A little while ago Gerry Harvey made some charming public comments to the effect that aid for homeless people is a waste of money and they should be just left to die.
Of course, when everyone shit on him for it, he back pedaled quick smart. The PR dweebs at Harvey Normal haven’t had a good night’s sleep since.
It’s one of those ideas that doesn’t have much currency in polite conversation, but every so often some Corporate Exec vomits it up on the rug, much to the embarrassment of the shareholders. The idea is social darwinism. This is a theory about society that started in some god awful 1800’s racism, to try to justify that white Europeans deserved to colonise and abuse the rest of the world because they were “god’s chosen ones” or something that seemed justifiable in the smoking rooms of the aristocracy at the time. White people were (according to a few rich white men) the pinnacle of evolution and Darwin’s then recently published thesis was twisted into survival of the fittest.
Most people associate the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” with Darwin and the theory of evolution. Actually, Darwin didn’t originate nor use that phrase. It was coined by one of the shapers of Social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism is the general term which applies to several different ways in which people (not biologists) tried to apply a distorted and narrow interpretation of the concept of natural selection to human cultural systems. None of these political ideologies is actually any part of evolutionary theory.
In other words, it’s spin.
This is interesting to note, that it wasn’t Darwin who coined the term “survival of the fittest”. It was a few people with vested interests who didn’t understand what Darwin was actually trying to say.
Let’s have a look at something Darwin is quoted on.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
There are two things that are interesting about this. The first being, obviously, that strength isn’t of major importance. The second is how this fits a species that is gregarious and co-operative in nature. Again, this is Darwin’s thinking on the matter:
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”
Let’s remind ourselves at this point that humans are essentially a gregarious mammal species. That is, we nurse our young and we hang out in groups. Humans have survived not because we’re particularly smart, or strong or fast. We’ve survived as a species because we can cooperate.
When Du Pont, Rockefeller, Harvey and others in what is now being referred to as “the 1%” suggest, if indirectly, this idea of social darwinism the mistake is often made that humans are compared to a much more solitary animal. A leopard or other predator really only comes in contact with others of its kind for mating. Otherwise, until it is old or infirm it controls a particular territory. When you hear quotes about “the law of the jungle” this is pretty much the image that springs to mind. One individual struggling against others and its environment for survival and control of resources. But this contradicts the evolution and natural behaviour of humans and other species that live in groups. Lions, wolves, geese, pilot whales and other gregarious species don’t live the same kind of lives at all. Individuals in these groups survive if they learn to get along with the others and contribute to the group as a whole. And the group only gets anywhere if its members are supported and included. (Otherwise why would they bother?) It goes both ways.
Sure there are people living with diabetes and other illnesses now for far longer than before antibiotics and insulin were around. Some would have it that the species is weaker because these individuals aren’t “pruned off”. Again, it isn’t generally a topic of polite conversation because it’s a fucking ugly, inhumane attitude; it’s also non-sensical. In the past before “modern medicine” if a hunter, gatherer or warrior suffered, say, a broken limb, there’s no guarantee it would have set well. It wouldn’t be enough to kill a person but it may prevent them from continuing their usual adventures. What are they going to do then? Be left out in the cold to die? What do people usually do when they can’t get out and about? The start making and inventing shit like crazy.
If you’re living in a stone age society and you are for whatever reason unable to continue hunting, what do you do? Help your mates out who are still hunting and put your experience spear making to good use. In a little while, devoting yourself to making spears, you’ll not only be very good at it, you’ll probably come up with a few really neat new ideas. Further, if we didn’t spend some time doing something other than trying to be the boss, who would have managed to dream up the idea of refrigeration? Who would have composed Moonlight Sonata? Who would have thought of writing? Clothing? House building? Fishing nets? Who remembers all the history, stories and ideas? And who is it who then plaits all those fishing nets, weaves that thatch or constructs those long bows or graphics cards? Who teaches all The Things We Need To Know to the next generation? It is my contention that it is not necessarily the supposedly able bodied and able minded among us who end up being some of the most valuable long term contributors. Why? Because we’re a group and for the group to get anywhere in the long term we need all those hands on deck.
Take poor Gerry Harvey, since I’m abusing him for my purpose. Let’s drop him in the middle of his putative jungle. How’s he going to trap a rabbit and feed himself? The man has a few reasonably well developed skills that rely on a very particular time and place in human history, serviced by and dependent upon many, many other human beings. He makes the mistake of thinking that if everyone behaved like he did, that the group would be better off. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s have another look at those marginalised, homeless people. Some of the most creative, imaginative and innovative thinkers in history were once excluded from the mainstream for not being mainstream. Einstein is the classic example. A dunce who ended up changing the world. Any number of great thinkers lived with depression, mania, epilepsy, effects of polio or tuberculosis and other illnesses, or were at some stages during their lives homeless and impoverished. To use money and the corporate ladder as a catch-all measure for human achievement is as ridiculous as it is heartless.
Post-industrial society wants to value people according to how much money and “influence” they have. We are given the impression that those at the top of the corporate ladder are somehow more successful than others, even if they have three failed marriages, four heart attacks, assorted kids who won’t speak to them and are completely unable to contribute anything creative in any real terms. They don’t invent the internal combustion engine or knit a sock, but they live pretty damned well off others who do these things. We also conveniently overlook that someone is on top of a corporate conglomerate because a bunch of other people maintain the roads, schools, hospitals, utilities and other aspect of the community in which they live. Another bunch of people work with them in offices, factories or cubicle farms, maintaining the business in which they work. It is wickedly selfish to willfully ignore all those contributions in favour of mere management skills.
Add to which, the free market society in its current incarnation requires that large numbers of people be out of work in order for stock prices to be stable. Lots of people need to be competing for resources in order for prices to be kept artificially high. It’s not about providing goods and services, it’s about maintaining competition that works in the interests of the companies at the expense of their customers. Any time the unemployment figures drop, instability occurs in share trading and rich people get nervous. Others with their pensions invested in stocks get unhappy letters informing them of a devaluation of their nest eggs. This current global economy desperately needs a lot of people to be excluded from the high towers of corporate achievement. A whole bunch of warm bodies have to keep the rungs of the corporate ladder occupied, compete for low wages and maintain stock values, but then scum like Gerry Harvey apparently also want to treat them as lesser forms of life whose existence is simply a waste of money.
I’m going to propose that if we, as a species, would like to continue to survive on this planet it would make more sense for us to “prune off” not the homeless or the disabled, but those who are unable to collaborate or contribute in meaningful ways. This however would mean that parasites who consider themselves “self made men” and neglect to be grateful to all those who helped them on the way, would be the first against the wall. But that would be uncharitable. The Occupy movement is bringing a lot of this to light right now. Let’s see how well those who have benefited from the misery on the streets respond to change. Can they learn to collaborate, again? Can they recall the rest of the species who enabled them to get where they are and maintain the lifestyle to which they are accustomed? Do any of the bastards have a heart?
Darwin can have the last word on this one:
“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”