“This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.”,
The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, Wordsworth classics of world literature, 1998, p. 5-6.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 06-06-2009. Not only a simple one, a long one also. It’s also blunt in combining Malthus and multi-culturalism.]
A simple one. Malthus has gotten loads of bad press. If at all a connection is made between Malthus and Darwin, it’s mostly made under the heading ‘Social Darwinism’, which is meant insultingly as misapplied Darwinism and associated to extreme right political views. This annoys me. Or more accurately: infuriates me. But more importantly: it’s incorrect. And, most importantly: the error blocks us from an important insight.
First the error. Malthus was not a biologist. His theory was not biological. An interpretation of his theory along biological lines in which the weakest individuals, as per the weakest social or ethnic groups, should perish such as to have better human offsrping is in clear error. Darwin’s ‘(..) any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself (..) will have a better chance of surviving (..)” rewarped in Malthus’s sociological thinking needs to be seen as a variation of beliefs held by the human beings in society.
The Malthusian thesis is that, insofar people have a better set of beliefs, they will be better equipped to lead a good life. A necessary element of such a set of beliefs is to moderate population growth (not by a one-child policy but by a realization that it is better to moderate one’s own procreation even if – per Darwin – non-moderation of procreation is biologically inescapable instinct). In fact, as we know now, moderation of population growth is essential to survival of the human race as all natural checks – other than destructive disaster – on an ever increasing human footprint have de facto been eliminated. As Malthus forewarned (and therefore, in its essence, his theory stands): the only check to disastrous crisis is the internal – i.e. self-imposed – check.
Second, the blocked insight: the dynamic of creation is as unavoidable as the law of logic. It applies indiscrimately to all that lives (and therefore all that isn’t just a matter of pure logic). Any living thing will tend to procreate. Any procreating thing will tend to vary. Only the competitive variants will remain. This applies to beings, as is generally accepted, but it also applies to beliefs. This is the original Malthusian thought as acknowledged by Darwin.
We have had to vary our ideas, and hence: create new ideas to avoid continuous
catastrophic crisis. One of the ideas that ‘had to’ be created is the understanding of the dynamism of all things living, the Malthusian idea more clearly illustrated by Darwin in biology.
So this: only the ‘best’ ideas survive with ‘best’ in the sense of adapted in the best (most competitive) way to the environment in which the idea is generated.
No, not just Dawkins’ memes again. Because the question is as it is with Darwin: ‘Adapted to what?’ The notion of memes misleadingly centered on things like nursery rhymes – and by pejorative extension to false populist ideology – such as ‘Darwinism-denialism’. That is as misleading as stating that the fittest creature is the one that survives in an environment artificially created to suit the creature.
The analogy holds: for populist ideology can only survive in artificially isolated environments (cfr. one of the fenced off pieces of nature described by Darwin). Such artificial islands can’t survive. Mono-cultures are like forced inbreeding, and will ultimately succumb under the weakness of their culture when inevitably it needs to face other cultures that survived (and evolved) in some less artificial environment (cfr. the current state of Muslim countries and the maybe future
state of the culture of Western supremacy).
[I may note here, to my own credit, that the last between brackets was written in tempore non suspecto.]
Bad ideology is a lot like rhyme: both are well adapted to a specific aspect of the environment: that of memory and instinctive beastly fear of the strange.
‘Adapted to the freely evolving conditions of nature’, however frustratingly vague this expression may be to some, is the correct view, also for ideas. One idea is the original one of Malthus: universal education. A later idea was: birth control. Both together are well adapted (even if still obviously varying), allowing a relative stability in the substrate for creating more ideas. They neutralize the imminent destruction – the trigger for Malthus ideas – by overpopulation.
Further well adapted ideas are ideas of universal social security and low-carbon emission growth (to give those that are currently relatively uncontroversial in non-populist monoculture group-think; the right to die and the right to be lazy are my typical controversial ones).
Here I unfortunately need to make this one even longer by going into a long ‘by the way’. It is indeed important to note that the above also explains the intuitive appeal of the Hegelian quasi-dynamic of the dialectic. In describing dynamic processes one is easily fooled by the fallacy of treating the description as if it were the reality and then applying logic to the description to get the truth, the way out, the next step. All current politics is Hegelian in this sense of identifying something bad then proposing some specific solution to it and thinking that in so doing the bad thing is irreversibly eliminated.
Taking Malthus and Darwin such an approach cannot be true. Whilst we can simplify our descriptions to isolate this animal and that plant, the real reality is that of all plants and all animals … and all ideas. Things change, interact and are constantly in motion with the brute creative force as Bergson tried to describe. This means that we can’t say that this situation is superseded by that one; this thing solved by forever applying such and such a solution.
Have I gone astray in my above example then as well? A fair question, and the answer is: ‘No!’. No, because I was not specific and took care to identify winning ideas on an abstract enough level to be able to be substantiated by the insights of Darwinism and the dynamics of Malthus. These ideas are winners in the sense that humans have to be winners; both are intrinsically and qualitatively better suited to support a creative, and continuous, growth.
[To make this even longer: what I wanted to say was that a thinking creature has some intrinsic advantage over a large range of environments, just like insects do. These universal ideas I proposed are like that intrinsic advantage. They adapted to be more adaptable. There is more (cfr. the post below this one) but that’s good enough in this context.]
Ideas are a major new element of growth. They don’t grow into something definite, virtuous just as DNA did not pruposely grow into humans. The only virtue that can be identified is the virtue of growth itself. The virtue of truth even is derived from the virtue of growth. Ideas can only grow insofar as they are, in a logical and a scientific sense, true (this does not settle the problem of logical truth and mathematics, by the way!).
Even if abstract, there are other things that we can pinpoint as winning ideas besides education [sourly non-discussed in the above] and birth control (the control over one’s own destiny). Without argument I give a few: competition, consumption, economic growth [I’m not so sure on this one anymore]. Other ideas clearly can’t but be categorized as losers: xenophobia, carbon waste, extension of life expectancy, hard and long work.
This has been a long one again so I have permitted myself some fun in implying but not arguing that economic growth is split from carbon growth (consumption from material consumption) and that working hard is incompatible with the emergence of original ideas.
Certainly the latter is a definite to do: maybe time for a Montaigne quote again.
[Whilst writing this I was listening to Anthrax, ‘State of Euphoria’ & ‘Strawberry Jam’, The Animal Collective.]