Obstacles to the Good Society

Supposed and Actual

My focus here is on the obstacles—claimed and actual—that stand in the way of achieving the Good Society. Before proceeding, however, I must offer some sort of definition of the Good Society, and do so by borrowing from a 1999 movie, Blast From the Past: The Good Society consists of gentlemen—or, in the case of females, gentlemen-like individuals. The relevant speech in the movie is this one, spoken by Troy (played by Dave Foley):

You know, I asked him about that. He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior. Oh and you know what else he told me? He thinks I’m a gentleman and you’re a lady … I mean, I thought a “gentleman” was somebody that owned horses. But it turns out, his short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.

(The “him” here is Adam, played by Brendan Fraser.)

A gentleman, ((To avoid awkwardness of expression, I limit myself here to “gentleman,” and also refer to the “other” as a male—although my intention here is to include both sexes.)) by this definition, is one who has empathy for the others with whom he has contact, is distressed if those others are in pain or in need, and will do what he can to address existing needs. A gentleman, however, has no desire to impose himself on the other, for he does not want to damage the other’s sense of self-esteem, nor does he wish to convert the other to his own way of thinking. Rather, the gentleman wants the other not only to be himself, but to develop his latent capabilities—and himself develop into a gentleman. Living in an age of rapid communication, “others with whom he has contact” includes not just those within speaking-hearing range, but those in his neighborhood, his community, his state, his region, his country, and the world as a whole. In addition, the gentleman’s interest in his fellows extends not only across space, but extends into the future.

Much more could, of course, be said regarding the nature of the Good Society—e.g., that cooperative behavior prevails in it—but expanding on the topic further would draw me too far from the topic that I wish to address here—obstacles (claimed and actual) to achieving the Good Society. A tacit assumption here, of course, is that our current society is not an approximation of the Good Society—an assumption that I feel no need to defend. I do assume, that our society should be such a society—which judgment I also feel no need to defend. I take both of these as “givens” which you, as a reader, may or may not accept; I assume, however, that the very fact that you are reading this essay indicates that you also accept both of my “givens.”

To accept the “fact” that our society is not now a Good Society, and the value judgment that it should be, is not necessarily to believe that it will—or even can—be. However, if I had no hope for our society’s improvement, I would not have bothered writing this essay. It is the fact that I do have some measure of hope that is the basis for my writing the essay.

In addressing obstacles claimed for realizing the Good Society, I will focus on just one—the claim that humans are, by nature, competitive, rather than cooperative, and that therefore the Good Society—as I envision it—is unattainable. Furthermore, I limit my attention to that claim to two works by Charles Darwin [1809 – 1882]. Having “disposed” of Darwin (!), I identify the real obstacles that exist in our society that prevent us from having a Good Society.

My goals here are threefold:

  • To demonstrate that the notion of competition played a prominent role in Darwin’s evolutionary thinking—including that pertaining to humans.
  • To indicate the lack of empirical support for Darwin’s claims and to identify the factors, rather, that played a role in human evolution.
  • Having dismissed the factor of competition—as a natural proclivity—as an obstacle to creating the Good Society, I then identify the actual obstacles.

As it will be seen that these obstacles are all rooted in human “cultural” developments rather than our biology, they are subject to change. This is not to say that their change will be easy—for it will not be. But I believe that if these factors are “named,” their power over us will be lessened, and we will thereby be in a better position to decide:

What features—individual and societal—the Good Society should have.
How to “get there.”

In this essay, however, I limit my attention to the above three topics, having in another work already given attention to the “features” and “getting there” questions. As my starting point here is to demonstrate the prominence of the idea of competition in Darwin’s thinking regarding evolution, and doing so requires me to discuss Darwin’s “theory” of Natural Selection, I begin with Darwin’s definition of Natural Selection. First, though, some introductory comments:

A. The Role of Competition in Darwin’s Thinking

1. Introduction

The fundamental fact underlying the concept of evolution is that individuals vary in their inherited characteristics. Individuals can also vary in their acquired characteristics, ((Such variation is most common with our species.)) of course, but it is the inherited ones that are of interest for the concept of evolution. ((If, that is, we ignore “Lamarckism,” named for Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de la Marck [1744-1829], who famously argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. ))

Not only do individuals vary in inherited traits; they vary in their degree of similarity (with inherited traits) relative to other individuals! That fact enables a taxonomic grouping of individuals into species (and varieties within a species), genuses, families, orders, classes, phyla, kingdoms, and domains. And the taxonomic groups themselves often have a geographic expression—in that, e.g., a given species may be associated (“naturally”) with a certain geographic region.

Members of a given species have a limited ability to interbreed, ((Which is not to say that breeding cannot also occur at an inter-species level. Such breeding, however, is relatively rare.)) and in producing progeny produce offspring that (also) vary in their inherited traits. Were it not for this individual variation—continuing individual variation, in fact—evolution could not occur.

Let me immediately qualify this assertion, however, by noting that a distinction commonly made by evolutionary biologists is that between small-scale evolution and large-scale evolution. ((See, e.g., the Preface in Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.)) The former involves minor changes—changes that occur as members of a species disperse into new areas, and adapt to those areas; or changes that occur within a given area as changes in that area (e.g., its physical environment) force the species to adapt (ignoring here the possibility of adaptation via migration!). ((Given what has been accomplished with breeding (e.g., with dogs), it is clear that a substantial amount of species change can be associated with small-scale evolution.)) The latter type of evolution is more significant in that it involves the emergence of new species—with new structures, etc.

As we shall see shortly, Charles Darwin evidently perceived a single “mechanism” ((An assertion that I will qualify shortly.)) operating in Nature—that of “natural selection”—and evidently believed ((The “tree of life” illustration that Darwin used in The Origin of Species (the only illustration that appears in the book) suggests as much.)) that natural selection brought about both types of evolution. I, however, place myself in that group that holds that (a) although selection mechanisms explain small-scale evolution, (b) other factors are involved with large-scale evolution. What those “other” factors might be is of no interest for the purposes of the present discussion, however; as a consequence, I do not pursue the matter further here.

Below, then, I (a) offer a definition of “natural selection”—i.e., I present Darwin’s definition of the term; (b) offer a “translation” of that definition by an eminent (late) evolutionary biologist, and then comment on that “translation;” and (c) offer my own “translation” of Darwin.

2. Darwinian Natural Selection

It is not clear that Darwin gave “natural selection” a consistent meaning in Origin. I believe, however, that his basic, if not sole, meaning for the term is conveyed in the first paragraph of Chapter IV (“Natural Selection”), which I quote here in full:

HOW will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter [Chapter III, “Struggle for Existence” ((The term “natural selection” first occurs in the Introduction to Origin, but is not “defined” until the first paragraph of Chapter IV.)) ], act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic. ((Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1859, p. 80-81. Available on the internet. Note here that the very title of Darwin’s “classic” indicates the importance that he gave to “natural selection.”))

Granted that this paragraph does not contain a definition as commonly understood. However, this passage in Origin comes closest to providing a definition of “natural selection”—which is why I have quoted it in full here.

What was Darwin “saying” here? In “fleshing out” the meaning—Darwin’s meaning, that is—of “natural selection” here, let me first attempt to derive Darwin’s meaning from the term itself. An interpretation that seems reasonable, using this approach, is that Darwin thought of “natural selection” as that selection that occurred in Nature—as opposed to the selection exercised by breeders in their “artificial selection.” Although one might be inclined to make such an interpretation upon a casual encounter with the term, it is clear—from a reading of Origin—that that’s not the meaning that Darwin intended for the term. Given that we know that several processes operate in Nature—and various passages in Origin indicate that Darwin knew this as well—it would seen foolish of us to think that Darwin thought of “natural selection” as some sort of generic process operating in Nature. Likewise, it would be foolish of us to believe that Darwin thought of “natural selection” as a plural term that encompassed the various processes operating in Nature; for given that different processes would be expected to have different consequences (a fact that Darwin surely recognized), it would be unwise—indeed, absurd—to so think of “natural selection.”

How, then, did Darwin “define” natural selection? A puzzling fact that we must first recognize here is that although Darwin knew that several selection mechanisms operate in Nature, he used just two labels for selection mechanisms occurring in Nature—Natural Selection and Sexual Selection. Given this fact, the suggestion, seemingly, is that he (unwisely) lumped all processes other than the one(s) associated with Sexual Selection into a single category, and gave them the name natural selection. But is that what Darwin did? Some scholars seem to believe so (one would infer from their discussions of natural selection), but the paradox that seems, rather, to be the case is that although Darwin did not necessarily use “natural selection” in a consistent manner in Origin (within which the term occurs frequently, one must admit!), in the above passage he seems to have “defined” natural selection in such a manner that it referred to just one causative mechanism. We have, then, the odd fact that Darwin seemed to associate a single certain mechanism to natural selection, and another one to sexual selection (one with similarities with artificial selection, or breeding)—and in doing so excluded a number of other mechanism of which he was aware! I have no explanation for this peculiarity, and therefore will simply “pass over” it.

Let me next, then, present a “translation” of Darwin’s “natural selection” offered by a noted evolutionary biologist, followed by some commentary on that “translation,” that followed by my own “translation.” Then, after presenting my perspective on human evolution (in the next section), I make some final comments on Darwin’s “theory” of natural selection.

3. Mayr’s “Translation”

The late Ernst Mayr [1904-2005] was one of the most respected names in evolutionary biology for many years; thus, his summary of Darwin’s theory of [monotypic ((I have borrowed the terms “monotypic” and “polytypic” from William Tammone, “Competition, the Division of Labor, and Darwin’s Principle of Divergence,” Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28 (Spring 1995). Tammone used these terms on pages 116, 120, and 131. (“Monotypic” has roughly the same meaning as “small-scale,” “polytypic” as “large-scale.”) Parallel terms are (respectively) anagenesis and cladogenesis. See, e.g., Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony Books, 1996, p. 63.)) ] evolution should be taken seriously. It is as follows (except that I omit his graphics):

First, Darwin began by recognizing three “facts”:

Fact 1. Populations tend to grow, and at an exponential rate.

Fact 2. (But) populations tend to remain stable in size.

Fact 3. There is a finite “carrying capacity” for a given species in a given area.

From these three “facts” Mayr claimed that Darwin derived:

Inference 1. A “struggle for existence among individuals” occurs.

Inference 2. There is differential survival; that is, some of those born die, others live (and later—some of them, at any rate—reproduce)—i.e., there is “natural selection.”

This second inference, according to Mayr, was drawn from Inference 1, along with Facts (4) and (5), which are as follows:

Fact 4. Each individual is unique (i.e., there is population variability).

Fact 5. Much of the individual variation is heritable.

The above “facts” and “inferences” lead logically to Inference 3:

Inference 3. Over many generations the change in the given species is such that one can say that there has been [monotypic] evolution.

I assume that this is an accurate “translation” of Darwin’s “theory” of natural selection, but will note several problems with Mayr’s summary (and/or the “theory” that it summarizes):

  • The meaning of “struggle for existence” is left ambiguous (as to precisely what it entails, and whether it is of an intra-specific nature ((I assume that intra-specific competition was being referred to—both in Darwin’s Origin and in Mayr’s “translation.”)) or, rather, involves several species).
  • Mayr’s Inference 2 fails to make clear the point that “differential survival” means that selectivity in (premature) deaths occur—i.e., the survivors (as a group) differ, genetically, ((A word which was not, of course, in Darwin’s vocabulary (although he seemed to possess the concept involved). The term itself was coined in 1909 by Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen [1857-1927].)) from the non?survivors. For only then does the occurrence of (premature) deaths have genetic significance. If, e.g., such deaths simply occur on a random basis, they have no genetic significance (i.e., they are inconsequential for the future genetic composition of the group in question, and changes in such).
  • The conclusion (that I am imputing to him) that excess births will inevitably result in intra-specific competition ignores the very real possibility that, e.g., predation will be the primary factor acting to reduce the population to a “proper” size (i.e., carrying capacity level, or a somewhat lower level) rather than (or in addition to) intra-specific competition. Evidently Mayr was not aware of the “definition” of “Ecology” that some ecologists would give: “Ecology is about who eats whom.”
  • Even if predation is not involved, excess births need not result in intra-specific competition; they could, rather, simply result, e.g., in death via starvation.
  • The “theory” proceeds as if the environment was non?existent!—or at least was not relevant as an explanatory factor.

4. My Version

Following, finally, is my interpretation of the above Darwin passage:

The “selection” in “natural selection” refers to a process—a process of temporal change in a given species (i.e., monotypic evolution)—and a single process rather than a group of processes.

The “natural” in “natural selection” suggests that Darwin was asserting that the process in question occurred in the real world—was not just of a hypothetical nature. That is, the “natural” suggests that natural selection has an empirical basis. (Which does not necessarily mean that natural selection can be observed, but at least can be inferred from observational data.)

The fact that Darwin perceived a similarity between “artificial selection” (i.e., breeding—given attention in his Chapter I, “Variation Under Domestication”), combined with the fact that breeding results in the intensification of some trait(s)—one(s) chosen by the breeder—clearly suggests that Darwin thought of natural selection as resulting in (comparable) directionality with a certain variable(s).

The “selection” in “natural selection” suggests that reference was being made not only to a process, but a process that was selective (rather than random); i.e., the “selected” individuals (as a group) had more of the given variable (the one involved in directionality) than the individuals not “selected.” (Which implies, of course, that individuals of a given species differ one from another in various respects.)

Although with “artificial selection” the causal agent is humans choosing, the cause of “natural selection” is intra-specific competition.

That competition results not from an innate tendency to engage in competitive behavior but, rather, from the “pressure” exerted by “excess” births. (That is, the cause is situational rather than genetic—although over time the latter can become dominant, as aggressiveness might be expected to become more prominent as an inherited trait. Which means that although “in the beginning” a certain physical trait may give one an advantage in competition with one’s conspecifics, over time this factor may be joined by the behavioral trait of aggressiveness.)

Given that the selectivity must be thought of as resulting in directionality with one or more variables (physical and behavioral), to be comparable with artificial selection, the suggestion is that (a) acquired characteristics play no role in the “selection” process. In addition, the suggestion is that (b) all possible causal factors in addition to natural selection (e.g., environmental change, predation, etc.) are being “held constant” ((As if one were conducting an experiment!)) —so that they can have no causal efficacy.

The “fact” that acquired traits play no role in survival/non-survival suggests that the intra-specific competition occurs only with the just-born (whose characteristics are only attributable to biological inheritance—if we assume away the possibility of certain characteristics being acquired after conception, but while still in the womb).

That fact suggests, in turn, that the just-born are “on their own” from birth—regardless of the species under consideration.

The “survival of the fittest” phrase (first used by Darwin in this paragraph in the fifth edition of Origin) should be understood as meaning “survival of those individuals that fit the given environment and also–Indeed, principally—are “winners” in the intra-specific competition that occurs—being winners because they have certain inherited traits that give them a competitive advantage.

More implicit assumptions in Darwin’s discussion of natural selection could be identified, but enough has been made explicit above to allow us to conclude that if ((The “if” here is important (and therefore italicized) because what Darwin actually presented was a model, not a theory. This is not the place, however, to specify how the one differs from the other.)) (a) the above were to occur year after year, (b) we were to determine the average value for the “success” variable for survivors each year, (c) were to plot those values on a graph, and (d) then connect the resulting points with a line, the line would be upward-sloping (or downward-sloping, as the case might be). ((It would not depict the step-like change associated with Stephen Jay Gould’s [1941-2002] “punctuated equilibria.” Rather, the line would be (strictly speaking) a straight one (although it could also, logically, be a curved one).)) Which fact would “tell” us that directionality had occurred: slow, steady, “progressive” change. Darwin would have added that certain other variables might have been correlated with the “success” variable(s), and would therefore also exhibit the same kind of change.

I noted above (under point 10) that Darwin did not use the phrase “survival of the fittest” in the first edition of Origin, but first used it in the fifth (1869) edition—which he did upon the recommendation of Alfred Russel Wallace [1823-1913], who “invented” the “theory” of natural selection at about the same time as had Darwin. I should add that Darwin borrowed the “survival of the fittest” phrase from his contemporary Herbert Spencer [1820-1903], who had first used the phrase in The Principles of Biology, Vol. 1. ((London: Williams and Norgate, 1864. The book can be downloaded. It should be unnecessary to note here—but I will anyway!—that ideas regarding evolution existed before the writings of Darwin and Wallace were prepared and published, and that Spencer had begun to publish his ideas regarding evolution in the early 1850s.))

The phrase first appears in Chapter XII (“Indirect Equilibration”) of Part III (“The Evolution of Life”) of Spencer’s book, on p. 444. The paragraph preceding the use of the “survival of the fittest” phrase refers to the fact that individuals of a species would vary in their characteristics (whether inherited or acquired is not specified), and then brings in a reference to “a particular incident force” and “change in the environment” which would “affect more or less differently the slightly different moving equilibria which the members of the species present. It cannot but happen that some will be more stable than others, when exposed to this new or altered factor … and that those will survive whose functions happen to be most nearly in equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces.”

Spencer’s next paragraph then begins: “But this survival of the fittest, implies multiplication of the fittest … And by the continual destruction of the individuals that are the least capable of maintaining their equilibria in [the] presence of this new incident force, there must eventually be arrived at an altered type completely in equilibrium with the altered conditions.”

What Spencer seems to have been referring to here was the incidence of environmental change, with the given species adapting to that change by a process of selective survival. ((Members of a species can also, of course, “adapt” to environmental change by migrating!)) That is, those individuals that best fit the changing environment would survive, and later (some of them, at any rate) reproduce, those lacking a “fit” with the changing environment would die (and therefore not produce any progeny). The species would therefore change, but only as long as the environment changed—and provided that the environment changed slowly enough to allow the species to adapt. Note the absence of any reference to intra-specific competition in Spencer’s discussion.

Spencer made reference to Darwin’s Origin on p. 445, and quoted the “’natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’” statement from Origin. In discussing natural selection as used by Darwin, there is, however, no hint in Spencer’s discussion that he (Spencer) recognized the role that competition played in Darwin’s thinking. In addition, Spencer revealed his attachment to Lamarckism ((Named after Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de la Marck [1744-1829], who argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. I should note that Darwin himself, although associated especially with a “genetic” view of inheritance, never freed himself completely from Lamarckism.)) in his statement (p. 449) that “there is a moiety of the phenomena which this key [Darwin’s natural selection] will not unlock. Mr Darwin himself recognizes use and disuse of parts, as causes of modifications in organisms; and does this, indeed, to a greater extent than do some who accept his general conclusion. But I conceive that he does not recognize them to a sufficient extent … I think [that] he leaves unconsidered a mass of morphological phenomena that are explicable as results of functionally-acquired modifications, transmitted and increased, and which are not explicable as results of natural selection.”

If Spencer lacked a clear grasp of the meaning that Darwin attached to natural selection, an additional irony is that Darwin, in turn, seemed not to understand how Spencer had used “survival of the fittest” in his (Spencer’s) 1864 book! It seems reasonably clear that Darwin associated (intra-specific) competition with natural selection, and also clear that Spencer did not associate such competition with his “survival of the fittest”! Why, then, did Darwin choose to use the phrase in the fifth edition of Origin? The term “fittest” in the phrase suggests that reference was being made to fitting the environment—and that’s exactly what Spencer had in mind. Darwin’s use of the phrase—as a virtual substitute for natural selection—makes it appear that he (Darwin) thought of natural selection as resulting in fitting the environment. But such is true only in an incidental sense. It is reasonably clear that Darwin thought of intra-specific competition as the “motor” which drove natural selection, the result being not only directionality, but directionality that would continue on indefinitely. The individuals that survived would, of course, need to fit the environment—which in Darwin’s case was tacitly assumed to be spatially homogeneous, as well as unchanging temporally; but the main point with Darwin was that only those able to win in intra-specific competition would survive (and later reproduce), this process occurring year after year producing directionality that would continue on through time indefinitely.

It is not at all clear, then, why Darwin (upon the advice of Wallace) chose to think of “survival of the fittest” as having the same meaning as natural selection; and in doing so, Darwin has confused many a reader, who have insisted on giving a Spencerian, rather than Darwinian, meaning to natural selection—and, with Darwin, have equated “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection.”

5. Natural Selection Elsewhere in Darwin

The Origin of Species was not the only book that Darwin wrote, but of those other books, the only one that dealt exclusively with humans was his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. ((New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871, (Vol. 1). The book can be downloaded from this site.)) The question that arises, then, regarding that book is what role—if any—natural selection plays in it. And the answer is that the term is used frequently in Descent (e.g., on p. 173 it is used three times and “struggle for existence” is used twice), and given the same basic meaning as in Origin. For example, on p. 173 we find: “Natural selection follows from the struggle for existence; and this from a rapid rate of increase.”

However, whereas in Origin the natural selection that was occurring was seemingly happening as a result of competition between individuals of a species, in Descent the competition is primarily between groups. Darwin noted that (p. 155) “the ape-like progenitors of man” were “social” ((On p. 154 Darwin stated: “It deserves notice that as soon as the progenitors of man became social (and this probably occurred at a very early period) ….”)) (i.e., tended to live in groups), and therefore “must have acquired the same instinctive feelings which impel other animals to live in a body [i.e., group]…” He added (p. 155-156) that they “would have felt uneasy when separated from their comrades, for whom they would have felt some degree of love; they would have warned each other of danger, and have given mutual aid in attack or defence.” And having such behavioral characteristics (p. 156) “implies some degree of sympathy, fidelity, and courage.” How were these attributes acquired? They “were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner [as with “lower animals”], namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit.” (Precisely how that mechanism worked to bring about those traits was not, however, explained by Darwin.)

Darwin noted (p. 130) that “Man has spread widely over the face of the earth, and must have been exposed, during his incessant migrations, to the most diversified conditions.” Thus, as their habitat changed in character as they moved from place to place, early humans were forced to change their habits. Darwin did not specify whether this occurred through a process of selection or of learning, but implied the former (p. 131): “The early progenitors of man must … have tended, like all other animals, to have increased beyond their means of subsistence; they must therefore occasionally have been exposed to a struggle for existence, and consequently to the rigid law of natural selection. Beneficial variations of all kinds will thus, either occasionally or habitually, have been preserved, and injurious ones eliminated.”

Darwin added that as the early humans spread over the earth, (p. 131) “all others have yielded before him.” Meaning, presumably, that other species that might act as competitors would be displaced in the process. What gave humans an ability to do this? Man (p. 131) “manifestly owes this immense superiority to his intellectual faculties, his social habits, which lead him to aid and defend his fellows, and to his corporeal structure.” The (p. 131-132) “supreme importance of these characters has been proved by the final arbitrament of the battle for life.”

Darwin credited man’s development of (p. 132) “articulate language” as having especial importance for his “advancement”: “Through his powers of intellect, articulate language has been evolved; and on this his wonderful advancement has mainly depended.” Man has invented weapons, tools, traps; has made rafts and canoes; has discovered “the art of making fire, by which hard and stringy roots can be rendered digestible, and poisonous roots or herbs innocuous.” Etc. These (p. 132) “several inventions, by which man in the rudest state has become so preeminent, are the direct result of the development of his powers of observation, memory, curiosity, imagination, and reason.” Darwin “explained” these developments by asserting (p. 154) that “It is … highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection; and this conclusion is sufficient for our purpose.” But is it? Is the glib assertion that natural selection was responsible for these developments sufficient, given that no explanation was offered for precisely how natural selection “worked its magic”?!

The intellectual (and related) development that occurred with early humans did not occur evenly—it occurred more in some groups than others. Those which had “progressed” the most in this regard had the advantage in their competition with other groups, and Darwin ostensibly believed that conflict between early human groups occurred as a matter of course; e.g., on p. 156 he referred to “the never-ceasing wars of savages …” In these wars the more advanced group tended to be victorious over less-advanced groups. And Darwin added (p. 154)—with seeming approval—that: “At the present day civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect.” And he added: “It is, therefore, highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection …” But precisely how, Darwin didn’t bother to explain. He added, however, that as this process continued, (p. 156) “the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.”

What Darwin seemed to label as “social” and “moral” qualities were those traits—such as loyalty, a willingness to help others, courage—that would help a group (p. 156) “cohere,” and thereby allow them to act as an effective group in doing battle with other (less-developed) human groups. Thus, the “cohesion” that Darwin prized, with a human group, solely functioned for defensive and offensive purposes. And this cohesion developed within a group because members came to recognize that if one (p. 157) “aided [in a battle situation] his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return. From this low motive he might acquire the habit of aiding his fellows [in a battle situation]; and the habit of performing benevolent actions certainly strengthens the feeling of sympathy, which gives the first impulse to benevolent actions. Habits, moreover, followed during many generations probably tend to be inherited.” (How does this occur?!)

Darwin added (p. 157): “But there is another and much more powerful stimulus to the development of social virtues, namely, the praise and the blame of our fellow-men.” These are due to the “instinct of sympathy,” and (p. 158) “this instinct no doubt was originally acquired, like all the other social instincts, through natural selection.” A glib statement if ever there was one!

Although Darwin referred to the Golden Rule (e.g., on p. 102 and 159, it is clear in Descent that he believed that “some people are more equal than others” and, therefore, deserve to be treated differently. He noted that (p. 161) natural selection worked well within “savage” societies in that “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.” But in a seemingly complaining spirit ((Evidently he was not familiar with Matthew 25!!)) he then added (p. 161-162): “We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical mean exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak [and worthless!] members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Yes, indeed!!

However, Darwin reveals that he is conflicted regarding the matter of how we should treat others. On the one hand he stated (p. 162) that: “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered … more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” If “we were intentionally to neglect the weak and the helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kinds …”

On the other hand, however, Darwin seemed to gain some sense of relief—or is it satisfaction?!—from certain “checks” that operate in “civilized” societies (p. 165-166): “In regard to the moral qualities [at least, and ignoring intellectual ones for the moment], some elimination of the worst dispositions is always in progress even in the most civilized nations. Malefactors are executed, or imprisoned for long periods, so that they cannot freely transmit their bad qualities. Melancholic and insane persons are confined, or commit suicide. Violent and quarrelsome men often come to a bloody end. Restless men who will not follow any steady occupation—and this relic of barbarism is a great check to civilization—emigrate to newly-settled countries, ((On p. 173 Darwin stated: “There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe having emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and having there succeeded best.”)) where they prove useful pioneers.” The intemperate tend to die young; profligate women “bear few children, and profligate men rarely marry; both suffer from disease.”

Thus, Darwin believed not only that natural selection had played a major role in human evolution—just as it had in the evolution of every other species—but that natural selection had had both positive and negative consequences. And although we should have regrets for the latter, we should recognize that there are checks that help reduce the deleterious effects of the negative consequences, the main point to recognize is that (p. 173) “Had he [i.e., humankind] not been subjected to natural selection, assuredly he would never have attained to the rank of manhood”—i.e., his current advanced state.

6. Why I Eschew Referring to “Natural Selection”

Let me now indicate why—from a scientific standpoint ((Insofar as the claim—supposedly with a “scientific” basis—that competition is a law of nature came to be applied in a social context—in the form of “Social Darwinism”—this claim has not only been untrue but damaging: it has enabled people to excuse their evil behavior, on the one hand, and excuse their failing to engage in helpful behaviors, on the other hand.)) —the term “natural selection” should be expunged from discussions of human evolution:

  • Darwin based—via the use of deduction—his “explanation” of (monotypic) species change on Rev. ((A “Christian” minister—or so it is claimed.)) Thomas Malthus’s [1766-1834] “law” of excess births. Unfortunately, that “law” is not a law in the sense of a “true” universal statement. Therefore, Darwin’s conclusion that intra-specific competition is a “law of nature,” although a valid conclusion (i.e., one that is logically derivable from Malthus’s “law” ((Although Darwin’s conclusion is logically derivable from Malthus’s “law,” it is not the only possible conclusion that can be so derived. As I indicated earlier, the “excess” births could also, e.g., be “handled” via predation—to the degree, in fact, that no “pressure” for intra-specific competition would exist.)) ), is a false one. It is that fact which may have led William Irvine to make the astute observation that: “Darwin had not so much proved that natural selection does occur as that it must occur.” ((Apes, Angels, and Victorians: Darwin, Huxley, and Evolution. With new Introduction by Sir Julian Huxley. New York: Time Incorporated, 1963, p. 129. First published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1955.))
  • Because of the manner in which Darwin obtained his “law,” evidently he believed that it was not necessary to provide empirical evidence in support of the “law”—and thus never did.
  • No subsequent empirical research has established that intra-specific competition is a law of nature. In fact, between September 1890 and June 1896 Prince—and geographer—Peter Kropotkin [1842-1921] published a series of articles in The Nineteenth Century that offered evidence of cooperation, rather, in nature (which articles were published in book form—Mutual Aid—in 1902). (The articles were written in response to Thomas H. Huxley’s [1825-1895] “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” published in the February 1888 issue of The Nineteenth Century. ((In this article Huxley wrote that animal life was characterized by conflict with conspecifics and that, likewise, early human society was “a continual free fall,” with a “Hobbesian war of each against all ….” Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 and died in 1679. His famous book, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, was published in 1651.)) Some editions of Kropotkin’s book include a copy of the Huxley article.) ((See also Robert Augros and George Stanciu, The New Biology: Discovering the Wisdom in Nature. Boston: New Science Library, 1987; and Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 19865.))
  • Nor, indeed, has empirical research established that evolutionary change has been slow, steady, and progressive. The “progressive” part of the prediction has realism in that the general trend has been toward increasing complexity. And although “slow” and “steady” would seem to have realism from a small-scale standpoint, they definitely lack in realism from a large-scale standpoint; rather, the evidence is clear that at the latter scale change tends to be step-like.
  • The above is not to say that natural selection has not occurred with some species. However, my focus here is on the human species, and it is unlikely that natural selection played much of a role in human evolution—or any role, for that matter. The factors, rather, that seem to have played a role in human evolution are the following, and it those factors to which I make reference in the discussion that follows:

§ Environmental change ((See especially Stephen M. Stanley, Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve. New York: Harmony Books, 1996.))

§ Predation ((See especially Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. New York: Westview Press, 2005.))

§ Sexual selection ((See, e.g., Mariette Nowak, Eve’s Rib: A Revolutionary New View of the Female. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980; Nancy Makepeace Tanner, On Becoming Human. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981; and Adrienne Zihlman, “The Paleolithic Glass Ceiling: Women in Human Evolution,” in (p. 91-113) Women in Human Evolution, edited by Lori D.Hager. London: Routledge, 1997.))

Let me conclude this section by noting that Robert Augros and George Stanciu have presented a very succinct critique of Darwin’s “theory” of natural selection: All of “Darwin’s premises are defective: there is no unlimited population growth in natural populations, no competition between individuals, and no new species producible by selecting for varietal differences. And if Darwin’s premises are faulty, then his conclusion [of slow, steady, progressive change] does not follow.” ((The New Biology: Discovering the Wisdom in Nature. Boston, MA: New Science Library, 1988, p. 160.))

B. The Explanatory Factors of Relevance

As the sources that I have cited above (among others) indicate, the factors that have been decisive in human evolution have been (a) environmental change, (b) predation, and (c) sexual selection. As my intent here is other than to discuss human evolution, I will keep this section extremely short, and note simply that in discussing human evolution, there is no need to bring in the factor of natural selection. Indeed, it is a mistake—commonly made, one must admit—to bring the factor into the discussion for the simple reason that there is no reason to believe that it played a role in human evolution.

What seemed to initiate the process of human evolution was climatic change associated with the Ice Age (described in the Stanley book cited above). This change brought about vegetational changes in Africa which, in turn, meant that our ancestors were faced with a changing habitat. Our ancestors had been tree dwellers primarily, but the thinning of forests in Africa forced our ancestors out of the trees, thereby exposing them to predators. As they adapted—via selection mechanisms—to the new situation, they changed both physically and behaviorally (as Hart and Sussman note in the book cited above). In addition, sexual selection came to play a role—but in the form of “female choice” sexual selection. That is, females—the ones willing to care for their young ((Ones not so willing would, of course, leave no descendants!)) —became “fussy” regarding who they mated with, and tended to choose, as mates, those males who would provide them with food and protection.

As a consequence of the particular selection mechanisms that did shape human development—with predation and sexual selection having particular importance—humans came to be “good natured.” ((The allusion here is to Frans de Waal, Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. See also, e.g., Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.)) In asserting that, I need immediately to qualify it by stating that humans did not evolve independently of a way of life but, rather, evolved in conjunction with one; one that was initially centered on gathering, with trapping and hunting (and consequent meat-eating) added much later. ((Factors that enabled this development were not only developments in tools/weapons, but developments in dentition and in the ability to use fire for cooking (thereby making meat digestible).))

The importance of that point is that when humankind began on the road to “civilization,” people had certain biological traits (physical and behavioral) and tended to retain those traits while civilization was “progressing.” Given that humans had not been “designed” for civilized existence, the rise of civilization meant a growing discrepancy between (a) the way of life people had been “designed” for and (b) the way of life they were forced to live. Because human biology remained basically the same over time, there grew an ever-widening Discrepancy—and one could argue (but I will not do so here) that virtually all of the problems we humans face at present are attributable to this Discrepancy. And one could also argue that the obstacles that we now face in achieving the Good Society are all “man made” (in the literal sense of being blamable on males!), but with males having the excuse that they, in turn, can blame The Discrepancy! What are those obstacles? Let us next identify them.

C. Obstacles (Actual Ones!) to the Good Society

Not only do the obstacles to a Good Society not lie in our genes. The opposite is true in the sense that the Good Society is latent in our genes. For that latency to be released, realized, however, we need—for one thing—to become aware of the real obstacles that lie in our path. Other considerations will be given brief attention in the Conclusion section, but at this point I wish to identify some of the human-made obstacles that frustrate creation of a Good Society. I make no claim that the list provided here is complete. Let me begin here with a brief critique of our society:

[The United States is] a society that upholds barely veiled megalomania as its most exalted ideal—a society that exhorts its citizens to spurn the fulfillment of their essential humanity and to crave, instead, superhuman glory. Yes, the most influential ideologies of American cultural history have offered us beguiling paths to delusion; beguiling, because each has tendered its invitation to limitless egoism under the guise of a dedication to high social ideals. ((Irving Sarnoff, Society With Tears. New York: The Citadel Press, 1966, p. 35.))

This is a rather damning indictment of our society (!), but Dr. Sarnoff was simply trying to express his honest perception of our society.

I have organized my list into four categories: one’s situation, common practices, governing ideas, and ignorance.

1. One’s Situation

  • Our society is structured (e.g., private property, nuclear family, emphasis on rights, etc.) such that when one “comes of age,” one must “enter the world” and become employed. Given that a “success” mentality is a driving force in our society, one finds oneself in a situation such that one must either seek employment or start one’s own business. In either case the degree of one’s “success” will depend heavily on one’s family background (e.g., one’s parents income and education)—for this will play a huge role in the education one receives and the opportunities that become available. It also, of course, depends on one’s abilities, interests, personality, etc. Inevitably, most will become “unsuccessful,” with some becoming more “successful” than others. Thus, one may very well develop an inferiority complex, and “compensate” for these feelings by becoming centered on one’s self (rather than others), or (in some cases) by even “striking out” at others, thereby inflicting psychological and/or physical harm on others.

    Compensatory behavior can also be innocuous, of course, in that one may, e.g., become a sports fanatic—so that virtually all of one’s “off” time is spent either in participating in a sport (e.g., golf) or becoming a spectator (of baseball, basketball, football, etc.). As a, e.g., sports fanatic, one may not engage in hurtful behaviors (except, perhaps, “keying” cars of the fans of opposing teams!), but also may not do much good either—so “possessed” is one with one’s obsession. Likely also, one does not take one’s duties as a citizen very seriously.

  • If one “achieves” some measure of success, and occupies a supervisory or managerial position, one may find that one’s duties virtually require one to be unethical in how one treats one’s employees. Ironically, this may cause one feelings of guilt, and one compensates for those feelings by, e.g., making a conscious effort to be “nice” to one’s neighbors. Thus, the one who does “good” need not be a person who is doing so for the best motives!
  • If one is an executive, a question that arises is: Is the evil that one does attributable to one’s position or, rather, has one striven to attain an executive position because one is inclined to do evil? Both factors are likely involved; but what is beyond question is that evil is associated with executive positions.

    In the case of government officials (whether in the executive or legislative branches) it is common that those in decision-making positions engage in actions that benefit corporations and the rich, seek to “fix” elections in other countries, seek to assassinate leaders in other countries (if “only” character assassinations), and start wars. For an excellent discussion of this topic see William Blum, Killing Hope. ((Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995 (but updated since then).)) Blum has a web site and presents periodic updates on this excellent (if highly disturbing!) web site.

    In the case of corporate officials it is common that those in executive positions strive to pay low wages, to resist union-formation and engage in union busting if the former efforts are unsuccessful (e.g., through threatening to send jobs overseas and/or actually doing so), offer little in the way of benefits, produce shoddy products, offer unsafe working conditions, lobby government officials to get what they want (e.g., of a regulatory and taxation nature), misinform the public (in the case of media executives), and even make decisions that cause economic collapse. For a recent discussion of relevance see this one by Paul Craig Roberts, a former member of the Reagan administration (Assistant Secretary of the Treasury).

  • One may be poor, have a handicap, etc., so that even if one would like to do good, finds doing so difficult. Unfortunately, if one is extremely poor, one may engage in hurtful behaviors—e.g., robbery, burglary—out of a sense of desperation.
  • One may be a sadist, perhaps because of unfortunate experiences while one was developing, and therefore be inclined toward hurtful behaviors, and have no inclination whatsoever to engage in helpful behaviors.

2. Common Practices

  • Child-rearing practices in this country often result in individuals who lack much of a sense of empathy for others. Were the practices reported in Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept ((Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1977. See this site for more information.)) widely used in our society, this might have a huge impact on behavior in this society.
  • The games and sports that are by far the most common in our society are competitive ones. As such, they help “train” people for life in our society—although few in our society view these games/sports that way. The fact of the matter is that there are many cooperative games/sports (if one “Googles,” one will have thousands of “hits”), and if these were more popular, behavior in our society likely would be very different. One can argue, though, that given that our society “needs” there to be competitive games and sports, the only way for cooperative games/sports to become popular is through substantial societal system change!

3. Governing Ideas (in the Society)

  • One of the governing ideas in our society is that happiness comes primarily from the consumption of goods and services. Thus, given that one “naturally” wants to be as happy as possible, one strives to obtain (legally, the society’s leaders hope!) as much in the way of consumables as possible. Not only may this striving result in harm to others; given one’s desire to be as happy as possible, one will not be motivated to give to others—for doing so would detract from one’s own level of happiness.
  • Many in our society are convinced that our society is a meritocracy—meaning that what one gets is what one deserves. Given that, e.g., the poor are getting what they deserve, one feels no need to help them in any way—and one doesn’t.
  • One may feel superior to others—either as an individual, or as a member of some “favored” group (such as being an American, a white, a white with British ancestry, etc.). Such a feeling enables one to treat “inferiors” badly, such as exploiting them.
  • One may regard one’s belief system—such as a religious one—as the only correct one, and regard those who fail to accept it as heretics. As such, one feels justified in persecuting such people—perhaps even to the point of death.
  • One’s thinking may be governed by biological ideas, and one may therefore think of the “fit” and the “unfit.” Although one may feel no inclination to “do” for one’s fellow “fit” humans, one may do what one can to eliminate the “unfit”—and feel perfectly justified in doing so. After all, Nature has certain laws, and we humans must not “interfere” with them.
  • If one is convinced that humans are, “by nature,” competitive-aggressive, one may be inclined to be aggressive—and thereby hurtful—in one’s relationships with others, and have no inclination at all to engage in helpful behaviors.
  • If one believes that humans are “naturally” selfish, one may use this as an excuse to, oneself, engage in “giving” sorts of behaviors. The only “plus” here is that one may not be inclined to engage in hurtful behaviors.

4. Ignorance

  • One may fail to do good, not because one lacks a desire so to do, but because one lacks knowledge about the neediness that exists “out there.” The fault for this may lie partly with oneself, but there is also a good basis for blaming the media for not providing viewers/listeners with such information.
  • An interesting possibility in this realm was suggested by University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross over a century ago ((Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-Day Iniquity. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers,1973. With a letter by Theodore Roosevelt, and an Introduction to the Torchbook Edition by Julius Weinberg. Originally published in 1907 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.)) —the idea that codes of conduct become obsolete over time as societal conditions change; which suggests that one may engage in hurtful behavior without realizing it—because the moral code by which one lives has not caught up with societal changes.

D. Conclusions

It is important to recognize that the obstacles to achieving the Good Society lie not in our genes ((I am alluding here to Richard C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.)) but, rather, human-created (if but unintentionally) factors, such as the ones listed in the previous section. If we are to achieve the Good Society (assuming that such is possible), knowledge of such factors is important, but we must also (a) develop ideas as to what individual traits should be common in that society, (b) the characteristics that the society should have (i.e., its “shape”), and (c) implementable ideas regarding how to get there—i.e., who/what organizations should provide the leadership, and what steps should be taken. It may not be possible to achieve the Good Society; my fear, though, is that if we don’t (and those in other societies don’t either), our species may be extinct before the century is out: “global warming” is not to be taken lightly, but we are doing so anyway. ((To be more forthright about this matter, the corporate elite—the large energy companies in particular—have most of the power in our society (the world, for that matter!), and these individuals are guided by short-run profit considerations rather than long-run survival ones.))

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.