Monday, October 8, 2007

Struggle For Existence

I take exception to the label of Darwinism, or Darwinist (as opposed to Darwinian), when applied to the theory of evolution. There is some evidence that these commonly pejorative and somewhat loaded terms are not contemporaneous to Mr. Darwin, and have mainly come about as a result of people applying certain evolutionary principles to other aspects of life and society. Chief among these borrowed lines of reasoning is "Survival of the Fittest," which we are introduced to early in the chapter. Although now strongly linked to Darwin in the public imagination, Darwin himself tells us that he copped the phrase from one Herbert Spencer. Somehow I think that the theory of evolution would be better off, if Darwin had come upon the sense to give it back before he went to print. Although the two terms are not now commonly thought of as synonymous, Darwin adopted Survival of the Fittest as a "more accurate, and [...] sometimes equally convenient" replacement for "Natural Selection." As one might have guessed, Natural Selection can be contrasted with the concept of artificial or intentional selection, the means by which mankind deliberately picks and chooses traits that are to our liking, and enhances these through our ability to control breeding in captive and/or domesticated populations. In any event, Survival of the Fittest is the intersection of the facts that populations in the wild are not static - they are subject to variations in both individuals and groups, and that whenever there is competition between organisms or limitations in the environment, a "Struggle for Existence" as Darwin labels it, that competition favors those that show the best adaptations for the environmental niche that they inhabit.

While many people interpret the phrase Struggle for Existence to indicate a dog-eat-dog world where the alleged "Law of the Jungle" rules, and it's every man for himself, this is a such a gross oversimplification that it borders on the willfully obtuse. There are three distinct facets to the Struggle for Existence, as Darwin explains it - competition within a species, competition between species, and mitigating the hostile effects of one's environment. While murdering one's neighbors in their sleep and looting their stored resources may win you points in the first category, it can actively torpedo you (and your whole group or species) in the other two, when you find yourself in a situation where your neighbors' skills (or genetic diversity) are required. Thus I find the common anti-evolutionary argument that adopting the Darwinian view of Evolution requires one to be murderously pseudo-Machiavellian, always on the lookout for any advantage that might allow one's genes to dominate humanity to be not only unconvincing, but laughably moronic.

Thomas Malthus is sort of a "guest star" in this chapter, as Darwin postulates that completely unrestricted life and breeding of any lifeform would (reasonably) quickly result in whatever it was outstripping the resources that it required to survive, resulting in a Malthusian Catastrophe of starvation and/or overcrowding. Since it's not possible for everything to live a full and (reproductively) productive life, this sets up a competition. In an "ideal" world with unlimited resources and lacking untimely deaths, every living species can manage to reproduce far faster than is required to maintain the rate of replacement, no matter how slow their natural reproductive cycles are. This level of geometric increase (I term I understand is also borrowed from Malthus) is held in check by the three facets of the struggle, which Darwin deals with over the rest of the chapter. Darwin simply discusses what is, either from his own or others' observations, or from some simple and effective experiments. He doesn't seem to bother putting forth the idea that this is how it SHOULD be. There is no discussion of fairness or justice, or of one population being somehow better than another. As he moves from competition with the environment, to competition with other species, to competition within species, we arrive at the meat of how species evolve, in the next chapter: Natural Selection.

No comments: