Stephen Jay Gould


I am reading a new book by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould died five years ago, so this is a collection of already published essays, a sort of “Best of…” It’s edited by Steven Rose, an English scientist who is also a fine science writer.

In one of the essays Gould talks about the misuse of Darwin by Herbert Spencer, the man who invented “Social Darwinism” and coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Here (via Gould) is a quote from Spencer:

We must call those spurious philanthropists who, to prevent present misery, would entail greater misery on future generations… Blind to the fact that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation — absolutely encouraging the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent but offering them an unfailing provision…

And here is a quote from Andrew Carnegie, the famous robber baron and opponent of unions and workers’ rights:

The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest… The American Beauty rose can be produced in splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.

I have relatives in Pittsburgh, and it is now — since the death of the American steel industry — a pleasant city, well endowed by Carnegie with fine institutions. But when Carnegie talks about the production of a rose, he is really talking about the creation of Pittsburgh, as it existed in the days when you could not see the sun at noon.

Carnegie’s wealth was created by work; and the work was done by underpaid, overworked people in mines and mills. If they vanished, so would his income. So the unfit were supporting the fit; and if they were destroyed, like unfit animals in the popular version of Darwin’s theory, the fit would not flourish and multiply, filling the empty ecological niches left by the unfit. (How many capitalists would want to fill those niches? Or see their sons and daughters fill those niches? “I’m sorry, Young Andrew, but the working class has vanished; so I am afraid you will have to go mine coal.”) Most likely, the fit would starve.

What struck me most about these quotes is the icy calmness with which the suffering of millions is treated.

This tone reminds me of the attitudes of modern neoclassical economists. I don’t think they would label the billions who suffer under capitalism as unfit and needing to die for the betterment of the race. Rather, they would see them as the collateral damage that is inevitable in any system. It’s too bad, but in general the system works — and works well enough, so the suffering of billions does not matter.

I am inferring this attitude and tone from the absence of human suffering in the work of many modern economists. (They are rarely as direct as Spenser and Carnegie.) It’s possible they simply don’t know about third world sweatshops and vast and growing third world slums. Maybe the lives that most human beings lead are simply invisible to them. But let’s assume they know enough to justify their jobs as college professors…

In both cases, the actions of people and the harm they do is being attributed to something outside humanity which works with relentless efficiency and no conscience. It does not need a conscience any more than gravity needs a conscience. It is a natural force, a law of nature; and it frees us of responsibility for our actions. To Spencer and Carnegie, this outside thing was evolution. To contemporary economists it seems to be The Free Market.

I don’t think we can rely on natural forces to save us from responsibility. “I held the baby outside the window and let go. But it was gravity that did the rest.” This does not work as an excuse.

And I do not think a model of one kind of human behavior — the exchange of goods through buying and selling — is adequate to explain human society or to relieve humans of their responsibility to care one another and the planet.