By David Coppage

Tie “survival of the fittest” to “larger brains are more fit” and what do you get?

The horrors of 20th century social Darwinism are well documented.  Ideas have consequences.  Giving power-hungry leaders two principles that, when mixed together, justify their wildest ambitions in the name of science, is like giving bomb ingredients to a terrorist – only on a much more massive scale.  Those two ideas are: (1) might makes right, because nature has determined that only the fittest survive, and (2) some brains are more fit than other brains.  Need we detail the racial atrocities, genocides and wars that exploded from that toxic blend?

A recent article in Nature News, had a title that should raise eyebrows: “Mostly the big-brained survive.”  It suggests that the toxic ideas themselves survive, even if under the surface in an innocent article about conservation.  Emma Marris wrote like a caring conservationist concerned about the welfare of endangered species.  But she expressed social Darwinian ideas as if oblivious to what happened in the 20th century: “Large-brained animals may be less likely to go extinct in a changing world, perhaps because they can use their greater intelligence to adapt their behaviour to new conditions,” she wrote; “.…a bigger brain–to-body-size ratio usually means a smarter animal.”

Although Marris did not use the word fitness or the phrase “survival of the fittest,” the idea was implicit in the notion that smarter animals are less likely to go extinct.  A corollary is that nature favors the smarter animal.

Marris and Eric Abelson (Stanford U), whose research she highlighted, were discussing brain size of mammals in general.  A picture of a cute tarsier adorns the article.  To their credit, they included several points that could exonerate them from any allegations of social Darwinism.  For one, they were not talking about humans specifically at all….

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