July 2018


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Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 23 Jul 2018 10:15:41 -0500
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Politicians love to talk about “survival of the fittest.” They don’t know
what that means The GOP espouses the myth of social Darwinism to justify
destroying the welfare state — even as they eschew biology
M.T. Anderson <> July 22, 2018
11:00pm (UTC)

Predation is in fashion right now. The signs are everywhere, saturating
this country’s popular culture. For a couple of decades, nature programs
have pegged their success on hymns to the pitiless efficiency of sharks and
raptors. Our superhero franchises, our prime-time zombie dramas, and our
nightmare sci-fi scenarios now routinely feature situations in which a few
hearty, ragged souls, always dressed in brown and needing a shave and a
wipe-down, debate the great questions of survival: How ruthless should
self-interest be? Is kindness just another name for weakness? Isn’t life’s
great law simply “Everybody for themselves”? We are all fascinated by the
battle of predator and prey, the survival of the fittest.

Meanwhile, our president gabbles about “winners” and “losers,”
terrified that most people don’t see him as one of the winners, and
unashamed of his naive admiration for the strength of dictators
The Right is ever more open about endorsing an economic and social Darwinism
in which brutal competition determines who shall survive, who shall
prosper, and who shall disappear.

The image of the world as an arena of cut-throat competition is seductive.
Any trust-fund aristocrat can chuckle about the unpitying law of the jungle
and feel like a raw, scrappy survivor. At this point, the richest 1 percent
of the American population controls roughly double the wealth in this
country that the bottom 90 percent of the population does
If this nation’s staggering economic inequality is just an example of
natural selection, then our dysfunctional distribution of wealth is simply
proof that all is right with the world. The myth of economic Darwinism
justifies the gutting of the American middle class – even as it’s espoused
by a GOP that claims not to believe in Darwinism itself.

Of course, the science of economic Darwinism is not actually science. It’s
worth repeating that. And when we look closely at the survival of the
fittest, it turns out that nature’s sociopathic assholes are, in any case,
rarely the most fit.

Biologically, competition is only one of many mechanisms in the survival of
the fittest. It’s often not the most efficient or strategically effective
one. For most of the twentieth century, competition was the element of
natural selection most discussed in the West, precisely because it felt
good and hard and real to imagine a world of brutal capitalist
individualism. In the last several decades, however, scientists have
increasingly drawn attention to all of the ways that the law of the jungle
– of evolution and adaptation – also selects for effective cooperation
among members of herds, packs, and hives, and even more importantly,
between different species, plant and animal, in individual ecospheres. We
now know that the forest, for example, is not simply a battlefield; it’s
also a community, in which trees of different species benefit from the
exchange of nutrients – carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous
<> – through mycorrhyzal fungi, each
participant in the exchange benefiting from its association with the others
<>. Older trees donate
nutrients to young ones just starting out; trees that are assaulted by
beetles or worms “warn” others chemically
via the fungal network, even if they aren’t related species. This is done
not out of any altruism – we’re talking about wood, here – but due to the
slow, mechanical adaptation of strategies for survival on a broader level.
Nature has played the game of self-interest, and discovered that communal
cooperation is usually more effective in promoting growth and success.

Our own bodies, similarly, are symbiotic and cooperative communities, rich
with bacterial hordes that make digestion possible. You might think of
yourself as an individual, but you are a teeming metropolis, and if you
could cast out all your bacterial stowaways, you’d quickly die, huge in
scale but helpless and stricken.

In the first phases of life on Earth, competition between hungry one-celled
organisms almost depleted available food sources and ended life’s history
on this planet before it even began. This sorry end was only avoided
through a bizarre interaction where different bacteria entered into
communal arrangements in which they exchanged nutrients and, gradually,
became the complex cells that form the building blocks of all higher life
forms, including Ayn Rand.

When eccentric biologist Lynn Margulis originally proposed
this account of genesis, she was met with near-universal disdain and
opposition. In a society that put a premium on stories of competition, this
sounded far too cooperative. It took several years for mainstream science,
hobbled by ideology, to accept Margulis’s theory as the most likely origin
story for the eukaryotic cell. As surely as the Soviets distorted the
theory of natural selection to accommodate communism, we in the West found
it hard to admit that capitalist predation was not the sole law of nature.

As we look at the birth of nations, we can watch as the same evolutionary
steps are played out in social and economic terms: cycles of competition,
cooperation, differentiation, and mutualism as individuals and businesses
seek their own niches, their own alliances, their own way to survive most
efficiently. People come together in communities because it is easier and
more efficient to survive if labor and risk are pooled. Communities try to
stabilize themselves to minimize disruption from crisis – and that’s a good
thing. Organisms, similarly, actually seek ways to avoid direct
competition, since by and large, conflict is inefficient. It involves an
expenditure of energy – and so the hawk and the owl both hunt the same prey
and occupy similar positions in the functioning of the ecosphere, but the
hawk hunts by day, and the owl by night.

Societies where competition is too fierce fall apart, just as ecosystems
where predation has run rampant quickly collapse in scenes of mute
starvation and spasms of violence.

Of course, predation is still part of the system, and sometimes a firm line
cannot be drawn between cooperation and destruction. The finely tuned
coordination between members of a coyote pack is not particularly
comforting to the rabbit running before them. The unexpected collaboration
of disparate Mongolian tribes under the banner of Genghis Khan led to one
of the fiercest campaigns of destruction in human history. Cooperation is
not necessarily a warm spectacle. This simply shows, however, that given
the complexity of natural systems and their strategies, we have a choice of
models for our society. We might as well choose one that promotes happiness
and widespread prosperity. Sure, the human animal may be a predator; but we
are also a species adapted to prevail through collaboration.

In any case, it’s completely evident that politicians and power-players on
the right don’t really believe in survival of the fittest in all cases;
they change their minds quickly when they themselves turn out not to be the
fittest. When multinational corporations and their stockholders are
threatened in the marketplace by their own dismal failures, their
inefficiencies, their bloat and double-dealings, congressional elites
demand bail-outs. No more survival of the fittest; no more talk of letting
the feckless and reckless die a natural death; no, then it’s time for us
all to pull together and yank the lumbering predator out of the tar pit.
This might have made some strategic sense after 2008, when we realized that
the death of these institutions could bring down the global economy – but
note that we have not been allowed to ensure that mega-banks will never
again be “too big to fail.” They are, in essence, underwritten at this
point by the American taxpayer. They will never have to prove themselves
worthy of continued life, capable of standing on their own two ponderous,
therapod feet. Contrary to their claims, the wealthy are not masters of
competition: instead, they find ways to exempt themselves from any real
parity while forcing others to pay the price.

So the next time a politician waxes poetic about the glories of
self-sufficiency and the survival of the fittest, their bracing vision of a
nation of neighbors red in tooth and claw, don’t listen. It’s a dangerous
myth that leads to futile strife and collapse. Let’s look at the other
strategies that allow communities – and species – to flourish.

Our survival depends upon it.
M.T. Anderson

National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson’s latest novel is "Landscape with
Invisible Hand
His latest nonfiction work is "Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri
Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad