Thursday, October 3, 2013

Natural selection

No photo, unfortunately, but you can easily picture it and, no doubt, have seen this broken pattern many times. As I have. But sometimes, for no apparent reason, it hits home, as it did for me last evening.

Sitting in a sheltered courtyard at dusk, I happened to look up at a patch of sky and saw a ragged V-formation of birds (ducks?), very high up, flying north-northwest.

Then, a few seconds later, a single bird flying in the same direction.

It had started out with the others, I supposed, and was slowly falling behind, lacking the required strength or coordination or stamina. If the journey were a long one, the laggard would inevitably be lost to the others.

Evolution at work.

My point here is not political. But you could say that how one responds to these particular facts of life determines the broad tenor of one's political views. Some deny the facts, of course, but those who accept them can clearly respond in very different ways.

In general terms, you could say that the Social Darwinist or the radical right-libertarian positively embraces the dark truths of the evolutionary process; that the moderate conservative accepts the facts and tries to mitigate their worst social and human consequences; and that the socialist seeks to create a sacrosanct social sphere in which these particular facts just don't apply.


  1. Cartoon No 317 may be relevant:

  2. Is there room on this graph for the conservative who deplores Social Darwinism, but thinks charity is the business of churches and private benevolent societies rather than government? With that refinement, I’d say you’ve captured the political landscape…all from a wedge of geese.

    Recently I have been reading a book called Abundance by the X Prize entrepreneur Peter Diamandis. He makes a fascinating case for the human future as one of unprecedented material prosperity. If his predictions are right, then the old Darwinian truths will no longer apply. So far, in the book, he has not drawn such inferences, but I see Thomas Malthus refuted by human ingenuity.

    When resources are abundantly available, governments (and private charities, for that matter) will actually be able to afford things like welfare and universal healthcare. I suspect, though, that even if human ingenuity can some day satisfy all human material needs, human material demands will remain unsatisfied. And that will become the basis for the new political alignments.

    1. A few thoughts prompted by your comment.

      Material abundance can certainly counter poverty and deprivation but – unfortunately – can never dispel the dark Darwinian shadow that hangs over us. Forgive me for being a bit gloomy, but I can't help thinking about disease and (premature) death. Disease and death always seem to find a way to flourish – even in times of plenty.

      On a more mundane note, I think we face a big problem providing people with meaningful roles in life as there is the prospect of dramatically increased unemployment as technologies advance.

      Also, arguably basic human material needs are already met in most countries, or could be, but (because we are so socially competitive, or perhaps just easily bored) our demands far exceed our needs.

    2. Material abundance only exists in advanced societies, among those less developed regions, natural selection, competition, or the tension between population and resource are everywhere.

      When I look at modern history of China, two man-made disasters: "Great Leap Forward" (GLF) "Cultural Revolution", were both proofs of Darwinism and Malthusianism. During those periods, atrocity took place in its extreme forms (even cannibalism took place) by ordinary people, mass murders everywhere (mostly in countryside). The death toll of GLF over 30 millions, and cultural revolution could be almost the same. To me, these two giant suicidal historical events were not natural disasters, nor political persecutions, but a "natural phenomenon". In other words, they were consequence of unproportionate development of population and civilization (exploding population and extremely poor productivity). after these two disasters, Chinese population seemed to be reduced into a number that government could merely handle. Too dark, indeed!

      As for the good pictures we see in develop societies, I tend to believe that material abundance cannot last forever, if there is no new strategies invented to discover/produce new resource to catch up human needs, because earth is only "this much". Or it's totally possible that human civilization would be destroyed by natural disasters before the earth is completely exploited by human race. Or we found new home in space...

    3. I certainly agree that in less developed countries and regions those selection pressures are much greater, and they often lead to great human suffering.

      Regarding those disastrous events in recent Chinese history, they were, as you say, man-made. So much trauma and suffering could have been avoided if more moderate factions in the governing elite had prevailed, don't you think? Productivity levels would have been higher, and so on.

      Regarding future prospects, my hunch is that our species will manage to survive on this little planet for quite some time to come.