Survival of the fittest, the term we know from evolutionary biology, has been seized upon by some as the natural explanation for success in human society. But a simpler explanation is that people hang on to what they’ve got and pass it down as commercial interest or personal wealth. Once there’s something in place that keeps bringing them benefits, those finding themselves in that position don’t change it. This has serious implications for our electoral system and for the future of a society that is becoming more and more unequal.
Survival of the fittest in scientific terms means that the genetic attributes of fitter individuals, living under conditions of competition for limited natural resources and in a challenging environment, are more likely to be transmitted to and survive in young that themselves grow to maturity and reproduce. But they only got that extra bit of fitness in the first place due to a chance genetic mutation. It wasn’t something they did to themselves or willed to happen.
A look at the relatively soft lifestyle that comes with modern human civilisation tells us that only a very few people with certain medical conditions will have problems reproducing successfully. Comparatively small numbers of children are affected by harmful genetic mutations that shorten their lives. Children are far more likely to be at risk from something in the human environment whether it be poverty, contagious disease, violence or pollution.
Research suggests that the extreme hardships of slavery led to natural selection for muscular endurance and deprivation-resistance. Michael Johnson, the famous 400 metre runner, has written that this could explain the dominance of black Afro-Caribbean athletes in sprint events today. There is little doubt that the Sherpas of mountaineering fame benefit from genetic endowment for endurance at the high altitudes that leave everyone else gasping for breath at the slightest exertion.
But let’s be clear, there is no evolutionary selection going on for fittest politicians, footballers, actors, bankers, company chairmen, astronauts or whatever – and why would there be? The evolution of human society is not the same as natural evolution. On the contrary, much of human social development has been about overcoming or alleviating the constraints of the natural environment.
To understand why some humans have most power, wealth or influence in society we have to look more deeply and widely at a range of factors. Their standing cannot be explained as the outcome of some natural evolutionary process which has swept them haplessly and innocently to sit at the top of the income and wealth pile.
We live in a society dominated by economics and topped by an economic elite. This elite is strongly represented by people and families who have inherited or acquired land, wealth and influence far beyond the needs of their own lifetimes, perhaps even tens or hundreds of lifetimes. Today’s owners of the biggest economic interests have benefited from first-mover advantage. Having the ability and resources to consolidate on that is a better way of looking at things rather than that they carry forward some form of superior fitness.
There is now a scientific consensus that evolution is a fact. Some religions do not dismiss outright a place for evolution in their beliefs. It’s extremely difficult to step round all the many strands of convincing evidence showing evolution is no longer a matter of opinion but a proven, predictive science. Those most likely to try nowadays are ‘young-earth creationists’. They still believe the world to be less than 10,000 years old. We don’t know what they think of dinosaur fossils but they would probably make no bones about sitting across the table from you in your living-room and telling you that unless you believe the way they do, you will burn in hell for all eternity after you die. These are examples from fundamental belief systems that demonstrate how far some people are prepared to go in their world view.
So what’s this got to do with economic elites? Well, human society is full of belief systems. A very dominant one is the belief that capitalism – and more recently global capitalism – will make us all better off in the long run, even if in so doing it creates a small minority of people who are wealthy beyond all their current worldly needs. In a way, we have felt that as much as we serve the elite, the elite have been under an equal obligation to serve us, the ordinary people.
This is where something has gone wrong. The behaviour of bankers and then the responses of the political class to the 2008 financial crisis have been making it clear that the economic role of ordinary people is as a channel of wealth upward to the benefit of the existing elite. Evidence and statistics prove widening income inequality and show that we are well embedded in what may already be a runaway process. As things forge ahead, it’s difficult to see what’s going to stop the gap getting wider and wider.
5.5.5 & Counting believe it will be impossible to do anything at all about this under the current electoral system in this country. We cannot have a fairer society without fair votes for people. It only takes a few minutes to look at the statistics of the last four elections to see how unfair the voting system is. But of course a political class that is always elected under the current system is never voluntarily going to use their power to change it. Read here about the Proportional Representation Bill that went before parliament in December 2015. If they wanted to prove us wrong, here was a perfect opportunity.
Many people have started to look closer at the old rhetoric of the left and right that floats on the surface of political debate in this country. Underneath it, the premierships of Blair, Brown and Cameron have had the feel of a continuous Westminster political class made up, but for the brief admittance out of necessity of the Lib-Dems, of the Tory and Labour parliamentary parties. These are the two largest minority parties in the UK and if they’re asked about electoral reform they will both parrot the same set of arguments to make us believe that the current system is just wonderful – exactly the one we need. Mmmh! And exactly the one that keeps levering one or other of them back into power on minority shares of the vote.