Darwin And The Ideology Of The Day, British Imperialism

rogue-primateOur global ideology (see the previous post) is a ‘competitive, mercantile interpretation of the world [that] legitimates and justifies the exotic industrial ideology as proper, progressive, and “natural”.’ It has also biased ‘the nineteenth-century interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory.’ (72) Darwin did not invent evolution; he contributed the mechanism ‘of how evolution works: by natural selection.’ (72-73) He ‘selected elements of the social and natural science of his day.’ Among his influences were:

  • Hobbes (nasty and brutish competition in Nature)
  • Adam Smith (free and universal competition)
  • Locke (the primacy of the individual)
  • Malthus (the limits to subsistence)
  • de Candolle [the father, Augustin, not the son, Alphonse] (a perpetual state of “war” in Nature)
  • Lyell (the struggle for existence) (73)

Livingston writes that Darwin’s theory (‘a blinding flash of the obvious’, wrote Thomas Huxley) was ‘wholly in keeping with the dominant ideological prosthesis of his day.’ (73) But more than a century-and-a-half later, ‘only the grossest social implications of Darwinism have been selected out; its fundamental scientific paradigm remains unimpaired.’ (74) Why? ‘One can only wonder how someone so monumentally gifted as both an observer and a theorist could hew so firmly to an ideology so fundamentally anthropocentric and so contradictory to the states of being every naturalist encounters every day…. What he had to say was so revolutionary that he naturally [and probably unconsciously (76-77)] packaged it as firmly as possible within the prevailing academic wisdom’, the ‘ideology of his day.’ (76)

His main ideas included that evolution is competitive and, yes, evolution is progressive. ‘Competition is “natural”, and good, and winning is even better’. (74-76) This accords with the ideology of the day, British imperialism. A hundred and fifty years later, he has many adherents: ‘science picked up competitive struggle and ran with it’. Consequently, we see greed as natural; greed as good. Yet, ‘the “soul” [which has nothing to do with competition and greed] of Charles Darwin has been mostly forgotten.’ As an example of that soul, Livingston quotes a fragment by Darwin (77):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.–Darwin, On the Origin of Species

Science used competition especially to explain animal (non-human) behaviour, which has entered unquestioned into mainstream thought, even after science has questioned it. For example, ‘the term [pecking order] has mostly disappeared from the scientific vocabulary. Unfortunately, it lives and thrives in popular language, and serves as a radical support for the preferred cultural image of Nature as an arena for bloody, cut-throat competition for personal status.’ Also unfortunate, science is rife with other competitive language and ideas. (80-81)

What is wrong with that? Livingston’s criticism is that ‘to see wild Nature as a competitive “economy” is to anthropomorphize [it,] … specifically [with] the dominant Euro-American exotic ideology.’ He notes, however, ‘we have no real alternative.’ (82) Not until new generations come along can we stand the old ‘on its head.’ For example, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey ‘changed their science forever’ by ‘subjectively and qualitatively valuing sensate, sentient personalities.’ However, they still accepted certain beliefs, ‘such as male dominance and aggression, hierarchical social structure, and territoriality. It remained for a burgeoning new generation of female primatologists to’ subvert these views (primatologists such as Thelma Rowell). (85)

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Livingston notes some developments since Darwin’s day and suggests some alternative interpretations, but he notes that ‘old cultural stereotypes die hard. The calcified rigidity of the Western ideological prosthesis has totally resisted change until very recent times [1994].’ (90) However, we still see things the old way with the ‘ideological prosthetic device which dictates how we receive and apprehend the nature of reality.’ Otherwise, ‘we would have no way of domesticating it–of bringing Nature into the orbit of human power, of making it just like us.’ (91) He cautions that ‘traditional perceptual stances on phenomena lead unavoidably to a single, unidimensional apprehension of … the world.’ (94) He hopes that we might ‘be able to move to a new science altogether…, in which the focus of study would not be the animal as object, but the animal as being.’ (94)

Take, for example, how we interpret the actions of the courting male songbird. Rather than us saying that the songbird is staking out a territory and singing to exclude competition and attract mates, perhaps the songbird’s sense of being is more than the individual, more than the ego. Perhaps he sings in exultation. Perhaps the songbird has ‘become hugely greater than himself, incorporating as it does plants, animals, micro-organisms, soil, water,  and sunlight into his total being…. The bird himself has become a community of existences’. (96-97)

‘I have long felt that we … spray-paint upon Nature a lacquer of human motives,’ writes Livingston, ‘with results ultimately flattering to ourselves. When we are able to find in Nature competitive striving for personal status, jealous proprietorship by males over females and real property, rigid hierarchical rank-order, and naked aggressiveness, we may see ourselves, by comparison, in a superior light.’ (97) Perhaps it’s time to bring Darwin’s great insight into the twenty-first century, so we no longer have an outdated, ‘competitive, mercantile interpretation of the world [that] legitimates and justifies the exotic industrial ideology as proper, progressive, and “natural”,’ (72) before we too bow to natural selection.

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