fenced rural landscapes and zoos kinda deserve to die, coz, like, it’s survival of the fittest, right? Except for rats, as no one really likes rats. And pigeons, of course, being, as has been demonstrated, just airborne rodents… though what do we do with the fucking flying foxes? Is an actual flying rodent somehow exempt from our wrath simply because it doesn’t, y’know, fuck so much? The specious logic applied to sustain this illusionary narrative leaves us chasing our own brains round the inside of our skulls, demanding of us the unsavoury necessity of a shorter syllogism: we’re atop the food chain, thus the fittest, so we can’t be wrong. So… pandas? Fuck ’em.

We are the pinnacle of evolution, we are the duly ordained of nature; accordingly it’s our duty to show the way to the rest of the ecosphere… Hang on, I’ve heard that reasoning somewhere before… wait, wait… if a table has four legs and that thing I’ve been sitting on has four legs, then the thing I’m sitting on must be a table.

Okay, I feel better.

It’s a bit weird attributing, in a fundamental way, such high importance to being able to do some neat things with our thumbs and neo-cortex. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to see evolution as a kind of race; if we’re at the front of the pack then we must be doing well – though it’s a bit much that we’re refereeing the race we’re running in. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice… no, shit, I mean Quod Erat Demonstrandum… No I don’t… Ah, fuck it, caveat emptor, assholes.

The sublimely ridiculous thing is that most of the stuff we do – economics, science, even much of our art – works against a fundamental tenet of sustainable evolutionary practice: they consume more than they produce – a fine case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. As Daniel Quinn observed of the folly of our cultural practices: natural selection doesn’t eliminate you immediately, it eliminates you eventually. Our problem is that we’ve got our timelines all mixed up, making us unable to see over the chronological horizon.

Survival of the fittest indeed.

So we use the shortcut of ‘survival of the fittest’ to bless arguments with the power of  Evolutionary Theory while, with deep irony, practising behaviour that only promises to make of us a case study for the next species that happens to grow thumbs. Evolutionary Theory still remains a beautiful and true description of what we see in the biological world around us, but ‘survival of the fittest’ as a metaphor sucks. It sucked then and sucks now. I quite like the idea of setting up a website dedicated to the failure of Darwinism as a metaphor: DarwinIsADouche.com, for all the Darwinarcissists out there. Though, on consideration, I’m pretty sure the server would immediately crash from the sudden surge of Dawkinites and other, less articulate Fundamentalists.


4 responses to “Darwinism (or DarwinIsADouche.com)

  1. Great! That’s just great! Isn’t it always the way! It’s always Nasal-Nigel at the back with page 463 of the rule book that cocks it up for everyone!

    Charles the Evangelist delivers us his ministry, the ministry becomes belief, belief transmutes to doctrine, then doctrine lapses ever so slightly towards dogma.
    Then a well-meaning spanner, such as your good self, stands up and says “Hey! Has anyone really thought about this bit here?…”
    BAM! Schism in the church of Darwin!

    Nice one, mate! You broke science.
    With our luck, the creationists’ll end up winning after all.

    You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut could you?

  2. Limonello, I undrestand your rage at stupid people, but leave Darwin out of it! “survival of the fittest” is at base a tautology: the fittest to survive, survive. Stupid and uncaring people invoke this phrase sneeringly, because they think they are doing well and other people aren’t, and they wish to congratulate themselves and repudiate any need to care for or about others.

    None of this has anything to do with evolutionary biology at all. And while the zeitgeist and the language has moved on since Darwon’s time, the substance of his work has only been confirmed scientifically. And if you want a definition of what “confirmed” means, the theory of evolution has been proved to a far higher standard than that used to convict someone in any court of law, anywhere.

    Science, unlike dogma, is constantly challenged and tested and reassesed. And modern evolutionary biologists may express themselves differently, but the substance of Darwinism remains the same.

    • Hi Grace – long time no social media exchange! Here’s my strident reply to your intelligently critical considerations.

      Science is perfect dogma. And, like the best belief systems, retains the ability to not question itself using tenets other than its own. It just happens to have better tenets than most.

      Stupid or smart, I’m not really differentiating; it’s just the incorrect use of E.T. as an intellectual suppository to cure, justify or rationalise another argument that frills my ruff.

      And, as I said, I have no argument with the substance of Darwin’s E.T. (I really like that comparison with proof in legal convictions, by the way), and I’m in awe of his perception and intelligence; my beef is the metaphorical use of it, usually by way of ‘survival of the fittest’.

      ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is laden with contextual bias. The words ‘survival’ and ‘fittest’ carry such metaphorical weight that it’s hard not to perceive it as a race – or at the very least like those that survive are in some way ‘better’ than those that didn’t. In actual fact those that ‘survive’ (just saying that implies that someone or thing is actively trying to wipe them out) are the luckiest, not the ‘fittest’. Little they are doing is by choice; it is the product of random mutation that happens to correspond with the environment around them. I can win a race because I’ve optimised my evolved abilities through training (conceivably a virtue), but the only way I’m going to live to breed, if the world drowns, is if I’m lucky enough that my evolved abilities happen to include gills (not a virtue, just dumb luck).

      There’s no virtue in science. Ascribe as much beauty to science as it can support (which is a lot), but avoid anything that hints at virtue. ‘Survival of the Fittest’, if properly contextualised and explained works just fine, but the popular understanding and use of it doesn’t. And, scarily, the popularity and understanding of it is surprisingly high amongst the scientific community.

  3. Gosh, Lemony-one, you *are* strident!

    But I think misguided in your wrath.

    Science is not a belief system except in that it believes nothing is true unless you can prove it. All scientific knowledge is subject to constant scrutiny, testing, and revision. Scientific truths are always provisional. So I don’t see that it has anything in common with religious and other dogmas, since the whole point of dogma is that it can’t be questioned.

    Virtue? I think science is amazing and wonderful because it’s always finding out more about how things are. Don’t you?

    Course, some very bad things get done by humans as a result of scientific discoveries, but I think that’s because we’re so often stupid idiots, not because there’s something wrong with knowing things.

    And I don’t know that you can apply Darwinism to human society, or you would only apply it with great caution, since we humans modify our environment so much, and because our competition with each other (and also our mutual support) is so complex. And individual choices do have an impact, although once again, in complex ways.

    And Darwinsim is not about chance, that’s a common misconception. Any organism has genes that fit it for the environment it lives in, and some organisms will have a better fit than others, and so be more successful in passing on those genes. As any environment can change at any time, the genes that make the best “fit” may change, and so populations experience morphological changes over long time periods.

    Of course luck always plays a part. But Darwinsim says nothing much about any individual, only about populations as a whole. The organisms which are well matched to their environment will, on average, do better. Sometimes individuals will get lucky, or unlucky. But in the long timescales Darwinism looks at, individual strokes of luck generally cancel out, and make no difference to the species as a whole.

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