Politics, it is said, makes strange bedfellows. Evolutionary biology, too, has created some strange bedmates. Especially when it comes to politics.
Modifying Winston Churchill's encomium to the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, we might note that never before have so many inferred so much from so seemingly straightforward—and apolitical—an idea.
More than most great ideas, Charles Darwin's elucidation of evolution by natural selection is a kind of intellectual Velcro, offering points of attachment for a wide range of ideologies. And herein lies a continuing and curious tale. At its inception, the theory of evolution attracted spinners both right and left. Today evolutionary biology—especially when applied to human behavior—more often attracts deep fears of political taint, maligned (by postmodernists as well as by many other social scientists and humanists) as a tool of right-wing ideologues, even as far-right religious fundamentalists perceive it as a tool of left-leaning, atheistic devil-scientists. All the while, evolution continues to be the cornerstone of modern biology, regardless of its presumed political implications.
Let's look first at some of the ideological baggage historically associated with evolutionary science. For starters, consider the claim that evolution is a radical enterprise, undergirding social revolution. Karl Marx was so taken with The Origin of Species that he enthusiastically sent a copy of the second edition of Das Kapital to Darwin. Later, Darwin tactfully declined an offer by Edward Aveling—evolutionary epigone and lover of Marx's daughter Eleanor—to dedicate The Student's Darwin to him, leading to the widespread misimpression that Darwin had turned down Karl as well.
The appeal of Darwinian evolution to revolutionary thinkers should nonetheless be clear. Origin appeared in 1859, shortly after the crowns of Europe had been terrified by the revolutionary stirrings of 1848. Barely clinging to power, European monarchists (right-wing by any reasonable use of the term) were sorely discomfited by the very idea of evolution, which is, after all, a doctrine of change, suggesting to some minds that the status quo may be merely the temporary result of a continuing dialectical struggle rather than the inviolable and unchanging creation of God. If species have evolved, the scary radical argument went, then how much more malleable are man-made social arrangements?
But just as evolution was scandalizing conservatives, it was also being embraced by right-wing supporters of laissez-faire capitalism and imperialism. Even before Origin was published, the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer argued against attempts to eradicate poverty through social-welfare programs, because it was only natural that some people be deprived and underprivileged. "The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many 'in shallows and in miseries,' are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence," Spencer famously wrote. "Society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members."
When applied to the social, economic, or political life of a certain species (Homo sapiens), evolutionary studies could thus demonstrate how and why those particular lifestyles had come to be. Evolution was a way of validating, if not valorizing, the same status quo.
The 1880s appear to have been the high (which is to say, low) point for that particular effort—subsequently labeled "social Darwinism"—to derive political implications from natural selection. Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" (1889) put what was best for "the race" above the poor and downtrodden, and William Graham Sumner's What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883) could have been titled What Social Classes Don't Owe to Each Other.
Thus, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the social and political implications of evolution were, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholders. As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb noted some time ago in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), Darwinism was all things to all people. In Germany, democrats and socialists embraced it; in England, conservatives. Nietzsche saw it as a middle-class doctrine appealing to the mediocre; socialists as an apology for inequality.
In the 20th century, the political lines shifted somewhat. Whereas social Darwinism waned as an explicit philosophy, the appropriation of evolutionary science by far-right political activists continued into the mid-20th century, with "Darwinism" used to justify institutionalized racism, including forced sterilizations, notably in the American South, as well as Nazi-orchestrated genocide during World War II.
Mainstream social science reacted to such outrages (and to a brief, ill-fated love affair between anthropology and evolution-inspired racism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) by emphasizing the role of culture and "nurture" as opposed to "nature." Especially in the work of Franz Boas and his students, like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, cultural tradition, social learning, and the near-infinite perfectibility of humanity to some degree emerged during the 1920s and 1930s as the "left-wing" alternative to "right-wing" biological determinism. Meanwhile, perhaps as a result of having been burned by earlier right-wing paroxysms of social Darwinism, explicit concern with evolutionary science pretty much dropped out of left-wing discourse.
More recently, the left has begun reacting to the right's usurpation of evolutionary theory. The philosopher Peter Singer has called for "a Darwinian left" that draws on evolution for insights into cooperation and a theory that would help the helpless. The writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich has taken postmodernists to task for so completely dismissing Darwinian theory and biological determinism that they have become "New Creationists."
For its part, the right today may eschew crude social Darwinism and eugenics, but the bottom line remains that we may as well refrain from policies of social betterment. Charles Murray may have discovered the poor state of moral culture in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), but that only makes reforming all those with low IQ's the more useless for him. And the political scientist Larry Arnhart looks to Darwinism to find the limits in human nature that necessitate conservative political ideals.
At the same time, evolutionary biology today is typically perceived from within the right-wing world of conservative, fundamentalist religion as representing part of an assault by liberal unbelievers upon the tenets of its faith. To some extent, it is (at least as it refutes a literal interpretation of Genesis). Evolutionists therefore find themselves in the curious position of being pilloried by true believers of both the political left and right, each maintaining that the science in question is biased—albeit in opposite directions.
In essence, the narrative really hasn't changed in the century and a half post-Darwin. Then, as now, some leftists have embraced evolution as a radical doctrine, while others have condemned it as reactionary. And then, as now, some rightists have embraced it as testimony to the wisdom of laissez-faire, while others have abhorred it as disputing their religious faith.
What, then, are we to conclude?
First, the way evolutionary science gets mixed with politics highlights a basic misconception all too often made about nature. There is a tendency to assume that traits demonstrated to have evolutionary underpinnings are admirable, worth emulating and supporting—in short, good. But that which nature hath produced need not necessarily be good (gorgeous sunsets, the song of a nightingale, the taste of a ripe strawberry); they could just as well be bad (parasitism, a tsunami, gangrene). There is no basis for deriving an ideological ought from a biological is, and therefore no reason to worry that as evolutionary insights help us understand our actions—warts, wonders, and all—human behavior is being justified any more than criticized. It is simply being studied by evolutionary biology—and as a result, better understood.
And yet, more than other sciences, evolutionary biology applied to our species has been especially vulnerable to political manipulation. Despite the persistent, foolish claims of New Agers, quantum physics really does not have implications for medium-size, medium-speed creatures such as ourselves. Similarly, it takes willful, unscientific creativity to see a direct human lesson in string theory, continental drift, or coordinate-covalent chemical bonds. But evolutionary biology is different, because it speaks directly to such questions as "How have we come to be as we are?" and "What is our basic nature?"
The political usurpation of evolutionary science by both sides also ignores the biological reality that all phenotypes (identifiable traits of any organism) arise from a complex interaction of genes and environment. There is nothing incompatible about holding, on the one hand, that our DNA exerts a strong influence on many aspects of our behavior and, on the other, acknowledging that such influence is highly susceptible to environmental effects. When science goes political, it tends to become one-sided (what doesn't?). But, by definition, it is rarely so.
Given the abuse of evolutionary science by social Darwinists, Nazi racists, eugenicists, and the like, it is perhaps understandable that even well-informed academics continue to worry about potential political implications whenever biology as an explanatory force is brought to bear upon human behavior, as compared with physical aspects of our evolution, like the transition from quadrupedal to bipedal locomotion. The reality, however, is precisely the opposite: Evolutionary biology applied to behavior is actually one of our most potent antidotes to racism.
That is because a primary organizing principle of many studies is the significance of cross-cultural universals, which speak powerfully to the biological unity of the human species. Instead of worrying about whether evolutionary theory validates inequality, on the one hand, or supports social change, on the other, an especially productive research approach involves identifying human behaviors that can be predicted to result from natural selection (e.g., nepotism, certain patterns of male-female differences, circumstances leading to violence, the details of communication, reciprocity, and exchange) and then seeing if they obtain across a wide range of human societies.
The worldwide population of Homo sapiens thereby constitutes an immense experiment in which one thing—the biology of human nature—is held constant, while something else (cultural rules and social conditioning, along with such trivial features as the specifics of language, skin color, eye shape, etc.) is allowed to vary. The result will be an increasingly accurate picture of "human nature" as molded by evolutionary biology: somewhat selfish, somewhat altruistic, a bit violent and a bit peace-loving, in certain ways conducive to a right-wing perspective and in other ways leaning to the left. Maybe leaning more in one direction than another, but in any event, revealing what we are rather than what differing political ideologies wish us to be.
And so, the next clarion call you hear to the political dangers—or opportunities—of evolution, I urge you to keep in mind its diverse bedfellows. Let's therefore give the final word to the person who most deserves it: Charles Darwin, writing in The Descent of Man: "But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it."