Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Faux Darwinism

"With Zimbabwe mired in hyperinflation, its people have been plunged into a Darwinian struggle to get by."

The above sentence appeared in the October 2nd issue of the New York Times. Most readers probably passed right over it without notice, but the sentence jumped out at me. "Why?" you might ask.

It's the characterization of life in the hyperinflationary environment as a Darwinian struggle that struck me. What nonsense. The people in Zimbabwe are undoubtedly experiencing desperate times, but there's nothing remotely Darwinian about what they are going through. The theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin maintains that those individuals of a species who best fit the environment in which they find themselves will survive to reproduce and pass on their genes. By this process, those genes which enhance adaptation to the environment tend to be selected, while those which hamper it tend to be weeded out.

To say that a Darwinian struggle is what goes on in societies that are under economic or political distress is a mischaracterization. For one thing, there is no single trait that can be chosen that will enhance one's chances of survival in such environments. One could be physically stronger than others. That might help, but it might also help to be more clever or devious than most. Political connections would help, but that is often the result of historical accident rather than any genetically determined personal trait. Hell, one could even survive because one has married into a powerful family, which suggests that physical attractiveness is also a trait that enhances survival. (We all knew that, of course, way back in high school, didn't we? It's only as we get older that we start denying the power of physical appearance. But, come on, the phrase "trophy wife" says something, now doesn't it?) Whatever the case though, it should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a few minutes that there are at least several different of traits that lead to survival in chaotic political and economic environments.

Let us further assume that these traits that enhance one's chances of survival are each determined by a single gene or a small number of genes. The fact of the matter is that these chaotic social situations rarely last even a generation. They're just too unstable. Someone ends up taking charge and restoring order, even though it might be with a heavy hand. For the sake of argument though, let's say that this desperate, hyperinflationary environment persisted for a hundred years. That still would not be time enough for the process of evolution to act and produce individuals possessing the traits that would increase their chances of survival. The people who were living at the beginning of those hundred years would be the same as the people who were living afterwards. Evolution would not have occurred.

Then why did the Times reporter refer to it as a Darwinian struggle? Was it just ignorance? I don't think so. It reflects a certain mindset, a right-wing mindset. This point of view sees nature as "red in tooth and claw". The individual, whether human or animal, is only out to promote its own individual welfare, even at the expense of its fellows, and in situations in which there is a breakdown of he social order, people will go at each other like wild beasts. And that's the suggestion here, that the people of Zimbabwe have become like beasts. It is true that in the situation in which these people find themselves, there has probably been an increase in lawlessness and violence, but I would be willing to wager a considerable sum that there has also been many incidents of the people of various communities coming together to help one another.


Blogger David Matthews said...

My kneejerk response on reading the first two paragraphs was that the Times writer was using "Darwinian" metaphorically, not literally. Whether or not that's relevant is of small matter. Your conclusions strike me as right on the mark.

11:05 PM  

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