Lately, I’ve been reading Tim Flannery’s Life on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet and it’s been blowing my mind. As you may know from speaking with me or looking at the Music page, I am quite the biophiliac – I am infatuated with life on this planet.
Flannery’s book opens with Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism, exploring the separation between selfishness and altruism that social dogmatists love to exploit: Survival of the Fittest. Now, I’m quite left-leaning in my thinking, but also a passionate rationalist and naturalist (not in the sense of a scientist, but more in opposition to a supernaturalist). If it’s a dog-eat-dog world and the strongest survive while the weakest die, how can we have a socially responsible public that values Darwinian thought?
Flannery quotes the paleontologist, Peter Ward, and recounts his Medea Hypothesis:
The Medea Hypothesis… is named after the terrifying Medea of Greek mythology. Granddaughter of the Sun god Helios, she married Jason (he of the golden fleece), by whom she had two children. When Jason left her for Glauce, Medea extracted revenge by killing both of her children, after murdering Glauce and her father. Ward thinks that life is equally bloody and self-destructive, arguing that species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of ecosystem collapse. The Medea hypothesis in fact suggests that ruthless selfishness is inevitably a recipe for the elimination of a species. It argues that if we compete too successfully we will destroy ourselves.
I think that the same problem exists within the notion of “cutting education” (as per last week’s post) or the mass privatization of it as championed by the American Tea Party Movement. If there is no public option for education, then citizens and families will need to pay for private schools. As competition increases, those schools will become more expensive and, while hopefully improving in quality, fewer and fewer families will be able to afford it and we’ll begin a time where citizens of North America will have no education. As the stronger schools compete harder, the smaller private schools will die away and there will be “franchises” of schools, which will carry a fantastic reputation, but will be economically exclusive and will effectively deepen the education gap of the country.
What we’re talking about here is “big box education.” I don’t necessarily mean “The McDonald’s School” or the “Walmart School,” but similar connotations… again, only to those that can afford it. From there, we allow the free market to dictate a person’s level of education and the Medea hypothesis begins – “if we compete too successfully we will destroy ourselves.” If the process runs to its natural end, we will have a caste system of both economics and education and we’ll be plunged back to the Dark Ages (or, at least, a similar parallel).
Now, it’s not that I’m against a diversity of education types or systems, nor am I opposing private schools – if you can afford it, good on ya, just keep in mind the vast majority of North Americans cannot. Like ecology, there is strength in diversity and both working in tandem are just fine. In a society where the vast majority succeed, it is so much easier for the individual to do so as well; symbiosis on a small scale and cooperation in the large.
While Darwin argued “Survival of the fittest” (sort of, he didn’t actually coin the term, Herbert Spencer did in 1864), another naturalist named Alfred Russell Wallace realized natural selection around the same time and independently of Darwin. In short, natural selection was an idea waiting to be realized. The difference is that Wallace didn’t see natural selection as a singular and selfish event (at least, not entirely), he saw it as the opposite:
“Wallace… saw the evolutionary process, and our understanding of it, as potentially ushering in a wonderful future. I think that’s because Wallace realized that while evolution by natural selection is a fearsome mechanism, it nevertheless created a living, working planet, which includes us, with our love for each other, and our society… We are part of an interdependent community.”
The whole is more than the sum of its parts, my friends, and cooperation makes our lives easier for everyone. It’s no accident that we feel good when we do good works like donate to charity, hold the door for others, or feed those in need, that an evolved response. Education works in a similar way: Our world and our lives become better when we teach others how to be successful in their world and their lives. If we struggle against one another, we will promote Medea from hypothesis to self-fulfilling prophecy, but if we work together and support one another in our learning, self-esteem, personal worth, critical thinking and self-confidence, we will ensure our survival forever 🙂
Thanks for reading,
Flannery, Tim. Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Book.