The Darwinian lie

Darwinism Today

(series editors Helena Cronin and Oliver Curry) <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £4.99 e

Darwinism has always been more than a mere scientific theory; from the very beginning it has been embroiled in religious and political polemics. Appeals to keep "fact" separate from "value" have been to no avail; any theory of human origins will inevitably present itself as a theory of human nature and of human destiny. Yet while most people agree that Darwinism has a more than purely scientific significance, there is no agreement over what this additional significance is. The most divergent points of view - political, economic and ethical - have all claimed Darwin as ancestor. There have been capitalist Darwinians, anarchist Darwinians and environmental Darwinians. Weidenfeld and Nicolson's series of pamphlets, Darwinism Today, introduces new voices to this merry Babel.

In one important respect, however, these "neo-Darwinians" all differ from their discredited social Darwinist ancestors. The social Darwinists treated the theory of natural evolution in a loose and metaphorical manner, as a prototype for the evolution of human society. Different social arrangements were justified on the grounds that they provided the best analogue, in human terms, of natural selection, from unbridled capitalism to thinkers of a more collectivist bent who defined the basic unit of Darwinian competition as the nation. Conflict between nations would promote the fittest, it was argued, though within each nation statism prevailed. It was in this form that social Darwinism was appropriated by fascism. Yet none of these extrapolations from Darwin has the slightest validity. Darwin's is a theory of natural, not of social evolution; the principles governing the two processes are entirely different. Realisation of this fact, as well as the odium attaching to anything associated with fascism, ensured that Darwinism was not mentioned outside scientific circles for almost 50 years.

It is a chastened Darwinism that now pokes its head back into social and political conversation. Its target is no longer the macrocosm of human society, but the microcosm of human psychology. It claims that evolution has shaped not only our bodies, but also our souls. Evolutionary theory can elucidate that oldest of riddles: what is human nature? It can isolate those features of the human psyche that remain constant through all historical and cultural change, and that constitute a permanent obstacle to all projects of social reconstruction. Neo-Darwinism is an ironic reversal of social Darwinism. The social Darwinists were impressed by the dynamic and mutable character of nature, and hoped to reproduce these qualities in human society. Neo-Darwinism emphasises the extreme slowness of evolutionary change, and the constraints it places on social initiative. Its political implications are conservative. The right has always applauded pig-headed human nature as the ultimate bulwark against the ambitions of the state, whereas for the Marxist left "human nature" is simply a term of bourgeois ideology, immortalising the status quo.

The two essays by Kingsley Browne and, in collaboration, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, are best representative of neo-Darwinism's political tendency. Browne argues that the relative scarcity of women at the top levels of management is the result of innate differences of character between the sexes. Men are, on average, more competitive, risk-loving and single-minded, and these characteristics are not mere "cultural constructs" but the product of a complicated process of "sexual selection". Daly and Wilson point to statistics showing that children are over 100 times more likely to be killed or abused by a step-parent. This should come as no surprise to anyone versed in evolutionary theory, the fundamental premise of which is that all creatures strive to promote their own genes over and above those of their rivals. Male lions habitually kill their displaced rivals' offspring; the cruelty of human step-parents is a vestige of this primitive evolutionary trait. All three writers are scornful of the social science model of the postwar years, according to which sexual difference was a mere cultural prejudice, and parenting a "social role". Policies based on these assumptions, such as quotas for women or the encouragement of "diverse family forms", will be either futile or destructive.

The most striking thing about both pamphlets is the way in which complex scientific arguments support a conclusion of outstanding banality. It says something about our lack of intuitive self-knowledge that we require proof that men and women are different, or that natural parents are more loving than step-parents. But I suppose there is no harm in this; if banalities require the support of science to become intellectually respectable, let them have it. Economics - a discipline with many affinities to Darwinism - is essentially nothing more than an elaboration of banalities.

But if banalities become no less banal through acquiring a scientific foundation, they certainly become more arrogant. It is important not to let them swagger too complacently. All scientific theories are imperialistic, and the neo-Darwinists' avowal that it is not their intention to diminish human freedom does not quite allay my suspicion that this is precisely their intention. Darwinism can only draw attention to the similarities between the human and animal worlds; it is, by its nature, insensitive to the differences. Yet these differences are all-important. Humans inhabit a symbolic, not a natural universe. If we cannot directly transcend our natural inheritance, we can, through the use of language, configure it and reconfigure it indefinitely. The same natural trait can be described in an endless variety of ways, each one transforming its value and significance. The impulse that we call anorexia and treat as a disease was in the Middle Ages revered as the mortification of the flesh. Whichever interpretation we prefer, it is not for science to adjudicate. Our natural endowment is not the obstinate and intractable thing of Darwinian theory; it is a counter in an ever-changing game.

Browne's essay is insensitive to the ways in which human beings manipulate and pervert their natural legacy. There are differences between men and women, but it's almost impossible to say anything universally valid about those differences. Any words that we use to describe them will be our words, bearing our judgements and interpretations, so we can hardly avoid the error of elevating cultural types into natural kinds. This is precisely the error committed by psychologists Katherine and Kermit Hoyenga, quoted by Browne: "[Women's] concepts of self are centred more around relationships with others, whereas men's egoistic dominance means that their self-concepts are centred more around task performances and skills."

Any individual has the ability to use his natural endowment artfully, thereby negating its significance. Thence the old adage that a woman's strength is her weakness can be transformed into a source of power. Browne's portrait of women as nurturing and altruistic may very well be true as far as nature is concerned, but human intelligence can transform these qualities into a mask, under which lurks a will to power equal to any man's.

Browne, in common with all neo-Darwinists, is entirely insensitive to the human faculty of cunning. "Women care less about money, status and power than do men" proclaims the dust jacket. Rubbish! Women care just as much about all these things; it's merely that they employ less conspicuous means in their pursuit. Men pursue money, status and power directly; women pursue them through the intervening medium of men. Or at least, that was how it worked traditionally.

The social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s were certainly wrong to regard the human psyche as a tabula rasa. Neo-Darwinism has performed a useful service in resurrecting the banal truths of human nature from their grave. But it errs in supposing that we can lay human nature out on the dissecting table, as though it were an object of natural science. We will never be transparent to ourselves; language and intelligence render us opaque. Over and above the banal truths - men and women are different, parents love their children more than step-parents - we can say very little. And while human nature will continue to confound misguided schemes of social engineering, we will never know it well enough to derive from it any positive recommendation for action.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.