A New Approach to Social Darwinism

by L. Neil Smith

         In terms of its social, economic, and political implications, Charles Darwin's monumentally historical theory of evolution by natural selection has been misinterpreted, almost certainly willfully; its actual mandate is for an open, pluralistic, "libertarian" society far "kinder and gentler" than most people living today -- including former President George Bush -- are capable of imagining.
         I've been considering this new idea for several years, having developed it most fully in my wife Cathy's little magazine, APAlogia: A Journal of Unanimous Consent. Presently I'm finishing the second volume of a science fiction trilogy about it -- "Forge of the Elders" -- for Warner books. The initial volume of that trilogy -- First Time The Charm -- hasn't yet been published. So, with a minor exception I'll get to in a moment, this will be the first time I've shared this new idea outside the narrow confines of the Libertarian movement.
         I'll repeat it, just in case you didn't get it the first time around: in terms of its social, economic, and political implications, Charles Darwin's monumentally historical theory of evolution by natural selection has been misinterpreted, almost certainly willfully; its actual mandate is for an open, pluralistic, "libertarian" society far "kinder and gentler" than most people living today -- including former President George Bush -- are capable of imagining.
         I share this new idea with trepidation, based on several unfortunate experiences I've had sharing other items of leading-edge Libertarian thought with non-Libertarians. What I have to say this evening is introductory and tentative. This idea is new to Libertarianism itself. A long time may pass before it's generally accepted there, let alone in the wider world. A much longer time will pass before every ramification, consequence, and corollary is nailed down.
         Libertarianism is an ordered collection of ideas about individual self-ownership and non-aggression which straddles the border between moral and political philosophy. I first became a self-conscious Libertarian in 1961, at the age of 14. Since then, for 28 years, I've been deeply concerned with achieving a successful social revolution based on that ordered collection of ideas.
         One of the first things anyone should know about Libertarianism is that there's a Libertarian Party and then again there's a Libertarian intellectual Movement. The two have a considerable overlapping membership, but they are quite distinct. As an individual with a great deal of experience in both, I'd have to say that to any extent the Libertarian Party ever represented the ideas first set forth by the Libertarian Movement, it has never done it very well. Instead, Party members have often compromised, distorted, and watered down those ideas in a wrong-headed, unnecessary, and essentially futile attempt to make them more palatable to voters. And more importantly, to big-money contributors.
         That's a topic for another evening. The reason I bring it up at all now is that I did learn one very important lesson working in the Libertarian Party -- actually, I learned plenty of lessons from the Party, most of them negative -- when I first helped with canvassing for its candidates. Canvassing is a process of going from door to door to acquaint potential voters with your candidate or party and to gain a rough idea of what support you can expect on Election Day.
         I was told by seasoned veterans -- all of them converts from other political parties -- that you should never waste your time arguing with the people you contact in this way. At this stage, you're simply "gathering up" those who are already on your side. If you're successful at that, you may not need to convince the "hard cases". If you're successful, a surprising number of the "hard cases" will join the herd or jump on the bandwagon in the long run, anyway.
         Some hard cases.
         Unlike those converts from other political parties, I had never been anything but a Libertarian, almost from my first conscious political thought. To me, what they were handing out seemed like pretty cynical advice. It went against my grain as an idealist. It went against my grain as a natural-born teacher. And it went against my grain as an advocate of new ideas. That cynical advice was, however, to be confirmed by all my subsequent experience. And I've found it has a far broader application than simple political canvassing.
         Some years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of people whose "first priority", their foremost professed concern, was the achievement of lasting world peace and the prevention of thermonuclear war. One reason I became a Libertarian in the first place was that I shared exactly the same concern. Furthermore, I was convinced (as I still am) that neither Left nor Right was competent in this area. In fact I believed (as I still do) that their sad, shopworn, silly philosophies work exactly like horses in tandem, dragging us inexorably to the brink.
         The Libertarian alternative -- which I don't intend going into tonight, so you can relax -- is straightforward, but it does require a willingness and ability to "think the unthinkable", to consider new ideas and discard old ones that haven't worked. Much more importantly, it demands sufficient personal integrity to slough off secondary agendas and irrelevant attitudes which have attached themselves over the years to the primary goal of achieving peace. In short, it takes about the same guts as telling the surgeon to "go ahead and amputate".
         As far as this particular group was concerned, the willingness, ability, integrity, and guts simply weren't there. Most of them didn't show up, and those who did made it very plain that they'd rather go on whining to each other about how awful things were than do anything in the real world that might actually work.
         In a classic exercise of left-wing knee-jerk bigotry, they didn't want to hear about peace from any Libertarian. I wasn't feeding them any of the conventional ideas they were used to hearing from one another -- never mind that none of those ideas has ever worked. They were never able to overcome a false impression -- which afforded them so much comfort I believe it had to be deliberate on their part -- that I was some bizarre sort of conservative and therefore (in their view) I couldn't possibly be concerned with keeping the world from being incinerated. Instead, they wanted to waste my time ragging me about Libertarian positions on issues outside the scope of that night's presentation.
         More recently, I've seen the same close-mindedness, mental laziness, irrelevant nitpicking, and willful misunderstanding exhibited on computer bulletin boards. That's where I first began talking about this new idea -- that, in terms of its social, economic, and political implications, Charles Darwin's monumentally historical theory of evolution by natural selection has been misinterpreted, almost certainly willfully; its actual mandate is for an open, pluralistic, "libertarian" society far "kinder and gentler" than most people living today, including former President George Bush, are capable of imagining -- but I eventually gave up in disgust and stopped wasting keystrokes.
         Ignorance is often bliss -- to the ignorant. Slaves, in general, tend to cherish their chains. In any event, those upon whom enlightenment must be pressed are almost certainly never worthy of it. Those who must be persuaded to be free do not deserve to be. I'm still amazed that young minds can be so constipated -- and more determined than ever that public schools be abolished, the buildings razed to the ground so that not one stone remains standing on another, and salt sown on the ruins. But that, too, is a topic for another evening.
         I'm not here tonight to convert anyone to anything. I agree with Arthur Clarke's observation that old scientists (or anybody else) are almost never converted to new concepts. They simply die and make room for young scientists who grew up with the new concepts and are accustomed to them. (This is the only thing, by the way, that I agree with Arthur Clarke about.) If you have a religiously conservative objection to the theory of evolution, or if you want to talk about souls, this discussion isn't for you and you may go home. If you have a left-wing knee-jerk bigoted reaction to the term "Social Darwinism" that prevented you from noticing that I'm taking a brand new approach to it, you may go home. If you think Libertarians are a bizarre sort of conservative (or, as people do in California, some bizarre sort of liberal) go home. Open, active minds are all I want to deal with tonight. I'm here to share some of my ideas, maybe answer the few questions afterward that strike me as honest -- and then I'm going home.
         I've always been interested in evolution. Politically, if we're trying to decide where we're going, it makes sense to have an idea where we came from, where we are now, and how we got from there to here. This is a very big subject -- the very biggest there is -- and I eventually found buried within it an even bigger idea: that in terms of its social, economic, and political implications, Charles Darwin's monumentally historical theory of evolution by natural selection has been misinterpreted, almost certainly willfully; its actual mandate is for an open, pluralistic, "libertarian" society far "kinder and gentler" than most people living today -- including former President George Bush -- are capable of imagining. With regard to its meaning for human beings, that idea is so big that it scares even me, and it isn't often that happens.
         Six hundred million years ago, life wasn't new to Earth. It had already been around for some twenty-five hundred million years. And yet the number of species living at the time was only a tiny fraction of those living today. It appears that they made their living very differently than most of the species we're familiar with today, absorbing the chemicals from the water around them, taking their energy from the sun, scavenging the dissolving remains of other creatures that had died naturally. It all sounds pretty boring, but this is what life was like -- what life had been like for those twenty-five million centuries -- right up to the dividing line between the "preCambrian" and the "Cambrian" eras.
         Notice what was missing?
         It was a time utterly without conflict, the very Utopia many people urge on us today. There was no predation, no "exploitation", because, until now, it had never "occurred" to any organism that it might liven up its life (not to mention its diet) by eating some other organism before it rotted away into its constituent chemicals. No living thing had ever eaten another living thing before.
         Once this "Original Sin" had been commited, nothing would ever be the same again. From that moment onward, all life would be nourished, one way or another -- and no matter how you may feel about it -- by the death of other life. Scientists call this moment the "Cambrian explosion" because suddenly -- compared with the countless empty eons preceding it -- competition and progress increased a millionfold, along with the number of species we can find in the rocks of that time. No longer content to scrape the sludge from sea bottoms, animals (from the same root as "animation" -- staying on the move was now a good idea) began to develop better ways to grab unwilling food, resist if they were on the menu, disguise themselves, or hide. They had no other choice, except to die. Life began to proliferate and differentiate, filling every available niche.
         The first hammer-blow had been struck on what the Elders in my trilogy call "The Forge of Adversity".
         The sparks are still scattering today.
         Given the nature of language, which reflects the nature of our species, it's difficult to speak (or even to think) about the process of evolution-by-natural-selection without lapsing into 'teleology'. That is the implication, intentional or otherwise, that random motions of inanimate nature are meant to arrive at some predetermined goal. This difficulty is associated throughout history with every kind of conceptual absurdity from belief in gods to motion pictures featuring talking animals. So as a preface, I want to make it clear that no matter how purposeful I may unintentionally make evolution sound, it isn't purposeful at all. It's simply the result of billions of years of random events operating within -- that is, constrained by -- a framework of natural law.
         Likewise, contemplating a sweep of billions of years, it's difficult to remain focused on the heart of the process of evolution-by-natural-selection, which is brutally simple.
         All living things are basically organic machines constucted according to the information contained within the nuclei of their cells. Packets of this information, long molecular chains of a protein called deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, regulate the birth, growth, and (to one extent or another) behavior of the organic machines which carry (and often exchange) it prior to its self-replication.
         That information is what it is -- and not some other set of information -- because, employing its organic carrier machine, it has managed to survive and replicate itself more successfully than competing information. If the nature of the machine is such that it carries the information long enough (and into the correct circumstances) for it to replicate, then it gives rise to yet another generation of machines. In short, machine/information combinations which survive produce offspring, which survive and produce more offspring, and so on.
         In the interest of avoiding teleology, I'll stress that the information -- which we call "genes" -- doesn't care one way or another about its own survival. It's incapable of caring about anything and doesn't have anything to care with. It simply is what it is, and does what it does. If a given organic machine fails to survive, replication doesn't occur. To any extent that the information it carried was responsible for that failure (having given rise to an inefficacious machine), then it's 'erased' from the overall body of such information which we call the 'gene pool'. This is called 'natural selection' -- as one of my correspondents puts it, a chain of causation with feedback. One may not approve of the criterion involved, but it's fundamental to life, and complaining about it is like complaining that parallel lines never meet.
         Many things (chemicals, radiation, microorganisms, systemic 'glitches') may interfere with replication. When it occurs, it isn't always perfect. In most instances, alterations to the information (called 'mutations') prevent the development and birth of the organic machine carrier altogether. In some rare instances, mutation doesn't affect the efficacy of the organism enough to prevent it from performing its 'role'. In even rarer instances, mutation actually enhances the organism's efficacy. Until recently, it was believed that this process occurred in tiny increments, as single molecules, perhaps even single atoms, of DNA were rearranged. However evidence has accumulated that, for reasons still not understood, evolution occurs in larger steps as whole sections of DNA are knocked out, added, inserted in the "wrong" place, or turned end-for-end.
         Nonetheless, the overall process of evolution is very slow. Unthinkably slow. After decades of reading, thinking, and talking about it, I believe that it's nothing more than an inability to conceptualize the gulf of time involved that keeps some people from accepting evolution for the scientific truth it represents.
         Now the question of an organism's 'efficacy' can't be answered without reference to the environment in which it operates. Thus a mutant polar bear without hair will almost certainly die at birth, whereas a hairless bear of a tropical species may survive to reproduce. And a bear belonging to a some hypothetical species already trending toward a marine existence (the path followed by porpoises and seals) may even enjoy an advantage over its 'normal' fellows.
         Some species, most notably our own, are capable of altering the impact of their environment to a greater or lesser extent. This strategem has proven so successful that, through feedback inherent in the phenomenon, the process of evolution has greatly accelerated in our species. On discovering fossil evidence of this acceleration, some observers have been tempted to doubt the theoretical basis of evolution. Better knowledge of biophysics, however, (as well as the "unnatural" selective power of certain factors such as language-use) have softened that trend.
         But I'm getting ahead of myself.
         Two hundred million years ago, three quarters of all life on Earth, both marine and terrestrial species, died out overnight (whether on a geological timescale or literally remains unclear) for reasons that are still a source of mystery and controversy. This is called the "Permian-Triassic Extinction". There are plenty of theories that try to account for what happened: a nearby supernova bathed the planet in deadly radiation; a meteor or comet struck it, filling the air with particles which blocked the sun and plunging Earth into a century of winter; a great volcano erupted, accomplishing the same thing; the continents drifted together, spreading germs and eliminating enough coastline to alter the ecology.
         What concerns us at this particular moment, however, is what happened afterward. The planet had once teemed with life in abundant variety occupying every possible environmental niche, making a living in every conceivable way. Now, most of it was gone, and a previously insignificant group of animals, suddenly deprived of natural enemies and competitors, began to proliferate and differentiate until, within a relatively short span, they filled all the empty niches.
         We call them dinosaurs.
         Nobody knows what killed their predecessors off. Nobody knows why they survived. The only safe surmise is that they were different in some way from the seventy percent of all life that died out. They had different habits, lived in different places, were awake at different hours, ate different things, needed different atmospheric gases, had different muscles, nervous systems, internal organs, or skin. Whatever it was, it kept them alive while almost everything else perished. Life on Earth went on precisely because they were different.
         One hundred seventy million years later, some sixty million years ago, a significant fraction of all life on Earth died out overnight for reasons that still remain unclear: a nearby supernova; a meteor or comet; a great volcano; drifting continents. This is called the "Cretacious-Tertiary Extinction" and it's the mysterious disaster that everybody likes to talk about, although on a grand scale it wasn't anywhere near as bad as the earlier Permian-Triassic Extinction.
         This time the dinosaurs weren't so lucky. They died, while a previously insignificant group of animals, different in some way from those who perished, began to proliferate and differentiate the same way the dinosaurs once had, until, in a relatively short span, they filled all the empty niches.
         Again.
         We call them mammals, and they are us.
         What these disasters teach us is that differentiation is the ultimate form of life insurance. Evolution has no plan. It proceeds through random genetic changes winnowed by harsh reality, just as if the output of a million typewriting monkeys were edited to eliminate the gibberish, leaving something that looks purposeful. It's a sort of optical illusion of the mind's eye, but it's what makes every generation, barring the occasional super-disaster, a bit harder to kill. Differentiation has preserved life itself, even through the super-disasters.
         If there's an overall pattern to evolution or to the history of life on Earth in general, it might be expressed in a single "Commandment", the same sort of "optical" illusion, but one which explains all. That Evolutionary Imperative, if you will, is this: for life itself to prosper, living things must not only be fruitful, they must be as different from one another as possible.
         You may be aware the Sherlock Holmes never really said "Elementary my dear Watson" or "Quick, Watson, the needle". You may be aware that Humphrey Bogart never really said "Play it again, Sam." You may not be aware that evolutionary theory is not about "survival of the fittest", it's about "survival of the fit" -- and that makes all the difference. The misquote is elitist, even fascist. The proper quote implies that anything that works is okay.
         Now, if you've been told that, in the past, "Social Darwinism" served as an excuse to keep people in their places, or to justify the power and wealth of various types of aristocracy, then you may begin to see why I say that, in terms of its social, economic, and political implications, Charles Darwin's monumentally historical theory of evolution by natural selection has been misinterpreted, almost certainly willfully; its actual mandate is for an open, pluralistic, "libertarian" society far "kinder and gentler" than most people living today -- including former President George Bush -- are capable of imagining.
         I've said that the Evolutionary Imperative is this: for life itself to prosper, living things must not only be fruitful, they must be as different from one another as possible. It isn't fashionable these days to assert that there are qualitative differences between human beings and other living things, but one of the most conspicuous of those qualitative differences is something I've heard many a zoologist talk about: there are more individual differences among human beings than between whole species of many other organisms.
         What other organisms strive to accomplish as whole species, human beings tend to do as individuals. We live everywhere on the planet, almost from the South Pole to the North Pole, and from almost the highest mountaintop to the bottom of the sea. We eat everything that doesn't eat us first -- and quite a number of things that try. We build every imaginable kind of shelter, wear every imaginable kind of clothing, practice every imaginable kind of marriage system, several different reproductive systems, indulge ourselves in every possible variety of religious and philosophical belief. Both literally and metaphorically, we try to fill every niche and be as different from one another as possible.
         No two people agree with one another about everything. The fact is that I'm often surprised that two people can ever agree on anything at all. We all seem to possess a drive -- and I'm not sure that anyone has ever noticed it before -- to differ with one another simply for the hell of it. And that drive appears far stronger to me than any contrary inclination toward conformity.
         This is a good thing. This is a very good thing. At any moment, human beings are trying every possible survival strategy in terms of geography, topography, diet, habitat, clothing, custom, and belief. Since the universe is essentially random, no one can predict what disaster will next engulf the Earth. We're way overdue, statistically, for another big meteor strike. There's bound to be another supernova soon. Mt. Saint Helen's hardly compares with the great volcanic eruptions of the past. If we've each chosen our own survival strategy and, in aggregate, we've chosen a broad enough spectrum of survival strategies, then someone will survive, whatever happens, and human life will go on.
         In terms of its social, economic, and political implications, Charles Darwin's monumentally historical theory of evolution by natural selection has been misinterpreted, almost certainly willfully; its actual mandate is for an open, pluralistic, "libertarian" society far "kinder and gentler" than most people living today -- including former President George Bush -- are capable of imagining.
         The principal implication, to me, is that those human beings who wish to survive and who wish to see their species survive, need to agree to disagree. In that context, the only system that makes political sense is a coalition for the mutual respect of individual rights, so that people can disagree without bashing each other's heads in, so that people can be as different from one another as possible and not try to force each other into choices they wouldn't otherwise have made.
         Those human beings who wish to survive and who wish to see their species survive, need to avoid or abolish anything that limits individual differences. Fascism certainly limits individual differences. Socialism limits individual differences. Democracy is probably the most dangerous of them all because it limits individual differences -- while giving its victims the illusion that they're free.
         The only system I know of that doesn't limit individual differences is Libertarianism. Its philosophical heart -- and the only limit of any kind it does impose -- is the "non-aggression principle", which holds that no one has the right to initiate force against another human being for any reason. That principle allows human beings to maximize their individual differences and thus guarantees -- as much as anything can -- the continued survival of our species on this planet.
         And anywhere else we go in the universe.


L. Neil Smith is the award-winning author of 19 books including The Probability Broach, The Crystal Empire, Henry Martyn, The Lando Calrissian Adventures, Pallas, and (forthcoming) Bretta Martyn and Lever Action. An NRA Life Member and founder of the Libertarian Second Amendment Caucus, he has been active in the Libertarian movement for 34 years and is its most prolific and widely-published living novelist.

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