Friday, July 31, 2009

The Cuckoo and the Con-Man: All-American Schizoid Hypocrisy

Adapt or perish. It's the story of the genetic war called "life" which has been waged since the first replicators self-assembled. That doesn't sound very poetic, but "since time immemorial" simply does no justice to the true enormity of life's history. As far as this categorical imperative is concerned, it well and truly doesn't matter how life on Earth originated, whether by a magical sky-wizard, or extant life on another planet, or in our very own oceans. The fact of the matter is that there is a scarcity of resources, and a variety of living beings to compete for those resources; some of those beings will be more successful than others, and this success varies by generation depending on random mutations and environmental pressures, giving rise to the universal maxim that summarizes the struggle of life in three little words: adapt or perish.

Today I want to take a look at one particular ideology, that of the "All-American Republican." I use scare quotes because, in the first place, I just made up this term. In the second place, there is no globally accepted term for what I'm talking about: Christian, capitalist, conservative, and anti-intellectual are some of the chief characteristics of this mentality. "Red America," or throwbacks to the Deep South, or Arch-Conservatives, or whatever you want to call them. Behaviorally, this kind of person votes Jesus, supports industry, wants government to be big on business but small on restrictions and helping the little guy, takes science for granted while eschewing its "unfavorable" discoveries and implications, and thinks that unbridled and uncritical patriotism is a good thing. Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, George W. Bush the Lionhearted, these people are examples of who I'm talking about.

As for scope, I will not be talking about specific facts or events, but rather about a deep-running hypocrisy that I have not seen discussed before. Namely, the schism involved in enshrining the invisible hand of laissez-faire capitalism while at the same time decrying evolutionary theory. This schism is not only a source of inborn hypocrisy for all who buy into the two opposed tenets, but is also standing directly in the way of scientific, educational, social, economic, and political progress (basically every area of relevance to civilization in general). This is an argument from philosophical principle, not an attack on any particular person, organization, or belief system (at least, not any belief system that doesn't endorse these two specific values).

With that said, let's jump right in. The All-American Republican, as I shall refer to this schizoid pair of beliefs from here on in, believes that evolutionary thinking - the belief that life on Earth as we see it today has evolved by natural selection from previous forms - is inherently evil and drags humanity down. Ironically, this is correct in an important way, though not in the way that the All-American Republican thinks. The All-American Republican also believes that businesses must run free from government interference to form a solid backbone for our economy. While it is true that excessive interference can be the death of any business, what constitutes "excessive" (or even "interference") is a matter for vigorous debate. Laissez-faire capitalism coupled with some manner of morally-charged creationism: this is the essence of the All-American Republican.

As for their bioethics, the proposition that "evolutionary theory is morally deleterious" is intellectually bankrupt. Other writers have elaborated upon this idea at great length and with greater elegance than I can muster, and anyone likely to read this will probably agree with the point anyway, so I shall skip some of the formalities and simply summarize. First of all, ethics is what it is, and any serious philosopher can tell you this: ethics applies to us as ethics, no matter what our origin or ancestry may be, because we are human. The definition of "human" refers to us as we are today: we are the referent, and nothing will change that. Discovering facts about our history will not change that, whether or not a deity exists will not change that, and analyzing our ethics as evolved organisms in an objectively amoral universe will not change that. Second, no one and nothing may impart moral worth where none exists, nor can moral worth be eliminated on such say-so where it does exist. Whether ethics is real or not, objective or subjective, anthropologically universal or culturally relative, biologically necessary or merely contingent, that is the fact of the matter. No god, no king, no book or brain may change this - the status of ethics, whatever that may be, is an objective fact which may be discovered but not dictated. If atheistic worldviews are morally bankrupt, then so are theistic ones. Morality simply does not depend on a god's say-so. Say what you will about the factual support for evolution (it's solid), or its allegedly controversial status in the scientific community (there is none), or the lack of all-encompassing undeniable proof (that's impossible). Evolutionary biology and evolutionary thinking are simply not inimical to morality, no matter what the All-American Republicans would like to say about it.

On to economics! What the All-American Republicans don't seem to understand is that, without interference from outside institutions, businesses evolve and compete in an evolutionary way. As new businesses arise, old ones must adapt or perish if their source of revenue is in any way threatened. The "invisible hand" is nothing more than natural selection in the marketplace. Corporations change over time, either by changing their internal power structure, changing their employees, or merging with each other and splitting from each other. Looking at a corporation and all the various aspects of it that are subject to change, it's trivially easy to demonstrate by way of sorites paradoxes that, like the Ship of Theseus, corporations are fluid and evolve in ways very similar to the gene pool of a species (so similar, in fact, I can't readily think of a coherent and non-arbitrary way to distinguish the two types of change). Businesses vary and compete for a scarcity of money; they have differential economic success, and this drives them to follow exactly the same maxim as living organisms: adapt or perish.

In this way, I should hope that it is obvious that "let the market decide" is nothing if not code for "survival of the fittest." In a strong sense, the All-American Republican wants to see evolutionary values injected into the marketplace. This does not mean "values that evolve," it means "values based on the process and function of evolution." A quick note on the recent bailout debacle: asking for federal support without regulation is nothing more than wanting to have one's cake and eat it, too; my overarching point is unaffected by this doubly-hypocritical insanity. More on this later.

I mentioned earlier that, ironically, the idea that "evolutionary thinking is harmful" is correct in a way. This is it: letting businesses evolve in this way causes them to compete simply on the basis of resource acquisition; as businesses, in other words, and not on any outside criterion such as, I don't know, ethics. Businesses are measured as successful not based on which one does the most good for people, or which one has the most valuable product, or which one is the most environmentally sound (all of which are legitimate concerns), but solely on the basis of which makes the most money. While the creation of wealth is undoubtedly a good thing, as increasing the resources available at any given time certainly does no harm (all other things being equal), the mere acquisition of wealth in and of itself is amoral; to the extent that those resources are denied to "more worthy" enterprises (based on whatever system of ethics you'd care to dream up), this acquisition may be rightly termed "evil." Under an evolutionary laissez-faire capitalism, however, what makes an enterprise "worthy" of wealth is having wealth, no matter how it was acquired. Snagging resources, ipso facto, makes one worthy of possessing those resources. Just as the cuckoo proliferates in nature, so the con-man proliferates in an unregulated economy - and the Corporation, the Man, the all-monetizing consumerist mess of "it all," whatever you want to call it, it's just a con-man writ large. For businesses with questionable practices, corrupt leadership, and enormous profit margins, this is the best of all possible systems; businesses that seek to do well under any other system of ethics are institutionally fucked. And so it comes to pass that businesses make money based on how good they are at making money. While having a good product is certainly of no harm to such an endeavor, it is neither a guarantor of success, nor required for it.

Now we put this view - that driving the economy by evolutionary values is good - right next to the other view - that thinking of life in evolutionary terms is bad - and what do we get? A puzzling question: how can it be that thinking of the one in terms of such principles is bad, while doing the other according to such principles is good? The only defense I can think of is that, in biology, evolutionary thinking devalues humanity by making it no more special than any other form of life, while in economics, evolutionary thinking simply drives businesses to do well as businesses; there is a moral difference between the two (the former is moral, the latter is amoral), and so it's apples and oranges. This breaks down, though, on closer scrutiny. On the one hand, if humanity is imbued with some unfalsifiable deity's magical awesometude, then how we came to be (evolved from other animals, or shaped by hand from dust) is irrelevant to the fact that we have that magical awesometude independent of our origin. And on the other hand, driving businesses to be good as businesses, when divorced from ethical concerns, entails that we don't need to do business ethically (which you would be hard-pressed to get someone to say in public). But once again, the fact that we are human is what makes ethical concerns apply to us, not our status as divine creations or whatever - evolution cannot rob us of that, nor can a god imbue us with it. Ethics is independent of our origin. And while acquiring money is, as I stated before, amoral in and of itself, the effects of resource acquisition absolutely have ethical impact, which makes it a morally-charged matter. Insofar as this potential is actualized, economics is a matter of moral import. This cuts off their distinction at the knees: in short, I say to the All-American Republican, "The apples aren't really apples, the oranges aren't really oranges; they're all pears and you're an idiot."

Evolutionary thinking does nothing to devalue humanity's position in the cosmos, whatever that is. We are what we are, and however we describe the process behind how we came to be, our place is still our place. Describing our origin in terms of evolutionary principles does not affect this - if you think humanity's worth depends on the description of our origins, then you're quite frankly doing it wrong. Our place is a matter of value, and value judgments are ethical matters, while causal origin stories are purely descriptive statements of "is" and do not affect the validity of our "ought" statements (unless those oughts are bankrupt to begin with, as all divine command theories inherently are); these concerns are quite simply independent of one another. And when it comes to doing business, if we wish to be ethical businesspersons, then our economic practices should not be based on evolutionary principles: they should be, dare I say it, intelligently designed so as to be imbued with our own ethical values and insulated from the heartless forces of natural selection. Does this mean socialism? Well, yes, to a degree - and in a way that would make the All-American Republicans cringe.

So that is the essence of the hypocrisy of the All-American Republican: a resistance to an uncomfortable truth, and an enshrinement of an unjustifiable business ethic. The former is the evolution of humanity, the latter is laissez faire (or evolution-driven) capitalism. I mentioned earlier that there was a "doubly-hypocritical insanity" to the recent bailout debacle, and my meaning should be clearer here: their business models, as practiced in a wild environment (a series of naturally occurring - that is, undesigned - economic situations), got them to the point of needing outside (read: "unnatural") funding to avoid bankruptcy (read: "death/extinction"). Rather than accept the prognosis of cold natural selection, they asked for an intelligently designed solution to avoid an undesirable foreseen outcome. In other words, they were asking the government to think ahead and make an ethical decision, two things which natural selection never does by definition. What. The. Fuck. (Side note: be advised that this applies strictly to those corporations/individuals who both asked for federal bailout money and balked at oversights on what would be done with that money. I'm defining my way to victory here, not generalizing hastily.)

I also mentioned that I would show how these values are anti-progressive: by eschewing a descriptive account of natural history based on evidence and rational inference (namely, evolution), the All-American Republican's values are holding back education and science, with all that that entails. And by enshrining a naturally evolving economy rather than taking steps towards an intelligently designed one (that is, by insisting on laissez-faire capitalism), business is effectively prohibited from becoming ethical because they won't allow an artifical and ethical system to take root, forcing us to accept the ebb and flow of natural economic tides rather than work on designing our own for long-term stability and ethical soundness. (An ethical economy must be artificial, because nature has no inherent ethics aside from "adapt or perish" - and even that only applies if you don't want to perish.) Put simply, in order to run our country better, we need to drop creationist fairy tales and become more scientifically-minded, while also dropping our faith in the invisible hand of the free market to become more economically ethical.

All-American Republicanism, as I have labeled and described it, is by no means the only (nor even the first) source of these evils, but it is a stunning case in point. For endorsing evolutionary economics while decrying evolutionary thinking, this particular mode of thought cannot die out soon enough. Fortunately, All-American Republicanism is a memetic construct and, in the marketplace of ideas, is subject to exactly the same selective pressures as any other idea: adapt or perish. This meme is now in the midst of violent and embarrassing death throes, as any adaptation is seen as a compromise of moral principle (rather than compliance with one, as it ought to be seen). Whether by deliberate refusal or helpless inability to adapt, All-American Republicanism appears doomed to take a backseat to more flexible and survivable memes better suited to cosmopolitan life.


Snoof said...

I'm uncertain if I'd call what happens to corporations "evolution". It's certainly an adaptive process, but evolution is generally understood to require heredity, and I don't think corporations can be said to reproduce in a fashion analogous to biological entities.

Also, the closest thing to a DNA-equivalent for the corporation is something like the constitution or basic operating procedure, and it's far more mutable than the biological elements of heredity - it's capable of changing _in response_ to external stimuli, whereas if an organism's DNA (and its expression) is insufficient to the task at hand, it's stuck.

Aside from that, good post. :)

D said...

Hmm... good point! And thanks for the comment!

OK, so I looked up some definitions of heredity, and most seem to refer specifically to biological processes, such that nothing but a biological lineage is capable of "true" evolution. Fair enough. One of the definitions, "the total of inherited attributes," fits my post but widens the gate by far too much for anyone's liking. I don't think that corporations are like individual organisms, though; I think that what they do is more like evolution at the level of a gene pool.

Looking at a colony of bacteria as a single object ("the colony") instead of a group of individual objects makes evolution into an adaptive process. Gene pools can change in response to external stimuli. We can conceive of any biological lineage as a single "tree" of germ-line replicators. And really, no individual organism evolves, for exactly the reasons you pointed out; to think of evolution, we have to think of germ-line replicators and gene pools, otherwise we're stuck with dead-end somatic cells and their (overwhelmingly but not entirely) static genomes.

In the same way, we can think of any particular brand as a germ-line replicator or gene pool, depending on how fast and loose you want to play with your terms. The Pepsi Corporation is different today than it was in 1950: the logo is different, the ads are different, the product lineup is different, and even the composition of its "inherited" products is different. We still call it The Pepsi Corporation, even though no single attribute is the same as it was in 1950, because at several steps along the way, some things changed but most stayed the same.

The changed parts are analogous to mutations, and they have differential economic success and that determines whether those parts (and the corporations) will propagate or disappear. The "stay the same" parts could easily be said to be inherited from year to year, quarter to quarter, or even day to day or hour to hour (with rather high copying fidelity on this last). Changes in policy, practices, and power structure occur at all of those levels.

The metaphor still breaks down at points (as all metaphors must), but I think the conceptual link is strong enough to justify using the term "evolution." What do you think?