Evolutionary theory postulates that biological organisms develop very slowly in response to changes in an environment. Those unable to adapt to the changes of an environment are soon weeded out by what Darwin and others have called “natural selection.”

Some writers have used the phrase “selected by evolution” which gives the false impression that there is some conscious entity at work behind the scenes. However, as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, evolution is a mindless and undirected process.[1]

“Progress,” as we understand it from a human perspective, is achieved only through human effort, not the capricious effects of evolutionary “selection,” and it is this distinction that brings us to what differentiates biological evolution from the so-called evolution of modern human society.

The reality is that modern societies do not evolve at all. They are created and consciously modified, and this is evidence against the lie of Social Darwinism, a popular view of human society pushed by Herbert Spencer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—although it is older than that.

Social Darwinisn argues that societies, like biological organisms, develop gradually in response to the environment, and in competition with other societies. In time superior societies begin to dominate the environment, as do certain biological species in  specific environmental niches. This view of human society was very popular in the early twentieth century and it allowed Western societies to justify everything from racism and colonialism to great disparities of wealth.[2]

This idea—sans the embedded racism and eugenics—is still with us today in the form of the “free-market thesis,” the idea that unhampered by governmental interference the cream of the commercial crop naturally rises to the top through the mysterious workings of the “invisible hand.” This providential force is not questioned by even the most humble among us because we believe we live in a commercial society influenced by “natural evolutionary forces.” We could not be more wrong!

Societies are ultimately created to protect the gains of certain groups, who at first are just a small, elite group of people who consider themselves princes among men. In the modern era societies tend to exist to serve a larger group of people known as “the middle class.” These folks usually take the lead in countries where democracy is the primary means of legislating and governing. However, make no mistake, regardless of which group is in power a society is constantly being tweaked to meet the perceived needs of the dominant political class. Societies do not evolve; they are the work of man, and this is why modern society is a paradox for most people—primarily because the democratic process has been waylaid by the interests of wealth.

Evolutionary biologists estimate that modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, but it was only in the last 50,000 years that we began to develop things like language and symbolism, and to exhibit creative capabilities exemplified by art, religion, and finally modern society itself.[3]

Modern society is very different from the clan-based social orders of early mankind. These social orders were held together through biological kinship and marriage. What we now call “ancient civilization,” which started sometime between 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, was lashed together by a combination of tribal (ethnic) and symbolic (religious/political) cords. As we have progressed toward the modern age (~1500 CE and on) societies have become more loosely bound together by shared social ideas. Still, there has always been an underlying tribalism within most nations. This is why many modern nation-states are experiencing increased tensions from growing ethnic diversity. Historical examples of this in the United States are the backlashes against Irish immigrants in the 1840s, Chinese immigrants in the 1880s, and eastern Europeans in the 1910s.[4] Today the backlash is against undocumented workers from Latin America, individuals who live in the shadows of the American economy, doing work supposedly spurned by native-born Americans.

So, we as biological creatures have a long history of evolutionary development, even extending beyond the 200,000 year marker, when modern humans emerged. We are, biologically anyway, the product of an undirected evolutionary process, a process dominated by a single binary rule: survival or extinction. Evolution has also led to our species developing rather large brains in proportion to our bodies, a development that has serendipitously allowed us to create complex societies that are not naturally adaptive, as are biological organisms. Societies do not adapt; they are changed, and mankind is the agent of that change.

One paradox we have to deal with in modern society is that we are still driven by the biological imperatives that have accreted to us over thousands of centuries. A chief problem with modern society is that it does not give sufficient satisfaction to the ego, especially in the realm of work. In a modern society work is largely divorced from ego, unless one is into playing office politics or building a departmental empire within the corporation.[5] Owning your own business, even if you do not become rich, can offer some measure of ego satisfaction, but most choose a paycheck over the vagaries of owning a small business.

There are other problems in the modern transactional society. For example, the transactional ethos, which dominates the modern commercial society, often begins to creep into other areas of life.[6] In other words, the more we commit to the transactional ethos in our work and personal lives the more insecure our egos become. Our personal relationships also become more tenuous.

This is not a new revelation. Sigmund Freud talked about it in his short treatise Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). His view was that civilization curtailed mankind’s natural desire for ego satisfaction and that this resulted in a variety of neurotic symptoms. Freud was not the first to point this out. Read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), or Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illyich (1886) and you will see the rudiments of Freud’s more modern scientific view.

We are, biologically speaking, fish out of water when it comes to the modern transactional society. Yes, there are some of us that thrive in this type of anonymous society, but most of us barely get along, and we do so usually by falling back on time-honored biological support structures like family, friends, and alliances.

Another paradox of modern society is that it discourages cronyism and nepotism. Modern society formally demands that we “man-up” and struggle individually against the “natural forces” of the marketplace, a marketplace that in practice only rewards those who already have or who coordinate their efforts, which is another behavior that remains suspect to the free-market purist.

In short, we live in a society that pulls us in a direction away from our natural biological inclinations, away from the ego-satisfying experience of family and friends, away from the rewards of being a craftsman, and away from the notions of loyalty, fidelity, and community. We are promised great rewards if we commit to the transactional ethos, but most of us are left bereft of even the most basic resources for survival when we do fully commit to it, which also means we will be robbed of any way to achieve ego satisfaction beyond economic conquest. As Abraham Maslow showed us, wholeness of being is predicated on us first having all our basic needs met.

The transactional ethos plants the seed of Machiavellian thought. People become objects to be manipulated, not partners in building a better world. So, most of us get spiritually and materially poorer as we commit more and more to the transactional ethos.

The good news is that most of us intuitively reject the transactional ethos. The bad news is that modern society is dominated by it, and the more we reject it the harder it is to survive, because in a society dominated by the transactional ethos family and friends can no longer help us; they can only commiserate with us, or become an impediment to transactional ambition.

[1] Richard Dawkins’s book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: Norton and Company, 1986).

[2] Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944).

[3] Werner Herzog presents a very interesting documentary on early art in his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) and Joseph Campbell’s four-volume series The Masks of God (1962-1968) is a great historical introduction to the religious beliefs of mankind.

[4] The last of these anti-immigrant movements gave rise to the “Americanization movement,” a program to assimilate newly arrived immigrants into society through language training and the erasure of “inferior” folkways and culture. Even today the only acceptable ethnic distinction in the U.S. is the cuisine of one’s heritage, which is duly homogenized and scrubbed of any real taste.

[5] Matthew Crawford, Shop Class As Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009).

[6] Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012).


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