Thursday, September 16, 2010

Darwin's Fatal Flaw?

Darwin’s The Origin of Species is undoubtedly one the 19th century’s most influential works. It’s concision and the exceedingly rational progression of its authors argument leave, this student at least, at a loss as to an entry point for criticism. This said I am bothered about some of the books fundamental assumptions and one in particular, which seems to undermine the strength of Darwin’s theory as a whole. This concern arises from Darwin’s refusal or inability to include and apply his theory to humanity preferring to place the species above or outside of its scope. To illustrate the effect that such an omission may have on his theory as a whole I would like to look at this omission in relations to The Origins third chapter: “The Struggle for Existence.” Were Darwin alive today he might very well give his forehead a resounding slap: for all our supposed intelligence, we are yet bound by the same rules that govern even the most humble of single celled organisms.
Darwin takes up Malthus’s well known theory of the “Geometrical ratio of increase” in populations early in chapter III and also goes over, at some length, the supposed nature of the checks that keep any given organism from quickly spreading to a point at which it covers the entire face of the earth. To me it seems that Darwin exempts humankind from this “law” out of hand, offering only the weak arguments of the “artificial increase of food and . . . prudential restraint from marriage.” Perhaps it was optimistic thinking on the part of Darwin that food production would continue to outstrip the demand from a population that continues to grow geometrically, perhaps he never considered the difficulties distribution. Whatever the case may be one thing is clear well over a century after publishing his theory the human population has in now part stabilized; even after two world wars and innumerable regional ones, after mass famines and worldwide epidemics humanity has continued to expand at a geometric rate, with no end in sight.
For all of Darwin’s empiricism he is still very much a Christian: underlying his theory is a belief that there is a deity who has set all in motion, who has placed man at the very pinnacle of “creation,” and who continues to direct a mysterious yet benign master plan. I would argue that the books Christian underpinning is subtle, yet ubiquitous, even deliberate. Take for example the final sentence of the 3rd chapter which reads: “we may
console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” By attempting to “console” his contemporary readers that there is indeed some ultimate plan to the seemingly endless strife in nature Darwin makes what are obviously wildly erroneous statements that contradict his own theory: the vigorous and healthy do not always survive but rather have an increased chance of doing so, and the happy? I’ll let you decide.
Darwin’s adherence to Christian doctrine which places Humanity above and beyond all other species leads him into what I see as a possible flaw in his theory: his failure to include Humanity in among “organic species.” Chapter three discusses in detail the “complex relations of all animals and plants to each other in the struggle for existence.” Darwin cites many examples as to how events occurring to seemingly unconnected species of flora and fauna can have serious and lasting effects upon one another. The importance of the interconnection of life leads Darwin to state that “the relation of organism to organism is the most is the most important of all relations” (chapter heading). If it is the relation between organisms that is so important how then is Darwin to understand any species without an understanding of how they are affected and affect the world’s dominant one? Although perhaps not fatal to the theory of natural selection, we can here see at least a large lacuna in his thinking.
Darwin’s theory and research may place him on the cusp separating the naturalist the 19th century from the biologist of the 20th and this certainly marks him as a man ahead of his time. However, Darwin perhaps pulls up short of following his research through to its ultimate conclusion: whereas biology is the study of individual or groups of organisms, ecology is the study of the interrelationship of living organisms and their environments which seems a much more accurate description of what Darwin is after. Darwin may have been a man ahead of his time, but perhaps by less than one might think.

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