Tuesday, 12 April 2016

What Darwin and Marx Never Said...

Not many people know that Charles Darwin never said- and never wrote about- the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’.

Read his stuff (and I guarantee, you’ll be one of the very few people who have) and you’ll find that neither the phrase nor the idea comes up.  

Not only that, but the term isn’t generally used by modern biologists. The concept that most people erroneously call ‘survival of the fittest’ is actually the concept of ‘natural selection’, but they’re not the same thing.

Natural selection is about differences in reproduction. Biologists have concluded that the differences that emerge when organisms reproduce are the product of genetic traits that emerge due to the environmental circumstances in which the organism finds itself.

The term they give to those differences is called ‘fitness’, but that’s actually a very different notion than an organism being the ‘fittest’.

So if Darwin didn’t say it, who brought up the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’?

That would be English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was interested in applying Darwin’s theories to the social realm- economics, politics, culture, etc. To do that, he postulated that Darwin’s observations of natural processes had ethical and moral dimensions, conflating survivability with inherent goodness.

To paraphrase, where Darwin said, ‘if something survives, it survives’; Spencer said, ‘if something survives, it’s obviously good.’

This is not to pillory Spencer as some kind of heartless villain- like any philosopher, he was attempting to analyze what he observed- but his analysis served as the foundation for a couple of generations of free-market capitalist dogma that sees acquired wealth as a sign of inherent worthiness and poverty as a sign of inherent worthlessness. It unfortunately (but predictably) assumes a level playing field and doesn’t take into account or outright ignores factors such as manipulation, structural inequality, or social/cultural privilege. At worst, it might actually celebrate those things as simply the perpetuation of the ‘right kind of people’ continuing to do well.

This brings us round to another phrase: ‘the redistribution of wealth’.

Not many people know that Karl Marx never said- and never wrote about- the ‘redistribution of wealth.’ He certainly had a lot to say about wealth (which he called ‘Capital’), but it was actually a side issue to something he saw as far more important.

In the same way as Darwin saw ‘fitness’ as a natural process, Marx saw economic development as a natural process- a historical progression.

Part of that natural process was the gradual development of social divisions- ‘classes’- between humans. As Marx saw it, certain classes began to hoard up resources and then forced other classes to pay for those resources through their work. ‘Capital’- money and the things that money can buy- increasingly became the primary focus of the work process. People were slowly forced to do the work that was given them by more powerful classes for whatever money those higher classes would pay them-usually as little as possible. Worse, the ownership classes then made the workers pay for the very things they needed to survive- food, shelter, clothing- out of the wages that they were paid.

This state of affairs- which Marx refers to as ‘the division of labour’- gradually ossified into the class ‘system’. Some ‘have’ and some ‘have not’. Some are forced into certain kinds of work, not of their choosing, hazardous to health and life, and for which they are paid a pittance. Thus basic human freedom is destroyed.

This, for Marx, was where the true problem lay; ‘Capitalism’ allowed a person no intrinsic value apart from the labour they could generate which could then be converted into capital.

This is why Marx was thoroughly uninterested in attempts at making capitalism more equitable by ‘redistributing’ capital, moving capital around, either by charity or public policy. The idea of a change in the material conditions of the poor and oppressed arising from good deeds or economic reform was, to Marx’s mind, absurd.

So if Marx didn’t say it, who brought up the notion of ‘redistribution of wealth’?

For that, you have to look to Christianity, specifically the Church Fathers of Christianity’s early centuries.

For it was the 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom who stated:

To not share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.

It was Ambrose, 4th-century Bishop of Milan, who said:

You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor man; you are handing over to him what is his.

It was the 4th-century Bishop of Caesarea Basil the Great who declared:

When someone steals a man’s clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

It was 7th-century Patriarch of Alexandria St. John the Almsgiver, who said:

If, without ill will, a man were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the poor, he would do no wrong.

It’s ironic that so many American Christians- the wealthiest, most powerful, and most influential Christians on Earth- are usually the most vocal opponents of any attempt to redistribute the wealth of America- well over 50% of which is held by 1% of the people…

It is they who seem to hold most tightly to the notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’, giving it a theological veneer through the notion of ‘blessing’, which believes that acquired wealth is a sign of God’s specific favor.

Ironic as well that they seem to believe that the way to ensure God’s continued favor is to perpetuate economic and political models that maintain- and exacerbate- an entrenched inequality. 

But in order to do that, you will need to ignore the witness of the Church Fathers;

You will need to ignore the witness of John the Baptist who uttered such redistributionist rubbish as ‘a person with two shirts should give one to the person with none. Do the same with your food’ (Luke 3:11);

You will need to ignore the accounts of the early church in Acts, with their holding all things in common, selling their possessions and giving it all to be ‘distributed to each according to his need’ (Acts 4:32-35);

And you will need to ignore Jesus, who said to sell all you have, distribute the profits to the poor, and to follow him (Luke 19:21).

Misquoting Darwin and Marx is one thing; misquoting the saints and the savior is something else entirely…