Sunday, September 11, 2005

Social Darwinism

Some creationists accuse evolutionary biologists of advocating Social Darwinism. They say that Darwin's great idea, that Nature used survival of the fittest to evolve man from simpler forms, would imply that survival of the fittest is the "natural" choice of social dynamic. This isn't so much an argument as a confused association.

Evolutionary science does not imply that Nature "wants" anything at all, it just explains the mechanics of evolutionary systems. Even if we were to ascribe intentionality to Nature, we shouldn't leap to the conclusion that Social Darwinism would be Nature's optimal choice for humanity, or even that we should do what Nature wants. Compassion bestowed an evolutionary advantage on early humans. Caring for the elderly and the frail improved disease resistance by maintaining genetic diversity, and preserved a pool of knowledge and experience that benefited young and inexperienced members of the society.

Ironically, the evolution-deniers who criticize evolutionary biology are often right-wing, conservatives - precisely the kind of folks who advocate Social Darwinist government policy.

The "conservative" view is that programs such as welfare, Social Security and Medicare are a curse on society because they breed dependency. Conservatives also argue that oversight agencies such as the FDA, the USDA and the OSHA constitute unreasonable government restriction on trade. It is true, there are people (and corporations) who have grown helpless and dependent on government programs. It's also true that regulatory burdens raise the cost of doing business, and if people paid attention to product reviews and acted more like ideal consumers, maybe we could do without government oversight. There's no doubt that consumer protection and the social safety net has its downside. The question is, what are we trading for, here?

Free markets work by selecting winners and losers. If one advocates free market rules for social services, one is also advocating that there should be losers in society. And, no, when I say 'loser,' I don't mean 'unlikable person.' People who lose in social free markets have failed lives. They die from curable diseases, work in dead-end jobs from which they will never free themselves, lose their livelihoods by consuming defective products, and pass on their lack of skills and resources to their children.

You can't fool free markets. If you're willing to bailout the losers, the whole system will fail. If you're not willing to let people die of curable ailments, or let them starve on the street, you're not serious about eliminating government's social safety net.

Besides, the savings one might hope to realize by cutting taxes for social and consumer protection programs are insignificant in comparison with the increased costs of fixing failed lives. Studies show that prevention of failed lives is far less expensive than fixing the resulting crime, disease and ignorance. There's really no good economic reason for Social Darwinism. No. Social Darwinism is a moral choice.

For Christians, the choice to back social programs should be obvious. Much of the New Testament describes Jesus caring for the less fortunate in society. Believers can hardly claim that the monetary cost of social programs is prohibitive. I doubt that Jesus would oppose a strong social safety net because the undeserving will also benefit from such programs. Christians are not supposed to accumulate wealth when there are poor people who can't fend for themselves.

Humanists like myself will side with the Christians on this one. It is better to lift up the poor from death, disease and misery, even knowing that there will be freeloaders who abuse the system. Moreover, the humanist will have faith that, through science and reason, we can make the system more cost effective, more uplifting and more fair.

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