DAR­WIN’S MORAL COM­PASS

Even as it ex­ploded the foun­da­tions of late 19th- cen­tury so­ci­ety, laid down the guid­ing prin­ci­ples for hu­man sur­vival, writes John Collee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

IF it’s any con­so­la­tion, ev­ery gen­er­a­tion thinks the world is go­ing to hell in a hand­cart. Vic­to­rian Eng­land of the mid19th cen­tury was a time and place be­set with the same kind of moral dis­lo­ca­tion that af­flicts us in 2009. The Crimean War — sparked by a dis­pute over the Holy Land — had been fought and won at the cost of tremendous suf­fer­ing and with lit­tle per­ceived ben­e­fit. In­dus­trial ex­pan­sion and the growth of the rail­way net­work had brought enor­mous wealth and free­dom to a small sec­tor of so­ci­ety, but im­posed a cor­re­spond­ing bur­den of mis­ery on the masses. The In­dian Mutiny was cast­ing se­ri­ous doubts on the sup­posed ben­e­fits of coloni­sa­tion abroad, while The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo ( Marx and En­gels, 1848) raised the prospect of a revo­lu­tion nearer to home.

Into this fer­ment, 150 years ago, Charles Dar­win lobbed On the Ori­gin of Species ( 1859), a book that seemed to his op­po­nents to strengthen the hand of nihilists, su­prem­a­cists and an­ar­chists across the globe. His crit­ics claimed he was deny­ing the ex­is­tence of God, dis­put­ing man’s higher moral pur­pose and por­tray­ing all hu­man en­deav­our as a brute strug­gle for sur­vival. Dar­win, they claimed, en­vi­sioned us as no more than a species of ape con­strained only by the laws of na­ture: laws that, by Dar­win’s own ad­mis­sion, per­mit­ted rape, theft, in­cest and mur­der.

But much more than the mere laws of the jun­gle, what Dar­win was de­scrib­ing was a sys­tem of mu­tual in­ter­de­pen­dence that had gov­erned life on Earth for bil­lions of years; a sys­tem that man­aged si­mul­ta­ne­ously to be in­cred­i­bly lib­eral and fiercely re­stric­tive.

This was Dar­win’s moral com­pass: a set of guid­ing prin­ci­ples that could be dis­cerned from the close study of na­ture and which, if prop­erly fol­lowed, might en­sure man’s con­tin­u­ing sur­vival on the planet. Species that ig­nored th­ese rules were quickly ex­tin­guished. Their fate — ex­tinc­tion — had been suf­fered by the ma­jor­ity of plants and crea­tures that had ever lived on Earth. Ac­cord­ing to Dar­win we are just an­other of th­ese species. Not the top of the tree, and not spe­cially blessed or se­lected by God, but pos­sessed of one sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage: we alone can read the com­pass and di­vine from it the chances of our own sur­vival. As­sess­ing those chances now, on

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