Darwin's distracting description

May 29, 1998

In his timely article on the growing influence of Darwinism ("Evolutionary workers' party", THES, May 15), Peter Singer rightly suggests that we should avoid the temptation of the naturalistic fallacy by "deducting an 'ought' from an 'is'". However, he concludes by imploring us to "understand the tendencies inherent in human beings, and modify (our) abstract ideals to suit them". This "ought" is reinforced by an accompanying box, which tells the reader, in no uncertain terms, what "features a Darwinian left should embrace today".

This decisive shift from biological description to political prescription, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in a range of public arenas (not least the pages of The THES), should not go unquestioned.

Darwinism, unlike Marxism, is not a manifesto. Darwin provided an insightful description of biological evolution, one that has gained a remarkable level of acceptance. Human beings and all our biological attributes, including behaviour, are embraced by this description, but there is nothing that tells us how we "ought" to behave or how we should arrange our societies.

At its heart Darwinism is the simple and rather overrated observation that at any moment in time, given a particular set of environmental conditions, some variations on a particular organic theme will flourish, biologically speaking, more than others (natural selection). Certain characteristics and types thus become favoured over others as long as these particular conditions prevail (survival of the fittest) but lead to only significant biological change over a very long time. Change is therefore driven by conditions, including social ones, but only incredibly slowly. Unless it is being suggested that we should control social and environmental conditions deliberately to favour certain human variations (eventually) this is not actually a terribly useful basis for considering our more immediate social and political concerns.

Darwin's simple idea may be sufficient to describe where we came from, but it says little of interest about where we are going, or why we should go anywhere in particular. Indeed, Darwinism is about as helpful to deciding social policy as an appreciation of Newton's law of gravity. That we have certain common traditions of social order and behaviour is not, if we avoid the fallacy, much help in deciding how we should order ourselves and behave. We are not slaves to our evolutionary inheritance any more than a bird is a slave to gravity: at a very basic level it is influential over what we can do (and genetic engineering has the potential to push the boundaries further), but it should not be used to determine social, moral and political values.

Darwin's idea is, as Sir Karl Popper famously pointed out, "feeble" as a scientific theory, being neither predictive nor testable (and therefore not refutable). As is well known, in the "survival of the fittest", it is not strictly possible to define the fittest as anything other than "those who survive". That Darwinism is becoming influential across a range of disciplines from psychology to economics to computing to medicine, is indicative not of strength but weakness. Because it is irrefutable and non-predictive, it is an inherently flexible idea that can be used to describe (but not explain) a range of sometimes contradictory observations. It is no coincidence that Darwin was a hero to Karl Marx, influential in the development of social Darwinism and fascism, used by anarchists to support ideas of natural order and mutual aid, an inspiration to Thatcherite ideas about free markets and opposition to the welfare state and similarly influential in the thinking of Tony Blair's intellectual doyens.

Perhaps in the late 20th century Darwin is seen as a welcome vestige of the 19th-century's idealism and sense of certainty, the last gasp of modernity in the face of what science sees as the terribly postmodern tide of epistemological mayhem.

The temptation to succumb to the beguiling sufficiency of a reductive biological narrative as an "ought" is understandable. But as Zygmunt Bauman notes in the same THES edition, "Can the biologist understand a tree? No, he can merely describe it".

Biological description is neither a full understanding nor a prescription for action. We should not let our particular origin story distract us from confronting the problems of our freedom.

In this uncritical celebration of Darwin's simple and rather unhelpful idea we are in danger not only of impoverishing academic enquiry but of missing out on a serious engagement with the most important issues of our time.

Richard Bond. Research adviser. University of the West of England

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