Sunday, September 13, 2015

Social Darwinism, Teleology and Simplistic History

I have noticed that many people seem to make a single mistake when viewing history, and they make it in many different contexts. That is the mistake of seeing the course that history took and mistaking it for an inevitability, the course history MUST have taken. It occurs in so many contexts that, without giving specific examples it is rather hard to define. So, let us look at a few. On a very frivolous level, it is seen in those science fiction programs where science is used to "evolve" beings, revealing their future form, which assumes their eventual evolutionary path is inherent in their present form, one version of this mistake. It is also seen in theories of "the course of history", such as Marx's supposedly inevitable phases of social evolution, or theories which speak of "young", "mature" and "dying" civilizations, both of which assume there is some inevitable course all cultures follow. Or, a weaker version can be heard in the old "for the want of a nail..." statement, which, in its own way, takes the present as a given, as the inevitable endpoint, and assumes any changes would lead to some unwanted deviation from the current ideal. Or even in those supposedly clever little aphorisms that speak about how statistically improbable it is your parents met and gave birth, and how even less probable each of their parent did, and so on, trying to demonstrate how remarkably improbable the present is, ignoring the simple fact that, any specific set of all details may be quite improbable, but at the same time one MUST exist, and thus that one such improbable circumstance came to pass is not a surprise, but simply a demonstration of how many different ways history might have unfolded.

Perhaps it would help to explain myself if I started from a more basic statement of my objections to this constellation of views. Maybe if I started with a single objectionable view, and expanded from there, to take in the rest of the related errors.

So, let us start with a simple statement: at a given moment in time, no future outcome is inevitable. Granted, viewing it as history, all outcomes are inevitable, as they are what did happen, but as they were taking place, there was nothing inevitable about a specific outcome, history could have taken an infinite number of different courses, people could have made an infinite number of different decisions, the course it took may seem obvious in retrospect, may seem inevitable, but in truth, it was nothing of the sort. The event only became inevitable after it happened.

A great example of this mistake is found in the analysis of the situation leading up to the first world war. According to most conventional history, the series of alliances, forming two large power blocks, made conflict inevitable. Well, no. Throughout history, alliances in a given region almost always devolve, over time, into two competing blocks. Why this is, is a matter for another discussion, as are the few exceptions. And, yes, most such alliances eventually ended in wars, but that does not mean such alliances make wars inevitable. First, it ignores the many decades, even centuries, such alliances stood before the war broke out, which argue that such alliances can exist a long time in relative peace. Second, it ignores the simple fact that, once such alliances are formed, they usually persist until there is a radical change in geopolitical circumstance. Given that wars are the most common causes of such change, it is truism that wars would be the end of most such alliances, and thus, these alliances do not so much cause such wars, as wars are the cause of the failure of most such alliances. In short, they do not themselves make wars inevitable, but rather it is very probable that when such alliances end, it will be due to war, and, without a war, such alliances are likely to persist. If you doubt this, look at the remarkably stable half century of the cold war era, or the fluid, but largely stable, situation when the kings of England held extensive territory in France. Despite constantly shifting alliances between the lesser lords, and periodic shifts due to military action, the situation, despite periodic conflict, remained stable enough that it did not fully drain the resources of either kingdom.

Or, to look at another popular example, there is often a tendency to describe the regional tensions between north and south in the US prior to the Civil War, and argue such tensions made the war inevitable. However, again, that ignores the lengthy period when such tensions existed, yet war was avoided. For example, many northern states threatened to secede when Texas was admitted, quite a few years before the war, clearly showing high tension between regions, yet war was avoided for quite some time beyond that point. Nor do other historical examples show any proof that such regional tensions make war inevitable. Any number of nations have strong regional rivalries, even hostility, from Italy to India to China and many others, the division into regions does not necessarily mean the outbreak of a violent conflict. Granted, the addition of slavery made the issue somewhat more heated, at least for some, but other nations have even more divisive pressures separating regions -- everything from race to religion -- and yet avoid such conflict. Thus, it is difficult to say the Civil War was in any way inevitable. It is so in retrospect, as it did happen, decisions were made such that war came about, but prior to those decisions, nothing about it was unavoidable.

I mention this error because it feeds into an even worse error, that of misplaced teleology, the belief that somehow there is a plan or pattern to history, that something is unavoidable, that history has a prearranged destination, and that we can see history as a process of reaching this goal.

As I mentioned earlier, a somewhat silly version of this can be seen in a number of science fiction films and television programs where an individual somehow "evolves", turning into some future version of his species. The flip side of this, the episodes where people "devolve" into earlier forms, that makes sense, as it is conceivable one's genetic code could contain information about earlier forms. However, the other end of the spectrum, the idea that individuals contain genetic information about their future forms, is simply absurd. Evolution, whatever else may be true about it, is not a goal drive process. The "survival of the fittest", though a useful description, does not mean there is some ideal future form pre-encoded in genetics. The changes that occur over time are purely random, the result of natural variation in genetic code -- or perhaps externally induced mutations -- but in either case, the random changes either prove themselves or they fail, with the result being the eventual future form of the species. But none of this implies some goal oriented function in evolution. Apes were not created with the end goal of evolving into men, nor is it sensible to speak of men as "higher" than apes or monkeys, in any evolutionary sense. Men are, in terms of evolution, simply better adapted to certain niches and this thrive where other variations on the species did not. We are the most successful existing version in our ecological niches. But that does not mean we are some ideal end goal, or that we will always prove most successful, simply that, at present we have proven ourselves the best fit for our environment.

Similarly, the outcomes of historical events do not have any inevitability about them, nor are they the end result of some preordained process. The renaissance was not an inevitable cure to the dark ages, nor liberalism or communism some inevitable consequence of capitalism and laissez-faire. So many theories exist which state or imply such beliefs that it is hard to refute them all, so let us speak in generalities for the moment. History, for lack of a better description, is nothing more than the record of decisions made by a multitude of humans. Now, yes, there are certain regularities to human behavior. For example, all other things being equal, humans will tend to make decisions which optimize their own satisfaction. Or, all other things being equal, price controls which hold prices below that which the market would set, tend to produce shortages. But as should be obvious form how I worded those rules, they are generalities, not absolutes. I can say "at sea level -- ignoring wind resistance -- objects will tend to accelerate at 9.8 m/s^2 when dropped", and know that is true, but while in general price fixing below market will produce shortages, there are circumstances where such rules do not apply. For example, despite the allure of below market prices, the object may not be appealing enough to attract the buyers required for a shortage. Or, sellers, despite suffering a loss, may decide, for various reasons, to continue to fulfill all orders. Or, for any number of reasons, people may choose to behave in a variety of ways which contradict the general principles of economics and other human behaviors.

I mention this because it is essential to understand that the laws of economics, or of political science, or psychology or any other discipline dealing with human behavior, may apply in the vast majority of cases, but there is always a possibility humans will decide to behave in ways contrary to the general principle. And, because humans are volitional beings, there is no way one can extrapolate from these general rules of behavior to an absolute prediction of the future. This is the error made by positivists, technocrats and others, the belief that the general rules of human behavior are identical to the impersonal and absolute rules of science, which leads them to believe history, and thus the future, must follow a predictable course, one which can be seen and perhaps even controlled.

Which brings me back to my more specific mistake. Seeing this regularity, and these rules, it is tempting for many to detect not only a regularity, but an intent in history, to see what happened as not just a given, but as inevitable, as the necessary consequence of what came before, and to imagine history has a set course, a fixed goal, that it follows a preordained course*. History is, for lack of a better description, simply a record of what was. Any patterns we find are simply there because there is a continuity of actors, or beliefs, and some general rules governing human behavior. But, were such patterns absent (and in many cases patterns found in one part of history vanish from another), it would mean nothing, as the presence of patterns does. Simply put, history may have regularities, but that does not make those regularities inevitable, or mean they will always exist. History does not follow a preplanned course, nor is there any inevitability to what happens, things simply occur.

A related mistake is found in various doctrines of social Darwinism and other schools which attempt to argue that the success or failure of various cultures is inevitable. One need only look at history, at the long survival of societies which sacrificed their own citizens, which imposed self-defeating laws, which enacted rules contrary to all sense, to see that such beliefs are more wishful thinking than a description of historical truth. (Or sometimes special pleading that one's favorite culture must be "special" due to its survival.) Cultures take the forms they do because, at some time, it suits some members of the culture to behave in a given way. And they retain various behaviors because those behaviors continue to suit the culture. Thus, taken literally, culture itself is a Darwinian artifact, the remnants of various cultural choices that proved the best fit for that society. And thus, viewed in one way, any existing culture should have no advantage over another. Likewise, there is no real way in which to measure which culture is "more fit' than any other. In the end social Darwinists end up making one of two dishonest decisions. Either they assume the aspects of the culture which survives are the best course to take and thus beg the question, assuming the fittest cultures are those that have the traits of the cultures which survive, making their theory a tautology -- the cultures that survive have the traits of the cultures that survive. Or else they posit a set of behaviors they find appealing and then cherry pick historical periods and locales that prove their beliefs, ignoring the other times and places where the rivals of their favorite cultures rose to prominence, as they obviously must have done, if they were around to fall to the favored cultures. Thus, in the end, social Darwinism is a choice between tautology and cherry picking evidence and tells us little or nothing about historical necessity.

Finally, there are those who use historical necessity to bolster their own political prejudices. Most often these take the form of arguments that it was inevitable that "mature economies" would adopt a welfare state, or embrace trade unions or adopt whatever other cause is dear to the heart of the individual making the argument. Not that it is always a dishonest argument, many may sincerely believe their beliefs represent inevitable historical outcomes, but it is still a terrible distortion of history. Granted, throughout the 20th century, much of the western world moved toward welfare states and trade unions and central banks and so on, but not because of any historical inevitability, rather because such ideas were spread from one culture to the next, put forth as the "proper" beliefs by leading intellects, and adopted by the majority of those entrusted with political decision making. Thus, far from being inevitable, they were simply the consequence of contemporary thinking on politics. There could have been another history, with completely different outcomes, nothing made the particular situation inevitable, nor was the drift toward a more liberal, interventionist welfare state inevitable.

Doubtless I have forgotten several examples, and just as certain some will object that I am arguing here from faith, not fact. And I admit, I cannot prove with absolute certainty what I say is true. However, I can make my case pretty well. I ask each reader whether or not he makes decisions for himself or is simply an expression of the "spirit of the times" or of his conditioning or his class consciousness or what have you? If you think you are a volitional being, then I ask a farther, by what logic do you then deny the rest of us are possessed of equally free will? And if you confess that the lot of us can make decisions freely, based on nothing but our own wills, then I think my case is made. Certain situations, certain popular beliefs, certain political institutions and the like may make certain outcomes more likely, may make some events more probable, but the truth is, we are volitional beings, and as such, history is, until the event has passed, a blank slate, with any outcome possible, and there is nothing that makes history deterministic, or makes inevitable specific outcomes. The future is unknown, it is what we decide to make of it, nothing is inevitable. And thus, history, though now fixed in time, was at that moment, equally indeterminate.


* I do not intend here to discuss religious theories of preordained events, mostly because that topic is so distant from the mistakes I am discussing. Even if one accepts religious prophecy, for the most part, mainstream religion includes prophecies which describe little more than minute fraction of a percent of the future, usually just a few years before the end comes, a thousandth of human experience, if that, and then describes only a few large events, not the minute outcomes of every actions taken by each individual. Thus, it seems foolish to lump such narrow predictions in with beliefs that imagine the whole of history is in some way predictable, or that hundreds of years of events, or more, are the outcome of some preordained pattern. Granted, some more extreme advocates of prophecy may fall into this latter description, but they are relatively few in number. For the most part, religious claims about preordained futures deal with very small amounts of time and paint even those days with a very broad brush.

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