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The Interaction of Evolution and Society
Blas Pedro Uberuaga
Science and Humanity
September 19, 1993
There have not been too many scientific ideas that have affected the way we think and live as much as Darwin's theory of evolution. Before Darwin published his ideas, western society lived in a static, unchanging world. Everything was exactly the way it had been one hundred years ago, which was the same as it had been one thousand before, which was the same as it had been at the time of creation. Then, Darwin said that things are under constant change, that not even organisms stay the same. This idea completely revolutionized western civilization. Not only did it give our society in America a scientific reason to be the way it is, but it also "legitimized" the societies of the Nazis and the Soviet Union. The ideas of survival of the fittest and that struggle is the basic agent of change in nature were used to rationalize revolutions, cutthroat competition in the marketplace, and genocide. The theory of evolution is a great example of a scientific theory that has been twisted and perverted by people trying to give credibility to their ideas.
Before evolution, western civilization lived in a universe that was fundamentally Newtonian. Newton had formulated a few rather simple laws that described the entire workings of the universe. The universe became a giant clock. Once it was set in motion, the universe moved deterministically forward, governed by the laws of Newton. If one could know of every part in the clock, know exactly what each part was doing at a given time, one would know its entire history, from the moment of creation to the end of time.
This view of the world was very ordered, very rigid. Everything was predetermined. Once the clock was set in motion, its course could not be changed. This rigidness also applied to the organic side of nature. There was a hierarchy in the natural world. Every thing, living or not, had its place in the Great Chain of Being. God was at the top, followed by the angels, then man, and so on, with non-living items, such as rocks, at the bottom. Every link in this chain had originally been created by God and none of them had changed, none were missing. This hierarchy, this chain of being, was reflected in society. At the top was the king, then the aristocrats and so on. At the bottom were the poor masses. The idea of a rigid hierarchy in nature that never changed was applied to society and was used to justify that society. Everyone had his place and was put in that place by God. That place could not be changed. The rich and powerful stayed on the top while the poor stayed at the bottom, where they supposedly belonged. This system had to be correct since it modeled nature.
This was the way God had made things, according to the Church and the Bible. These authorities also said that the earth was only about 6000 years old. However, there was an increasingly large amount of evidence surfacing that suggested that the earth was much older than the Church's 6000 years. Eventually, this evidence caused Lyell to conclude that the earth was millions of years old. There was also evidence that there were creatures that existed early in the earth's history that were now extinct. The rigid view of nature expressed by the Great Chain of Being did not allow for the extinction of species. If one link in the chain broke, the whole chain would collapse. This could not happen because it would mean that one of God's creation was not necessary, that it had been a mistake, and God does not make mistakes. Now, however, there was fossil evidence that some species had become extinct during the course of the earth's history. This, combined with the new thoughts on the age of the earth, led directly to Darwin's formulation of the theory of evolution.
The basic idea behind Darwin's theory is that of the survival of the fittest. Darwin stated that nature selects the fittest individuals from a population for survival. This selection is caused by competition for limited resources. The fittest of a group will be better able to obtain the limited resources, which generally takes the form of food, that they required. The others will starve and die, their useless traits vanishing with them. The fittest will also be better able to attract mates than the few unfit that are able to survive and thus pass on those traits that make it the fittest. There is a struggle for survival between all members of a group and between various groups. Those that are unfit will become extinct. Struggle and conflict become the only constants in nature.
These ideas were revolutionary for the time and still, to this day, generate debate. This was the theory that really destroyed the credibility of religion, specifically Christianity, for many people. Humans were no longer viewed as special creatures created in the image of an all-powerful being. Now, we were just the next step in the evolutionary process, just above apes on the evolutionary ladder. As a result, society became more secular than it ever had.
In addition, many thinkers of the time used Darwin's ideas to support their own. His ideas became the scientific justification for the societies of the United States, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union. In Germany, Haeckel took Darwin's theory and shaped from it the doctrine that would eventually become the basis for Nazi Germany. Haeckel believed that the German culture was a superior culture, the current pinnacle of the evolutionary process. In order to ensure the continued place of Germany at the top of the evolutionary ladder, Germany would have to carry on the natural struggle between them and the rest of humanity. Basically, Germany would continue to be the fittest if they helped nature do its job and kill off the unfit. For Germany, the unfit was the rest of humanity. This view eventually led to the Nazi rule of Germany and their program of genocide against the Jews. They developed the concept of the super race, humans that were bred for their traits and thus were a continuation of the evolutionary process. Germany interpreted the natural conflict of which Darwin spoke to include war and aggression. This interpretation and Germany's sense of duty to eradicate the unfit led directly to World War II.
Darwin's ideas had a great economic and social effect in the United States. Darwin was not so much the root of the principles of our society, but rather a reinforcement that our way of life was the "correct" one. Our country was already based upon the idea of freedom of action and this applied to the market place as well as every day life. Competition was a norm in the interaction of businesses. Darwin just reinforced the idea that competition is natural. Businesses were justified to do that which was necessary to ensure their survival and the extinction of their competition. If a business was unable to survive in the American market place, it must have been because it was inferior.
In addition, Darwin justified the differences between the classes. Where, before, the classes existed because of God's divine plan and their placement on the Great Chain of Being, now they existed because the rich and fit were successful while the poor, the unfit, were not. The competition of American society sorted the fit from the unfit by making the former successful. This also reinforced the idea of limited to no government help for the poor because, it was argued, such help would be against nature. It would help the unfit survive when they would otherwise be unable to, which would be detrimental to society as a whole. Struggle and natural selection improved things in the wild; it could only do the same in society.
Today, nothing is revered in American culture as much as competition. There are several channels which show nothing but sports, or physical competition. In school, the performance of students is based on testing that is compared with other students. To get into the good universities and graduate schools, one must do well relative to others on standardized tests. Success is determined through academic competition. In high schools, students strive to be popular by going out on the most dates or doing similar things that are examples of social competition. There are countless awards shows that honor competition of one sort or another. Competition seems to be the basis of modern American society.
Darwin's ideas also had a profound effect on the communist revolution in Russia. Marx had ideas about the evolution of society that he felt had a scientific basis in Darwin's theory of evolution. Marx said that society continually evolved, the end product of such evolution being a socialist society. Just as in nature this change was brought about through struggle, Marx advocated revolution to bring about the societal changes he thought were inevitable. Lenin took these ideas to Russia, where he led the revolution of the proletariat. He felt, like Marx, that there was no need to negotiate with the ruling class for more freedoms or rights. Nature seemed to use violent struggle to make changes and so would he. Darwin justified and seemed to advocate violent revolution. After the revolution, Lenin would be able to guide the societal development of the new Soviet Union towards the goal of an ideal communist society, the peak of societal evolution.
The main difference between the Soviet system and our own was that we emphasize competition and struggle between individuals while the Soviets stressed the struggle between classes. The individual lost his identity somewhat in the Soviet definition of the struggle. For them, the struggle was greater than the individual. It then seems, to me at least, that their struggle was over quickly. After the bourgeoisie class was overthrown, there supposedly only existed one class in the Soviet Union. Of course, it still had to evolve to true communism, but there was no longer a class struggle. In the United States, however, since the struggle is between individuals, the struggle will never end. Struggle and competition are constants in American life. In the Soviet Union, where they accelerated the process of evolution to the point that the struggle ended, struggle and competition were non-existent in every day life. People just did not experience it. Their lack of that which defines our society was what made us so different from each other.
Darwin's ideas changed a static, unchanging universe into one that was dynamic and always changing. His ideas not only changed our understanding of the natural world, but also of our own role in it. His theory was used by various people to justify their own beliefs unlike any other theory to date. The Soviet, Nazi, and American societies were all justified to some extent with the theory of natural selection. In Nazi Germany, Darwin led to the idea that some races are better than others. Soon, Germany's program of genocide followed. In Russia, Lenin saw in Darwin justification for violent revolution. Finally, in our own country, Darwin justified the basis of our society: competition. I think that the reason Darwin's theory had such a profound effect on the world was because it said something about us. Most scientific theories tell us something about how the universe operates but do not really say much about who we are as humans. Darwin did. As a result, his ideas were applied to all areas of human life and endeavor. They were used to justify just about everything. No theory has been perverted to justify so many causes as has the theory of evolution. Such perversion is the result of a society that is ignorant of science. With continued education, hopefully such twistings of science can be prevented in the future.