Evolution: Is it more a matter of politics than of science?

In an interview found here, John S. Wilkins says, “Science is crucial to our social fabric and survival – we had better not mess it up for polemic reasons.” That is the sort of statement to which the response can be expected to be of virtually unanimous and reflexive assent.

After all, who wants to see science subject to the partisan polemics that so afflicts many ordinary human pursuits?

Science is commonly regarded as too important for such mundane squabbling; science is routinely regarded as an ideal erudition which, by the ethic of its very nature, is antagonistic to the subjectivity which fuels the frenzy of polemics. The fact is, however, that science does not transcend ordinary human pettiness.

Wilkins notes as much when he says that “There are a lot of myths about science, and they get used, as myths do, to bolster various schools of thought in science itself, political agendas, and debates over the role of religion in society.” Wilkins’s emphasis might seem to be on politics as a field of human endeavor necessarily distinguished from science, but Wilkins clearly recognizes that politics takes place within science, and this strongly suggests that, rather than as some sort of transcendent ideal or activity, the more proper way to regard much of science (or science in general) is as taking place within political contexts and subject to social interests.

Those for whom the ideal (or predominant sense) of science is as an enterprise which looks beyond the parochial expect — indeed, hope — that science will effect social influence – for the better, of course. But, few wonder whether social interests from outside the scientific community ever significantly influence – or in any way end up defining – science.

For instance, has evolution achieved its revered standing because of its truth and overawing insightfulness into nature and the nature of reality? Or, is the standing which evolution enjoys the result of its usefulness to purely extra-scientific social interests which happened to be operative during (and after) Darwin’s time?

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1994), Hannah Arendt claims that the conditions of the 19th century were particularly well-suited for using an idea like Darwin’s natural selection notion as the basis for a socio-political ideology. Arendt writes (p. 159):

“… many free opinions … within the general framework of liberalism, argued and fought each other to win the consent of public opinion. Only a few of them became full-fledged ideologies, that is systems based upon a single opinion that proved strong enough to attract and persuade a majority of people and broad enough to lead them through the various experiences and situations of an average modern life. For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the ‘riddles of the universe,’ or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion …

Persuasion is not possible without an appeal to either experiences or desires, in other words to immediate political needs. Plausibility in these matters comes neither from scientific facts, as the various brands of Darwinists would like us to believe, nor from historical laws …”

Clearly, the “Darwinists” to whom Arendt refers would be individuals who use Darwin’s natural selection idea more broadly than as mere basis for evolution and the origin of species, and Arendt goes on to point out some strictly political or social views which well-served themselves by coopting Darwin’s scientific natural selection notion (177-178):

“… slavery, though actually established on a strict racial basis, did not make slave-holding peoples race-conscious before the nineteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century, American slave-holders themselves considered it a temporary institution and wanted to abolish it gradually. Most of them probably would have said with Jefferson: ‘I tremble when I think that God is just.’

… The eighteenth century, to use Tocqueville’s admirably precise phrase, ‘believed in the variety of the races but in the unity of the human species.’

But in America and England, where people had to solve a problem of living together after the abolition of slavery, things were considerably less easy … The abolition of slavery sharpened inherent conflicts instead of finding a solution for existing serious difficulties …in England where the ‘rights of Englishmen’ were not replaced by a new political orientation which might have declared the rights of men … a highly confused public opinion … was fertile soil for the various naturalistic doctrines which arose in those decades.

The first of these was represented by the polygenists who … denied any relationship between human ‘races’ … polygenism arbitrarily isolated all peoples from one another by the deep abyss of the physical impossibility of human understanding and communication …

Lasting as the influence of polygenism on English race-thinking proved to be in the long run, in the nineteenth century it was soon to be beaten in the field of public opinion by another doctrine [Darwinism]. This doctrine also started from the principle of inheritance but added to it the political principle of the nineteenth century, progress, where it arrived at the opposite but far more convincing conclusion that man is related not only to man but to animal life … and that a powerful struggle for existence dominates all living things. Darwinism was especially strengthened by the fact that it followed the path of the old might-right doctrine … [had been] used exclusively by aristocrats … now translated into the rather bitter language of people who had known the struggle for daily bread and fought their way to the relative security of upstarts [i.e., the bourgeoisie and their own might-right or survival of the fittest theory].

Darwinism met with such overwhelming success because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race as well as class rule … Darwinism offered two important concepts: the struggle for existence with optimistic assertion of the necessary and automatic ‘survival of the fittest,’ and the indefinite possibilities which seemed to lie in the evolution of man out of animal life and which started the new ‘science’ of eugenics.”

In other words, it appears that Darwin’s theory of evolution as a result of natural selection was especially well-suited for a socio-politico situation enamored of the newly prominent notion of progress and dealing with the political displacement of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie class, and it is, in light of Arendt’s historical rendering, anything except clear that evolution became a mainstay of science because of Darwin alone. Indeed, it seems rather easily arguable that Darwin’s theory about evolution via natural selection would have hardly been much more widely accepted than were previous theories about evolution had the social and political context of the times been more like the contexts at the times of those earlier theories.

I have often heard it said that evolution is either central to, or at the core of, modern biology. Whether that is an accurate or an overblown description of the importance of evolution theory, it nonetheless seems quite clearly the case that social interests served to garner attention for and to proclaim and promote the importance of Darwin’s theory.

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3 Responses to Evolution: Is it more a matter of politics than of science?

  1. John Wilkins says:

    I am very chuffed that someone read this, and gets it roughly right. Thanks.

    I would only add that I think science progresses exactly because it is political. This forces competition and testing of novel ideas. Politics is not an unnecessary noise (by which I mean the internecine politics of scientists as well as the wider social politics) it is the engine of science.

    • Paul Newall says:

      I’d be interested in reading more on why you think that, John.

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      The October 5, 2010, issue of The Wall Street Journal has a review by Megan McArdle of Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. McArdle writes:

      “New ideas are limited by the supply of existing ideas … This idea, the importance of proximity, is one of the first concepts that Steven Johnson introduces [in his book]. In many ways, it is the heart of the book, defining not just what innovations are possible at a given time, but also how innovation gets done within the current frontiers of human knowledge. In Mr. Johnson’s telling, innovation is most likely to occur when ideas from different people, and even different fields, are rapidly banging against one another … The most innovative institutions will create settings where ideas are free to move, and connect … [Johnson] proposes that competition and market forces are less important to innovation than openness and inspiration.”

      Since the original blog posting used some of Hannah Arendt’s ideas, it seems appropriate to bring her back into the discussion at this point, especially since openness and politics were matters which garnered most of her attention. The “openness” to which McArdle refers when discussing Johnson corresponds quite well with Arendt’s own notions about the conditions that define the political – which is to say a public space in terms of the extent to which individuals can be open with regards to expressing their own thoughts as well as whether individuals are open to others’ thinking.

      Such an openness is neither necessarily averse to nor necessarily incompatible with competition or the drive for one-upmanship, and the interaction (even competition) between ideas in an open public space is to be expected to commonly result in segregation into factions based on the appeal quality which characterizes the interface of any idea and minds.

      The segregation which follows from appeal can result in the formation of fields of interest as well as subspecialties and even expertise. Some might wish to argue that this means that the appeal of an idea effectively results in the constriction of the openness which would have been operative before the idea was favorably received. However, there are different sorts of appeal. There are ideas which appeal because they essentially confirm or reinforce previously held notions; then, of a different sort, there are ideas which appeal because they effect a novel expansion of thinking.

      In any event, what problems there might be with what follows from appeal is not really in that there is constriction of openness per se. After all, the appeal which goes hand-in-hand with expanded thinking can well result in a whole new, possibly even more extensive, openness. Rather, problems generally often show up when different fields of endeavor lose substantial interest in exchange and communication with other fields with the result being what can often rightly be referred to as the problem of insularity or the problem of (deference to) experts or expertise. Another common sort of problem occurs when the appeal of an idea gets identified with the fact of the matter as if the subjectivity inseparable from appeal were wholly irrelevant if not thoroughly eradicated from the issue at hand.

      Back in my youth, I was tutoring a young lady for her biology class. Her biology text defined a fact as something about which most people agreed. I was appalled. After all, so far as I was (and am) aware, a fact is supposed to refer to some kind of mind-independent objectivity. Indeed, the rhetorical force of the word absolutely depends on the notion of such an objectivity. Nevertheless, the notion of a fact as something agreed upon is to some extent actually preferable to the notion of a fact as something mind-independently true inasmuch as the agreement aspect preserves the truth that facts are always engaged — and especially expressed — from subjective perspectives, even when there is no apparent strictly personal agenda involved.

      The life-spans and predominance of ideas depend on the extensiveness of their appeal (which is to say that idea survivability and predominance depend upon a social appeal), and, just as appeal is not necessarily based upon mind-independent objectivity, the extensiveness of appeal is certainly not necessarily a measure of mind-independent objectivity. Science is a public or social matter inasmuch as it always depends on “the supply of existing ideas”; science is a social enterprise even when the relevant society is limited to those who exhibit a particular expertise, and the inescapably social nature of science suggests that science might best be continually examined in terms of how it appeals.

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