Should Darwin Have “Occupied” Andrew Carnegie’s Office?

The science of evolution supports the notion that a just society is built on our innate creaturely sense of equality and fairness.

“Fairness is the basis of the social contract,” says Eric Michael Johnson in a fascinating new article in Scientific American.

But hasn’t Darwinism been used in the past to justify unequal rewards for the captains of industry, the “survival of the fittest?”

Isn’t life basically unfair, as many of us have warned our children?

The American financial tycoon Andrew Carnegie certainly thought so and today’s economic elite have followed his example. In 1889 he used a perverted form of Darwinism to argue for a “law of competition” that became the cornerstone of his economic vision. His was a world in which might made right and where being too big to fail wasn’t a liability, it was the key to success. In his “Gospel of Wealth”, Carnegie wrote that this natural law might be hard for the least among us but “it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

Johnson describes recent studies done with Capuchin monkeys and with chimpanzees that illustrate this innate sense of fairness:

According to research published in the journal Animal Behaviour (pdf here), fairness is not only essential to the human social contract, it also plays an important role in the lives of nonhuman primates more generally. Sarah F. Brosnan and colleagues conducted a series of behavioral tests with a colony of chimpanzees housed at the University of Texas in order to find out how they would respond when faced with an unfair distribution of resources. A previous study in the journal Nature by Brosnan and Frans de Waal found that capuchin monkeys would refuse a food item when they saw that another member of their group had received a more desired item at the same time (a grape instead of a slice of cucumber). Some individuals not only rejected the food, they even threw it back into the researchers’ face. The monkeys seemed to recognize that something was unfair and they responded accordingly. This raised the provocative question: can the basis of the social contract be found in our evolutionary cousins?

The biggest surprise coming out of the chimpanzee studies was that some chimps acted from a sense of solidarity with their fellow chimps, refusing a higher value reward if it was offered to them unfairly!

As Johnson explains, “even those who benefitted from inequality recognized that the situation was unfair and they refused to enjoy their own reward if it meant someone else had to suffer.”

Read Johnson’s fascinating article in full here: “The Gospel of Wealth Fails the Inequity Test in Primates

Other Resources:

Nova Science Now: “What Are Animals Thinking” (see especially minutes 6 through 8):

Watch What Are Animals Thinking? on PBS. See more from NOVA scienceNOW.

Book: Age of Empathy, by Franz De Waal

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