Natural selections, wonderful lives
Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.[A]
Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould. [B]
Reviewed by Madawc Williams
Charles Darwin was ‘politically correct’ by the standards of his own era. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, as Darwin demonstrates. Ideas of evolution have been around for a long time. Darwin, as an “insider” among the scientific establishment, was acceptable to establishment opinion in a way that earlier writers were not. He also justified it in ‘right on’ terms – secularist and competitive notions that were steadily eroding the straightforward and literal Biblical Christianity that most of the population believed in.
Darwin came from an interesting background. He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, probably more talented than Charles, though long eclipsed by him. Charles’ other grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood, pioneering Birmingham technocrat and industrialist. The Wedgewoods had an interesting history, although these days they can boast nothing better than Mr Anthony Wedgewood Benn. But in their day they subsidised the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as changing the face of pottery and making cheap goods available to an ever wider part of the population.
Desmond and Moore have done an excellent job with this book. It manages to be both very scholarly and highly readable. The authors use simple language to demonstrate a wealth of insights, whereas far too many academic books today use jargon to cover up a lack of anything very much to say. It’s too expensive to buy – though no doubt there will be a paperback sometime – but anyone wanting to see Darwin in his actual context should push their local library into getting it.
That Darwin should have derived his notions of “survival of the fittest” from Malthus is significant. The English ruling class in the 18th century had turned society upside down. It was not just a matter of northern non-conformists starting new industries. The gentry, many of them Tories, had totally altered the pattern of British agriculture, destroying many contented and self-supporting communities. They were also active in the new industrialism, and in the canal-building and railway construction that accompanied it.
Malthus, reacting against radical ideas at the time of the French Revolution, argued that the misery of the poor was not in fact due to the rich destroying their way of life, but rather an inevitable consequence of population increasing geometrically while food could only increase arithmetically. Only misery and vice could restrain the excessive breeding of the lower orders – he was utterly opposed to artificial birth control, although birth control pioneers were later to make use of his name. In his own time, the main function of Malthusianism was to allow the gentry to observe the misery of the poor with a clear conscience, as something inevitable and unavoidable. They could carry on with the principle of laissez faire, ‘let it be’.
Darwinism met the same need in a later era. British trade and industry had disrupted the whole world, disrupting civilisations like India, China and Japan and creating great inequalities of wealth. But if competition were natural, the basic principle that had allowed higher forms of life to develop, then the existing British way of life was justified. ‘Survival of the fittest’ was set up as the highest law – and the fittest of all were assumed to be the British ruling class.
As the Darwin book shows, ‘survival of the fittest’ is not a straightforward matter. Much of Darwin’ s life was spent sorting out the biology of barnacles, which have the most peculiar division of labour between the sexes – males are reduced to brainless penises living as parasites on the female. Now this must represent ‘survival of the fittest’ in as much as those groups of barnacles that adopted this arrangement must have outbred those whose sexual biology was more normal. Yet it is not quite what most people would have understood by the phrase. Nor does the tapeworm get much praise for its success in its own chosen way of life, living in the guts of more complex animals, and staying there despite all attempts to get rid of them.
Survival of the fittest is just that – survival of those best able to survive, who may not be the best from any other point of view. Life on Earth took more than 3,000,000,000 years to evolve creatures that were smart enough to wonder why they happened to be where they were, and even this may have been a lucky accident. And that is the theme of Wonderful Life. The book looks at the fossils from the Burgess shale. These strange organisms existed some 530 million years ago. A few of them were the ancestors of modern life forms. Most of them seem to have died out completely in later epochs – and yet the losers show no real signs of being less fit or successful than the others. The ancestor of the chordates – the group that includes everything from sharks and mackerel to turtles, lizards, turkeys, elephants and humans – was a small, obscure unsuccessful worm-like little beast, showing no signs at all of what its descendants would one day achieve.
Gould argues that survival is very often just a matter of luck. Possibly he overstates the case – there are advantages to certain ways of doing things, like swimming with fins rather than by jet propulsion. Complex organisms could only evolve after Earth’s earliest life-forms had managed to pollute the atmosphere with oxygen – poisonous to them, a great opportunity for the ancestors of modern plants and animals. Yet he also has some very strong points. Before the Burgess discoveries, there were four major groups of arthropods, the phylum that includes insects, spiders, crabs and barnacles. Each of the four had a separate similar but distinct body plan. Study of the Burgess Shale turned up examples of twenty or more other groups of arthropods, in no way less fit or logical than those that survived. Natural selection seems to be an odd process.
As indeed is social selection. Up until the 18th century, the British Isles were part of the backward fringes of Europe, the last place to receive anything new or interesting. Europe itself was less sophisticated and wealthy than China, India or the Muslim world, until industrialism got going. Industrialism raised up a whole host of new powers, and will no doubt raise up more. The Thatcherite vision – nations fiercely struggling with each other for supremacy – offers bleak prospects for Britain, and may not even be that much fun for the winners. Had the Britons of Darwin’ s time realised how accidental and short-lived their success would prove, they might have looked for some alternative vision. Nations don’t have to compete – a cooperative world might or might not have managed the same rate of economic growth, but it would certainly have been a far better place for living a wonderful life.
This article appeared in July 1992, in Issue 30 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.
[A] . Michael Josephs, 808 pp, £20.
[B] . Penguin, 323 pp, 6.99