General Question

Mtl_zack's avatar

Is natural selection legit?

Asked by Mtl_zack (6778points) March 11th, 2009

Darwin was a very rich man. He had loads of money. He invested in railroad companies right before their peak and made a fortune. Couldn’t his theory of natural selection be a view relating to the political and economic aspects? He was rich, the main reason was because he knew when to invest and he was good with money. Couldn’t his ideas of natural selection be what we know call social darwinism? His theory of “Nature—love it or leave it” resembles the saying “you can’t fight city hall”. Maybe he was just supporting the legitimacy of his wealth in a very class-struggling time using nature, something that always exists, no matter how much you change it.

Like if I said the reason why I am rich is because I adapted to the economic times, and you did not. This relates to natural selection. I was smart about my money in economic times, and survived, and you were dumb about your money and died out.

Maybe Darwin was just a die hard capitalist rich guy, who wanted to legitimize his wealth in a time where communist revolutions, workers strikes and peasant revolts were going on (the 1800s).

This is mainly from the book in my previous post entitled Biology As Ideology: The Doctrine Of DNA.. I posted an example from the book in case some people did not read it.

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35 Answers

Mamradpivo's avatar

Darwin wasn’t and isn’t the only person who ever observed natural selection. Alfred Wallace, for one, was a poor naturalist in the 19th century who came up with pretty much the same ideas.

Moreover, most of 20th and 21st century biology and medicine is based on natural selection and evolution. So yeah, natural selection is pretty legitimate as scientific explanations for observable phenomena go.

Jayne's avatar

“Like if I said the reason why I am rich is because I adapted to the economic times, and you did not. This relates to natural selection. I was smart about my money in economic times, and survived, and you were dumb about your money and died out.”

This has very little to do with natural selection, unless your fiscal responsibility is genetically encoded. It could be relevant to cultural evolution, wherein behaviors are passed on with imitation, rather than procreation and genetic heredity, being the mechanism of proliferation (which is very different than social selection, which is simply an additional mechanism alongside natural selection for the evolution of genetic traits). Darwin was very explicit in talking about natural selection, and the concept of cultural evolution in the sense I mention is a fairly recent development, so the only way his theory could have been applied to his wealth would be if he believed that financial intelligence is genetically encoded. It is possible that he did, of course, but I do not believe he made any such claim. In any case, this would in no way undercut the science behind his writings, and it would certainly not invalidate modern theories of natural selection, which go far beyond the limited scope of Darwinism and draw on him only as a founder, not as a guide.

So…yes, it is legit, at least insofar as Darwin’s finances are concerned.

Darwin's avatar

One big problem with the rich versus poor analogy is that if the rich are so superior biologically why is it that the poor generally have way more offspring? In the light of natural selection that would make being rich less successful at reproducing. Hence, it would do the reverse of justifing Darwin’s capitalist successes.

Besides, I don’t believe that Darwin ever claimed that capitalist success is genetically encoded and passed down to offspring.

Dog's avatar

All the money in the world will not save you from natural selection.

As an example those who could afford medical care before the 20th century were not
exactly the better off and in fact many died from the “cure”.

Sure it will help the odds of surviving I do not think that money alone can ensure a pass from the Grim Reaper. Even the rich die young.

Jamspoon's avatar

Natural selection certainly lends itself to capitalistic ideology but I don’t suppose Darwin had, at the time, applied his theory in a cultural sense.

I think Natural Selection, if in some way justified anything he’d done, justified all the work he had put into developing his theory of evolution.

Natural selection is one of the most legitimate scientific theories to date, I would think.

Mtl_zack's avatar

@Jayne @Darwin @Dog I’m not saying that genetics helps you become rich. What I’m saying is that Darwin used nature, an unchanging, thing that nobody could fight as a metaphor for the market. He used the rich as people who survived and the poor as people who went extinct.

@Mamradpivo Medicine uses chemicals to stimulate bodily functions. Medicine does not use natural selection. It uses common sense.

Darwin's avatar

@Mtl_zack – But that is a fallacy, for “the poor are always with us.” (Matthew 26:11) The poor have never gone extinct. Their numbers grow by leaps and bounds.

And medicine actually circumvents natural selection in one sense by saving those whose bodies are functioning incorrectly so that they can pass those defects on in their children.

Mtl_zack's avatar

@Darwin “The poor are always with us”. There are poor people because there are rich people. Rich people have to exploit the poor people in order to stay rich.

Why would someone want to save someone who is defective? Wouldn’t the next generation be defective, and then the next generation would be defective, and then the human species would go extinct because the entire population is defective.

Jamspoon's avatar

If Darwin had wanted to comment on the market I think rather than developing a theory on the proliferation of species he may have approached the subject a bit more directly.

Mtl_zack's avatar

@Jamspoon But this comparison of the market with nature shows that you cannot change the market, and that it is your fault alone if you are poor.

Jamspoon's avatar

The idea of the upper class taking advantage of the lower working class is less a demonstration of natural selection and might be better described in terms of ecological balance and how each group is playing their role in maintaining that balance.

Darwin's avatar

@Mtl_zack – “Wouldn’t the next generation be defective, and then the next generation would be defective…”

Precisely the flaw in modern medicine. Think about it: before we figured out how to give diabetics insulin they generally died and never had children. Thus, fewer people were born with the potential to become diabetic. Now we treat diabetics with insulin (and glucophage and so on) and they go on to have children who carry the potential for becoming diabetics. Is it any wonder that the rate of diabetes is increasing? It may be due in part to our modern diets and lack of exercise, but it could also be an increased occurence of the genes that cause folks to lose the ability to deal with glucose successfully.

This could be said to be the case for a variety of maladies today. The solution is a) don’t let folks with defective genes breed, or b) “fixing” the broken genes through stem cell research and its ilk.

However, when it is your child with a defective gene, would you prefer not to save them? Or would you take them to the doctor and beg for treatment?

Mtl_zack's avatar

@Darwin But wouldn’t the great children die because the diabetes still exists in the person? Wouldn’t it be better to let the person die so there is a guarantee that no diabetics could ever be born after the last one dies, and then the problem of diabetes will be gone and the human species will flourish? Darwin writes about this in his book The Desent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex

@Jamspoon That is exactly what Darwin writes about in his books about mold and barnacles, as well in The Structure And Distribution Of Coral Reefs

Darwin's avatar

@Mtl_zack – As I said, that’s the flaw in modern medicine. It circumvents natural selection for our species. Be aware, however, that our legal system frowns on letting your child die from a treatable illness.

None of that makes natural selection not a legitimate mechanism to produce change in a species over time.

Mtl_zack's avatar

@Darwin I was just discussing how medicine does not use natural selection, as Mamradpiva said it does.

Darwin's avatar

@Mtl_zack – Maybe so, but you were addressing me, not Mamradpiva.

Modern medicine does indeed circumvent natural selection. However, your other premise, that Darwin’s theory was an attempt to justify his wealth, is a non-starter.

Mtl_zack's avatar

I’d like examples of this, and tomorrow (I’m going to bed) I’ll try to relate them to wealth in England and wales in the 19th century.

Remember, there was a time when the entire world believed that the world was flat, and that was the truth.

Darwin's avatar

It is true that people believed the earth was flat, but the earth was still round for all of that. They thought it was the truth, but it wasn’t.

In fact, there still are people who believe the earth is flat, even though some folks have even gone far enough off from the surface to see that the earth is round. And some believe that the moon landings were all filmed somewhere in a studio in southern California.

Jamspoon's avatar

I feel out of my breadth here as I’ve not read nearly enough of Darwin’s actual writing, though I do feel I understand enough of evolution to provide a bit of my perspective which I like to think is objective, in keeping with the spirit of the discussion.

It’s clear that modern medicine most certainly side-steps natural selection. Natural selection by definition is just as the name implies, an organic progression of a species whereby the genetically weaker individuals are eliminated due to their biological shortcomings, whether that be from disease – weaker immune system, less success hunting/obtaining food – less fitness relative to peers and prey, and in the end less success procreating/proliferating.

Medicine eliminates anything that may physically deter a person from finding a partner and successfully having a family, and in many countries social class(level of income) does not affect what medical care a person can or cannot receive. Therefore the natural process of the genetically weak being worked out of the gene pool no longer occurs.

I agree with @Darwin though, your initial question seems quite speculative, feeling almost like a straw man argument – though I might be a bit off with that – in that if you tried hard enough I’m sure you could make what seems like a sound attempt at arguing your point but as I tried to say in my first reply: it feels almost vain and most certainly overwrought of Darwin to try to justify his wealth by natural selection without actually stating it and instead forming his theory as a metaphor for his feelings toward economic and social status – don’t you think?

Jack79's avatar

Oh I believe in that theory too. For me natural selection works everywhere. Companies, ideas, car models. Anything that doesn’t work is eventually abandoned, shops close and people get divorced. And what you’re left with are the things that do work, such as cartoons, fossil fuel and well-lit classrooms.

Lupin's avatar

Have any of you seen the movie “Idiocracy”? The dumb keep procreating while the educated and financially stable couples eventually die off. Unfortunately it looks like that’s the way our society is headed. Octoplets anyone?

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

@Lupin Yes. Seen it. I’m sorta hoping that we invent the magic knowledge chair from battlefield earth before that happens.

laureth's avatar

Charles Darwin lived 12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882 and his book “On the Origin of Species” came out in 1859.

Social Darwinism was extrapolated from his ideas about Evolution and was exponded by Herbert Spencer. he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” released Principles of Biology in 1864 after reading Darwin’s work.

In other words, I think saying that Darwin was himself a social Darwinist is putting the cart before the horse.

Mtl_zack's avatar

@laureth Spencer was Darwin’s nephew, who inherited a lot of Darwin’s wealth.
Why can’t they have similar ideas?
I don’t think I’m putting the “cart before the wagon” if the intent of Darwin was indeed to legitimize his wealth.

@Darwin What I meant was that maybe we are believing something that will be void in 200 years, just like the people who believed the earth was flat.

@Jamspoon If you look at all the contextual economic, political and social evidence, you will see that this argument can and does make sense.

wundayatta's avatar

Well, of course it could be what you said. I think you’d have a hell of a time finding convincing evidence for that theory.

On the other hand, there’s no way you could say Darwin’s theory was not “legit.” It’s a theory, from which hypotheses can be made, and evidence can be found to support or disprove the theory. In science that is quite legitimate.

If this is the kind of half-baked ideas that come from your book, it sounds like it was written by a person who has no clue as to what science is or isn’t. As I say, over and over, “follow the evidence.”

Darwin's avatar

@daloon – The book in question was written by Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist who was trying to say that DNA and the Human Genome Project are not going to be “the answer” to all of human society’s ills as the conductors of that Project have been quoted as saying. Lewontin is an academic, and one of his jobs as an academic is to get people to rethink the things they “know.” He does a good job of approaching commonly accepted beliefs from the side in this short book, which is a collection of radio lectures he did for the CBC.

He is also pointing out how the financial interests of big pharmaceutical companies and the social needs of society affect what research is being done and how that research is presented to the public. In a way, what he is saying is that science is the new Church and that scientists are the priests interpreting the word of science to the people, and that the explanations are tailored to get the effect society wants or needs at the time.

He says that the prevalent social ideas of the day affect how scientists explain science, but he is not saying that this makes the science incorrect. He draws comparisons to the way in which Darwin explained evolution to Victorian political economic theory, but does not say that this invalidates the theory of evolution.

You can read it for yourself at,M1

This is the tag line from Amazon:

“Following in the fashion of Stephen Jay Gould and Peter Medawar, one of the world’s leading scientists examines how “pure science” is in fact shaped and guided by social and political needs and assumptions.”

I suspect that if one has a strongly held belief that a particular scientific truth is not a “real” truth, that one could misappropriate (or misinterpret) the words of someone like Lewontin to support one’s own belief.

SuperMouse's avatar

Yes, yes it is, natural selection is legit.

kevinhardy's avatar

yup it is seen in many work places

wundayatta's avatar

@Darwin Perhaps people are misrepresenting the book. In any case, what the author said is irrelevant to me, as far as this discussion is concerned. I guess I should have addressed my comments to Mtl_zak. You will note that I did say “If” this is an idea in the book.

I’m not sure how science can be a Church, since it is purely agnostic. People can use pseudo-science to further political, financial, or academic advantage, but that is pseudo-science, not real science. I should point out, that real science will always trump pseudo-science in the end.

It is a shame that people are afraid to publish their results when they contradict a famous name’s work. I see that every once in a while where I work.

The shenanigans of the Pharmaceutical industry are pretty well known, and were reported in some of the most prestigious medical journals (JAMA, I believe). Science corrects itself. I am hard put to find a religion that does that.

Darwin's avatar

@daloon – Science can be a Church (notice the capital C) in the sense that the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe was the source of all knowledge that was considered legitimate, served as judge of whether actions were allowed or justified or not, and served as the sole source of translation of God’s word to the masses. That Church may or may not have accurately reflected God and His desires (if either exist) as it was most definitely a human construct but it is a certainty that the masses had to rely on what the Church said was the truth.

In the same way Science as an institution can be a Church, in that certain people designated as spokesmen explain the workings of Science (the “god” of the modern world) to the masses in a way that cannot be contradicted by any but the scientists themselves. Lewontin feels that the message being given is not the actuality of science but what certain people want the rest of the people to believe. In other words, unless you are a scientist you may not be able to determine whether what you are being fed is pseudo-science or science, or whether it is even the whole story.

In addition, if a scientist espouses a theory that is considered unorthodox they may be refused funding or labeled as a crank (for example, Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren of Australia and their discovery of Helicobacter pylori as a cause of stomach ulcers) just as unorthodox members of the Church were labeled as heretics. But they still proceed and eventually find success if they can get beyond egos to document their work and show cause and effect.

And you could consider that religion self-corrects – hence the rise of so many different denominations within one religion, or the occurrence of a Martin Luther and others who seek to reform the church, despite the punishments for breaking away or for heresy.

“It is a shame that people are afraid to publish their results when they contradict a famous name’s work. I see that every once in a while where I work.”

As a retired scientist, I see that almost every new discovery in science can be seen as a contradiction of someone. But that is where the scientific method is supposed to come in, so that procedure and replicability allow others to see it does indeed work that way. Because humans are involved in science there are roadblocks to truly new ideas, but there are always ways to get your message out somehow – small presses, odd journals, or nowadays, the Internet. That was supposed to be what tenure at universities was about – the ability to research and publish results that may not conform with accepted knowledge.

LostInParadise's avatar

A few points:

As @laureth points out, Social Darwinism is just one narrow interpretation of Darwin, and the Great Depression exposed the folly of it. Concentrating wealth in the hands of a very few damages a market economy just as a predator fails if it can completely consume all available prey. In both society and nature there must be a balance of interests.

Secondly, there can be no doubt that what scientists examine at any given moment will be influenced by economic concerns. Someone has to underwrite the costs and this is most likely going to be some company that can benefit from the results. However, there will always be some interest in knowledge for its own sake.

Finally, although a given religion can self-correct, it must be understood that the power of a religion lies in its ability to get people to do things they otherwise would not do. There will always be a compromise between the degree of orthodoxy and the number of followers. Science, on the other hand, has a built-in method for self-correction. If experimental results contradict the current accepted knowledge then changes will have to be made. And since scientific glory comes from producing new results, there is always an incentive for challenging scientific orthodoxy.

There is, however, a problem with pseudo-science. We have gotten to the point where the general public does not understand the scientific results and there will always be charlatans who exploit this to twist the results in self-serving ways.

wundayatta's avatar

@Darwin: I think the metaphors are really stretching it to the point where they don’t make sense, and don’t serve us well.

Science as Church? Science is not monolithic. It does not speak with one voice. It encourages everyone to question everyone else. That is how people are trained. You know this.

Science as an anointed privilege? Again, anyone can do it. You don’t need training to discover important new bits of knowledge. Training helps, but it is also kind of built into us. Babies take the scientific approach. We are all experimentalists until we grow up to the point where people tell us that what we have discovered through experimentalism is wrong.

Scientific administration is prejudiced? Sure. But not the scientific method. Method doesn’t care for how researchers are funded. Anyone can use the method. If the wrong researchers are funded, society loses. That’s par for the course everywhere, though. Administrators don’t know who the best scientists are, nor which science will prove most useful. Yet they have to make funding decisions. So it is an imperfect funding system. Could it be perfect? I don’t think so.

Religion is like science in that it self-corrects? Show me evidence of this. I don’t see how new splinter denominations is self-correction. Seems to me that what is really going on is community building. Religion is the manipulation of symbols in order to create absolute authority. It’s no different than political systems. I suppose you can say that it self-corrects in the sense that some people can move in and out of various religious sects, and that it is kind of like market corrections. But then, everything self-corrects over time. This does not distinguish religion from anything else, including science. Although, the nature of the self-correction process is quite different, I believe.

Sure, people employ science for personal goals. Science, though, is not responsible for how people use it. Religions do not exist separately from human ideas. There is no objective truth, despite the fact that many religions think they can uniquely see the objective truth. Religion would not exist without humans. The universe can exist without us very well, thank you very much.

dalton's avatar

Natural Selection and evolution may have been introduced to us by Darwin..but they exist quite well on their own without Darwin, too.

Hobosnake's avatar

Hilarious Fact: According to Friedrich Nietzsche (an avid social darwinist) the weak (especially the mentally deranged) should all simply die to make order for the strong.

Makes sense, right? Now read this.

Darwin's avatar

@Hobosnake – Well, now, there is a great solution for the health care problems. Stop treating people and let the sick ones die. Then no one will even need insurance.

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