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Survival of the Fittest as a Social Myth
Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in a socio-economic context in 1864, six decades after Kant’s death, reportedly after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.
From Darwin’s scientific law on natural selection, Spencer push the edge of the envelope beyond biological evolutionary phenomenon in its original context of the natural environment. Spencer’s claim of the validity of “the survival of the fittest” in a socio-economic context is a classic case of antimony. Unlike the natural environment which is not subject to fundamental restructuring by animals that are born into it, and therfore must adjust to it, the human social environment is an artificial construct created by men who have the ability to modify it as humanity evolves towards higher social purposes. Mankind has the intelligence and power to create and modify his social environment to nurture the fittest survivors in an ideal image, and not let a diseased social environment dictate a malignant evolutionary destiny on mankind. It is a struggle symbolized by the conflict between Spartan and Athens, by the conflict between Carlyle and Spencer.
After the Revolutions of 1848 and political agitation in the United Kingdom, Carlyle published a collection of essays entitled "Latter-Day Pamphlets" (1850) in which he attacked democracy as an absurd social ideal, while equally condemning hereditary aristocratic leadership in favor of heroic meritocracy.
Spencer’s theory of “cosmic evolution”, expounded in his Principles of Biology (1864), involves the scientific study of universal change. While cosmic evolution attempts to integrate within social science other scientific theories such as biological evolution, it is not itself a theory or a product of reproducible evidence that leads to acceptance by the scientific community.
Spencer connected the biological findings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) that an organism could pass on to its offspring physical traits that it acquired to enhance its survivability during its life span, with the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte, who had proposed a theory of socio-cultural evolution that society progresses by a general Law of Three Stages, which states that society as a whole, and each particular science, develops through three mentally conceived stages: (1) the theocratic stage, (2) the metaphysical stage, and (3) the positive stage. The Positivity stage refers to scientific explanation based on observation, experiment, and comparison. Positive explanations rely upon a distinct scientific method, for its justification.
Socio-cultural evolution is the process by which structural reorganization of society is affected through the passage of time, eventually producing a social form or structure which is qualitatively different from the ancestral social form shaped by a primitive man less able to control his environment. Spencer saw human progress as being propelled by primeval savage competitive human traits reinforced by technology and sanitized by rituals, rather an evolution of a higher harmonious form of humanity conditioned by love and charity. To this regressive evolution of humanity, Spencer added the concepts of natural selection borrowed from zoological evolution as spelled out in Darwin’s influential 1859 book On the Origin of Species.
To Darwin, natural selection, a key mechanism of biological evolution, is the process by which desirable physical traits in living species become more common in a population, due to consistent effects from the reproductive survival of the bearers of such traits. The natural genetic variation within a population of organisms may cause some individuals to survive and reproduce more successfully than others in their contemporary environment. Natural selection is not connected to issues of morality, only to probability of survival in a hostile environment. If the environment requires aggressiveness as a prerequisite for survival, natural selection will create a race of aggressors.
To Darwin, species that evolve in harsh environments such as the desert, or the icy polar region, will produce species that would be more fit for such environments rather than gentle lamb on a peaceful perrie. Darwin was merely recording an observation, without moral preference. Evolution is a biological process, not a moral choice or value judgment for Darwin who saw every specie having a place in the sun and in the food chain as a fact of nature. Darwin certainly never advocated that human society should ape the natural environment. The entire history of human civilization involves human intervention on the natural to retain the good and to shed the bad.
One of the most important contribution made by science to human progress is the advancement of precise pharmaceutical counteraction to illnesses found in the natural environment, such as those caused by harmful bacteria. Medical intervention enable mankind to defy the law of the survival of the fittest by allowing the less fit to survive with the help of medicine and education. An analogy can be made between public health and socio-economic well being to show the preference for government non-intervention in a market economy as unjustifiable in terms of facilitating proper metabolism of human progress.
The Voodoo Science of Social Darwinism
Others who came after Darwin began to apply Darwin’s observation of nature as a natural philosophy for organizing human society under the banner of Social Darwinism, with an implied judgment that whatever survives is the outcome of progress and is above moral concerns. Survival of the fittest in a competitive social environment will eventually turn human society into a harsh and dangerous hell rather than a Garden of Eden. Survival of the fittest, as a human evolutionary process, will justify an escalating circular feedback loop of mutually reinforcement between increasingly more aggressive species and environments that increasingly require more aggressiveness for survival.
Darwin observed that natural selection acts on the phenotype, the observable characteristics of an organism, but the heritable genetic basis of any phenotype which gives a reproductive advantage will become more common in a population, a process known as allele frequency, which is the proportion of all copies of a gene that is made up of a particular gene variant allele, one of two or more forms of the DNA sequence of a particular gene. Each gene can have different alleles. Sometimes, different DNA sequences (alleles) can result in different physical traits, such as color and size, or non-physical trait such as intelligence and affinity. Other times, different alleles will have the same result in the expression of a gene.
Over time, this process can lead to adaptations by specialized populations for particular ecological niches and may even eventually result in the emergence of new species. In other words, natural selection is an important, though not exclusive process by which evolution takes place within a population of organism in an environment beyond the control of the specie.
Human Society and Natural Environment
As opposed to social selection, in which human societies favor and reinforce certain specific social traits over anti-social traits in the population through the social institution of marriage and other ritualistic institutions, in natural selection, the environment acts as a disinterested sieve through which only certain variations appropriate to environmental conditions can pass to fit into the environment. It is a process of surrendering the natural traits of a specie to the requirement of an unyieldingly rigid and hostile environment.
But unlike the natural environment, the social environment is created by man, and it can be designed to enhance man’s ideal existence. In a social environment that rewards aggression and greed, as societies that adopt capitalist markets do, aggressively greedy individuals will be the fittest to survive. Most religions, with the exception of Calvinism, try to influence the social milieu to be less aggressive and greedy, by encouraging the image of God as loving and charitable.
Calvinism and Capitalism
Calvinism has been identified by social historians as the driving force behind the rise of modern capitalism in a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury and, implicitly, of unearned or passive profit.
Richard Henry Tawney (1880 – 1962), English Christian socialist, economic historian and social critic, wrote Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), in which he explored the causal relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the 16th and 17th centuries. Tawney “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth.” Tawney took up Max Weber’s thesis on the causal connection between the appearance of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Weber’s book: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, appeared in German in 1904-05, and was translated into English for the first time by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons only in 1930, four years after the publication of Tawney book on the same subject.
Spencer’s Rationalization of Social Evolution
Spencer wrote that over time societies will progress, presumably towards Spencer’s vision of a higher state of civilization, and that human progress is accomplished through industrious competition. He defined progress narrowly as advancement of survival skills in a man-made socio-economic order, through technology and socio-political organization that will reward such skills, leaving unexplored the possibility that amoral technological skills could overwhelm the advancement of humanity to allow the malignant growth of cancerous agents that would metastasize the human spirit.
Spencer ignored factual evidence in history by labeling early human societies that survived through in-group cooperation and symbiotic co-existence with other species, and with the natural environment, as a “primitive” state, ignoring the fact that humanity as a whole has repeatedly enhanced its own survivability through cooperative arrangements among different human sub-groups and societies.
Spencer stressed the role of the self-centered individual acting narrowly in his self interest, rather than the harmonious collective, as the unit of analysis (the basic entity in the analysis of social studies) in social evolution. Social evolution through natural and social selection affects social as well as biological phenomena. The antinomy in the concept of individualist “survival of the fittest” in human society is that it can lead to the survival of the most socially unfit human beings and the evolution of increasing vile ecosystems that would eventually wipe out all that is good and graceful in humanity.
Scientific Darwinism Distorted as Political Philosophy
The publication of Darwin’s influential book: On the Origin of Species in 1859 unintendedly gave a holy bible to proponents of the controversial idea that socio-cultural evolution of human society is a process of survival of the fittest in the context of capitalist market fundamentalism. The idea of biological evolution of survival of the fittest in a hostile natural environment beyond the control of the biological inhabitants has been commandeered as convenient justification for the development of capitalistic market society for human beings whose natural traits are not naturally in sync with that society's requirements for survival.
The implication of the acceptance of the laws of nature as a destiny rather than a tool of progress is that whatever survives in nature is considered as morally valid and good, rather than whatever is good and moral should survive in civilized society constructed by man of vision. Human civilization under the law of survival of the fittest competitive market capitalism will evolve away from that which is morally good and socially desirable in human beings because such human traits are often the most fragile and unfit for survival in a society where ethics is not only perceived as weakness, but is actually a impediment to survival.
The revolutionary power of Mao Zedong rests not only on his political organizing skill, but on his unflinching belief that the oppressed, the poor, the underprivileged, the uncultured, the uneducated and the powerless, in other words, the socio-economically unfit, have an innate goodness and the invincible power to change society toward higher stages of civilization where oppression, poverty, inequality and ignorance will be vestiges of the uncivilized past because this group can be expected not to resist reform and revolution for they have little to protect or to lose. Marx places his faith in oppressed workers as the revolutionary force because they have “nothing to lose but heir chains”.
Proudhon: Property is Theft!
Thirty-three years before Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), French mutualist philosopher and socialist member of the French Parliament, was reportedly the first philosopher to proudly wear the label “anarchist”. After the Revolutions of 1848, Proudhon began to call himself a federalist.
Proudhon’s best-known assertion is that Property is Theft!, contained in his first major work, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government (Qu'est-ce que la propriété? Recherche sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement), published in 1840. The book’s publication attracted the hostile attention of the French authorities. It also attracted the sympathetic scrutiny of Marx, who started a correspondence with its author.
Proudhon and Marx influenced each other: they met in Paris while Marx was exiled there. Their friendship finally ended when Marx responded to Proudhon's The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Povertywith the provocatively titled The Poverty of Philosophy. The dispute became one of the sources of the ideological split between the anarchist and Marxist wings of the International Working Men's Association.
Proudhon favored workers associations or co-operatives, as well as individual worker/peasant possession, over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces. He considered that social revolution could be achieved in a peaceful manner. In The Confessions of a Revolutionary Proudhon asserted that, Anarchy is Order, the phrase which much later inspired, in the view of some, the anarchist circled-A symbol, today “one of the most common graffiti on the urban landscape.” He unsuccessfully tried to create a national bank, to be funded by what became an abortive attempt at an income tax on capitalists and stockholders. Similar in some respects to a credit union, it would have given interest-free loans.
Proudhon published his own perspective for reform which was completed in 1849, Solution du problème social(Solution of the Social Problem), in which he laid out a program of mutual financial cooperation among workers to transfer control of the economy from capitalists and financiers to workers. The central part of his plan was the establishment of a bank to provide low interest rate credit with the issuing exchange notes to replace money based on gold.
Proudhon ran for the constituent assembly in April 1848, but was not elected. He was successful, in the complementary elections of June 4, and served as a deputy during the debates over the National Workshops, created by the February 25, 1848, decree passed by Republican Louis Blanc. The Workshops were to give work to the unemployed. Proudhon was never enthusiastic about such Workshops, perceiving them to be essentially charitable institutions that did not resolve the unemployment problem of the economic system. But he was against their elimination unless an alternative could be found for the workers who relied on the Workshops for subsistence.
As a consequence of his opposition to profit, wage labor, worker exploitation, ownership of land and capital, as well as to state property, Proudhon rejected both capitalism and communism. He adopted the term mutualism for his brand of anarchism, which involved control of the means of production by the workers. Proudhon opposed the charging of interest and rent, but did not seek to abolish them by law.
Proudhon was a revolutionary, but his revolution did not mean violent upheaval or civil war, but rather the transformation of society. This transformation was essentially moral in nature and demanded the highest ethics from those who sought change. It was monetary reform, combined with organizing a credit bank and workers associations, that Proudhon proposed to use as a lever to bring about the organization of society along new lines. He did not suggest how the monetary institutions would cope with the problem of inflation and with the need for the efficient and equitable allocation of scarce resources.