Perhaps a dozen years ago I bought a small piece of land south of Old Rag mountain, with three or four acres of old apple trees on it. The orchard was way past its prime. A few of the trees had died, and many of the others were dying back, but there were still plenty of apples that we could pick for our own use. And we trimmed some of the dead branches for firewood. Then I sold the land, turning a small profit, and pretty much forgot about it.

This morning I drove past it for the first time in years. Someone had removed the apple trees on half the property and built a house on the newly cleared land. The other half of the orchard still stood, looking about as unkempt as ever, maybe a bit more so. In one of those inexplicable acts of association, I found myself thinking about the Darwinian principle of evolution through natural selection, and Republican Party ideology.

Out in Chico, California I have a daughter who lives in a house surrounded by hundreds of acres of orchards, all laid out in grid patterns of walnut and almond trees. They are carefully tended, and when you walk through the groves you see evidence that someone is replacing them after they reach a certain age and condition. A mature tree, for example, will be next to one that has recently been cut out and replaced by a small sapling. There is a selection process at work here, and it operates to optimize the yield of the whole orchard. You can’t exactly call it natural selection, since it is run by people, but it is analogous. The trees that survive the longest are the healthiest and most productive ones. If trees had political leanings, the successful ones would be Republicans, elevating their success to a moral principle.

What would those Republican trees have felt, by contrast, if they had been in my old apple orchard? Their fate would have depended, not on their condition, but on the chance factor of where in the orchard they were rooted. Right half, kaput, left half, as you were. Makes no difference whether you’re half dead or thriving. Location, as they say, is everything. It would be a sobering experience for any tree brought up to believe that success in life equates with moral virtue.

This little parable applies both to the Republican ideologue, which I am not, and to the believer in the Darwinian principle of evolution through natural selection, which I am. Natural selection is a powerful principle and explains how life as we know it developed the way it did, but when you start looking at the individual trees, it doesn’t seem to apply nearly as well as it does when you survey evolution as a whole from Olympian heights. Whether the individual tree survives is partly heredity and health and productivity and all that, but it is mostly luck, and in the luck category, location is critical. Of course, over many generations and over a lot of territory, the healthier and more productive trees will win out, but if you are right there on the ground, beware of hubris. You may be ever so healthy but if your roots are in the wrong place, you may get the old chain saw anyway.

So there is reason to regard the self-justifying smugness of the successful with muted enthusiasm. They were not just virtuous, they were lucky. We need to search in many places and at all times for an effective balance between rewarding success and providing for the rest of us. Overemphasis on either extreme doesn’t work for long. We need both progress and humanism. That’s why I am a progressive humanist.

I wrote the foregoing several days ago but recalled it while reading in the news about the current debate over tax policy in general and the pending cuts in income tax in particular. Some Republican leaders are trying very hard to justify the tax program they propose on any grounds but the real ones. Cut away the flim-flam and they want to reward the rich. For those of them who are just cynically selfish and greedy, enough said. For the rest of them, who would elevate their grabbiness into a moral principle, see the above.

Carl Coon 2/8/01

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