Society and Darwinian evolution

Understanding the true nature of Darwinian natural selection made me realize a lot of things. First, using the theory of evolution to justify the free market or eugenics is simply fallacious.

The theory of evolution is a description of the process that leads to complexity, starting from slowly and randomly mutating replicating units. These units must have the potential to fail at replicating, either by dying or by being sterile. The random mutations can either be an advantage or a disadvantage with respect to the goal of replication. The mutations that give advantages will replicate along with the units possessing them, and these units will soon swamp the less advantaged.

It is a mechanism that will lead inevitably to units that are better at replicating. Given a context where there is a competition for resources and several equally good solutions at getting them that will result in replication, we can see how this process will lead to complexity and diversity.

It is without question that Darwinian evolution is a blind process that result in a ruthless competition that does not have any endgame. It is a mechanism, it is not a moral code. There is no logical line of reasoning that lead to the conclusion that this is how we have to behave towards each other. Doing so would be like developing a morality based on fluid dynamics, simply because it happens to be true.

Now that I put that out of the way, I want to say that there are nevertheless many aspects in which human society changes in a way that resembles the way a species evolve through natural selection. The aspect I want to focus on is gradual change.

As humans, we are designers. We have the capacity of modeling parts of reality in our heads. I ask you: imagine a tool that can slip in a car window crack and unlock the door, and I am pretty confident that your mind is already experimenting with a few designs. We have an internal drawing board, and we also developed external drawing boards that we can share with one another. This may be the most important factor in the success of our species.

We can easily get caught up in the illusion that we can always go to the drawing board, start from a blank page and design the perfect system. I think most of us are prey to this illusion, especially when the time comes to reflect about society.

A few scorpions end up being trapped in a cave which sunlight never penetrates. The scorpions who still manage to find food without their sight are the ones that are going to survive the best and reproduce. However, if they have no way of locating food whatsoever, they will not survive. Diversity is paramount for evolution to work. At least a small portion of the isolated scorpion population must already have some crude tools to locate food. Let’s say, a few scorpions have a slightly better sense of smell than their comrades, or they have slightly better hearing. They may be able to survive and reproduce after all. With the generations, these aspects will improve and will take these scorpions into being something different, a new species.

The point is that these scorpions had to have a basis, even if very weak, from which they had a chance at evolving and getting better at dealing with their new environment. I think the same applies to a human society. It is impossible to design a new system (for example, something that would replace capitalism and democracy) and have it work after suddenly changing to it. In addition to imagining the new system, one has to imagine the path to get there.

There are plenty of suggestions of ideal societies in our literature, but I am not aware of any that also provides a continuous program to get there.

Our current societies do change with time, through small incremental changes in their laws and constitutional documents. This slow change is another aspect that is found in Darwinian natural selection. Our societies are already on a continuous path to some other model of society. The change is much too slow to most people’s satisfaction, but I think it is a reason to stay optimistic. Are we going in the right direction? I guess it depends on the society. That is why it is important to retain a diversity of approaches to social models and governments and share good ideas when they work.

In conclusion, there is indeed wisdom to be found in reflecting upon Darwinian natural selection. However, it does not come from copying what happens in nature. It comes from using the model to understand ourselves. Once this understanding is found, we can better decide where to go from here.

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