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
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