Sunday, February 12, 2012
Happy Darwin Day!
I hope everyone has had a great Darwin Day!
In honor of Darwin, I'd like to defend him from the bastardization of his name: Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism arose in the early 1900's, shortly after evolution began to gain acceptance in academia. It's most closely associated with eugenics and a heartless response to the poor and downtrodden. The feeling was that darwinian evolution dictated "the survival of the fittest" and that society should be organized accordingly, because to do otherwise was against nature.
Is that really the "lesson" of evolution? Of course not. There is no lesson in evolution. It describes the system in which we live, but it does not dictate our response to it. Social Darwinism is the equivalent of responding to the Theory of Gravity by insisting that tall people or people who can jump high should be eliminated and that the rest of us should drag ourselves along on our bellies.
The horrors of Social Darwinism are less a consequence of darwinism itself than a consequence of people applying the hierarchical, dogmatic thinking of their religious pasts to evolution. Through thousands of years of history, the gatekeepers of truth and salvation developed stories that accomplished two things at once: they attempted to 1) describe the nature of the universe, and 2) elicit moral, social edicts that meshed with that nature. So you have creation stories that, for example, not only describe how God made the world as a paradise in 6 days, followed by banishment from paradise because Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but also set up a system of moral principles directly derived from that story - women should be silent and subservient, only the devil would want us to have knowledge of good and evil without direction from God or his church, etc. After such a long history of finding meaning and mandates in origin stories, Social Darwinists sought to do the same with evolution. This reflexive seeking of morals from our origins, and the conditioned acquiescence to them was what led to Social Darwinism. It's not just what you know that matters, it's how you approach that knowledge.
Humanism, for me, means looking to the common experiences of humanity for direction. What do we all experience? Fear, love, happiness, boredom, sadness, etc. And we all know, without being told by any divine intermediary, which of these are good and which are bad. That's why, for me, Darwin is important. Evolution doesn't tell me how to live, but it does allow me to decide for myself how to live. In extremely simple language, I choose to live my life to minimize the amount of bad in the world and maximize the amount of good. Darwin's discovery of evolution is what frees me to take responsibility for that, rather than allowing myself to be a means for the ends of the person with the coolest origin myth.
So here's to Darwin, and to democratizing the responsibility to create a world fit for us all!