Darwin was a great composer of metaphors, of which "natural selection" is the best known. Today, few are aware of negative responses from scientists uncomfortable with Darwin's imagery. One of these was Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-originator of evolution by natural selection.
"Wallace remarked, in his article Mr Darwin's Metaphors Liable to Misconception (1868), that the Malthusian progressions and struggle for existence were self-evident "facts". Yet because natural selection seemed to personify a perceptive and forward-thinking selector, or god, he urged Darwin to replace the term with "survival of the fittest". [See also here]
Darwin, however, had brushed him off. "Everyone knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions," he had demurred. "And they are almost necessary for brevity"."
Does "natural selection" have the dominant role in unravelling Darwin's entangled bank? (source here)
In a perceptive essay, Daniel Todes focuses attention on the reactions of Russian biologists to Darwin's writings. Many of these naturalists "were evolutionists before 1859", so they did not dissent from common ancestry. However, their experiences of the living world were quite different from Darwin and Wallace, who drew their inspiration from densely populated tropical forests and related habitats. They witnessed a struggle for existence that matched the description Thomas Malthus had given of human communities. Using the same logic, Darwin and Wallace were stimulated to think about winners and losers in populations of animals and plants. The Russian scientists lived in a different world.
[They] "investigated a vast under-populated continental plain. For them, nature was not an "entangled bank" - the image Darwin took from the Brazilian jungle. It was a largely empty Siberian expanse in which overpopulation was rare and only the struggle of organisms against a harsh environment was dramatic."
The Russian response to living in a harsh environment was to develop "the language of communalism - stressing not individual initiative and struggle, but the importance of cooperation within social groups and the virtues of social harmony." The analysis of Malthus did not match the biological communities in their part of the world, so Darwin's metaphor of the "struggle for existence" was not, in their view, well grounded.
"Russian political commentators of the left, right and centre reviled Malthus as an apologist for predatory capitalism and soulless individualism." [. . .]
"[F]ew Russians shared Darwin and Wallace's respect for Malthus, and [. . .] many saw the struggle for existence as an infusion of the British enthusiasm for individualistic competition into natural science. Darwin's theory, as Danilevskii put it, was a "purely English doctrine"."
Dissent did not apply just to the "struggle for existence" metaphor. Natural selection was equally controversial. The Russians wanted to give more emphasis to concepts like the "harmony of nature" and "cooperation". Many of them advocated "the theory of mutual aid". Indeed, Todes says that it became a "staple of Russian evolutionary thought".
"Darwin too had called attention to such cooperation, but the theory of mutual aid went further. It held that the central aspect of the struggle for existence is an organism's struggle with abiotic conditions, that organisms join forces in this struggle, that such mutual aid is favoured by natural selection, and that cooperation so vitiated intraspecific competition as to render it unimportant in the origin of new species."
This essay highlights issues which have been discussed often by design-orientated scientists. These are identified below.
1. Scientific criticism of natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism. It will come as a surprise to many that dissent about the role of natural selection comes from within science. Such dissent was present in Darwin's day and it is still significant. This blog has drawn attention to relevant papers here and here. Those who portray requests for a 'critical evaluation of the role of natural selection' as religiously motivated are living in denial of history and are undermining the integrity of science.
2. Scientific analysis of harmony within the natural world. Due to the dominance of Darwinism, ecological studies have been imbalanced. Evidences of populations regulating their own numbers and of cooperative behaviour have been underplayed or reinterpreted in terms of a "struggle for survival".
3. Science is not a culture-free discipline. Objectivity is a worthy aspiration but it cannot be fully realised because scientists are unaware of most of the cultural norms they bring to their work. Since many aspects of culture are linked to religious/secular convictions, it is absurd when individuals and organisations try to set up demarcation arguments to separate science from ideology (whether religious or atheistic).
"Researchers bring their life experiences and culture with them into the field and laboratory, and in the course of their investigations actively originate, interpret, develop and reject metaphorical pathways. As is shown by the reception of Darwin's theory in Russia, the deployment and criticism of metaphors are part of the ineffably human process by which scientists mobilise their experiences and values to explore the infinite complexity of nature."
Global Darwin: Contempt for competition
Nature 462, 36-37 (5 November 2009) | doi:10.1038/462036a (restricted access here)
Darwin's idea of the 'struggle for existence' struck a chord with his fellow countrymen. But Russians rejected the alien metaphor, says Daniel Todes, in the second of four weekly pieces on reactions to evolutionary theory.
Todes, D.P. Darwin's Malthusian Metaphor and Russian Evolutionary Thought, 1859-1917, Isis, 78(4), December 1987, 537-551
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