Charles Darwin - evolution and adaptation
First Year English – Legacy of the Meditteranean
Prof. Margaret Vandenburg
Draft 1 – Charles Darwin
April 15th, 2014.
Darwin’s definition of progress in terms of adaptation and evolution
In his papers, Charles Darwin emphasizes the ‘quality of species’ rather than the ‘quality of life’. Darwin presents to readers that each kind of living thing is or is becoming exquisitely adapted both to other living things and to its physical environment. However, several species existing in the world today have been modified in order to acquire “perfection of structure and coadaptation”. This perfection of structure seems to imply that every species makes progress as it moves toward this idealistic perfection. According to Darwin, perfection is achieved through the famous ‘survival of the fittest’, the idea that species adapt and change by natural selection with the best suited mutations becoming dominant. The phrase "Survival of the fittest" is sometimes claimed to be a tautology. The reasoning is that if one takes the term "fit" to mean "endowed with phenotypic characteristics which improve chances of survival and reproduction" then "survival of the fittest" can simply be rewritten as "survival of those who are better equipped for surviving". (Spencer). Darwin has been criticized in the past due to his ambivalence towards evolutionary progress and his failure to incorporate it into his theory of human evolution. However, Darwin claims again and again, that due to the unceasing work of natural selection, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” Even though Darwin was skeptic about his views on progressionism and made an attempt to break away from it there are times when his words implied otherwise.
Species may evolve but they don’t necessarily progress. Darwin points out that the Feugian’s he met on his voyage “enjoy[ed] a sufficient share of happiness, of whatever kind it may be, to render life worth having.” Their wants didn’t exceed their needs and they were content with what they had already achieved. Darwin states that, “Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals; for it is not improved by experience: the canoe, their most ingenious work, poor as it is, has remained the same, as we know from Drake, for the last two hundred and fifty years.” This once again shows the unprogressive attitude of the Feugians, who without determination to explore and invent wouldn’t move forward once they were satisfied with subsistence.
While claiming this point Darwin also reiterates the fact that the Feugians, who were the savages were evolving mentally. Human Beings were considered to be the most superior of all species, with the ‘civilized ones’ at the top of this chain. Even though the ‘savages’ were essentially all human beings, they are assumed a negative connation when Darwin, “can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures.” Furthermore, he claims that,
It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.
Savages are shown inferior to ‘civilized men’ of their own species, highlighting Darwin’s theory of struggle among species. They are portrayed synonymous to animals who were considered inferior to men in every way.
However, this statement is contradicted when these ‘savages’ readily showed a capacity to become civilized.
“They could repeat with perfect correctness each word in every sentence we addressed them, and they remembered such words for some time. Yet we Europeans all know how difficult it is to distinguish apart the sounds in a foreign language. Which of us, for instance, could follow an American Indian through a sentence of more than three words? All savages appear to possess, to an uncommon degree, this power of mimicry.”
This comparison of the knowledge of savages versus civilized men hihlights the superiority of the savages. The choice of the word, ‘appear’ implies that savages only seemed superior to the civilized humans but because the civilized humans actually ‘appeared’ superior due to their tidy looks and clothes, they possessed a certain hierarchy to the savages. This could be a reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the monster was lower on the hierarchy because he ‘appeared’ ugly. Darwin thus emphasized human unity and dwelt upon superficial differences, while acquiescing in the contemporary assumption that some races were superior to others.
Does appearance qualify as superiority then? If perfection is superiority then superiority should be determined by survival of the fittest. Civilized men are considered most superior because they are considered, ‘most evolved.’
However, “Man by selection can certainly produce great results,and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. – natural selection superior to man’s efforts.”
Men don’t adapt to their natural environment and attack the savages because civilized men would lose. As we go higher up the hierarchy species in their natural environments become weaker as they cant fight or defend without, ‘the accumulation of slight but useful variations’ such as ‘the dreaded fire arms.’ Technologically, civilized men were more evolved than the savages whose best invention was the canoe. However, independent of their extensions or variations of weapons, bare handed civilized men were weak. The artificial extensions used by men only appear to make ‘civilized men’ superior to other species thriving bare handed in their natural environments. Further more, these extensions are used only to destruct in order to weaken other species in their natural habitats, but still they are considered as a means of progress for the civilized men. In the Descent of Man, Darwin even states that the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Destruction is inevitable.
“ A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or beings, must suffer destruction during some period in its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product.”
Without destruction and the struggle for survival there would be an abundance of species. However, with civilized men having added advantages of fire arms, there could be an over abundance of destruction which would eventually lead to the monopoly of just one invincible species. Destruction is necessary for progress in the case that, ‘The flesh of the animal is largely employed, both fresh and salted, and a beautifully clear oil is prepared from the fat,” as this contributes to the food chain. When destruction is not caused by a beast of pray but instead with the use of fire arms to annihilate forests to build infrastructure, there is a sudden destruction of indigenous species and natural habitats that can never be reclaimed.
“So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the durations of the forms of life.”
The increase in technology and decrease of the natural environment around us is not progressive when the only means of adaptation is through destruction. Evolution is not adaptive and therefore makes species destructive. Maybe species were meant to be immortal but the constant destruction and struggle amongst every species leads to ‘cataclysms’ which eventually lead to species surrendering and dying. These gradual deaths of the different endurance levels of certain species then form lifetimes or life limits. Therefore even though destruction is intended toward progression it is an advance toward the death of species around the world and could eventually curb even evolution. It could be possible that Darwin’s references to progress and perfection were more rhetorical strategies than science and that he was trying to fly under the radar of religion and other potential lenses espousing man as what Shakespeare originally called the ‘paragon of animals’.
Darwin was heavily influenced by William Paley whose Natural Theology confidently argued that nature contains “every manifestation of design…[that] design must have had a designer … That designer must have been a person [and] that person is God." Christianity for Darwin was primarily a proof to be established and Paley did that admirably. On his voyages, Darwin’s emerging theories begin to undermine these ideas, it undermined the Christianity built on them. Evolution wrecked special creation, but the idea that God had made each species spearetely was more appealing. But was it not grander to see all life emerging through a continuos process of law – governed evolution than o believe that “since the time of the Silurian [God] has made a long succession of vile molluscous animals"? Special creation was nothing to boast about. Suffering, however, was a problem. Natural selection emphasised the ubiquity and apparent necessity of suffering in the natural world and for someone who had been brought up on William Paley's "happy world … [of] delighted existence" this was a serious issue. In his ‘Origin of Species’ Darwin balanced the extraordinary grandeur of life with the pain inherent in natural selection.
"From death, famine, rapine, and the concealed war of nature we can see that the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals has directly come."
If "higher animals" – with all their splendour and sophistication, their grace and their grandeur, ultimately their minds, metaphysics and morality – if they were indeed "the highest good, which we can conceive" then maybe evolution by natural selection was not simply compatible with the idea of God but actively supportive of it. Everything hung on how the scales balanced between life's grandeur and its potential for grief. Progress is defined as ‘the movement to a further or higher stage.’ Evolution through adaptation could be considered progressive, as species evolve into more complex beings in their natural habitats, but evolution through destruction can not be considered progress. Even though man may be progressing economically, and accelerating on the chain of being. Charles Darwin cited the Fuegians as evidence to support of his two-fold thesis, that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped” and that “we are descended from barbarians”. Therefore the descent of man could be considered progressive but it’s also a fall from grace, as men use their power to reason to destroy ‘less beings’. Darwin concluded that while progress was not inevitable or the result of any innate tendency, it was general and the somewhat chancy product of the manifold operations of natural selection. To render Darwin’s theory as bereft or antithetic to the notion of organic and social progress is to make him into a thoroughly modern neo-Darwinian, which he certainly was not.