Evolution

Darwin the Softie!

|

If ideas such as "natural selection" and "survivial of the fittest" leave you cold, Skeptic publisher and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer says you ought to read your Darwin more closely.

In 1902 the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin published a rebuttal to [T.H.] Huxley and [Herbert] Spencer in his book Mutual Aid. Calling out Spencer by phrase, Kropotkin observed: "If we… ask Nature: 'who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?' we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest." Since that time science has revealed that species practice both mutual struggle and mutual aid. Darwinism, properly understood, gives us a dual disposition of selfishness and selflessness, competitiveness and cooperativeness.

Whole col, marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, here. Via the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily.

And check out Reason.tv's interview with Shermer, where he discusses "evolutionary economics" and "the Google theory of peace":

Advertisement

NEXT: Obama's Retreat on Iraq

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Wow, I think you might just be onto something here!

    RT
    http://www.privacy-center.pro.tc

  2. Shut the fuck up, Anonymity Troll.

  3. Natural selection is a *system*, not an agent. Finding examples of symbiosis among creatures does not inform human policy because those creatures didn’t *choose* to be symbiotic. It’s not like the little birds sent a representative to the alligator senate and presented the pros and cons of letting them clean the alligators’ constituents’ teeth.

    Evolution is amoral. It doesn’t care about right or wrong and has made plenty of mistakes (leading to unsuitable “adaptations”). Looking to it to justify a social policy is a misapplication of science.

  4. Looking to it to justify a social policy is a misapplication of science.

    Just felt it needed to be bolded, for extra emphasis.

  5. Part of what’s going on is what counts as “fittest”.

    It doesn’t really mean which individual is best suited for survival. I think it really applies at the gene pool level, as in “which gene pool is most likely to survive and expand.” Looking at it as “survival and expansio nof the gene pool,” Kropotkin’s observation makes a lot more sense.

    And, of course, as a guide to social policy, it is still quite irrelevant.

  6. “Looking to it to justify a social policy is a misapplication of science.”

    The idea isn’t to directly look to evolution to inform our moral choices; that is nonsense.

    But evolution is a large, complicated system with many free agents acting independently… and it’s a highly successful system. The idea is to look to biologists’ understanding of evolution to inform us better about how the invisible hand works.

  7. In the worst Circle of Hell you will find the Anonymity Troll, firmly in the mouth of Satan…

  8. In the worst Circle of Hell you will find the Anonymity Troll, firmly in the mouth of Satan…

    …cleaning his teeth?

  9. I’m going to teach my children to survive on the fringes, lest they be swallowed by the socialist or fascist or authoritarian or other oppressive flavor of the month behemoth.

    One day, they may be celebrated for carrying libertarian ideals through the ages, so that liberty triumphs over tyranny.

  10. I’m a bit “skeptical” of Shermer’s second statements about selflessness and cooperation. Can anyone point in the direction of some scientists who have written on this topic, as opposed to a turn of the [last] century anarchist.

  11. can’t watch the video, so dunno what Shermer actually says, but Robert Trivers is one of the most significant evolutionary theorists regarding altriusm, etc…

  12. To add a little bit of explanation – I have no problem with his clarifications on competition, I just think he framed the issue incorrectly and I’m not sure what his point is. If he is arguing that continual war is not always an effective strategy, that sounds reasonable. If he is arguing that cooperation is generally better than competition, I find that a bit more problematic. Are there any truly non-competitive relationships? Even when a bird cleans the crocodile’s mouth it is competing against other organims that would benefit if the food matter stayed there (water borne bacteria for example).
    It might be possible for humans to be truly altruistic, but helping other organisms leads to diminishing returns the less genetically related to you they are.

  13. It might be possible for humans to be truly altruistic, but helping other organisms leads to diminishing returns the less genetically related to you they are.

    Unless you have the reasonable expectation that your altruistic behavior will be reciprocated in some way. And you have well-developed social cognition to detect and punish cheaters and mooches, etc…

  14. I think I may not have the right vocabulary, because after reading about Trivers’ work, it appears altruism has a specific meaning in biology. When I referred to “truly altruistic,” I meant action that did not, directly or indirectly, provide a benefit to the actor.

  15. Well if it didn’t provide any benefit at all then yeah it wouldn’t be adaptive I would think. But I think from the sociobiological point of view there are enough incentives for humans to be disposed towards altruism (possibility of reciprocation, assistance to relatives, display of fitness associated with generosity, etc…) that there could just be a neurochemical mechanism to reward altruistic behavior even in the absence of direct or indirect benefits. Could just be one of the many things humans do that don’t make rational sense but are emotionally satisfying for evolutionarily rational reasons.

  16. This view of life need not have become the dominant one.

    If it is, yes it did, or it wouldn’t have. Or so “Darwin, properly understood” says. He doesn’t account for the clich?d wrongness of the premise, though.

    Well, actually, he can. There’s some roundabout way that lying about Spencer and rejecting the rhetoric of Darwinian competition gets Darwinian-competitively rewarded (gets dudes laid), or it wouldn’t happen so much.

  17. Mutual Aid helps a species survive? Sure. I can accept that. Lions hunt together in order for the pride to survive. However, one lion pride doesn’t take food from another to make up for their lack of hunting ability. That’s where the argument falls apart.

  18. I have three points regarding the video. First, I agree that it will be easier to convince a creationist that biological evolution is true than to convince a socialist that capitalism works. Second, I also think that sets are fuzzy. Some sets are so fuzzy it’s best to just ignore the boundries. Finally, the google theory of peace has potential.

  19. But evolution is a large, complicated system with many free agents acting independently… and it’s a highly successful system. The idea is to look to biologists’ understanding of evolution to inform us better about how the invisible hand works.

    Well put.

    What I don’t get is why people point at evidence for mutual aid in nature and think that somehow it justifies a coercive central authority. All of this stuff exists in the absence of a central authority, without coercion.

    I’d say it argues more strongly for the possibility that a laissez-faire society would develop it’s own private mutual aid mechanisms, much as libertarians have always argued.

  20. There’s some roundabout way that lying about Spencer and rejecting the rhetoric of Darwinian competition gets Darwinian-competitively rewarded (gets dudes laid), or it wouldn’t happen so much.

    Social signalling. Humans are pretty damn complicated creatures.

    It gets down to the debate over human’s ‘atruistic’ behavior. The theory is that this evolved to assist reciprocal cooperation.

    The problem is (a) that others tend not to trust the other player if they think he is self-interested (at any moment he might defect in the PD, for instance), plus (b) lie detection.

    So the safest evolutionary route is to convince yourself that you are really being altrusitic, since this will cause you to avoid setting off anyone else’s bullshit detector. You’re really doing reciprocal cooperation, or engaging in some complex game of self-interested social status signalling, you just THINK you’re truly being moral.

    There’s a shitload of this stuff. People are kind of programmed to publicly make vociferous moral pronoucements about the need to punish “evil-doers”, cause it projects “cooperator” signals, and maybe makes it easier to get away with private self-interested behavior. Loud social signals compensate for a poor record to an extent. But then other humans have evolved mechanisms to protect against that. We’re basically in a perpetual arms race to maximize the amount of self-interested benefit we can get through reciprocal cooperation through a combination of lying, cheating, pretend altrusim and public moralizing.

  21. Yes, exactly. We heartless capitalist robber baron pigs should support each other!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.