Survival of the Nicest? Social Darwinism is Biomimicry Gone Wrong

Mychorrizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with host plants, greatly extending the "reach" of a plant's roots. Image credit: Radical Mycology

From shark-inspired skin for cars, through permaculture, to using biomimicry to design cities, there are plenty of innovative human products and systems that are being created using principles and techniques learned from the natural world. But learning from nature can be dangerous - especially if we do not understand the thing we are trying to model ourselves on.

I mean, how many times have you heard that it's a "dog eat dog" world out there, and it's all about the "survival of the fittest." This kind of Social Darwinism seems like a classic example of biomimicry gone wrong. I should be clear. There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from nature in how we organize or understand our society. There's even nothing wrong with understanding the competitive instinct through the lens of natural selection. Where I part ways with this approach is in focusing on competition, aggression and physical strength above all else.

What got me started on this train of thought was an article in the latest UTNE Reader by J Wes Ulm entitled What Darwin Didn't Mean. Ulm sets out in no uncertain terms why Darwin did not, and would not, apply the principles he talked about in the Origin of Species to human systems:

"Darwin professed ignorance about human morality and sympathy, which he recognized as seemingly outside the system of natural selection."

But, as Ulm himself points out, it's not even the case that human systems and emotions should be viewed outside the realm of natural systems. Rather, it's becoming increasingly evident that cooperation, compassion and empathy are at least as important organizing principles as competition in the natural world too.

Ulm tracks how work in both social sciences and biology is pointing to the importance of "soft" characteristics in the success of a species—the tendency for primates to care for their sick and wounded for example. Another inter-species example might be, for example, the symbiotic relationships formed between mychorrizal fungi and host trees.

So by all means let's use what we know of the natural world to help understand ourselves better. But let's not make the mistake of believing that we fully understand what we are viewing. We don't, and we probably never will.

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