Joe Costello on natural selection and democracy

“Our present culture has little understanding of and even less appreciation for history. History is given no value.”

On the very same day I sent out my letter about the grim, consumerist nature of left-prog politics and its useless focus on DC, my friend Joe Costello sent me his own letter riffing on the very same topic but from a wiser and more historical perspective. Anything Joe writes is worth reading — especially his work on the politics of technology. Check it out. I think you’ll agree.

—Yasha Levine


Natural Selection & Democracy

Joe Costello • December 24, 2020

“There is grandeur in this view of life.”

Charles Darwin, 1859

The wonderful evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould told a story of a late 19th century English Lady's response to being told of Darwin's insights on natural selection. “Well, let's hope it's not true,” the woman remarked. “And if it is, it doesn't become generally known.” Gould then quipped that instead of being laughed at, the woman should be known as a prophet. Darwin's idea is indeed true, and it has not become generally known or understood, even by biologists. Amusingly, today one can say the same about democracy. It's not really understood, most especially by America's political class. Not coincidentally, natural selection makes a compelling metaphorical, if not, forgive me Professor Gould, literal case for democracy. 

It was no accident Darwin titled his revolutionary book “The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection,” and not, “The Origin of the Species by the Will of the Individual.” The process of natural selection is Darwin's great revolutionary insight. An insight so revolutionary Darwin himself didn't fully understand its implications, though he understood plenty. Darwin was influenced by Adam Smith's ideas in “The Wealth of Nations,” particularly the idea of order materializing from countless individuals acting in their own interest. However, this idea came to be misunderstood and misused, most ridiculously and infamously in the relatively recent promotion of the prime choreographer of evolution's great dance being the “selfish gene.” Over time, Darwin's and Smith's ideas passed down hobbled in many ways by the reactionary notion of the individual preeminent. Focus was placed on the individual's actions, particularly their reproductive capabilities, with little attention upon the greater environment or economy in which they live and by which they are shaped, that is, on the processes of natural selection.

In the animal kingdom, each individual is born, matures, and lives in a complex environment before having any opportunity to reproduce. Innumerable forces of the greater environment constantly act on every individual. If an individual is not “fit” in their ability to gain water, food, and stability, they never get the chance to reproduce. Or if the environment in which their ancestry was selected rapidly changes, say the lake dries up, there will be no more fish, no matter how prodigiously reproductive any individual. The process of natural selection works across generations. The entire environment shapes and selects the organisms that evolve and succeed. Results are not understood by looking at individuals, but only by perceiving a species as a whole. The same can be said about Smith's idea of individuals shaping the economy. It has come down simply as the individual triumphant, with few notions of the shaping influence of the greater economic environment. The actions of vast centralized economic power are euphemistically attributed to “the market.” 

Smith's and Darwin's ideas were passed down warped in defense of various power structures. “Wait! Joe are you saying politics impact science?” Oh, Bubba.

Shaped and reshaped over the past two centuries, these ideas were used to justify the power of evolving political economy, most importantly change effected by revolutionary technologies derived from the burning of oil and coal. Particularly, these mutated ideas justified the role of a new, overwhelmingly powerful cultural entities, the industrial corporation. Over generations, the concentrated political, economic, and cultural power of the corporation increasingly skewed “selection” processes in their favor. Numerous changes instigated by corporate power were attributed to the “survival of the fittest” or “the invisible hand of the market.” 

In the United States, we little acknowledged the quite visible and active hand of the automobile companies and their government partners selecting the automobile as the dominant means of transportation, creating an environment so dominated by the car it became difficult to survive without one. What was good for General Motors became synonymous with what was good for the larger economy. Power became wielded by the few, over the many, at a historical level. Today, consolidated government in DC and their symbiotic partners, global corporations armed with new technologies, shape the greater political economy in which we all swim – nothing democratic about it.

Finally, natural selection is not well appreciated or accurately understood because it is a historical process. Our present culture has little understanding of and even less appreciation for history. History is given no value. Gould incessantly pointed out the only way to understand evolution, that is natural history, is to understand it as a contingent process. One thing happens, and only happens, because a series of events directly preceded it. In any given evolutionary chain, if any event or process had not occurred, everything following it would have taken a different course. If no comet hit off Mexico 65 million years ago, mammals today would still be scurrying around trying to avoid the feet of dinosaurs. Unlikely would have been the evolution of Homo Sapiens and our ability to vastly alter and destruct the planetary environment that created us, though given much of its dubious value, deconstruct might be the better descriptive fit.

History is the shaping matter of all politics. Everything existing today was dependent on a series of contingent events happening in the past. Any change in past events would have set in motion a different world than we know today. Two thousand years ago, if there had been no Roman republic or Athenian democracy, there would never have been an United States. While, the evolution of democracy in America developed along contradictory paths. Eventual universal civil rights of every individual evolved simultaneously with power being stripped from local systems and centralized in DC and mega-corporations. Individual democratic enfranchisement evolved into a larger disenfranchised democratic political environment. 

Reviving and reforming democracy in America, a seemingly unlikely prospect, would necessitate devolving contemporary centralized power and distributing it, fostering the creation of innumerable new participatory associations – economic, political, and cultural. Extensively networked together, a new distributed selection environment can be created, one more resembling the natural order that created us. Instead of a few massive centralized entities decreeing order from above, countless small associations combine and recombine, democratically selecting diverse and complex order. This democratic cultural environment provides new and extensive meaning for every citizen. By nature, we are not homogeneous, programmed, hyper-consumptive automatons, but diverse, unique constituents and participants, who gain definition, meaning, and value through our endless interactions. In the words of the great, antebellum, 19th century, American bard of democracy, “I contain multitudes.”


You can reach Joe Costello at joecostello@gmail.com.


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