Politics As If Evolution Mattered:
Darwin, Ecology and Social Justice
by Lorna Salzman
Evolution, more than any other scientific field of study, intersects with almost every social and political subject today. Daniel Dennett has described this characteristic felicitously by calling it the "universal solvent". It has the capability of shaping public discourse in a more rational and ethical direction than the mass media, pop trends and political ideologies allow.
Activists and the general public might be puzzled by the notion that an understanding of evolution could enrich and increase the effectiveness of movements for social change. While these movements (after several decades of foot-dragging) are slowly absorbing the ecological principles at work in many of today's challenges such as climate change, nuclear power, genetic manipulation and biodiversity losses, most people have not yet grasped the connection of ecology and evolution. Once grasped, this understanding will have tsunami-strength impacts on the strategies and objectives of these movements.
Progressive social change movements in particular are susceptible to the cry that "the personal is political" and give weighted attention to trends such as Identity Politics, spirituality and the proclamations of religious leaders who have finally begun integrating environmental concerns into their sermons—and unfortunately vice versa, as did one leading liberal rabbi who called for a president "filled with the spirit of God".
Add this to the body of post-modern thought which regards science as "socially constructed" and denigrates the notion of universal truths, and one starts to understand how irrationality, distrust of science and a belief that subjective thought reflects reality actually represent regressive, even subversive, societal trends that undermine science, education, social justice, ethics, and our political process.
New challenges to the direction and fate of civilization arise each day. Environmental articles and books document the degradation of the earth's natural systems and the impact on human welfare. But the response of the environmental movement and social change activists remains sorely inadequate. Consequently progressives regress to simple moral issues like peace and poverty rather than confront the complexities of science and the challenge of reconciling innate human imperfection with democracy, peace and human rights.
While scientists and environmentalists try to understand the relationships of non-human animals to their environment, they have neglected to do so with humans and human society. Unlike nonhuman species, humans are gifted with the ability to choose with deliberation the conditions of their existence. Tragically, their choices in contemporary industrial society, even when motivated by ethics and compassion, are proving to be not merely inadequate but fatally wrong.
It is perhaps human nature to resist the stark reality of fallibility and the role of chance in evolutionary processes. But it is precisely the lack of an evolutionary perspective in movements for social change—a recognition of the "laws of nature"—which deprives them of the necessary insight into the parameters of human existence, the insight that could provide a substantive guide for a social reform agenda not in conflict with the natural world. A growing backlash against science on the Left and the Right only exacerbates the situation.
The central dilemma of modern humanity is the failure to adapt our behavior, institutions and objectives to certain realities which we ignore or defy through our faith in technology and religion. This defiance is at the root of our ecological crisis along with the delusion that the human species or society can be perfected.
There are four areas most lacking in ecological and evolutionary understanding, broadly speaking: Ideology (religious or secular); Technology; Social Justice; Human Ethics. Under Ideology are grouped movements such as New Age thought, Marxism/socialism, faith and spirituality. Under Technology there are genetic manipulation, nuclear technology, resource exploitation and energy production. Under Social Justice and Ethics we have equality, equity, human rights, class/race/gender issues, intergroup aggression and militarism.
Much effort is expended on influencing and reforming human behavior and cultural choices as if these were fresh clay to be molded at the whim of whomever is in charge. Since Earth Day 1970, when the word "ecology" emerged as a potential organizing idea, activist groups have competed with each other to define The Problem and, not surprisingly, have come up with solutions that fit their own political model, much like the proverbial three blind men groping an elephant and postulating three different shapes. Some activists postulate capitalism, others population growth, others human greed, others corporations, others the male gender, and others the wrath of one god or another. Few regard humanity as being one of many products of evolution or a species not endowed with special rights.
This book lays out the "evolutionary imperative" which, upon closer examination, reinforces not what some consider inherent human evil ("nature red in tooth and claw", competition, domination) but concepts considered ethical today: non-hierarchy, functional equality, cooperation, and interdependence. The failure of progressives and the Left to understand evolution's lessons and the failure of liberal movements to underpin their political goals with science and rationality rather than abstract moral precepts or a priori doctrines, or to place humans within the evolutionary chronology, has created a large void into which rabid ideologues of all stripes have intruded with their own arbitrary and capricious dictates and who now dominate public discourse. The centrality of evolution and ecology—two sides of the same coin—must be recognized before any cohesive, consistent social justice movement can succeed.
Neither Nature nor evolution can provide a moral guide for human behavior or technological and ethical choices. What they can provide is an impartial, scientific explanation of which choices are most likely to enhance human welfare and survival, and which ones are more conducive to societal collapse or species extinction. The burden of decision-making ultimately rests on human intellect and rationality, with the hope that humans will alter their behavior and institutions in the right direction. This collection of essays will try to explain the relevance of evolutionary thought to the pressing ideological, technological and ethical debates of our time.