|Digital Art Piece I made for SIUC's Darwin Week art competition.|
What a curious week this is, beginning with the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan (today) and ending with the 202nd birthday of Charles Darwin (this coming Saturday). Two potent figures in the theory of evolution.
Darwin gets credit for "inventing" the theory. Others deserve some credit in there, but Darwin's observations and conclusions are as good as any to give originary credit to. His was an elegantly simple claim, really: that species change to adapt to their environments. This change happens over long period of times and is driven by forces of natural selection.
The concept of "survival of the fittest" was subsequently bastardized and taken up by many as scientific evidence of might-makes-right and only-the-strongest-survive social policy. Call this Social Darwinism. Borrowing from Puritanical views that Nature is "red in tooth and claw," here were images of competition where greed and brute force drives the success and failure of species. And if species, why not groups of people?
More recent thinking in evolution finds compelling evidence for altruism in species development -- that life in its drive toward ever increasing complexity experiments with, among other things, interspecies cooperation. Survival of the fittest depends as much on cunning and scavenging as it does on brute force. Find a niche and occupy it. Evolution is driven as much by genes being creative as by some desperate need to survive.
Odd to think of Reagan as a champion of evolution; in truth, he is anything but. He famously participated in a failed 1972 law suit as Governor of California to force public schools to teach creationism alongside the scientific theory of evolution. In the White House, he made similar proclamations that evolution is only a theory and that creationism deserved at least equal time if not greater attention for its moral, religious value. Reagan's Creationism would evolve into "Intelligent Design," a bastardization of scientifically nuanced speculation in service of manufacturing support for the Biblical explanation of life on the planet.
And yet, many of Reagan's own policies showed a certain preference for survival of the fittest and withdrawal of any assistance for the weak. As Governor of California, he decreased funds to state mental facilities, turning the mentally ill out onto the streets to fend for themselves. For five years as President, he failed to mention publicly AIDS or provide any Federal assistance for AIDS research. When in 1986 he was finally forced to address the issue, he haggled with Congress to keep AIDS funding low. Perhaps like others on the Religious Right, he saw AIDS as divine retribution or a "natural" cleansing of an unwanted biological trait (whether intravenous drug use or unprotected gay sex or blood transfusions or...). His Tickle-Down Economics embraced a model that suggested the poor and middle class should make do with the leftovers of the rich or get rich themselves -- a kind of economic Darwinism, that.
If Darwin's evolution is primarily about the passing of traits (or genes, in the common parlance) from one generation to the next, the modern political scene shows a much more accelerated evolutionary cycle with memes. A meme is an informational pattern that travels culturally; some evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins posit memetic transfer of information as the true evolutionary advantage humans have over other species that depend mostly on generational genetic tansfer of information.
But memes are tricky. Consider that Reagan raised taxes 11 times during his Presidency, nearly tripled the national debit, and grew the size of the Federal government [cite]. Consider that he was the first President to make the US a debtor nation [cite]. Consider that he advocated for abolishing nuclear weapons and chided Israel for preemptive military attacks [cite]. Consider that while he arguably ended the Cold War with Russia, his backdoor funding of foreign wars (Iran/Contra) and future terrorists (the Mujahideen that would become, in part, Al Qaeda) planted the seeds of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet somehow he has evolved into the darling of the neoconservatives and the Tea Party -- an image of Conservative values, a deficit hawk, a no-compromise champion of small government, a symbol of US might-makes-right foreign policy.
But then, that's the difference between a gene and a meme. A gene is biological information at the molecular level that transforms slowly across eons and generations. Those changes are tested in the environment. A meme transforms more quickly and shows incredible capabilities of developing rapidly into myth, an organizing narrative whose fidelity to reality is not important. So today, many will celebrate St. Reagan as they call for magical deficit reduction and smaller government and US exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, all while ignoring the benefits they reap from the government they so want to destroy or Reagan's much more questionable political record.
Let us hope genes win out over memes in the end and evolution provides an answer to self-destructive, congenital stupidity. Or perhaps, from a systems perspective, that is what the global ecological collapse we seem to be entering is all about...