Monday, December 17, 2007

Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection

In this chapter, Mr. Darwin selects and tackles a number of objections to the Theory of Natural Selection raised by others. It's interesting to note that right off the bat he declines to be bothered with people whom he feels haven't bothered to actually acquaint themselves with the theory before embarking on criticisms. (I, for my part, am reading this book from the opposite perspective - since once cannot very well defend, or otherwise intelligently speak to, a work that one hasn't actually read.) It's also a safe bet that had Darwin attempted to answer every possible critic of his, he would have needed another 670 pages, devoted just to that alone.

In structure, this chapter is somewhat dull. Darwin rattles off some critique raised by some or another noted scientist of his time (one Mr. St. George Mivart seeming to be his chief critic), and then proceeds to explain why he feels that the particular objection is off the mark. Hardly a rousing read, unless one is really into this sort of thing, which I am not. But again, there are some really wonderful insights into the period to be gleaned, and it's an interesting look into how people of the time thought of things. The evolution of organisms over time is clearly seen as a progressive force, with later editions of a species moving towards some standard of perfection. This is a notion that doesn't seem to be so prevalent today. It's also worth noting that Darwin doesn't see Natural Selection as being an agent of change - but merely the mechanism by which certain changes become fixed. Other changes may occur on their own, and as long as there is no particular reason why Natural Selection would act against them, they could very well stick around.

Darwin also deals with one of the most tiresome questions of any discussion of evolution - "Why hasn't such-and-such an animal evolved into some other sort of animal?" (In the modern world, ninety-seven times out of one hundred, it's because the person asking the question is an idiot, wanting to know something stupid like "Why haven't humans evolved wings?" or something else equally inane.) In the end, it's about competition. Someone once asked me why monkeys hadn't evolved to displace us yet. The answer is simple - with humans already on the scene, monkeys aren't going to be able to get to a place where they can beat us at our own game. The way I see it, primates would have about one generation to go from wild animals to "Planet of the Apes," because if it took any longer, we'd see the threat, and deal with it. Most primates are better off where they are, as masters of the ecological niches they inhabit, where humans (while they might be a threat to the ecosystem) are not direct competition.

Whether Darwin manages to answer all of the criticisms raised convincingly is not for me to answer. I would say yes, but I'm biased, and I also understand that I have insights into the goings-on of life that the scientific community of a century and a half ago didn't have access to. Hence it is perhaps easier for me to quit the realm of miracle for that of science than it was for some of Darwin's forgotten contemporaries.

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