Monday, January 09, 2006

Great Families vs. Social Darwinism

On Lawn, at Opine Editorials, has a very gratifying appreciation of last week’s series on national greatness and the ecology of families. He or she called these comments “The Social Darwinism of Families.” This got me thinking about the ways in which my position is like social Darwinism – and in a crucial respect is the opposite of social Darwinism.

On Lawn writes, “Social Darwinism contends that the rules of evolution are alive in human sociality. Corporations, religions, families evolve.” I believe this is largely true. However, social Darwinism (or what should probably be called Herbert Spencerism) always has a fundamental ambiguity which makes it hard to apply in real societies. Darwin talked about two kinds of selection – natural selection, and the less-familiar sexual selection. Under natural selection, species compete with one another for survival within a natural ecology. Under sexual selection, individuals compete with one another for what later Darwinists would identify as genetic survival. The perennial question for social Darwinists is “What is the unit of analysis? What social bodies compete with one another in the social ecology?” Early attempts to treat races as the unit of social competition have not endured – the “races” are too amorphous, diverse, and changeable, and members of the different races constantly intermarry. Other units – the “corporations, religions, families” that On Lawn suggests – also have problems. They either do not embrace everyone in society, or are too intermixed to endure over time. The closest thing to an enduring and comprehensive social unit would be, I think, a lineage.

Lineages compete with one another over generations not only to survive, but to prosper. Put another way, my argument about the ecology of families is that strong families, sustained over generations, tend to lead to the social ascent of their lineages, and weak families tend to lead to their lineage’s social descent.

Which leads back to the question of evolution. As I argued in “What are Strong Families?” I think the basic form, functional system, and division of labor in the strongest families does not change much. However, there is a great deal of room for evolution of many aspects of family life within that general model. In our time, the major evolution has been toward much greater equality of husbands and wives within marriage.

The major difference that I see between what I think makes for great families and great nations, on the one hand, and social Darwinism as it is normally conceived, on the other, turns on who or what the family serves. Here I am going beyond what On Lawn said or should be held responsible for, and am dealing with the broader tradition of social Darwinism. In all forms of Darwinism, the standard of evolutionary excellence is mere survival. I believe that the main feature of human beings that distinguishes us from all the other creatures is that it is important to people to feel that their lives are meaningful. Mere survival is not enough. And ruthlessness in the interests of mere survival, which all other plants and animals do routinely, undermines human beings’ feeling that they are living right.

Human beings lead the most satisfying lives not when they are crushing the competition, but when they are serving the greater good. And, counter-intuitively, serving the greater good is actually the best way to serve your own interests. The strong family lineages that endure and advance in wealth, power, and esteem tend to be those that serve the greater good. This is congruent with an evolutionary theory, but goes beyond what is normally understood as social Darwinism.

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