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David Bouchier: The Survival of the Fittest

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Good old-fashioned trust is in short supply these days. It has been worn down and worn away by millions of advertisements and campaign ads that are indistinguishable from lies, decades of telephone scams of every conceivable kind and by a deluge of trickery and criminality on the internet. We are the daily target of credit card scams, time-share scams, tax scams, identity theft scams – if you can imagine it, somebody else has thought of it already, and tried it on us. The fake news can’t be trusted, and even the most plausible conspiracy theories are hard to believe. There are disturbing rumors that even our most exalted political leaders sometimes fail to speak the exact truth. Only Pollyanna herself could fail to get the message: lies work.

A writer called Michael Young warned us about this 60 years ago, in a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy. Many readers were blindsided by the word “meritocracy.” It had a fine ring to it, suggesting to my naïve young mind that the best, most capable and most trustworthy people would rise to the top — a true hierarchy of merit. The future belonged to people with superior qualities of character, knowledge and honesty — people we could trust. Nobody could argue with that.

I still have my copy of the first edition of The Rise of the Meritocracy. It is in excellent condition, which shows that I didn’t read it properly. If I had, I would have understood that the author’s vision of the future was more depressing than inspiring. He imagined a world in which the cunning strategy of the elite was to really give equal opportunity to everyone, in a kind of libertarian free-for-all, no holds barred. Honesty had nothing to do with it. The most duplicitous and greedy people of every race and class and both sexes fought their way to the top, and all those left behind (the vast majority, the less competitive 99 percent) were left without any power or voice. This was a meritocracy without empathy, a self-perpetuating elite of media manipulators, political schemers and money managers. There was nothing noble or superior about them. It was Social Darwinism in its purest form — the survival of the fittest.

What the survival of the fittest guarantees is that those who rise to the top are precisely the ones we would least want to have at the top. But it’s useless to complain; we are up against a law of nature here. Who or whatever can do best in a particular environment will succeed. A penguin won’t survive long in the Sahara Desert, or an unwary mouse in a house full of cats. Ancient civilizations favored warriors who were brave and loyal. We have created a civilization that rewards a different set of values.

So we have to face the fact that our present elites and leaders must be the best adapted to this society as it now exists. It’s a chilling thought because that makes the rest of us feel like flightless penguins at the equator. If the heat doesn’t get us the predators will.

Michael Young’s book had only one answer to this dilemma: to create a revolution which, in his story, inevitably failed because that’s the way the survival of the fittest works. Fortunately, the tale is nothing but a clever and cynical piece of fiction.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.