We are all lab rats now

When I saw in the headlines that all 50 states are in the process of reopening their economies, I thought about that moment in my life, as a senior in college, when I decided that I no longer wanted to run rats in mazes. I had enough credits in my major to obtain my bachelor of science degree in experimental psychology, but I was done torturing rats. 

Or so I thought, because right now we are all lab rats, the “subjects” in an unprecedentedly large experiment in Social Darwinism being conducted by our elected officials. And it is our lives they are playing with. Or, I should say, that we ourselves are playing with, if we grant that these officials are properly representing us and what we supposedly want right now, after months of restrictions, which is to have those restrictions on our actions and movements lifted so that we can return to “normal” lives.  

Here is the experiment: a certain number of us are going to be allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to get sick and die, so that the vast majority can enjoy a better life. So what if those who are to die are elderly, or are disproportionately from the minorities, or are too poor to obtain adequate medical care? Those will be interesting data points for the experimenters.   

So good luck to us all! We’re going to need it. Because the experimental design is flawed; for one thing, it does not say how many of us will need to die before the experiment is called off. We are now at around 100,000 deaths in the U.S. — a third of one percent of our population, which by Social Darwinist calculations is an acceptable loss rate. 

Social Darwinism arose in the second half of the 19th century, when Charles Darwin’s work was somewhat misinterpreted in the slogan, “survival of the fittest,” a term coined by Herbert Spencer, a widely admired social scientist and philosopher of the time. In his faulty misappropriation of Darwin’s observations of animals to speak of human animals, he taught that the strong will drive out the weak, and that this is the proper — read scientific — thing for them to do, since it is the way of biology. Social Darwinism led directly to eugenics and to the excesses of Hitler’s attempts to exterminate the Jews so that his master of race of Aryans could repopulate the earth. 

Social Darwinism was thought to have been extinguished after World War II. It has been making a comeback. In the guise of enhanced nationalism it has been closing borders throughout the world; and it is hiding behind the stance of “realism,” which preaches that countries need to be very tough to prevail. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has now provided Social Darwinism with its greatest opportunity to go mainstream. 

The trigger is the dictates of modern capitalism. 

The “fast-openers” of our country believe that the health of our supercharged capitalist economy is dependent on very high individual consumption levels of non-essential goods. To get our GDP humming along again at 2%-3% growth a year, and to keep our stock markets booming, we all need to be eating in restaurants, going to movies and concerts and ball games and gambling palaces, flying to vacations, buying new clothes, becoming addicted to more electronic toys, etc.  The fear — and it is a very reasonable fear — is that if the economy does not return to full blast, and fairly soon, the whole country will fall into an economic slough comparable in size and duration to that of the Great Depression of the 1930s.   

The logic is palpable:  Continued substantial unemployment will produce, among other things, more rapid depletion of the Social Security fund; cascading real estate bankruptcies that will not only hit large landlords but will also sap the sale prices of individual homes; nonpayment of tuitions, and diminished student bodies that will force downsizing of many colleges and universities; and greater pressure on social service systems that are already overwhelmed — to name just a few likely results. 

To avoid the presumed catastrophes of not reopening, we all must now become lab rats in this experiment. So let’s be clear about what is going on. While our public officials will do some hand-wringing about the deaths that will occur on their watch, make no mistake about it, they as experimenters are practicing Social Darwinism, and in this experiment they are determined not to hamper the strong, even for another few months, just to preserve the health and life of the not-so-strong. 


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.

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