The high human cost of social Darwinism

hainesIn his “Outline of History,” H.G. Wells wrote, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

Whether we acknowledge the evidence or not, our human species arose from the biological rigors of “survival of the fittest,” and the fossil record suggests that early hominids occupied the biological niche of high-value prey rather than apex predator.

In the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the director portrays two factions of potential human forebears as competing for limited resources in the African savannah while not always successfully avoiding the carnivores. The Arthur C. Clark screenplay suggests, also, a third party intervention in their struggle. One group communes with an obelisk, and primitive thought leads the Moonwatcher character to the idea of killing at a distance with a primitive club.

The rest, as they say, is pre-history. Our success as a species does appear closely linked to the evolution of distance killing: club, knife, spear, arrow, firearms, cannon, missiles. To the victors go the spoils...

For untold millennia, fear of want has inspired violence in the competition for resources across this globe. Unbridled greed has largely been the outcome.

In the 21st Century, however, this deep-seated impetus to eliminate opposition works against our needs as spiritual beings. The desire to vanquish foes becomes unhealthy when no existential threat exists. The elevation of one’s own lifestyle to the detriment of another’s inspires long-lasting resentments.

Will we, as a species, enhance our “thin veneer of civilization” and overcome the tendency to achieve victory at any cost? The compulsion to always win has preceded the demise of entire ethnicities, and those who succumbed to supernal power were frequently no real threat to the aggressors. It is tragic to contemplate how many potential contributions to humanity have been lost to rampages of the so-called strong among us.

The first division of people into winners and losers has precipitated into privilege and power, for the few, plus oppression and suffering for the many. This will continue for as long as the advantaged continue to view the “other” as inherently less important.

We may attribute our existence to survival of the fittest, but if we do our spiritual evolution could stagnate. Collectively, we seem to forget that the “weakest” among us frequently yield important contributions to the common good.

Compassion, cooperation and compromise are the logical next steps away from the adversarial politics of our day, but setting aside personal interest and exhibiting empathy for those not directly related to us is only a recent social convention. Sigmund Freud perhaps put it best when he wrote, “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.” That ability represents uniquely our humanity.


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