Thursday, September 23, 2010

Darwin: Sometimes it must be the strongest that die and the weakest that live

Who are those that are the strongest? In Medieval times (for example) it was those of the upper class. Those who had access to resources as a result of their social standing. While it remains that those peasants who farmed vigorously and worked the land would have great chance at survival, what would happen in times of drought or famine? In these cases it was not those strong ones who survived (necessarily) as with a lack of food and an increase in population – as Malthus so readily points out – it does not matter ones strength and ability in adaptation to survive. Rather, it is those of the upper classes who had access to storage houses and such (along with the capital to obtain such) that survived. Is this survival of the fittest? If by fittest, Darwin refers to those who had the upper hand in society and benefited from such, then yes it is. However, this does not stand true under his statement of allowing the strongest to live and the weakest to die. A weak king or queen would survive, and their lineage would as well due to the fact that they were undoubtedly privileged in society while those who were strong and could endure the elements, would die out. Queen Victoria of England (r. 1837-1901) for whose namesake the ‘Victorian Era’ takes after, had hemophilia – a recessive blood disease that does not allow blood cells to clot. This was a very dangerous disease and Queen Victoria feared it was hereditary for her descendants. She did pass this disease along and her progeny did suffer from it. In this case, the weakest survived.
Likewise, along the topic of my general thesis, simply allowing the strongest to live and the weakest to die, does not account for the varying complexity of the human condition. How Darwinism relates to -humanity in this aspect is not well rounded enough. During the Reign of Queen Mary I of England (r. 1553 – 1558) she did not earn the reputation of ‘Bloody Mary’ for nothing. Many Protestant believers were burned at the stake throughout the Catholic Queen’s reign of terror. In this case, the question of strongest or weakest was not a question. While I acknowledge that this is not natural selection at work within nature, it does counter the statement that the strongest will live and the weakest will die. In my opinion, it takes a much stronger man to die for something he believes in. Yes, Natural Selection is a force within nature, however, throughout history, the human condition has been affected and shaped by more than mere nature. The notion of ‘advancement’ that Darwin speaks of throughout his Origins accounts for so much more than simply strength and weakness; humanism is a multifaceted machine, a regenerative movement and an ever progressive system of being.
To use one of Darwin’s examples himself, where would the peacocks be if only the strongest survived? The dominant males who fought off all others in order to win the females? If those strongest were to live while the weakest were to die that would be fine. However, this then, does not account for the colour and adornment that the peacock feathers indicate. Darwin justifies this by advancing his theory of sexual selection. That being said, it is not merely a question of strength and weakness anymore but rather, a question of outside appearance. The relevance of this is twofold; first, now one does not merely need to be strong in order to survive – they can parade themselves and win a mate and thus sexual selection has allowed the weak to live on and furthermore, reproduce. Secondly, should the peacock choose a mate based on ornamentation, this refutes another theme that Darwin advances – that “Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances” (Darwin, 53). Therefore, ‘strongest’ and ‘weakest’ are very fluid concepts and cannot be used as absolutes as Darwin in fact tries to do.

Info on Queen Victoria:

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