Wednesday 25 July 2007

Social Darwinism-Comment

The Observer of Business and Politics, 10 September 1992

Why Social Darwinism is wrong

Shivanand Kanavi

Let the fittest survive. This is the slogan that is fashionable nowadays and is being applied indiscriminately. But leave alone the moral questions, applying a theory that explains the development and evolution of the animal kingdom, viz the theory of natural selection or Darwinism, to social development is not even based on any deep understanding of social dynamics or biological evolution itself.

Modern view of evolution is that differences in organisms come about through chance genetic mutations but only those that have the requisite characteristics to survive in the prevalent environment thrive while others become extinct. This process carried out through millions of years has produced various species that can thrive in the earth’s biosphere. Their environment not only consists of the elements of nature but also other species. The struggle is mainly between the species and the elements of nature and then come the factors of inter-species struggle, the predator-prey balance etc.

With the evolution of homo sapiens we have a species which has been described variously as thinking, conscious, etc, but perhaps the most distinct feature of homo sapiens is the tool-making ability. Biologists and anthropologists have emphasised the development of a moveable thumb that facilitated man in holding a tool as a factor as important in human evolution as the development of his train itself. This tool-making character has made a world of a difference between man and the other species. While all other species had to adapt themselves to the natural environment, man fashioned nature to satisfy his needs.

Further development of man has depended on his energy being less and less spent on satisfying his basic needs. With better technology yielding higher productivity, he could spend more and more energy on other intellectual pursuits. Now we have the danger of man’s effort to extract more and more from nature, without taking long term effects into account, leading to ecological destruction and eventually to a threat to man himself. Thus, the fact of man affecting his natural environment and not just natural environment affecting man, is the first distinctive feature that we have to take into account.

While increasing the productivity in extracting food and other needs from nature, mankind for the first time faced the problems associated with surplus. Division of labour was imperative for further growth of surplus and thus the distribution of existing surplus became an important social question. As Gordon Childe has pointed out through his archeological researches, religion and magic played an important role in organising the division of labour between food producers, artisans and the priests that acted as overseers and organisers of society, leading to the first urban revolution. The development of the state – a separate body with an armed apparatus – institutionalised the division of labour and the distribution of surplus came next.

When these conditions led to the overall development of society the majority of its components accepted it, but when the order did not suit large sections of society the more powerful among the discontented mobilised the rest of the discontented to change the prevailing order. In the ancient society man was faced with a combination of natural and social causes that determined his condition, over which he had no control nor did he have a clue about their working. The concept of fate – another word for inexplicable reasons for your condition – was strengthened. With the development of man’s knowledge of both nature and society a homocentric view exemplified by the French encyclopaedists emerged.

The dialectic between fate and anthropo-centrism, necessity and freedom has been one of the fundamental philosophical problems explored by the Bhagvad Gita, ancient Greeks, the encyclopaedists and the Marxists. Anyhow, the underlying assumption in today’s society is that man consciously tries to change the social condition of his being. This is the second important feature that characterises human development.

Thus, we are dealing with here a species whose evolution towards excellence is not governed by ability to adapt himself passively to the environment depending on genetic accidents as in the case of other species. Social Darwinism thus can not provide a clue to human development. In today’s world, it is cruel and ill-informed indictment of the poor and the underprivileged to say that their condition is bad because that is what they are fit to be.

If the state does not intervene in favour of the aspirations and needs of the majority of people, and concerns itself only with the interests of the rich and the powerful then it loses its raison d’etre. It is natural that sooner or later the discontented will try to overthrow the status quo and the state that upholds it.

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