Chapter 4. Section 3

Let us now return to Darwin and look at little closer at what he meant by "Struggle for Existence". It is here, as we noted above, that notions of competition/conflict enter the discussion. So how could Darwin, a scholar who had spent many years out in the field observing miss so many glaring examples of the "peaceful coexistence" - not only between species but also within them? It would be cruel of fate to have treated him thus. But did he really miss out? The key is to be found in Darwin's own (1988[1859]:47) explanation of his term "Struggle for Existence". (I quote at length to do him justice):

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. ...The mistletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a farfetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. But several seedling mistletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of Struggle for Existence. (Darwin 1988[1859]:47)

Among the things this passage brings to light, most importantly, we see that he is keenly aware of the fact that some of the terms he uses cannot be understood in the context of the animal world as they are understood in the human world. We see, in particular, that he was aware that we would be stretching the term "Struggle" to try and account for all observable behaviour. Though I am not aware of anywhere where he mentions the metaphorical nature of his use of the term 'competition', were we to take him to task, the above passage suggests he would certainly make it clear that the two senses of competition, human (basically economic) and "natural" are not to be equated. Certainly one of the most famous early attempts to clarify/refine Darwinism is Prince Kropotkin's 1902, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin devotes a number of pages to illustrate just how we should take Darwin's notion of "Struggle". Characteristic of the intellectual giant he was, Kropotkin makes the piercing observation:

...no naturalist will doubt that the idea of a struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of our century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions, "By which arms is this struggle chiefly carried on?" and "Who are the fittest in the struggle?" will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as "metaphorical"- the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances. (Kropotkin, 1914[1902]:60)

From this we can further isolate where competition has its place in Darwin's theory of evolution. Clearly, the notion of competition has little utility in the collective, "metaphorical" struggle against the environment. It is in the struggle for food and safety among separate individuals where we should find it. Kropotkin notes on this count that

The struggle between individuals of the same species is not illustrated under that heading [i.e., the paragraph entitled "Struggle for life most often severe between individuals and varieties of the same species; often severe between species of the same genus, DAM] by even one single instance: it is taken as granted;... (Kropotkin, 1914[1902]:61)

Kropotkin then moves on to question the reliability of his interpretation of competition of similar varieties, and with the benefit of hindsight, we must certainly concur in our judgement with Kropotkin - a basic principle of ecology, the Exclusion Principle (see above), states that similar varieties/species will impinge to a negligible degree on the niches of others. Kropotkin also picks up on Darwin's (and Wallace's) use of the term "extermination", brought in to explain away the absence of intermediary forms/transitional varieties, which are predicted by the theory. He goes into great depth to show that "It can by no means be understood in its direct sense, but must be taken "in its metaphoric sense"" (Kropotkin, 1914[1902]:64). The overzealous use of the term by Darwin is attributed to his focussing on the uncommon occurrence of the sudden appearance of a new variety of some species in a given area (with no real hope of moving for the current inhabitants) - assuming that no other variables have changed. Far more likely and common will be the situation where more of a "new, better-adapted variety would survive every year, and the intermediate links would die in the course of time, without having been starved out by Malthusian competitors" (Kropotkin, 1914[1902]:66).

This raises an important point that can now be addressed. What do we really mean when we say compete? Struggle? Exterminate? Are these not loaded terms? Can we escape from anthropomorphising, or are we doomed to make do with a language that we must accept as permanently imbued with human constructs? For on one side it is hardly debateable - animals do not exterminate in the same way humans do. What an animal does is eat, sleep and procreate. The animals have no conception of "killing all the competitors", competing or even "struggle". They simply do, and on a very basic level. What this means is that we must very carefully study the metaphors and constructs we use in describing the world around us in order to avoid the errors that we certainly commit by transferring what we can infer in one context to another. This is the gift Wittgenstein gave us that many are yet to fully understand. The case in point here is that of the "selfish gene". Are we to understand genes as being really and truly "selfish"? We might ask: How can a gene possibly be selfish? Can a gene know? Or desire? Or for that matter, how can a gene do anything? I believe what Dawkins has offered us is the chance to regard certain aspects of what we know about genes as if they were the result of rational, selfish thought. Rational, human behaviour certainly can be selfish. Therefore, we will understand in our human way better if we think of genes as if they were rational and selfish. What we must not then do is assume that those things that we associate with human selfishness are "predicted" by our "theory". If we know that a human is selfish we may certainly inquire, when he behaves cooperatively, as to his motives and how he might be manipulating or deceiving his consorts. It is a grave error, however, to enquire as to how a gene will manipulate or deceive when we know that it only appears as if it were "selfish".

Burton (1978:169) puts it succinctly when he says:

It is easy to understand why people's descriptions of what they see animals do should be personalized or humanized. In the account of the moorhens just given, the scientific description takes more than twice the words necessary for the humanized description. The words chosen are less familiar and so are the concepts involved. Since, for most people, nothing important hinges on the way they recount their observations the easier path is chosen. Unfortunately, as we shall see in dealing with the next subject, this is a slippery slope and allows of comparisons and similes that take us even farther from the truth? [then talks of "mercy killings", DAM]

It certainly appears, then, that the contributors have committed the recently mentioned error, and are taking metaphors literally. If humans really were selfish, manipulative and egotistical at base, then we would legitimately be baffled at how cooperative communication developed. We see now, however, that the assumption that they are such is based on an untenable (or at least metaphorical) view of the interaction of organisms in Nature.


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