Sunday, 13 September 2009

Darwin, the American Health Care Bill and Emily Ballou

The sun shone yesterday and I whiled away the day in Cambridge with two friends. We went to see the Darwin exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is well worth a look if you are this way. The things on display are many and various, a few examined the premise of the male of the species’ need to have not only a USP ( Unique Selling Point) to entice the female but that they had to be the best at whatever form of plumage, display or behaviour was deemed essential. Any female of the species that didn’t pick him was not only deeply lacking in taste but would produce inferior ofspring that would not add anything of significance to the gene pool of the species and ensure its survival or ability to adapt to the environment. There was a short video display of a display ritual of a particular bird, lots of long tail feathers fanned out, much like a peacock, was involved. The interesting thing was the way the female being displayed to seemed not in the least bit interested and spent time and energy ignoring the male bird. ‘Here’s a nice bit of corn’ she seemed to be saying to herself most of the time whilst the male shook his tail feathers, hopped almost right under her beak and generally thrust himself and his plumes at her. Nothing new there then, I have been to discos.

The celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ has spawned innumerable things in Cambridge where he attended Christ College; lectures, readings, workshops, mugs, small rag dolls with white hair and long beards, tea towels, postcards, pop up books etc the list is endless. However there has been some good poetry spawned by the anniversary, so it isn’t all cuddly toys and jigsaws. Here is a wonderful reading by the Australian poet Emily Ballou from her new collection The Darwin Poems, which looks at Darwin’s life in poetry. Well worth looking at if you can get hold of a copy.

The whole exhibition really brought home to me that the publication of ‘On the Origins of Species’ was not only a huge shift in thinking away from creationist thinking but it also offered some people a world view that made sense of what they saw happening around them everyday, not just in nature but within society. Survival of the fittest was what had always happened and in Victorian society that was evident in the infant morality rates and the general conditions of the poor that led to an early death. Of course many of the wealthy and middle-class died young but not in the same numbers. ‘This is the way it has to be’, said some at the time. The concept of ‘the rich man in his castle the poor man at his gate’ and that ‘god ordered their estate’, weren’t lines from the famous and much loved hymn of the time, ‘All things bright and beautiful’ for nothing. The great unwashed, the poor, the ignorant, the feckless, the brutish under class would not survive because this was the way life was designed to be. The rich, educated and wise would always prosper and survive at the top of the heap.

I then read this morning, Obama’s address to Congress about the new Health Care Bill and I couldn’t help thinking about the Darwin exhibition in Cambridge. The constant fight to survive and adapt to meet change. None of the adaption Darwin thought of was conscious, species took thousands of years to adapt and some died out because they did not adapt quickly or well enough. Politics and government doesn’t have thousands of years to adapt systems of governance which will best ensure the survival of the people it governs. Man also has a moral element that interacts with all this adaptation. They may refer to an unseen higher power that dictates or limits the nature of change. They may seek to genuinely do what is best for the majority and thus spend years debating what may constitute the best or simply impose it by political and military means. They may decide that the furtherance of the well being and fortunes of a limited few, who would deem themselves more equipped to survive that other is the best answer, so government is dictated by the few, for the welfare of the few (as some have suggested the latest Afghan elections exemplify). Some may seek to limit the level of governance in order to maximise the moral concept of free will and the individual’s right to live their life as they see fit, unfettered by government dictates. All of them seem to tread the boards in the theatre of Darwinian thoughts on survival as, if you accept that whatever your moral beliefs are, and from whatever source you deem them to come, on the whole they are held to be best for man, the species. They are best to ensure society grows stronger, adapts to whatever is thrown at the species.

The health care bill in the USA raises huge issues about what you deem best for you and your fellow man. Whatever the moral, political or economic viewpoint you have, the task of convincing people about the need for change must boil down to, what do you believe your fellow man is worth to you and to your society? I put that not as a rhetorical question but a real one, how much is the health of Mrs Florence Peabody three doors up worth to you and society, enough to make your tax bill how much higher? In the UK we are lucky in so far as we have not had to debate this question recently, the NHS staggers on and there seems some basic underpinning agreement that the NHS is a good thing. Perhaps further down the road, if the financial burden of the elderly becomes too much to bear, we may be faced with the same question in stark terms. If someone has contributed x to the NHS system through national insurance and taxation are they entitled to x plus 1000% or a greater amount back, should they be unlucky enough to have some chronic or massive medical need. How much of another’s financial burden are you willing to carry? The survival of the fittest may at some point down the road be a very practical guideline to apply when limiting health care.

I will continue to watch the American debate with interest as it may be our debate soon if we have to continue getting a quart of health care out of a pint pot of money. I think the NHS is one of the defining things that makes me relieved and proud to live in the UK. It is, on the whole and for the time being, an example of how our society is at least striving to allow all some shot at survival and not just the fittest. It may have faults , it may not do it superbly well in all instances but at least there seems to be some will still left to help everyone in need.

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