Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Garrett Hardin was a big name in popular science. His fame began with the publication of “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science in 1968, in which he explained how human society, like any animal society, will evolve towards the over-exploitation of any resources that are not privately held. This article was and remains a direct attack on the role of altruism (about which I have often written in this blog). With altruism, members of a population agree with one another to, among other things, share common resources fairly for the benefit of everyone. It is an unstable condition, but has such great benefits that, in numerous human societies, it has worked, even if imperfectly. But to read what Hardin wrote, you would get the impression that it can never work at all.
Today, few scientists agree with Hardin’s approach. Many ecologists and environmental scientists use his Science article for discussion. Chances are that you already know that much of Hardin’s work is now ignored. In what follows, I just want to give you an example of why his views have fallen into disrepute.
In his book Nature and Man’s Fate, Hardin stated his beliefs very clearly. He said that, since mankind is part of nature, then the only way we can hope to solve any of the world’s problems is to let natural selection take care of it. For example, what do we do about diseases? In particular reference to genetic diseases, Hardin explained why eugenics could not work. The reason is that nobody is smart enough to choose which people are superior and should be chosen to breed (positive eugenics) or which people are inferior and should be prevented from breeding (negative eugenics). Today, most people (including most scientists) believe eugenics is an unethical idea; but to Hardin, it was merely impractical.
Even though no human is smart enough to guide the process of eugenics, Hardin said, nature is smart enough. Look at all the amazing adaptations natural selection has produced! Surely the problems of the human species, at least the genetic ones, can be solved by natural selection. But to do so, Hardin said, we have to let natural selection have its way with our species. He praised competition, over and over, and said that natural selection would weed out inferior people.
Let nature take its course: this was Hardin’s fundamental belief. He had no tolerance for the tender hearts of liberals who wanted to interfere with natural selection’s work of clearing away inferior people.
Nearly every scientist rejects this view today. We spend a lot of money trying to save the lives of people with genetic abnormalities whom Hardin apparently believed should die. Indeed, natural selection would solve our problems, but only after the deaths of millions of people and the passage of hundreds of years.
Or not. During the hundreds of thousands of years before modern medicine, natural selection was all we had to solve our genetic problems. And it didn’t. If natural selection is going to save us, when the hell is it going to start doing so?
Hardin went further. He said that we should not interfere with any society that might start performing deeds that we consider morally dangerous. He said that, due to genetic diversity, there are many, many possible “constellations of moral principles” that could assemble themselves in human societies. Some of them we would call good, and some of them we would call evil. But there are far more evil and partly-evil constellations than there are good ones. And we should let the evil ones have their way, do whatever the hell they want to do, and let natural selection choose the winner.
He added one provision: no society should be allowed to threaten the existence of any other society.
One example of what he meant is that if a country has too high of a birth rate, then other countries should just let it starve to death.
Though Hardin did not use this example, his view requires that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped, but only because it started taking over other countries. If the Nazis had just stayed home and killed their own Jews and Gypsies and Slavs and gays, then that would have been, according to Hardin, just fine.
Have I misinterpreted him? Read it for yourself, from page 278 of the Mentor paperback reprint of his book: “The good constellations…are only a tiny fraction of all that are possible, but this fraction is surely a large number. It may be hard to resist trying to punish a society whose moral practices are repugnant to us, but only a policy of live-and-let-live will permit the development of the variety of communities that is needed to insure man’s continued existence…Put bluntly, every community must be free to go to hell in its own way, so long as its action does not endanger the continued existence of other communities. A community must, for instance, enjoy the freedom to breed itself into a state of starvation, if it so wishes, without a finger being lifted elsewhere to interfere with its stupidity. To interfere, to save it from the consequences of its own immorality is but to postpone and aggravate the problem, and to spread the moral infection.”
With regard to what was at the time the book was written called “the population explosion,” Hardin has been proved wrong over and over and over. Developed countries did NOT leave the less developed countries alone to die in their own misery of starvation and disease. Developed countries sent food, medicine, and education to those countries, the very things that Hardin considered to be wrong. By Hardin’s hypothesis, the fertility rates of these miserable countries should have skyrocketed, or at least not declined. But what actually happened was that in nearly every country, nearly every decade, especially the “poor” countries, fertility rates have declined precipitously. About 1953, Guatemala had a fertility rate of 7.0 (that is, the typical family had 7 kids); today the rate is 2.7. In Bangladesh, fertility went down from 6.7 to 2.1; the exact same figures for Mexico. In South Africa, it declined from 6.5 to 2.4. This occurred in hundreds of countries over many decades. This represents a couple of thousand tests of the Hardin hypothesis, and in nearly all cases, the hypothesis failed. By the time of his death by suicide in 2003, he must have already realized this, for the decline in fertility rates had been ongoing for decades by that time.
One problem with letting “a society” choose its own fate is that societies do not choose their fates; individuals do. Natural selection, which Hardin claimed to have known everything about, works on individuals, not societies. Notice the quote above. “A community must…enjoy the freedom to breed itself into a state of starvation, if it so wishes.” Communities do not breed; people do. And as soon as individual people in “poor” countries got the opportunity to be healthy and well fed, they chose to have fewer kids. Hardin not only chose a brutal application of natural selection, but an incorrect one.
Hardly anyone today says, “Let those poor dark countries breed themselves to hell.” We now all know Hardin was wrong. But it is now high time for us to relegate Garrett Hardin’s views to the dustbin of cruel and failed biological theories, alongside the Trofim Lysenko he so vigorously (and correctly) criticized. Good riddance!
In passing, Hardin added something that we all know is usually wrong: that people who have inherited wealth “almost universally” feel an obligation to do good. Let people who have inherited their wealth keep all of it, because they will use it to help society. What a crock. Many do—a perfect example of the indirect reciprocity form of altruism about which Hardin knew nothing—but there are just as many counter-examples. For every Rockefeller there is a Trump.
When I was in graduate school, a fellow student expressed amazement that I had not taken Hardin’s human ecology class when I was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But today, as I look back on it, I am glad I did not.
Hardin tried to steal some glamor from Darwin to polish his views. I have italicized the passages in which Hardin compared his cruel and incorrect view of the world to Darwin’s correct view of how non-human species evolve. This is how he ended his book (page 297 of the paperback): “Out of luxuriant waste, winnowed by selection, come designs more beautiful and in greater variety than ever man could plan. This is the lesson of Nature that Darwin has spelled out for us. Man, now that he makes himself, cannot do better than to emulate Nature’s example in allowing for waste and encouraging novelty. There is grandeur in this view of life as a complex of cybernetic systems that produce adaptedness without foresight, design without planning, and progress without dictation. From the simplest means, man, now master of his own fate, may evolve societies of a variety and novelty—yes, and even of a beauty—that no man living can now foresee.”