I’ve heard wealthy people say that they are only adhering to Darwin’s law. We know what they really mean: that life is a competition, so they can’t be blamed for winning. It’s basic biology. Science tells us that evolution favors the smartest and strongest, and that’s the way it should be. By beating out the rest of us, wealthy people are doing their bit to improve the human race. Who can argue with science?
Not me. I’m a scientist. I believe in science.
But the prerequisite for believing in science is understanding it. In this case, understanding Darwin’s principle of natural selection. When wealthy people use Darwin as a justification for taking as much money as they can from everyone else, they have absolutely failed to understand his theory.
Famously, Jeffery Skilling, the CEO of Enron said that his favorite book was Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. He claims to have based his management style on it. It appears that he liked the word, selfish, in the title but either didn’t read or didn’t understand the book. It explained how natural selection can favor generosity and altruism over personal self-interest. The book does definitely not say that natural selection requires that every man think only of himself.
If Skilling had really based his behavior on The Selfish Gene, he wouldn’t now be in prison for conspiracy and securities fraud, serving a twenty-year sentence.
More important for wealthy people, though, is understanding the phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Darwin never said what “fittest” means. In fact, he did say, explicitly, that “fittest” does not mean “strongest”.
Darwin’s phrase could be better summarized as “the survivors must have been the fittest.” Logicians don’t like the principle of natural selection because it’s based on circular reasoning. The fittest survive. How do we know which individuals are the fittest? Because they are the ones most likely to survive. And why did they survive? Because they were the fittest. And around and around we go.
What does this mean for wealthy people? First, being rich is not survival, it’s just having a lot of money. Survival means living long enough to have children, who also live long enough to give you grandchildren, and so forth.
In societies, you only get to live if nobody kills you. There was no royalty left in France after 1799. There were no Russian tsars left after 1917. There were no Ceausescus left in Romania after 1989. It doesn’t matter to Darwin how much money they had when they died, if they didn’t leave viable descendants, they were evolutionary dead ends.
The lesson here is that a little less greed may make a person more fit to survive. And that people should make the effort to understand what Darwin said before relying on him to justify their behavior.