Monday, 14 June 2010

Altruism v selfishness on 'Question Time'

I can’t help being a Darwinist, because the theory of evolution by natural selection, besides its great explanatory power and beauty, is so obviously true. The evidence for it, in myriad branches of science, is overwhelming. But crude social Darwinism is repellent. It seems to assume that because, in the natural world, organisms which are best adapted to their environments tend to survive, while those which are poorly adapted become extinct, therefore it’s morally okay to live only for oneself and behave selfishly to the highest degree, trampling on everyone in order to get to ‘the top’. Unfortunately, Social Darwinism is everywhere in our society, both on a personal and political level, and with a new Conservative government in place its apologists seem to be coming transparently to the fore.

This was brought home to me by last week’s ‘Question Time’ on BBC1, which I have been mulling over ever since. The line-up of panellists was typical: a government minister and his opposite number, both instantly forgettable and saying exactly what you’d expect; a ‘journalist’ called Toby Young, who writes for the Telegraph; and a horrific horsey Sloane ranger/minor royalty/Margaret Thatcher hybrid called Katie something (forgotten her name completely). And one of my three favourite politicians, the leader of Respect Party Salma Yacoob.

Forget the two MPs (I have). Everything Katie said was so monstrous it was almost funny, like a cartoon of Thatcherism - which I suppose makes her an obvious Social Darwinist. And everything Salma said was passionately but clearly expressed, while speaking up at all times for the suffering and disadvantaged in society. She was the only panellist talking sense, and listening to her was like a breath of cool mountain air wafting through a dank and smelly cellar.

But in terms of personalities and what they revealed about themselves and each other, the most interesting thing was the contrast between Salma and Toby. Toby revealed himself as an arch Social Darwinist, a transparent selfish Conservative, as opposed to the minister’s (what was his name?) presentation of a new ‘caring’ Conservative government (we do hate to make these enormous cuts to public services, but we’ll try and protect the weak and vulnerable, and our hearts bleed for all of you as we all suffer together). At one point he was incredibly self-revealing, saying that he never joined the Labour Party because he assumed he would ‘never be able to climb the ranks’. And everything he said was with an air of macho smugness. Interesting if depressing to watch.

He couldn’t stand Salma! Her whole argument, her whole politics, was about protecting the vulnerable in society from the predations of unfettered capitalism (that includes war, although she didn’t get a chance to talk about that). And despite the fact that she is personally likeable and said nothing offensive to anyone – and the audience applauded her comments enthusiastically – Toby transparently (I know, I keep using that word, but it’s so appropriate) took a strong dislike to her. The next day he even wrote an article in the Torygraph, slagging her off. Perhaps it’s just because she seemed popular with the audience, perhaps it’s because their politics are so different. But I felt there was a deeper, more personal, emotional reason as well.

The self-absorbed and self-serving are terribly upset when faced with someone genuinely and passionately caring and altruistic. It holds a mirror up to their own selfishness. Of course, it works the other way round too. But Salma had logic on her side, while Toby had only selfishness. (She made arguments, for instance - and not only against Toby - with which it would be impossible for any sane person to disagree, such as when she self-disclosed about her earlier life. She said simply that had it not been for student grants, the further education that led to her career as a psychotherapist would not have been a priority for her working class family - and there was the case against tuition fees et al, right there.) So Salma was able to remain calm, at least outwardly (perhaps her therapy training putting her in good stead!) But Toby was quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, seething.

It was fascinating viewing, on a certain level. The contrast between altruism and its opposite couldn’t have been clearer. But it was also quite upsetting, and my own emotional reactions to the programme were pretty strong - hence the need to write all this!

I started this blog by mentioning my love of Darwin’s great theory, but it obviously hasn’t been about that at all. The crudest form of Social Darwinism – and its altruistic opposite – is my theme. And it’s such an important one. As Richard Dawkins has said many times in his books and elsewhere, our own evolution as a species has progressed so far that we no longer need to be dominated entirely by our ‘selfish genes’. We can put other people first, even to the extent of sacrificing our individual comforts or even lives. We can decide not to perpetuate our own genes, we can decide not to have children. We can resist the urge to claim more and more for ourselves, whether it’s money or privileges or territory. And we’ve reached the point in our history where if we don’t think and behave altruistically, then we and perhaps millions of other species are lost. With the world’s population expanding like mad, the most powerful weapons imaginable, and the climate heating up, the issue of altruism versus short-term selfishness couldn’t be more urgent.

Hearing Salma speak does a lot to rebuild my shaky faith in politicians as a species. Hearing the Tobys and Katies of this world reminds me depressingly of what we’re up against.