About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

Is Breaking Bad Darwinian?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Darwin was no Darwinian.” Martin Luther King Jr said that before me. He was correct historically, scientifically, and morally. It’s a bad break for Darwin, and us, that his name is used to distort his ideas. Particularly as applied to humans. And TV shows.

Breaking Bad‘s success rests on its moral complexities. They remind us that good stories are thought experiments in morals or social rules which often yield multiple interpretations. Calling morals social-rules evades old baggage, since surely social-rules can be studied scientifically. But science’s stories can also have multiple interpretations. Evolution isn’t as simple as “red in tooth and claw” sound bite peddlers suggest.

Ross Douhat in The New York Times said that Breaking Bad illustrated the appeal of an older “tribal” code that is “neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian,” but had the clear “Darwinian logic” of a ruthless fight for survival. He’s right that some aspects of our social rules are recent, but he’s empirically wrong that a “Darwinian” code “lies percolating just below the surface of every human heart.”

Darwin’s own clear logic said: “The moral sense perhaps affords the best…distinction between man and the lower animals…the social instincts, the prime principle of man’s moral constitution…naturally lead to the golden rule, “As ye would have men should do to you, do ye to them likewise.” Not so “Darwinian.” Darwin knew we are by nature self-deficient and interdependent.

The specious origin of what’s called “Darwinian” is Herbert Spencer, coiner of “survival of the fittest.” It descends to us via Dawkinsian selfish-genery. But Dawkins’ logic is flawed. Nature contains competition. But also cooperation. The mix is key, especially in social species.

The largest study of hunter-gatherer tribal rules shows that team survival has likely shaped our evolution, and social rules, for 10,000 generations. All extant hunter-gatherers limit group-threatening behaviors, including harmful competition. There are two types of social rules: Those that prevent groups from damaging what they depend on. And those that don’t. Guess which are fitter?

Darwin knew better than today’s “Darwinians” that though we evolved like other species, we’re different. We are the giraffes of cooperation, having uniquely extended features for teamwork. Darwin’s moral sense, as Jefferson said, was “as much a part of a man as his arm or leg.” Ignoring our innate social-rule-processors is unnaturally selective.

Evolution’s stories are prone to narrative selection. Rorschach readings enabled Karl Marx to see a scientific basis for class struggle, and Bertrand Russell felt evolution was inspired by economic ideas, favoring “animals that most resembled successful capitalists.”

Darwin’s rich ideas and name are being misused. Competition in nature regularly creates waste and catastrophe. It can in markets, which if unguided can be as dumb as trees. Our evolved capacities for reason, foresight, and social coordination can help us avoid predictable disaster.

This aspect of nature has crystal clear methods. Her logic ultimately tends to eliminate all that damages what it depends on. We’d better get stories about this into every human heart and head.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors
Greek Myths About Human Origins
Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge
Economics vs Fiction on Human Nature
Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?
Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization
Food For Rethinking Markets
Non-grapefruit and fruitful non-science
Is Money Like Food?
Words Are Thinking Tools: Praxotype

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Comments 3 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. rkipling 2:59 pm 10/1/2013

    Null hypothesis

    Link to this
  2. 2. frankblank 4:14 pm 10/1/2013

    “Darwinism” applied to social behavior is merely a lying, false-science explanation for other, non-scientific lies that serve as apologia for predatory, often criminal behavior.

    E.g. “I worked really hard, 18 hours a day, getting fraudulent ratings on those Mortgage Backed Securities. I EARNED my 20 million dollars. Besides, it’s just an example of Darwinian principles.”

    Link to this
  3. 3. ziggy77 2:24 pm 10/2/2013

    > “All extant hunter-gatherers limit group-threatening behaviors, including harmful competition.”

    You mean, it’s only the groups that didn’t impose such limits developed beyond this primitive form of social organization? Looks like a pretty strong argument against imposing such, especially since we know what happens to hunter-gatherers after a contact with a more developed society.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article