In the commentary on the current global economic situation, and in particular the protests against capitalism which have been developing increasing traction over the last decade or so, an analogy is often made between the principles of capitalism, as contrasted often with some seemingly discredited alternative such as socialism, and the evolutionary principles at play in the natural world.
Not everyone takes the analogy as far as Zygmunt Bauman, writing in the Guardian earlier this month, who adopts Rosa Luxemburg’s comparison of capitalism to a parasitic organism which (she hoped) would die once its food source was depleted. Indeed, often in the analogy capitalism is seen as being the “fittest” which has survived where alternative methods have failed. Superficially, there is an attraction to this analysis. It is easy to see the Cold War as an idealogical battle between two competing economic species, with soviet socialism (or whatever the Russian model in fact represented) being the weaker species that ultimately perished, being unsuited to the economic ecology which it inhabited.
How far can the analogy be taken, however? While evolution is often presented in terms of organisms adapting to meet environmental challenges or requirements, it is in truth a far more random process in nature. Mutations occur at each generation, and all that evolutionary theory really predicts (apologies to biologists!) is that those mutations which fit members of a species best for survival are those which will survive to future generations.
This is perhaps the main way in which the evolutionary comparison does not stand up. In contrast to the biological world, where mutations happen with inevitable regularity, those who establish political or economic constructs are often ideologically predisposed to protect the “purity” of their concept – avoiding the very mutations that make biological organisms so diverse and (ultimately) more likely to survive.
The question is whether a construct like capitalism, with the weight of its ideological history and perhaps also the complacency of believing itself unquestionably superior to its alternative, will necessarily have the adaptability to meet any dramatic change in global circumstances that may confront it in the future. After all, a large number of dinosaurs might justifiably have felt themselves to have won the evolutionary battle, right up until the point at which the meteor hit…