Social Darwinism Cafe

Last night’s Philosophers’ Cafe at Kathmandu on Commercial Drive was a completely full house and a lively affair. (The announcement of the next topic stirred a lot of interest, so get there early, have dinner. The food is the main reason I go.) The conversation was non-stop for two hours, I didn’t take notes, I’m not naming names, here are my impressions. Comments are on (Your first comment will await moderation, (it’s an issue of spam) after that it’s a free for all.

Zahid Makhdoom moderated the night and opened with the philosophy: the purpose is not to find answers but to ask questions, If you’re confused coming in, the best result would be to leave even more confused. We will be muddying the waters. (What follows is a series of unfinished notes and open questions.) And then a short elaboration of the topic under discussion. “Is Social Darwinism an instrument of racist and authoritarian thought? Is survival of the fittest an appropriate moral, social, economic, or political ethic?” Social Darwinism, that is the conscious application of evolutionary principles, has a history of racism. Species development is confused with species evolution, and the value judgement is levelled against people. Makhdoom gave a few examples. I can recall two. 1) That when a dog plays in a yard no one considers the dogs ownership. Winston Churchill on Palestine. 2) Alberta Eugenics, sterilization program so the “unfit” wouldn’t breed.

No one argued for Social Darwinism. A good point was made using the person of Gandhi. Gandhi because a test for part of the discussion, the idea that tests are specific and that phenotypes are universal tests. Gandhi was a horrible plumber, but a great leader. It was his biographical development, contingent place in history that produced the Gandhi effect.

One scientific mind noted, about halfway through the conversation, that there were at least three different ideas of evolution at play in the room, they were undefined, undifferentiated and the communication was suffering for it. When the scientist was talking he was interrupted. “Science? This is a philosopher’s cafe.” (I just mistyped ‘cafe’ as ‘cage’. Paging Dr. Freud…) What? When did philosophy respect limits of knowledge, the disciplining and cloistering of specialized areas of inquiry, is a recent institutional social construct and was noted early in the twentieth century as potentially leading to the downfall of philosophy. (econophile)

Folk thinking is short term – an application of values on change – Do we have any control of our destiny? Development vs. Evolution – we should all be in more or less the same boat. Slaves forbidden the written word. Undeveloped and oppressed human potential confused as genetic (evolutionary) inferiority.

What does the fittest mean? Luckiest?

This was from a small dialogue while paying the bill: Genetic expression – the ideas that ideas are genetic – that people have a tendency. I don’t know. There is the notion of the great thinker. Darwin for example, changed the way we think about historical reality. But had Darwin, by chance, suffered a massive head injury, we would still today be talking about evolution, maybe even social evolution (social Wallacism?) This is because Darwin built his theory on previously published works and material evidence. He also mentioned at least four others who were hot on the theory’s tail. Today, the theory has been worked and reworked by the scientific community. Darwin had a very loose idea of genetic material, which has played a significant part in the contemporary understanding of the theory.

The individual’s social success as a measure of fitness. This idea more or less dominated the room. (with the accompanying machismo!) (An issue is framework.) The idea of success as adaptation to the social is not evolution. The other main idea was the ecological destruction – These conflicting notions were not noted. (?)

Consciousness is it developmental? There can be no argument that the plastic brain is a feature of our species.

One person whose main thrust was the idea of collective fitness over individual fitness (this is closest to evolution because one life cycle, your own personal birth to death existence, is well inside the concept of evolution.) gave some advice to young people. “Our generation has left it up to you to solve the problem.” What? When did this turn in the social take place? There was a comment that if we live 80 years, so much is spent sleeping and working that in all that 5 years is free time? Maybe that was what happened in the sixties, the systemized organizational man, is completely unfree, the youth were free to criticize the system. Where did that get us?

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