Natural Selection and "The Survival of the Fittest"

The step from the Struggle for Existence to Natural selection is a small one: if there is variation between organisms and only some survive, those with variations beneficial to the conditions are more likely to prosper. Correspondingly "any variations in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed." So, says Darwin, "This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection." Over one generation the change is slight and imperceptible, but over thousands upon thousands of generation distinct modification becomes apparent. The human inability to grasp the lengths of time involved has been one stumbling block for the comprehension of evolution, but Darwin draws a parallel with geology (a subject he returns to time and time again throughout Origin): "I am well aware that this doctrine of natural selection... is open to the same objections which were at first urged against Sir Charles Lyell's noble views on 'the modern changes of the earth, as illustrative of geology'; but we now seldom hear the action, for instance, of the coast-waves, called a trifling and insignificant cause, when applied to the excavation of gigantic valleys or to the formation of the longest lines of inland cliffs. Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being." Even accepting this, it does remain sometimes hard to grasp how the most complex and useful structures could have arisen purely through the tiniest changes generation upon generation. Darwin referred to the very fact that it does occur as 'climbing mount improbable', a phrase Richard Dawkins picks up for the title of one of his many books on the subject of evolution. Dawkins notes that evolution is still beset by criticism based purely on what he calls 'arguments of personal incredulity'. As Darwin writes, "The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effect of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations." But these slight variations are nonetheless powerful: "A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die, - which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct."

Man had already demonstrated what was capable of being achieved through Artificial Selection, and nature "having incomparably longer time at her disposal" than man is far more effective in producing biological change than human breeders. Moreover, "Man can act only on external and visible characters: Nature... can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends." This sort of language led some readers of Origin to imbue an agency into 'Nature' that Darwin did not intend, and in the third edition of the book he took the trouble to point out that while "it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature... I mean by Nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us." But still there occasionally remains the idea of improvement, of betterment, of progress. Try as he might, Darwin sometimes found it had to escape the language that embodied the ideas and preconceptions of 'progress' that defined so much of Victorian thinking. But he is no more guilty than modern popularisers of evolution are with their copious use of metaphor, Dawkins' 'Selfish Gene' being a prime example.

A conclusion drawn by Darwin that could be seen to perhaps reflect Victorian values is his solution to the thorny problem of apparent altruism in the animal world. Darwin raises the example of the bee: there are sterile workers that will not individually succeed in the Struggle for Existence, and when a bee stings protecting the hive it will perish. Darwin's solution is that with regard to social animals natural selection "will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the community; if each in consequence profits from by the selected change." Darwin had already established that the Struggle for Existence is not unremittingly savage, but his solution does not appear as communistic: the benefit of the community is only a success so long as it leads to benefits to the individuals. This was an attitude at home in a culture that prized individual self-improvement and entrepreneurism, but also extolled the communal good of civilised society. Interestingly, H.G. Wells, one of the first writers to successfully integrate Darwinian themes into his fiction, paints in The War of the Worlds (1898) a frightening picture of how the natural urges of self-interest can take over from the societal conditioning in times of crisis.

However, with regard to Origin and its 'Victorian' concerns, whilst accepting the influence of social and political trends on scientific theorising, there is a danger of overstating this sort of case. For one, the

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