Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Survival of the Fittest: Then and Now

200 years ago on February 12, two men were born on opposite sides of the Atlantic who would both change the face of the world. On the evidence, Charles Darwin would reach the conclusion that the existing species of the Earth evolved based on natural selection due to the biological principle of the survival of the fittest. His theory of evolution transformed our understanding of natural science and our appreciation of social order. All beings we know today survived some winnowing out process that selected for the strongest and fittest to survive.

Abraham Lincoln (I'm wondering if he had read Darwin's Origin of the Species?) would go on to become president of the US, which was already at war with itself, and forever more transform the way Americans looked at each other and how the world looked at America. The conflict between North and South was intractable, based on property rights and states rights vs. human rights. Slavery was seen as the powerful versus the captive. Lincoln looked at this and said in the Gettysburg Address, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," deciding that it was worth fighting to keep the Union. His thesis was not to protect the "fittest", as society perceived those who were strongest at the time, but survival of the country.

One message - it's inevitable that life is a struggle and only the strong survive. The other - life may be a struggle, but humans have a choice to make in who or what they defend (even the weakest). And Lincoln was being true to his principles in defending that notion.

Today's economic and international struggles mirror those of these two giants. Today's choices are being writ large by President Obama, but they occur on a more personal scale, too. Whoever among us has the capacity to serve the weakest has a choice to make: how can I help someone who has lost a job, is about to lose their home, is struggling financially to stay in college? Public stimulus is today's buzzword, but have we become too nervous about what is to come to help support our neighbors who may be less fortunate? Are the escape artists who led AIG and Merrill Lynch into companies now reliant on public charity for their sustenance - and who themselves pocketed millions of dollars as part of a planned and negotiated exit strategy - beyond seeing their own greed when millions are losing jobs based on their get richer quicker schemes for subprime mortgage investment?

Pondering big questions - who is the strongest in our world today? And will we support the weakest among us? How will history judge us?