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by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. (R)evolution. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, August:7–8.

Approximately 200 years ago, the French underwent a revolution in which they cast off their monarchy and became a democratic republic of sorts. I haven't studied the revolution in any great detail—in fact, until fairly recently, my shoddy background in history had led me to believe that this revolution had preceded that of the Americans. [Alas, 'tis true. An inability to remember dates and keep things in order was one reason I didn't adopt history as my profession.—GH] Fortunately, my extracurricular reading has cured many of the deficiencies of a public school education. What is fascinating about the French revolution, albeit in a grotesque way, is the reign of terror that followed. If Marie Antoinette truly said "Let them eat cake!", then the revolutionary equivalent was "Let them eat guillotine!" How could a revolution whose motto was "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" have been followed by such a bloody aftermath?

Much has been made about the idea that cultures and societies "evolve" over time. In fact, this is a central tenet of certain political philosophies; Marxism, for example, assumes that there is an inevitable social evolution from capitalism towards communism. I am certainly not the first writer to comment on the similarity between human social change and the biological process of evolution. I do, however, like to think that I came up with the idea independantly, even if this amounts to reinventing the wheel. But the wheel remains in use and will for some time, and an idea remains worth whatever can be drawn from it. Let's see what can be drawn from this one.

The process of biological evolution involves a gradual change that occurs in nature. New species evolve from old as a result of many years of gradual, cumulative changes. Mutations in the genetic component of the organism drive this force, but it is worthy of note that drastic, revolutionary mutations are more often lethal to the organism than subtler, less dramatic changes. Organisms need time to adapt to changes, and nature is always ready to weed out those changes that are too sudden to allow the organism time to adjust. An overly simplistic description of the process, perhaps, but sufficient to communicate its essence and to give us a starting point for our analogy. In a similar manner, societies change over the course of time. Some changes occur dramatically, over a short period of time, whereas others take decades or centuries. Take, as examples, the American and Russian revolutions.

A little more than 200 years ago, depending on how you wish to assign a starting date to the process, the American people threw off the yoke of their British colonial masters. The process was a bloody one, causing great damage; in this way, it was analogous to a sudden and drastic mutation in a living organism, albeit not a fatal change. Major changes occurred in the social organism that resulted from this particular mutation: "government by the people and for the people" was one of the most important to the people of that time. That this revolution became part of the folklore of the Americans was perhaps inevitable, as it was a "genetic change" that occurred and that remains a part of those people to this day. [The modern concept of how ideas evolve and are transmitted uses the concept of a meme, and idea that can replicate and evolve the same way that genes do.—GH] It's interesting to speculate that the tendency of American governments to resolve international problems through a show of force resulted directly from the experience that violent change (indeed, the use of violence to resolve a problem) is, or can be, good for the social organism. Nonetheless, despite the drastic nature of the change, the benefits of the American system are unmistakable: perhaps the most-free society on Earth, and virtually unbounded opportunity.

In the language of our analogy, the Russian revolution was also a sudden, dramatic mutation in the structure of society. (If you are a McCarthyite, you might extend this analogy to the sudden growth of a cancer. I am not a McCarthyite, so I won't belabor the point.) The result of the mutation was a major change in the social organism of that part of the world: what was once a monarchy became a socialist state. Even this is somewhat simplistic, for if Stalin was not a dictator, what else could he have been? But the change occurred, and despite the easily enumerated drawbacks, there were a few benefits to the social organism; for example, a universal system of employment and health care. (Incidentally, this is about as far as this particular comparison can be carried. No comparison of the American and Soviet systems is implied or intended.)

As an example of the gradual and cumulative evolutionary changes that occur in organisms and societies, let us consider the development of Canadian independence in contrast to the two revolutionary examples just discussed. Our own revolt (if that is not too strong a word) against England came more slowly, and our independence came nearly a century later than that of the Americans (yet before the Russians, it should be noted). Looking back, this change occurred about as bloodlessly as is possible considering the nature of mankind. But although the change was delayed by 100 years after the American change, I have a hard time seeing how the results differ in their essentials. American and Canadian society differ in countless small ways (Ah! The inevitable cue for another essay!), but the similarities are overwhelming. An evolutionary change produced the same result as a revolutionary one, over a longer period of time, yet with far less human suffering involved. In fact, apart from the angst experienced by Royalists and the more dedicated Anglophiles, there was little about the experience that is worthy of the phrase "trauma". This might be typical of how Canadians are seen worldwide: not even exciting enough to have had our own bloody revolution.

If I've given the impression that I am glorifying the Canadian example, then this is largely correct. I have given much thought to the Canadian political and social situation, and I have tried to find somewhere else that I would rather live. I have failed, and I feel this is because Canadians have been blessed with what is, realistically, the best of all existing alternatives. Utopias don't exist in the real world, and Canada is no paradise. We have many inequities in society, and there are many things that each of us would like to see changed. But I see this as a dynamic process, one that will take generations. Evolutionary change, if you like. There is a temptation to impose a drastic change to correct a bad situation, and there is certainly no lack of bad situations we could try to correct. But my reading of history, condensed severely to the few examples I have given here, suggests that the revolutionary change is often the worst of the two alternatives, and that the evolutionary alternative will often produce the same result, with less suffering.

The analogy of revolutionary versus evolutionary change, as with all analogies, is manifestly imperfect. Indeed, it is a fairly shoddy example of social theorizing that would not be taken seriously by most modern historians. There is even a school of thought about modern evolutionary theory that suggests the possibility that evolutionary change occurs in a series of dramatic jumps rather than in the smooth series of changes proposed by the traditional theory. [This is Stephen Jay Gould's famous "punctuated equilibrium"—GH] In all likelihood, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes, and the historical example of social change does seem to imply a mixture of evolution and revolution. But the importance of the analogy—indeed, of the idea—is what we make of it. When we consider the suffering that has come from well-meaning attempts to resolve a problem in a revolutionary fashion, I can see few good reasons for opting for a revolutionary change in most instances; there's enough human suffering in the world already without adding to it by ill-advised drastic and violent changes. Most revolutionaries ignore this concept, seeming to feel that the suffering of their people (rarely of themselves) makes the change worthwhile. I doubt the people feel the same way.

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