Initiating a profound shift in the way that we understand the natural world and our place in it, Charles Darwin is perhaps the most distinguished scientist of the last few hundred years.
Continuing the rise of science and the corresponding decline in the power of the “church”, Darwin’s theory of natural selection told us that the diversity and complexity of life resulted not from divine intervention as was previously thought, but from natural processes associated with how organisms interact with each other and with their surrounds.
As with most great ideas, at its core, Darwin’s theory is very simple, and once grasped, appears obvious and logical. Essentially, the theory is that as a population of organisms progresses from generation to generation, chance variations or mutations occur. Some of these variations will be advantageous to the individual carrying them, and this will mean that the individual is more likely to breed than its companions and therefore pass on the variation to subsequent generations.
In this way we can see that as time progresses, a population of organisms will continue to evolve. We can also see that because of the chance nature of variations, two isolated populations of the same species will invariably change in different ways, and will eventually become different species.
While there is, I believe, an essential truth in the concept of natural selection, we can also recognise a significant error in Darwin’s thought, and this error has had important implications for how we conceptualise ourselves and the natural world.
To understand this error, we need to take a look at the broader belief systems of the post-enlightenment era in which Darwin postulated his theory. In short, Darwin can be understood to fit within a pattern of popular theorists who across a range of subjects stressed the separateness of the individual entity.
Rene Descartes, beginning his analysis with “I think therefore I am”, told us that human consciousness is forever separate from the surrounding nature, and that our goal (through reductionist science) is to conquer that nature. Continuing this theme, Isaac Newton describing the material universe as a machine made up of separate atoms that move around bumping into one another.
Hobbes described a war with “each against all others” as the starting point for the compromise which results in civilised society. Adam Smith described competition between (separate) self-interested parties as the engine of a healthy economy. Freud described the emotions of isolation, the drive toward physical pleasure and away from fear, as central to the human condition. Etc.
Into this pattern popped Charles Darwin, and with the tide swimming strongly in favour of this “separatism” (my term), it is little wonder that Darwin would stress competition between individual organisms as the driver behind the processes of natural selection. This competition came to be known as “survival of the fittest”.
I am fully aware that many of you will be protesting to yourself right now that survival of the fittest is not about competition. Instead, it is about whatever is best suited to the situation. This may involve traits that enable an organism to dominate its environment, but it can also involve the capacity to engage in symbiotic and co-operative relationships. If an organism will benefit most by acting co-operatively, it is variations that help enable that co-operation that will facilitate the best chance of survival.
I agree with you. Darwin saw that as well as fighting with one another, organisms will also work together for mutual benefit. For Darwin, however, any co-operation between organisms was just a junior player; a subcategory of the all-important competition for survival. Darwin saw co-operation within the biological realm in a similar way to how Hobbes viewed human society; as a compromise between essentially self-interested individuals.
Darwin even expressed some sadness that he should conceive of nature in such a brutal light. In the Origin of Species, he wrote, “Nothing is easier to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult - at least I have found it so - than to constantly bear this conclusion in mind”.
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