I resist the application of the term “Darwinism” to describe the sociopathic mindset of the neoconservative (read: radical revanchist ultra-right) movement. They have claimed this term themselves, in the hope of lending some veneer of “science” or “rationality” to their crackpot theories about human nature. We are gravely mistaken if we allow them to hold on to it.
Evolutionary theory is far more complicated, grand, sublime and fascinating than a mere zero-sum game in which charismatic predators battle one another for supremacy, mating rights, and gluttonous feasting off their prey. Those who pretend that “logical positivism” (Ayn Rand’s own crackpot theory on which much modern neoconservative thinking is based) somehow equates to Darwinian theory — or to any kind of biological reality — are either lying like a rug or displaying their complete scientific illiteracy.
Let us say it loud and clear and often: evolutionary success depends partially on simple competition; but it depends at least as often, actually more often, on symbiosis, cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and group rather than individual selection. Most species, our own included, exist only in groups. While there are solitary animals (some wasps, some bees, many spiders, etc) there are far more animals whose evolution and success depends on their being part of a cooperative group. While there may be some intra-group competition, behaviours like friendship and loyalty are just as important if not more important in ensuring group (not individual) selection and success.
When a hive of bees faces a bad winter, what we see is not a descent into a vicious free-for-all in which the survivors battle one another for the remaining food supply. Instead, they share equally, all weakening together but hoping to pull through till Spring with the baseline population needed to support the hive. Trees — especially trees of like species — do not compete viciously for sunlight and nutrients, as the 19th century ignorami believed; modern field research demonstrates clearly that through their intertwining root networks, trees share with their conspecifics. The ones at the outer edge of a copse or thicket transfer nutrients to those inside with less solar exposure.
Inter-specific relationships are also never so simple as just “eat or be eaten,” as soil biology tells us in (so to speak!) spades. Most plants do not thrive optimally without companion fungi and bacteria which cooperate with their root networks, deriving nutrients from the plant rootlets and in exchange breaking down soil components to make them accessible to the plant. Savvy gardeners employ these mycorrhizal populations to enhance the health of their plantings. We ourselves, though we imagine ourselves sovereign individuals, are a complex ecosystem of cooperating life; the microbiota in our bodies outnumber our “human” cells by about 10 to 1 (though the human cells out-mass the resident alien population by more like 30 to 1). We would not be able to digest our food and obtain nourishment from it, were it not for the resident population of beneficial bacteria in our guts, busily breaking down food components for us and obtaining food and shelter in return.
Back in the ignorant 19th century, the very idea of symbiosis was considered ludicrous. The same kind of doctrinaire pseudo-Darwinism we hear from neocons today, was absolute doctrine within the (Anglo) scientific establishment of the time. The life story of Beatrix Potter makes interesting reading and illustrates this subject: her pioneering work on lichens (a symbiotic life form combining fungi and algae) was dismissed not only because she was a woman, but because it was not ideologically acceptable. Today’s neocons are living in that 19th century past, wedded to a “scientific” vision that is actually a self-serving myth, obsolete and based on antiquated methods and data. The mitochondria in our own bodies, handed down in the female line since primordial life wiggled around in the warm oceans of Earth, tie us to all eukaryotic life; only one eukaryotic species, as far as I know, gets along without them. The energetic mechanisms at the heart of our metabolism depend on bacteria-like guests who have been travelling with us — cooperating with us — for our entire evolutionary history as mammals…and longer.
All of this — and there is more, much more, when you start reading about ecosystems, food chains, soil microbiology, human environments and our companion species — to me illustrates the poverty of both imagination and education involved in the defence of sociopathy. It is the defence of something that never existed and never will exist: the sovereign, wholly independent individual. Even the small but mighty tardigrade (the water bear or moss pig, one of the toughest motile organisms we know of) supports a colony of symbiotes and commensals as well as parasites, and has borrowed DNA from a dozen other species to aid its own evolutionary success. There is no organism around us, from the small to the large, that does not in some way cooperate with other species to make a living, that does not “stand on the shoulders of giants” (or more likely, of microbiota) in order to thrive.
And when we focus more narrowly, there is no species of primate that doesn’t live in groups and bands, with rules and conventions and all the trappings of “society.” As field biologists can testify, the “lone wolf” is not an heroic, especially brave and noble individual; he (it is almost always a male) is an outcast, desperately hungry because hunting alone is much more difficult than hunting as a pack, socially deprived, anxious, angry and dangerous. The fact that we have turned an evolutionary failure (a wolf without a pack) into a folk symbol of heroism or success, says much for the social constructs and delusions that (ironically) only a rich and varied human society with arts, letters, and myths allows us to perpetuate. A lone ape is just as dysfunctional. Primates come in groups. We are no exception.
And though “social Darwinists” may insist that within primate groups, the biggest alpha ape — the most violent, the most aggressive, the most possessive and angry male — is the genetic winner, close observation over many years suggests that even this apparently obvious dynamic is far more complicated than it seems on the surface. Robert Sapolsky’s meticulous observation of baboons in the wild, for example, show that males who exhibit friendship, mutual altruism, supportive behaviours and kindness may get more mating opportunities from grateful and friendly females than the Big Boy who thinks he owns the harem and bullies “his” females into submission. When we examine the lives of animals often used to justify the “naturalness” of domination, authoritarianism, feudal hierarchy and so on, we often find that the machinery under the hood is not what the great 19th century myth makers told us it should be.
The cult of sociopathy is just that — yet another mythology that appeals to various people for various reasons, and is maintained and defended in defiance of all evidence. Its appeal is obvious: it glorifies, let alone justifies, a childish greed and selfishness that some people for whatever reasons have never grown out of. It appeals to grandiosity, elevating the individual and implicitly dismissing “the masses” as irrelevant and unimportant. It valorises the simplicity of competitiveness and allows us to dodge the hard work and complexity of cooperation and compromise. It speaks strongly to one facet of human nature: the nexus of competition, ranking, and acquisition. It does so only by denying and ignoring many other equally or more significant aspects of human nature: empathy, reciprocity, mutual altruism, group selection, cooperation, trust.
No hardline neoconservative can explain why a complete stranger will risk his or her life to rescue someone else’s drowning child. Yet this does happen, and to dismiss it is to miss something very important about us and about the rest of life on Earth. Many other and worse things happen daily, of course— people can, indeed, display the most horrific indifference to each other’s fate. Appeals to the worst in us can work. We can be rendered indifferent, uncaring, even actively vicious, by the right influences working on us at the right times. But from that malleability it follows that appeals to the best in us can also work. If the full story of cooperation and symbiosis in nature were told in every classroom in the world, our relationship with each other and with the real world would be saner, more science-based… and probably last a lot longer. The cult of sociopathy leads only in one direction: a race to the bottom in which even the last man standing can hardly be called a winner.
btw I applaud the earlier commenter who said “at the end of the game the King and the pawns go back into the same box.” Well put and worth remembering.