Darwin Day: Can Capitalism Be Domesticated?

Darwin Day: Can Capitalism Be Domesticated? February 14, 2021

This is a guest post from Dr Joe Berger, science educator who wrote the book Science and Spirituality: An Introduction for Students, Secular People & the Generally Curious [UK]. Please grab a copy to help out. Since it was Darwin’s birthday this last Friday, Joe thought he would add something relevant. Here it is (and a big thanks for him for doing so):

Can capitalism be domesticated?

Charles Darwin was born February 12, 1809, on the same day as Abraham Lincoln. Among the general public he is known for a book he wrote describing the process of evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Some people who find that the Theory of Evolution conflicts with their religious beliefs revile him. Others, most people in fact, recognize him as a great thinker and scientist. But if you ask people what Darwin’s great contribution was, what his brilliant idea was, most will say the Theory of Evolution. In fact Darwin did not use the word evolution. His theory, which he described in Species, was the theory of Natural Selection. The word ‘evolve’ only appears at the very end of his book, where he talks about the wonder of life on earth, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

His grand project of the 23 years between his return from his round-the-world voyage on the Beagle and the publication of On the Origin of Species, was to test his theory of how species originate, and to explain the seemingly contradictory facts of the diversity of life on earth, i.e. why there are so many different kinds of plants and animals, and the unity of life, i.e. why there are so many features in common among diverse species.

There is much discussion and evidence for this process in his book, but the most important part of the theory is natural selection. Simply put, this is the premise that whatever adaptations lead to more offspring will spread and replace earlier versions. In the process of evolution it is possible to identify the single most important underlying criterion, which is reproductive success. Everything else follows from that if you know that criterion. In the end the only thing that matters is reproduction. Darwin was struck by the apparent unrestrained cruelty of nature, but knew it arose by natural selection.

However, the Theory of Natural Selection is a universal explanation and predictor: in any system where there is a single overarching criterion for success, traits that promote that outcome will spread and the result is predictable. There are many instances in which understanding the main criterion of a system can help you understand it.

For example, academia is a system in which, in most cases, the overarching criterion for success is publications. In fact the expression ‘publish or perish’ has a very Darwinian implication. Everything else is subordinate to that. The prediction would be that publications will proliferate; the quality is less important than the quantity. Over time, systems have been introduced to prevent the proliferation of trivial papers, such as ranking the journal in which a paper is published. But in the absence of quality controls, trash publications and journals will proliferate. The sole criterion for politicians in a democratic society is votes. Anything that gets votes will proliferate, and those with fewer votes will disappear.

If the one main criterion that drives the capitalist system is money, then it is predictable that in time all else will be subordinate to making money. Free-market capitalism is the inevitable outcome of that factor. Any company that makes more money will grow and replace those that make less. Nothing else matters. If compassion and ethics make less money, compassion and ethics disappear. If concern for the environment reduces profits, that too will be disappear. It’s predictable. As a result controls have been introduced to moderate the effects, such as child labor laws and product and workplace safety laws, without which we would still have fully unrestrained profit-making at the expense of people. Many would contend that unrestrained profit has adapted to these limitations. For example, money can be used to influence legislation so as to reduce the effect of controls. An example is the mortgage bubble of 2008.

Wolves are very effective predators, but dangerous to humans. Wolves are not evil; they are simply the result of natural selection. However, through the process of artificial selection (the human implementation of natural selection) they were domesticated to become dogs, a friend and companion of humans. Reproduction was still the criterion for success, but being friendly to people led to more reproduction rather than did predatory efficiency.

Capitalism is a very effective system for generating wealth and material well-being. But unrestrained it can be harmful, not only to people, but to the environment and other life on earth. It’s not the result of evil people, it’s the result of natural selection. One adaptation that resists attempts to modify the system is the ‘Divine Right of Capitalism.’ In some societies, the fundamental rightness of capitalism is beyond question (think the U.S.) and an accusation of ‘socialism’ is all that’s required to oppose other ideas. The Divine Right of Kings worked because the rightness of the ruler was beyond question. Any questioning of the king was questioning God.

In order to retain the material quality of life possible under capitalism, but to provide those benefits to everyone and to prevent damage to the environment, it will be necessary to domesticate capitalism. Saying that is the easy part, how to actually do it is more difficult. Some of the European approaches to constrain capitalism and spread its advantages more equitably seem to work in some countries, but first it will be necessary, especially in the U.S., to end the Divine Right of Capitalism. Reducing the influence of money on elections might be a good start.


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