Just as my “Month of Liberty (i.e., Property)” blog entries last month noted the hundredth anniversary of Barry Goldwater’s birth, the “Month of Evolution” I begin today will include a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He ranks with Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, and Albert Einstein among those who have helped us understand the basic rules by which the universe operates.
Though some are still troubled by its implications (or misunderstand them), evolution is a phenomenon hard to deny or overlook once the rather simple and intuitive idea is first articulated. In the broadest-applicable terms (not even specific to biology per se), where there is replication with variation (that is, variation relevant to the odds of members of the new generation themselves being replicated), successive generations will tend to resemble the more-prolific replicators of the prior generation, with the attributes of the population thus changing over time.
If biological evolution were not occurring over time, it would require an explanation (such as the discovery that all organisms happen to be identical and face identical environmental influences). Given the countless observed manifestations of biological evolution, from changing bird beaks to shifting bacteria strains, full-fledged Darwin-doubters are in as weak and delusional a position as gravity-deniers, so I’ll spend little time this month responding to them. As I do not claim to be a biologist or zoologist, I won’t attempt to write an introductory textbook either. But I will ask some questions about how the lessons of natural selection may or may not apply to other areas of our thinking.
As it happens, just a few days ago, I tried to get into a party held by Pandora.com, which has become the music site I most often listen to for the simple reason that it employs a sort of evolutionary mechanism: You create a music channel to your liking by clicking on little thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols as any given song plays, training the resulting channel to repeatedly play songs of the sort you like and weed out ones you don’t. The system isn’t perfect — ironically, the channel I based on the band literally called My Favorite tends to degenerate after a few hours into a techno station no matter how much I try to train it not to — but like the Hayekian philosophy mentioned yesterday, Google, or Wikipedia (founded by Hayek fans), at least Pandora is generally marked by ongoing improvement and refinement, progress in the best sense of the word.
I’m not the only one who thinks so, apparently, since 3,000 people RSVPed for the Pandora party, and girlfriend Helen and I were unable to get in (another cruel blow in a week that brought word of the site Culture11, one place Helen’s been blogging, shutting down — if anyone out there’s inclined to give her other assignments). We did, however, make it to a small New York Young Republican Club party going on one block away at the same time — very convenient for an advocate of “conservatism for punks” and on a day that also assuaged my nerd facet by bringing the final issue of the momentous comic book Final Crisis. (The two NYYRCs, each bearing exactly the same name, are more a study in dialectical synthesis than Darwinian evolution, I suppose, periodically attempting to overcome their long-term schism.)
Two days later, we also visited Helen’s old stomping grounds, Yale, for a debate by Yale’s Party of the Right, an encouraging gaggle of eccentrics, contrarians, and extremists more philosophically stimulating than your average conventional Republican gathering (and there was at least one actual conservative punk, tattoos and all). These kids may yet generate some new ideas that will aid in a conservative renewal (much the way genetic diversity can increase the odds of a population springing back after a mass die-off, if you will — but please join me at Lolita Bar on Feb. 19 if you want to hear a fuller discussion about the right’s state of decrepitude or renewal — especially if you tell me within the next few days that you want to be the pessimistic half of the debate-pair). With a competitive intensity — and almost Polar-Bear-swimmers-like fondness for subjecting themselves to trials by combat, philosophical or otherwise — these young rightists were quite different from the more bland and conformist folk I recall among the College Republicans of my day. Almost enough to give one hope.
As it happens, one of the first philosophical disagreements recounted to me by a PoR member upon our arrival at Yale was about evolutionary psychology and whether ethical lessons can be drawn from it. I don’t think one can simply read “oughts” from the “is” of evolution, but as I’ll discuss in the days ahead, evolutionary theory, much like economics, can show us what is likely, what is at least possible, and what is probably unworkable. It shows us, for instance, that the imperative to reproduce is likely to be strong — and it shouldn’t surprise us that that imperative is inculcated by religions that tend to grow (“be fruitful and multiply”) and jettisoned by ones that tend to dwindle (the Shakers, the Hale-Bopp comet cult, etc.). Luckily, being a rational animal and knowing your nature doesn’t just mean having to submit to it (as the nasty and fatalistic old story of the fox and scorpion would have you believe); we can recognize our natural inclinations but, thank goodness, can also choose a different path, possibly a much better one.