The Victorian age was one of great progress and great folly, and particularly a time of great ideas. While we scoff at buttoned down Victorian morality, they also began to provide for the poor, reform the legal system, reinvent medicine, and they esteemed philanthropy as a virtue.
Darwin is one of the great figures of that age. His main contribution was to take the idea of evolution and add a new twist: natural selection.
The idea of natural selection is often summed up using Herbert Spencer’s phrase survival of the fittest, but this has been given an unfortunate twist. Darwin was born during the Napoleonic wars. The whole of Europe was ablaze with war and conflict. And Britain had been at war with one or other European power for most of the last few centuries.
Britain won the war and in doing so, became the first world super-power since the Mongols. Raw materials required to feed the insatiable machines of the industrial revolution flooded into Britain from its colonies; and the excreta of those machines poured forth as commodities for sale, creating phenomenal wealth. Nature “red in tooth and claw” appeared to provide justification for the exploitation people and the rapacious use of resources. Influenced by biblical and national myths, Victorians wrongly associated fitness to survive with the exercise of power. The solitary top level predator, already symbol of royal power, now came to symbolise fitness for survival, forgetting that in Darwin’s scheme the lamb is also fit to survive.
This distorted version of Darwin’s idea comes down to us in memes like the ‘selfish gene’ and ‘rational self-interest’, and manifests in the attitudes of big business and big finance. The 1% feels certain that their acquisition of wealth and power at the expense of the 99%, at the expense even of the planet, is only natural, and therefore moral.
The Nature of Nature
Nature, however, is not this way at all. The basic unit of life is the cell. Plants and animals are made up of communities of cells working together to create mutually agreeable conditions for each other. In fact each of these cells is itself a community of symbiotic bacteria—one of which provides the structure and infrastructure, one the mobility and interactivity, and one the ability to metabolise oxygen. This discovery was made towards the end of the 19th century, but found acceptance only in the mid-20th century through the persistence of Professor Lynne Margulis. She showed us the community nature of all life.
In effect all life is symbiotic, all individuals are actually communities. Some symbionts are tightly bound like the bacteria that make up our cells, and the cells that make up our bodies; while others are loosely bound like the bacteria in our guts that help us digest our food. We are a social species. The smallest unit of humanity is not the individual or even the family, it is the troop, but even so one troop has little chance of survival. Individual humans are weak, and slow compared to most other species. We succeed because we rely on each other, and because we share what we’ve learned. We live in ecosystems: complex networks of life in different forms which interconnect and provide mutual support. Even predation can be seen in terms of inter-species cooperation to maintain sustainable numbers given the resources available. Lynne Margulis said “Evolution is community ecology over time.”
Ultimately the whole of life on the planet acts together, without any coordination, to help provide conditions suitable for life. James Lovelock observed this and called the phenomenon Gaia. This is nature.
Cooperating for Success
Perhaps the most obvious defining feature of living things is the way they connect together to create webs of interdependent association that help to ensure continuity of life, often at the expense of the individual. In the 21st century we know that cooperation, synthesis, symbiosis, and coordination are how life progresses. Success in any human endeavour is achieved by persuading other people to cooperate and work together.
In many ways conservatives could be admired for having achieved what they have. Despite the rhetoric of self-reliance, they pulled together on a vast scale to change the world. We might deplore the results, but we could learn from the way conservatives cooperate and coordinate their efforts. At present they do this more successfully than progressives. Rather ironically cooperation not self-reliance is the secret of conservative success.
From a Renegade Correspondent – Jayarava