Evolution doesn’t mean that greed is “good” – it can actually mean the opposite

Much like functionalism and economics, evolution – and especially evolutionary sociology like sociobiology – is frequently co-opted not as an explanatory model, but as a justification for someone’s own behavior. You’ll frequently hear references to The Selfish Gene followed by some handwavium explanation that justifies supply-side economics, letting the rich get away with not paying taxes, or other greedy behaviors.

In these sorts of arguments (yes, we’re looking at you, disciples of Ayn Rand), greed is laudable and praised as the analogue of “fitness”. The idea is that since the greedy amass the resources, they are then evolutionarily superior…. with an implication that things should be that way.

That is such rank bullshit, and quickly tells you that the person spouting that argument is not only one of those greedy people (or desperately wants to be one of them), but further that they don’t even understand their own argument. They’ve cast “fitness” into some kind of Puritanical perversion that simply serves as an excuse for their own greed.

The reason – aside from massive overgeneralizations and a whole hodgepodge of correlation being mistaken from causation – is pretty apparent when you start thinking about actual evolution and actual biology.

Take antibiotic resistant bacteria1. Pretty scary things, really. We’re less than a hundred fifty years into the antibiotic age, and it might be almost over. Clearly the antibiotic resistant bacteria – so called “superbugs” – are the fittest. Clearly they should be the ones eating all of our flesh.

Except for three huge problems.

First, when placed alongside the regular varieties of their bacteria, “superbugs” are often crowded out by the “regular” strains. This is called “fitness cost of antibiotic resistance.” This clearly demonstrates that “fitness” is not the same thing as better overall, just better in this specific set of circumstances. When those circumstances change, what counts as “fitness” does as well.

The second is about time scales. Yes, the resistance to antibiotics has appeared quickly in evolutionary terms. But it’s been generations and generations and generations and generations and generations (etc) for the bacteria. Likewise, evolutionary pressures are going to be “selecting” for long-term persistence of the species, not the success of any particular member. When resources become amassed too greatly among one strain of a species – say, one variety of potato – it becomes vulnerable to any sudden change and may be ruthlessly wiped out. Therefore, any strain of a species that became too prevalent and amassed too much of the resources runs the risk of putting the whole species on the chopping block.

Even typing the sentence above kind of hurt my brain, and illustrates the third major problem: We talk about “selection” and “risk” as if there’s some kind of intent at work in evolution, and there isn’t. Evolution, unlike society, has proceeded without design, plan, or intent for millennia. Mutations just happen. Species just die out. Some beat the odds. Some are slaughtered when the odds are with them.

Trying to compare or draw analogs between society and evolutionary processes is roughly akin to drawing comparisons between a Pollack and a paint spill. Maybe they look a little similar. Someone who doesn’t know anything might say they’re the same.

But they’re a hell of a lot different.

1 As with other overgeneralizations, this one is incomplete as well. There’s evidence that the fitness cost of drug resistance isn’t universal after all; regardless, the point distinguishing the difference between the good of an individual and a species remains.

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