Darrow, Darwin, and Dayton

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Len Hart

Darwinism is correct. Social Darwinism is utter bunkum. Not suprisingly, the American right-wing despises Darwinism but, inexplicably, embraces Social Darwinism with messianic ferver. Social Darwinism, moreover, is at the very root of an impending economic collapse but it won’t be the best or brightest who emerge unscathed on the other side! Social Darwinism is the survival of the most ruthless. Real Darwinism is reviled because it disproves the lies the rich tell themselves to help them sleep at night.

The right wing benefits when issues are obscured and there has been enough dust kicked up by “intelligent design” to obscure all the real issues and the strawmen to boot. Simply, Social Darwinism does not follow from “Darwinism” and, worse, it attributes to Darwin positions he never took. Interestingly, the term “survival of the fittest” was never used by Darwin. It has been variously attributed, but Hofstadter attributes the phrase to 19th Century American robber barons, rail road men making fortunes connecting one coast with another.

Railroad executive Chauncy Depew asserted that the guests of the great dinners and public banquets of New York City represented the survival of the fittest of all who came in search of fortune. They were the ones with superior abilities. Likewise railroad magnate James J. Hill defended the railroad companies by saying their fortunes were determined according to the law of survival of the fittest.—Hofstadter, Richard; 1959; Social Darwinism in American Thought, Braziller; New York.

These were most certainly the ‘robber barons’ who wished themselves depicted in the famous banquet photograph where they are seen wearing laurel wreaths and pretending to be emperors. Elsewhere, the term is attributed to Herbert Spencer who clearly inspired a generation of radicalized, latter-day robber barons and, bluntly, few of them evince the “…quality of mercy” so immortalized with but a few words by Shakespeare:

[Herbert] Spencer said that diseases “are among the penalties Nature has attached to ignorance and imbecility, and should not, therefore, be tampered with.” He even faulted private organizations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children because they encouraged legislation.—Social Darwinism and American Laissez-faire Capitalism

An equally fallacious corollary to “Social Darwinism” is often phrased this way: the rich are rich because they are better, work harder and are more intelligent. George W. Bush put it more crudely: “The poor are poor because they are lazy!” In the same vein, the conservative economist Joseph A. Schumpeter likened recessions to a “douche” leaving us to wonder just who is “douched” and how? More importantly: who gets to make those life and death decisions? It is difficult not to conclude that New Orleans after Katrina is but the disastrous consequence of this kind of “blame the victim” thinking. Currently, the nation faces economic calamity. However fallaciously, you can be sure that the right wing will not only benefit from the misfortunes of millions, they will try to figure out a way to blame them. It’s the right wing way. Spencer believed that because society was evolving, government intervention ought to be minimal in social and political life. It didn’t matter to Spencer that government is but a function, indeed, a creation of society and responsible to it. Seen in that light, efforts by privilege to blame the poor for their own rapacious and often dishonest or incompetent behavior is absurd. Nevertheless, American capitalism remains greatly influenced by Spencer. The ‘model’ is still found in textbooks for Economics 101. It describes the ideal of American capitalism –“rational man” making rational decisions in a free market. But, in practice, economic decisions may or may not be rational and the free market exists only hypothetically.Because the ‘theories’ of Spencer and, earlier, Adam Smith, often stress the ‘practical’, it is forgotten that Spencer and Smith were, themselves, ‘theorists’. In fact, every model we make of the world of sense experience is a ‘theory’ by definition. The word “theory” is either misunderstood by the right wing or the term is perverted for the propaganda value. There is nothing wrong with “theory” per se, though the word is used consistently, deliberately by some, in a pejorative sense except, significantly, when it is applied to Spencer and, more recently, Milton Friedman or Arthur Laffer. We are expected to believe that these ‘theorists’ are not ‘theorists’! Having made a pejorative of the word “theory”, the right wing likes to couple it with another word that has been similarly victimized by right wing propaganda. That word is “conspiracy”, another perfectly good word, in fact, a legal term about which there is a venerable body of case law, thousands of SCOTUS decisions and some 400 years of common law. Given techniques perfected by Herr Goebbels for Adolph Hitler, the combination of “conspiracy” and “theory” is lethal. The loss of these words, like that of “liberal” earlier, is an immeasurable loss to the very act of precise or accurate thought, indeed, intellectual endeavor of any sort. It must be noted that every great scientist was or is a theorist. Einstein was a “theorist” and so was Newton. Einstein has been confirmed no more times than Darwin; Newton is close enough for mundane applications or “government work” and Einstein will one day help us navigate the galaxy. Significantly, neither “theory” has been challenged in court —though both theories may very well be replaced one day by a “theory of everything”, a TOE. Only theories not liked by the right wing wind up in court. There is a political agenda and a constituency behind the campaign of attacks on Darwinism. This constituency supports Intelligent Design for the same reasons the great rail road robber barons found support in the work of Herbert Spencer. The continued economic superiority of an entire class depends upon the widespread public acceptance of religious views which justify their superior status. Hitler, likewise, found in psuedo-science and mythology much justification for his anti-semitic crusades, his campaign of genocides, his wars of naked aggression. Theories are often never of a final form —nor should they be! Unlike ideology, real science is always self-correcting as new facts emerge from research. Darwin’s theories were not only confirmed by Mendel, they accommodated Mendel which, in turn, tended to confirm Darwin. The science of genetics and the discovery of “mutations” confirm Darwin beyond any reasonable doubt.Future discoveries, like those of Mendel, will modify our view of Darwin, but will not discount them. Our view of Einstein is already modified but he continues to be confirmed in many ways. Light, indeed, bends around stars and other ‘gravity lenses’, time slows at near light speeds, space-time is a four dimensional continuum. More to the point, no one has ever sued because Einstein’s theories were odds with a particular dogma. The right wing’s disingenuous position is analogous to that of the Pope who forced Galileo to recant. I was critical of Ron Paul because his economic thinking was stuck in the 19th Century. The right wing, however, is stuck in the 17th. It is certain that no future discovery will confirm “intelligent design”, meaningless word play beyond any confirmation of any kind! Theories explain “facts” but facts can often confirm good theories as “fact”, just as facts have tended to confirm both Darwin and Einstein. Doggerel is beyond confirmation of any kind. A.J. Ayer defined ‘meaning’ itself as that property of a ‘sentence’ that makes it subject to confirmation empirically. The theoretical core of ID is not meaningful and most certainly not of a type that would have been recognized by the philosphers upon whom Western Civilization is, in fact, based. Intelligent design, however, is of a religious nature and people have a right to believe it. But, it explains nothing, in fact, raises more questions. Most obviously: who designed the designer? ID assumes a designer to ‘explain’ creation but cites ‘creation’ to prove and explain a designer. This is the classic circulus in probando fallacy. People are free to believe fallacies, but they must not be free to impose them upon other people —especially at tax payer expense! A fact, for example, is the equation describing the acceleration of falling objects; examples of theory are both the Newtonian and the Einsteinian view of “gravitation” —seen differently by both. The entire science of genetics confirms Darwin who, interestingly, did not have the benefit of Mendel’s research when he wrote Origin of the Species and the The Descent of Man. It was Mendel’s research that described the very mechanism by which Darwin’s “traits” are passed on to succeeding generations. Accurate predictions are, in themselves, evidence in support of theories. [See: Evolution in Action, Julian Huxley]Critics of Darwin have said that no one has yet produced an entirely new specie by selection. But they have indeed done just that! Consider wheat! Wheat does not grow in the wild. Related to ancient grasses, wheat is clearly the result of an ancient application of “artificial selection.” Had wheat evolved naturally, it would be found growing wild like prairie grass. But it didn’t and isn’t. Social Darwinism is one of many ideas that have harmed mankind. It rationalizes the perpetual and deliberate impoverishment of large segments of our society. The GOP will support this as a matter of policy so long as someone like Ronald Reagan can, nevertheless, make them “feel good about themselves”. It is bad enough that this callous disregard for human life is fallaciously and insidiously associated with Darwin, but that it is also bald-face lie, a misstatement of Darwin, is unconscionable. We have thus reduced the philosophical basis for the American right wing to a single line from one of the world’s great writers, Charles Dickens, whose character, Scrooge, epitomizes the American right wing

“Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons…then let them die and decrease the surplus population.”—Scrooge, A Christmas Carol

Darrow, Darwin & Dayton



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