As an evolutionary human ecologist, I am painfully aware how far human society falls short of achieving its evolutionary potential. Much of this failure results from a broad misunderstanding of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” connoting lethal conflict or competition, strength versus weakness.
The term was coined by a polymath economist, Herbert Spencer, after reading Darwin’s first “Origin of Species.” Darwin, regrettably, subsequently incorporated the term into his fifth edition. Big mistake, he soon realized. This misinterpretation was eventually used to justify eugenics, racism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism, and genocide, not to mention the classical dog-eat-dog economic theory to which so much reverence is still accorded.
Most animal species don’t operate that way. Mutual aid, cooperation, sharing and caring, are more characteristic of social species of every kind. One of my favorite books, Mutual Aid, by Peter Kropotkin (1902) summarized authoritatively how mutual aid ran through many animal societies. Further, it showed how it manifested in human hunter-gatherers, early agriculturists, medieval populations, and “modern” societies, though it was being sorely tested by industrializing economies and legal institutions.
Competition-based classical economics has outlived its usefulness. A new paradigm is gradually emerging this last 150 years more in keeping with our historic tendencies to work together, portending a re-birth of genuine human evolutionary progress. The cooperative movement is one important manifestation of this trend. But, it’s highly experimental at this point. We have largely forgotten how to organize human society for equality and democracy. Consider yourself a valued agent of human community evolution.
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