Wednesday, January 14, 2009


The Theory of Everything - Blame Darwin

The human race is afflicted with the desire to make sense out of the world. Since the world is complicated the human mind tries to simplify by finding common features that explain it all.

I'm going to give my theory of "everything" right after I review some of the most popular ones of the past. Now by "everything" I actually mean human behavior. There have really been only two popular theories.

Man springs from evil

This is the source of all guilt-based views of the world. The most explicit expression is to be found in the traditional Judeo-Christian tradition starting with Adam and Eve. Other cultures had variations, such as the Pandora story of the Greeks.

The belief that man is basically evil leads to a variety of social structures which all have several things in common. There is said to be a subset of mankind who is exempt from this innate evil, its usually royal rulers, clergy or others in authority. They are all wise and good and act only on behalf of their followers. Notice that even the terminology reflects this thinking people are part of the "flock" or subjects.

Man is perfectible

This view acknowledges man's inherent weaknesses, but thinks they can be overcome by various means. The theological take the form of performing good works on earth (variously defined) to, at least, achieve perfection in the afterlife. The political takes the form of retraining people so that the new attitudes will be passed on to future generations. Marx's followers were fond of this idea. The "scientific" uses the ideas from plant and animal breeding. The most horrific example being the rise of eugenics as practiced by the Nazis and other groups seeking cultural uniformity.

Once again, since a vast undertaking is required, it is essential that the details be left up to the leaders. History hasn't proved any kinder to these leaders than it has to the other group. The Kings of England and France don't have a better record than Stalin or Hitler when it comes to providing a prosperous and secure environment for their followers.

Other repercussions

These basic views of human nature became modified with the rise of science and the industrial revolution. If we take Malthus as an arbitrary starting point we see how the ideas of human nature start to leak into the new field of "economics". His theory of supply and demand is framed in terms of the evil model of human nature. People will not be able to control their "base" desires and this will, inevitably, lead to overpopulation and the consequences of this.

Darwin was influenced by this line of thought and adopted it for his theory of evolution, in terms of the competition for resources between individuals and species. There was no direct evidence that it was competition that caused evolution, it can just as easily be as the result of changes in the environment or even random mutations. There are plenty of examples of species co-existing with no change for long periods of time. They are in equilibrium with each other and the environment, there is no "competition". The coelacanth is thought to have existed for millions of years.

From Darwin it was a short hop to Herbert Spencer who misunderstood Darwin's theory which works on a species-wide basis and adapted it to human nature as "survival of the fittest". This, in turn, has led to any number of variations on economic theory. The rise of psychology and allied fields at the beginning of the 20th Century led to theories which pinned the evil inherent in humans to a variety of mental functions, including "unconscious" ones. The latest in this series is the new work trying to discover how "rational" decision-making is. If humans are not rational actors as classical economics assumes then we must revert to mechanisms which lead them in the "right" direction.

Capitalism is an outgrowth of these theories. People are motivated by self interest, only through competition can the best outcomes be obtained, authoritarian leaders (even "benevolent" ones) can only make things worse by getting in the way, etc.

To summarize: Malthus' belief in human moral weakness, led Darwin to hypothesize the same thing for the rest of the natural world, which led Spencer to make an evolutionary theory into one of economic behavior by individuals. This led to other like Marx and Freud to posit ways to overcome these limitations. In the most extreme cases it led to the worst examples of totalitarian regimes the planet has ever seen (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and it continues to day in Africa and elsewhere). These theories all have one thing in common - they are wrong because they oversimplified too much.

A new theory

What all these have in common, even the ones that claim a "scientific" basis is that they are far from the kinds of theories that one finds in the physical sciences. The rise of Newtonian mechanics and what followed inspired social philosophers into thinking that their theories could be as unambiguous and exact. Analogies to mechanical processes are still commonplace when discussing social structures.

My theory of "everything" is that there is no theory of everything. People are complex and no broad-brush explanation is going to be useful. Most theories are inspired by people who have a particular viewpoint and are looking for justifications for why it is right. There are as many cases where people have been shown to support altruism and community involvement as there are where they appear selfish. That one set of behaviors is ignored while the other is taken as the only motivator of human behavior is just wrong.

Many societies have been based upon cooperative, not competitive, models. This is true of human and animal societies. Social insects are the most extreme case in the animal world, but wolf packs and even groups of whales hunt cooperatively. Societies not based upon industrial production frequently have more of a communal structure. Frequently there is a group of elders or similar which makes decisions rather than the more popular pyramid structure seen in western society.

A functional democracy is also the opposite of the Spencerian dog-eat-dog model. People have to work collectively and select leaders to work on their behalf. Such leaders are not supposed to work for their own benefit, in fact if they do this, it is seen as a breach of trust. They are also supposed to be replaced regularly without any interruption of basic social structures. The losers in an election are expected to yield to the will of the majority when it comes to decisions to be made, but are expected to continue to try to persuade others to change their opinions in the future. This is all self-sacrifice for the general good.

Now, obviously, the democratic model has worked fairly well for several hundred years. In addition the number of countries adopting it has increased steadily throughout the period. These facts stand in stark contrast to the continuing belief in the quasi-Darwinian view of nature. Why these contradictions are not noted more is a puzzle.

The world is approaching a real Malthusian situation, for the first time ever, on a global scale. There are those who feel that the spoils should go to the strong. The US military establishment has created contingency plans on how to deal with the rise of Russia, China and threats to world oil supplies. They have not developed plans on how to get along with other countries. Given that we have lost every "war" since the end of WWII, it seems unlikely that their plans will work in the future either. We haven't even won the metaphorical wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism, crime, etc.

It is time to abandon the Darwinian view of the world and adopt a more comprehensive one. One which appeals to people's better nature, their desire to make something of their lives and to leave the world a better place. Motherly love is the unchangeable part of human nature, not selfishness.
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