Public services help in natural selection; or, Darwin supports Obamacare

Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier cropped

Darwin agrees with me.

That’s rather egotistical, since Charles Darwin was way smarter than I am, and lived before me. So, restated: I agree with Darwin.

In part of this blog, I’ve been arguing in this blog that our biological nature as social creatures gives rise to modern public services. Those services are one way that our biological group ensures the health and stability of the group, and its fitness to compete against other groups for resources. Reducing those services will, in the long run, weaken our group and our ability to compete for resources.

Here’s how Darwin stated the case:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.  Chapter 5, The Descent of Man (1871)

I think that current conservative thinking on market-based economics has veered towards the notion of “survival of the fittest.” Free market folks fly this banner for the ethics of every-man-for-himself. Darwin does examine the survival of the fittest, but he meant best adapted to current local conditions, not the best accumulation of strength, power, or resources.

Actually, it was another Brit, Herbert Spencer, who promoted the strength-based notion of survival of the fittest and led us into Social Darwinism. Spencer had very little to do with a public role in sympathy, aid, and sacrifice for the common good.

So, next time you hear someone use “survival of the fittest” to justify anti-social behavior, remember that Darwin wasn’t on their side (and Spencer probably was).

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