In this video, we will explore Charles Darwin’s seminal work on evolution titled, On the Origin of Species, and hopefully dispel some of the confusion surrounding his ideas. For example, many people mistakenly regard Darwin’s theory of evolution as a declaration that life is progressing towards a perfect species. The phrase – ‘survival of the fittest’ – is responsible for this mistake. In common usage, the word – ‘fit’ – has positive connotations; being fit is better than being unfit. However, in the realm of Darwinian evolution, being the fittest simply means being the best adapted to a particular environment. If an environment favors weak, cowardly, and lazy organisms that know how to exploit the welfare system, then such organisms are considered the fittest. Indeed, in modern America, the lazy and the uneducated generally beget more children than the educated and the ambitious. In order to reverse this trend, the conditions of existence must change.
Historian Will Durant eloquently describes mankind’s ability to change the conditions of existence. “Man can irrigate deserts and air-condition the Sahara; he can level or surmount mountains and terrace the hills with vines; he can build a floating city to cross the ocean, or gigantic birds to navigate the sky.” Unfortunately, the modern West has used this ability to create an environment that favors genetic traits which exemplify the exact opposite of the four Socratic virtues. Instead of wisdom, modern conditions favor ignorance; instead of courage, modern conditions favor cowardice and obedience to the State; instead of temperance, modern conditions favor unbridled consumerism; and instead of justice, modern conditions favor a reenactment of Kafka’s novel, The Trial.
Having addressed some preliminary points of confusion surrounding Darwin’s ideas, we now move to Darwin’s text itself. Darwin outlines his theory of evolution in the introduction. His first assertion is that “more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive.” As a result, a struggle for existence occurs between the individual members of a species. Darwin emphasizes that, in this struggle, the slightest advantage in one individual over another can determine which individual survives and propagates, and which individual dies. These slight advantages, or genetic traits, are then passed on to future generations.
Darwin names the process by which nature preserves and propagates slight advantages in a population – ‘natural selection’ – in order to differentiate it from “artificial selection.” Artificial selection is the process by which man preserves and propagates specific traits in a population. Dogs are an excellent example of the effectiveness of artificial selection. All modern breeds of dogs descend from wolves. Man developed these different breeds by cultivating specific traits for thousands of years.
Darwin concludes that if man can create such a diversity of dog breeds through artificial selection, then nature certainly can produce the diversity of life that exists today. “We have seen that man by selection can produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses. But Natural Selection is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art. Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, and preserving and adding up all that is good.”
The theory of evolution is very persuasive. However, Darwin perceives some objections that might arise in opposition to the theory. First, “if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, why do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?” He answers this question by first defining the term ‘species’. A species is a population capable of interbreeding. All members of a population need not be identical. Indeed, members of the human species vary in height, weight, eye color, hair color, etc. However, there is a commonality in form readily identifiable, and every sexually healthy male and female of the species are capable of producing offspring.
When two groups of a population separate from one another, natural selection cultivates specific traits that are advantageous to each group’s unique environment. If the separation lasts long enough, and the conditions of existence are sufficiently different, then two very distinct species will emerge. A transitional species between the two groups will not exist. They will share a common ancestor – that is all. The idea that every species is connected in a circular fashion – with gradual transitions from one species to the next – is absurd. A tree is more representative of the evolution of species than a circle. Several species branch out from one ancestral species. Some branches die. In other words, some species become extinct. Although the fossil record is not complete, and might never be complete, Darwin infers that missing links in the evolution of all species do exist.
The second objection that many critics of Darwin’s theory raise is the following: “Can we believe that natural selection could produce organs of such wonderful structure, as the eye, of which we hardly as yet fully understand the inimitable perfection?” In response to this objection, Darwin notes that if scientists discover numerous gradations from a simple eye to a complex eye, each gradation being useful to its possessor, then the belief that complex eyes evolved is certainly tenable. Modern scientists have indeed identified successive stages of eye complexity – from the single-celled eyes of microorganisms to the complex eyes of humans.
Charles Darwin is the preeminent scholar in the science of Biology. Perhaps Isaac Newton can rival Darwin’s fame and contribution to his particular field of study, but even Newton must share the spotlight in Physics with Albert Einstein. Darwin stands alone in his field.