Darwin is Dangerous

Mario Galang is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the February 23, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld at pages S1/4 and S1/5.

“If I’m on the way to my boss’ office to argue about my compensation and if I step on somebody’s throat on the way that doubles it? …well, I’ll stomp on the guy’s throat. You know, that’s how people were.”

These lines struck me while I was watching some months back the 2005 film documentary, titled “Enron: The Wisest Guys in the Room.” The person talking was a former Enron trader, and he was saying these lines, to my astonishment, with gladsome chuckle, showing no trace of guilt or remorse or shame.  But, then, why should he:
“That’s how people were.”

“People” included the boss himself, former CEO Jeffrey Skilling. Fortune reporter Bethany McLean appears in the film, saying: ”Jeff had a very Darwinian view of how the world worked. He instituted the system known as the PRC or Performance Review Committee. It required that people be graded from a 1 to a 5, and roughly 10% of people had to be a 5. And those people were supposed to be fired, hence this came to be known as rank and yank.” This, the narrator said, is Skilling setting “free the basic instinct of survival of the fittest.”

I thought to myself, poor Darwin.

Much of how Charles Darwin is publicly regarded since his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, was first published is illustrated in this film. Darwin is supposed to have taught that life is a jungle, red in tooth and claw, where only the fittest survive. So you take it from there: live by its law and live it accordingly.

But Darwin’s status swings fully to the opposite extreme in the field of science. Here, among evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould once said, Darwin’s position comes close to that of God, and Darwinian concepts are regarded as “canonical.”  Fans of Darwin the world over observe his 200th birth anniversary this February and the 150th anniversary of his Origin. On these occasions, Scientific American has devoted its January 2009 issue especially to discussing “how Darwin’s theory survives, thrives, and reshapes the world,” while calling it “the most powerful idea in science.” The prestigious scientific journals Science and Nature are observing the occasions in their own ways.

Darwin’s central idea looks simple at first. You have varieties of organisms, plants and animals, struggling to exist in the environment they inhabit. Then the environment changed – perhaps a part of the population moved into a new one, or oceans froze and stayed that way, or plate tectonics moved widely away from each other, or a meteorite dropped by, or whatever.

Organisms who managed to adapt or fit best in the new environment survived and bred, passing on their traits to the next generation. Those who failed to adapt or fit died, and along with them, their losing traits. Over time (geologic time, to be exact), the best fit traits predominated, while the unfit faded into extinction.

To call this idea, Darwin used a metaphor, “natural selection”, drawing insight from the work of plant and animal breeders of Victorian England who were doing artificial selection. For the fifth edition of Origin, Darwin qualified the metaphor with another metaphor upon the advice of a colleague. “Survival of the fittest” had become part of Origin and had come to represent what Darwinism had stood for in the public mind.

Inappropriately, however, it conjures up an image of the “fittest” emerging victorious, a la Rambo, from a gladiatorial combat or a cutthroat competition. In an evolutionary sense, “fitness” refers to the organism’s chance or capacity to survive and reproduce in a given environment, thus allowing space for a Forest Gump to survive. The operative term is “differential reproductive success.”

For all his trouble, Darwin himself is not exactly blameless. The idea of “struggle” or competition figures prominently in his theory as an evolutionary force, and some say in a  one-sided manner.   Friedrich Engels, as early as 1870, had pointed to Origin’s stress on struggle at the expense of “cooperation in organic nature.”  Interaction among living and non-living things, he said, “includes harmony and collision, struggle and cooperation.” The point was obvious, but ominous.

You begin to smell the danger in Darwin when his theory is applied to human affairs, given its focus on struggle. English scientist Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, pioneered the idea that artificial selection can be used to “perfect the human race” by controlling the capacity of “undesirables” to reproduce.

Taking his idea seriously, he founded a program in 1883 and called it eugenics (“of good stock“). Eugenics supporters from American business monopolists during the so-called Gilded Age, notably Andrew Carnegie, Nelson D. Rockefeller, and others, took “survival of the fittest” as their mantra and earned a group title as such, “robber barons.” At its bloody worst, the program used Nazi Germany as its laboratory and we all know what happened.

Socio-biological work of this kind starting in the second half of 19th century fell under the umbrella of “social Darwinism.” Other variants located the unit of artificial selection to gender, race or nation to promote sexist, racist and pro-imperialist views and actions in the name of Darwin.  The implicit common belief was, “biology is destiny.”

Segue to “Enron: The Wisest Guys in the Room.”

Narrator:     When Jeff Skilling applied to Harvard business school, the professor asked him if he was smart. He replied “I’m f**king smart.” One of his favorite books was The Selfish Gene, about the ways human nature is steered by greed and competition in service of passing on our genes.

The best-selling book by English ethologist Richard Dawkins popularizes an attempt to read Darwin’s theory from the point of view of a solitary gene. Here, at last, the role of cooperation and altruism in evolution is finally given due course. But not without muddle and confusion.

In Dawkins, the overwhelming argument is that “we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes;”and “that a predominant quality to be expected of a successful gene is ruthless selfishness.” Therefore, only a “limited form of altruism” is allowed and only under “special circumstances.” Goodness is simply not in our nature; we have to source it elsewhere.

The book offers far more than this sweeping point. It leaves me nonetheless with the impression that the end of Darwin’s troubles is nowhere near the horizon yet, as Skilling has vividly demonstrated.  The felons from Enron are now serving time for their fraudulent schemes, condemned by a jury, condemned by the public who were certainly not behaving on account of their selfish genes. On what account then?

I do not know exactly what, but maybe on account of that “thing” that makes us moral – ergo, uniquely human. Darwin or no Darwin.

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