An interesting question: isn't it a little bit strange that, after thousands of years of intense pondering about where we came from, the remarkably simple solution - evolution by natural selection - occurred independently to a handful of people in one particular society in the space of a couple of decades?
From the workhouse to the forest?
That particular society was, of course, the crucible of modern capitalism: Victorian Britain during and following the Industrial Revolution. This was a world where competition, inequality, and ruthless self-interest (core ingredients of evolution by natural selection) were writ large and writ aggressive. It's not exactly rocket science to suggest that the idea of natural selection could only have been born in a society where the struggle for existence was already in the air - and on the streets.
Richard Lewontin, the controversial Harvard biologist famous for Biology as Ideology, pointed out that this link was to some extent actually acknowledged by Darwin himself. Both Darwin and Wallace report that they came to their revelations after reading the frankly horrible essay On The Principle of Population by an unpleasant curate known as the Reverend Malthus. Observing coolly that the poor were proliferating, Malthus anticipated a so-called 'Malthusian catastrophe', where an over-sized population is cut to a sustainable level by, essentially, a lot of death. Nature works in the same way, remarked Darwin and Wallace: there simply aren't the resources for every animal to survive and reproduce, so - in the free market of nature - only those most capable of surviving and reproducing will in fact do so.
Fast-forward to the 1980s...
In a sense, sociobiology solved the mystery of altruism by refocussing our understanding of the struggle for existence: the real struggle is there, but rather hard to notice at first, taking place between genes. In the evocative words of Richard Dawkins, genes are the 'replicators', and we - the organisms - are the 'vehicles' they've built, machines constructed out of convenience to carry out their interests in the world. Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is the book that absolutely gripped me about biology when I first read it, and it's the reason I decided to pursue biology at university, so I hope you don't mind if I quote a little of it. In a famously stirring passage (which Dawkins later blushed a little at writing), the extraordinary picture that sociobiology painted is captured beautifully:
As with Darwin and Wallace years previously, those working at the coal-face weren't unaware of the political zeitgeist and it's possible influence on science. Dawkins, indeed, has explicitly discussed his bemusement after, in 1979, the neurobiologist Steven Rose declared (a little bit turgidly):
Dawkins' answer was that, of course, 'we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign' (p.xiv of the 30th Anniversary Edition). He certainly isn't a Thatcherite himself (in fact, he's a public supporter of the Lib Dems). In any case, his is a crucial and much-needed point: Social Darwinism is toxic and unacceptable, but that has nothing to do with the science of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology is concerned only with the natural world. This answer is of course correct. But it doesn't address the uncomfortable question of whether or not right-wing environments have fostered developments in evolutionary theory.
So is there an unconscious link?
I think it's very possible that there is such a link. But then, we should be careful not to draw casual correlations: these very same decades saw the rise of the radical 'Gaia hypothesis' in England and America, a decidedly more hippie vision of the world as a self-regulating entity, a metaphorical Earth Goddess maintaining the conditions for life. We can hardly ascribe that to Thatcher.
There are alternative arguments. The celebrated German biologist Ernst Mayr proposed that the secret to why Darwinism appeared so late in the game was that, ever since Plato, Europe had been in the grip of 'essentialism': the idea that there is, in some sense, a true essence of the camel, a true essence of the duck-billed platypus, and so on. In the famous 'Allegory of the Cave', Plato (through the voice of Socrates) describes a bunch of prisoners staring at a cave wall. On the wall are thrown the shadows of various strange things, but the prisoners - who have been stuck in this cave all their lives - have never seen these things themselves. The things themselves are the 'Forms', abstract, ethereal entities that constitute the true objects of reality. Mayr argued that the 'Theory of Forms' held sway over biology for centuries. We were indisposed to even imagine evolutionary change, because accepting the 'Forms' implies that species are immutable.
The phrase 'evolution by natural selection' has, obviously, two parts: (1) evolution and (2) natural selection. If Mayr was right, then the problem of why Darwinism took so long to appear presumably isn't to do with the fact that natural selection was hard to come up with, waiting to be found by a culture of hyper-capitalism. Instead, the problem would be with the first part: coming up with evolution was the problem, and it was only by the erosion of latent Platonism that it could appear on the scene. Natural selection followed shortly after, a quick and simple solution to a new and pressing question.
Basically it's all apparently very complicated.
This is the point where I throw my hands in the air and decide it's all a bit over my head. Perhaps there is a clear link between politics and evolutionary biology (notwithstanding the all-too-obvious connections with eugenics) - it wouldn't be the first time science and politics were intimately interwoven. But then again, in the bubbling soup of post-Enlightenment exuberance, colonialism, ideology, and frenzied economics of Victorian England and the Cold War west (the latter aided by a sprinkling of counter-culture excitement), perhaps the links between politics and science are just too blurred and subtle to find out. But I'd be really interested to know...!
Adventures of a
Dr Patrick Kennedy, Radford Lab, University of Bristol | Zoology