Spencer was a jerk

“It was Alfred Russel Wallace who nervously persuaded Darwin to insert Herbert Spencer’s invidious phrase “survival of the fittest” into The Origin of Species. Wallace was concerned about the apparent pointlessness of life forms. For the ecological thought, this is their saving grace” (Morton 30).

I admit there is something beautiful about the symbiotic relationship between Darwin and Spencer. It appears that Spencer developed the phrase, inspired in part by Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the fourth edition of which first includes the dubious phrase.

This is where my appreciation ends, as I tend to agree with the error of the phrase. Even I recall high school discussions of evolution, and the reiteration that it’s not necessarily the “fittest” that survive, even in a broad sense of the term. It is not a competition, even for life and progeny. Humans project the anxiety of competition to animals, when in fact they live, or don’t, produce, or don’t, and there is no one to tally any scores. This ‘pointlessness’ that arises from this way of looking at evolution (maybe, I think, a part of the ecological thought) worries humans, for whom we have a tremendous affinity. If humans are animals (I haven’t completely let go of that notion myself) in the view of evolution, we then deny the possibility of even animals’ evolutionary pointlessness. That would reflect poorly on us, and keep us from protecting the animals, dear sweet creatures; so majestic.

In the largeness of ecological thought, we humble ourselves to the insignificance of our lives, and this is where I have difficulty in regards my attachments. This is perhaps the first or largest obstacle, in that it implies the abandonment of other values, as I understand it, namely the value of individual life. That so-and-so existed or exists matters to me, but as a facet of the ecological thought that can’t be. I imagine if I were to fully embrace the ecological thought, that it would conflict with my functions as a student, teacher, friend, individual, etc. Monks can’t get jobs. To get off the hamster wheel one must first slow the wheel down, and slowing down will cost most people dearly in our society.

The fact that a social scientist’s phrasing made it into Darwin’s work is a bit unsettling. Or maybe it’s perfect, in that human and animal sciences crossbreed language. Nonetheless, the imperfect fit of the phrase, like Romantic ecology, does harm. (This is one of the points where the ecological thought can say ‘no,’ however, it does so fully in the expression, “no, but then [x, y, or z can redeem through that error].” I for one cannot find the lesson in the mistake so much as regret its spreading of false thought/worry about the ramifications of our insignificance.

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2 thoughts on “Spencer was a jerk

  1. You do a good job of tapping into one of the challenges, I think, at the heart of thinking big and enmeshed: how, when we grasp our insignificance, we still need to care for each other and the planet because it is there to be cared about and we are all affected by it. I too am troubled by the phrase imposed on Darwin’s work–a phrase, of course, from a Naturalist time.

  2. This is an eloquent statement on pointlessness, sheer abundance, proliferation, as the strange attractor to empathy: how we have it, a feeling sense for others, for other things, but how we don’t, there’s no point in my liking you, acknowledging a physical presence in the room or in the Crab Nebula. And therein lies the wisdom of Thinking Big, the swell of the brain, or “In the largeness of ecological thought, we humble ourselves to the insignificance of our lives, and this is where I have difficulty in regards my attachments. This is perhaps the first or largest obstacle, in that it implies the abandonment of other values, as I understand it, namely the value of individual life.” If we keeping thinking this thought we’ll be okay. One of the real strengths of Morton’s work is his grasp of Darwin; you capture that here fitly.

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