Survival of the Fittest Theory, Essay Example

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Essay

In the essay entitled “Darwin’s Untimely Burial,” author Stephen Jay Gould discusses the argument made by Tom Bethell that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection is based on flawed logic. As Bethel sees it, the supposedly flawed logic that underpins Darwin’s theory means that the theory of natural selection is inherently incorrect. Gould counters that it is not Darwin who premised his theory on faulty logic, but rather it is Bethell who uses flawed reasoning to support his ant-Darwinian assertions.

Bethell’s primary argument against Darwin’s theory of natural selection holds that the theory is based on a tautology; that is, the idea of “survival of the fittest” tells us nothing about what constitutes “fitness.” As Bethell sees it, “survival of the fittest” is akin to saying “survival of the survivors,” which fails’ to offer any information about how “fitness” is established, or what it even means.

Darwin draws an analogy between Natural Selection and the artificial selection imposed on certain animals by breeders, using the act of breeding pigeons to exhibit certain traits as the core example of this analogy. Bethell questions the connection between the “creativity” inherent I artificial selection –that is, the purposeful choices made by breeders in their efforts to “create” pigeons that exhibit desired traits as determined by the breeders themselves- with the “creativity” inherent in Natural Selection. According to Gould, however, Bethell offers little support for his assertions that the theory of natural selection is being “abandoned” by scientists.

Bethell is correct in some sense, as the “creativity” seen in natural selection is not the same type o “creativity” demonstrated in artificial selection. Breeders are purposely attempting to produce offspring that are superior to their forebears as delineated by criteria established by the breeders themselves. In this light, artificial selection is a system based on “progress;” that is, each generation should presumably be superior to the one that produced it. Because this sense of direction, of linear progress, is not seen in natural selection, the theory must therefore be incorrect (according to Bethell).

Gould argues that Bethell, and those who argue against the theory of Natural Selection, are actually missing the entire point of what Natural Selection really is. “Survival of the fittest” is not, according to Gould, a tautology, but does in fact mean something beyond simple self-reference. As Gould puts it, “natural selection is a theory of local adaptation to changing environments. It proposes no perfecting principles, no guarantee of general improvement; in short, no reason for general approbation in a political climate favoring inmate progress in nature.” That is the point of natural selection: adaptations that arise within populations will occasionally offer advantages relative to survival in the local environment. Those individuals within populations that do survive are not “the fittest” in the sense that they are the fittest of any examples of their species, but are only the fittest in terms of surviving within the context of their immediate environment.

Further, asserts Gould, natural selection is a “creative” force, just not a form of creativity that can be directly compared to the creativity of artificial section. Adaptations within species are not examples of “progress” in the sense that they are improvements to the species. Gould uses the example of mammoths developing fur; this development is not an inherent “improvement” I the species, but is only a desirable trait for those members of the species that had to endure cold weather. As the Ice Age progressed, it stands to reason that the animals with better protection afforded by coats of fur were more likely to survive; conversely, the development of thick fur would not necessarily be an advantage in warmer climates. Had the Ice Age not occurred, those members of the population which developed thick coats of fur would have been less” fit” –in terms of their environment- than those that did not.

What Gould successfully argues is that Bethell made a logical error in his suppositions. Bethell attempted to apply what amounts to philosophical ideas and reasoning to the process of natural selection, and when those ideas did not align with the evidence of natural selection, he concluded that it was natural selection, and not his own ideas, that demonstrated flaws. Gould corrects the record, noting that “creativity” comes in different forms; as natural selection is clearly responsible for the development of new species over time, it is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of creativity.

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