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Stan's Darwin blog
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Social evolution: capitalism works except when it doesn't

I mentioned in an earlier entry that one of the hallmarks of the human species was altruism.  There are three kinds of altruism: generosity toward one's family; generosity toward others who might someday reciprocate; and generosity to poor and perhaps unknown strangers, which gives the altruist an enhanced social standing.  All three forms of altruism are really enlightened self-interest rather than pure sacrifice.

I also mentioned in that earlier entry that bankers seem to be outside of this universal human realm of altruism.  It now appears that many sectors of the "financial services" industry are with them.  ("Services," in this sense, appear to have the same meaning as "servicing" a livestock animal.) In the news in the last couple of days has been the insurance giant AIG, which has received so much federal bailout money that it is now 80% owned by us, the taxpayers.  They announced their intention to give $165 million of the taxpayer money as executive bonuses, much of it to the very executives who bankrupted the company.  They claim that they have no choice in the matter, that they had already promised these bonuses before they received bailout money.  The entire federal government is outraged, from President Obama, who pledged to do everything in his power to get this money back, to Senator Chuck Schumer, who said that if AIG didn't give the money back, the federal government would take it back.  The outpouring of rage from the American people is neary unprecedented. USA Today had a picture on its front page of the AIG logo with a tomato spattered on it.

Some writers have applied the concepts of natural selection to the economy.  Their view is "the survival of the fittest," and their system is called capitalism.  Strangely, some of the people most enthusiastic about survival of the fittest in the marketplace reject evolutionary science.  There are several problems with doing this.  One is that human individuals and societies have options open to them that other animal species do not.  We have an intricate form of cultural evolution.  We can decide to say no to our genes, and to do what we think is right even if it is not in our selfish individual interests.  Richard Dawkins quoted the intentionally childless Steven Pinker as saying, "My selfish genes can go jump in the lake." Another is that extreme capitalists have applied only part of evolutionary theory: they have applied "survival of the fittest" but totally omitted altruism.  The result is true stupidity: for example, AIG seems to be totally clueless that being mindful of their civic duty could be worth billions of dollars of customer revenues to them.  If they think they can make us their customers by hitting us atop the head with a club, they are following the 1950's-B-movie version of evolution, not the scientific version.

Capitalism works except when it doesn't.  Republicans have said to just let companies do whatever the hell they want to.  Senator Phil Gramm has been especially vigorous in removing federal oversight and underfunding the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Then, when outrageous selfishness causes an economic collapse, these same capitalists come with lugubrious faces and outstretched palms asking for socialist handouts.

It is true that communism and extreme socialism have not worked either, at least on a large scale.  Communism worked just fine when the early Christians in Jerusalem shared all their possessions, as described in the book of Acts.  But the capitalist liars have told us that our only choice is to either have Uncle Joe Stalin's version of communism or else their version of extreme capitalism.  Well, guess what.  We are not that stupid.  We can work out a system that has enough socialism and enough capitalism to make a vigorous society.  It isn't rocket science.  (Or if it is, we are pretty good at rocket science too.)

It's time for the leaders of the financial world to leave the scene.  Bernard Madoff, for example, is now in prison, but prosecutors agonize over whether to let his wife keep millions of dollars worth of possessions and properties that Bernie got for her.  I suggest taking it all back, and just letting her keep a tea cozy, which she can use as a blanket next winter when she sleeps under the bridge.

Happy St. Patty's day to all of you and I wonder what the Irish think about the English survival-of-the-fittingest them over the last couple of centuries. 

Posted by stanleyrice at 5:32 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 17 March 2009 7:16 PM EDT

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