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Chapter 20

NATURAL SELECTION CONSIDERED AS A MEANS OF MODIFICATION. THE CONFUSION WHICH THIS EXPRESSION OCCASIONS.


When Mr. Darwin says that natural selection is the most important "means" of modification, I am not sure that I understand what he wishes to imply by the word "means." I do not see how the fact that those animals which are best fitted for the conditions of their existence commonly survive in the struggle for life, can be called in any special sense a "means" of modification.

"Means" is a dangerous word; it slips too easily into "cause." We have seen Mr. Darwin himself say that Buffon did not enter on "the causes or means"[347] of modification, as though these two words were synonymous, or nearly so. Nevertheless, the use of the word "means" here enables Mr. Darwin to speak of Natural Selection as if it were an active cause (which he constantly does), and yet to avoid expressly maintaining that it is a cause of modification. This, indeed, he has not done in express terms, but he does it by implication when he writes, "Natural Selection might be most effective in giving the proper colour to each kind of grouse, and in keeping that colour when once acquired." Such language, says the late Mr. G. H. Lewes, "is misleading;" it makes "selection an agent."[348]

It is plain that natural selection cannot be considered a cause of variation; and if not of variation, which is as the rain drop, then not of specific and generic modification, which are as the river; for the variations must make their appearance before they can be selected. Suppose that it is an advantage to a horse to have an especially hard and broad hoof, then a horse born with such a hoof will indeed probably survive in the struggle for existence, but he was not born with the larger and harder hoof because of his subsequently surviving. He survived because he was born fit--not, he was born fit because he survived. The variation must arise first and be preserved afterwards.

Mr. Darwin therefore is in the following dilemma. If he does not treat natural selection as a cause of variation, the 'Origin of Species' will turn out to have no raison d'être. It will have professed to have explained to us the manner in which species has originated, but it will have left us in the dark concerning the origin of those variations which, when added together, amount to specific and generic differences. Thus, as I said in 'Life and Habit,' Mr. Darwin will have made us think we know the whole road, in spite of his having almost ostentatiously blindfolded us at every step in the journey. The 'Origin of Species' would thus prove to be no less a piece of intellectual sleight-of-hand than Paley's 'Natural Theology.'

If, on the other hand, Mr. Darwin maintains natural selection to be a cause of variation, this comes to saying that when an animal has varied in an advantageous direction, the fact of its subsequently surviving in the struggle for existence is the cause of its having varied in the advantageous direction--or more simply still--that the fact of its having varied is the cause of its having varied.

And this is what we have already seen Mr. Darwin actually to say, in a passage quoted near the beginning of this present book. When writing of the eye he says, "Variation will cause the slight alterations;"[349] but the "slight alterations" are the variations; so that Mr. Darwin's words come to this--that "variation will cause the variations."

There does not seem any better way out of this dilemma than that which Mr. Darwin has adopted--namely, to hold out natural selection as "a means" of modification, and thenceforward to treat it as an efficient cause; but at the same time to protest again and again that it is not a cause. Accordingly he writes that "Natural Selection acts only by the preservation and accumulation of small inherited modifications,"[350]--that is to say, it has had no share in inducing or causing these modifications. Again, "What applies to one animal will apply throughout all time to all animals--that is, if they vary, for otherwise natural selection can effect nothing"[351]; and again, "for natural selection only takes advantage of such variations as arise"[352]--the variations themselves arising, as we have just seen, from variation.

Nothing, then, can be clearer from these passages than that natural selection is not a cause of modification; while, on the other hand, nothing can be clearer, from a large number of such passages, as, for instance, "natural selection may be effective in giving and keeping colour,"[353] than that natural selection is an efficient cause; and in spite of its being expressly declared to be only a "means" of modification, it will be accepted as cause by the great majority of readers.

Mr. Darwin explains this apparent inconsistency thus:--He maintains that though the advantageous modification itself is fortuitous, or without known cause or principle underlying it, yet its becoming the predominant form of the species in which it appears is due to the fact that those animals which have been advantageously modified commonly survive in times of difficulty, while the unmodified individuals perish: offspring therefore is more frequently left by the favourably modified animal, and thus little by little the whole species will come to inherit the modification. Hence the survival of the fittest becomes a means of modification, though it is no cause of variation.

It will appear more clearly later on how much this amounts to. I will for the present content myself with the following quotation from the late Mr. G. H. Lewes in reference to it. Mr. Lewes writes:--

"Mr. Darwin seems to imply that the external conditions which cause a variation are to be distinguished from the conditions which accumulate and perfect such variation, that is to say, he implies a radical difference between the process of variation and the process of selection. This I have already said does not seem to me acceptable; the selection I conceive to be simply the variation which has survived."[354]

Certainly those animals and plants which are best fitted for their environment, or, as Lamarck calls it, "circonstances"--those animals, in fact, which are best fitted to comply with the conditions of their existence--are most likely to survive and transmit their especial fitness. No one would admit this more readily than Lamarck. This is no theory; it is a commonly observed fact in nature which no one will dispute, but it is not more "a means of modification" than many other commonly observed facts concerning animals.

Why is "the survival of the fittest" more a means of modification than, we will say, the fact that animals live at all, or that they live in successive generations, being born, continuing their species, and dying, instead of living on for ever as one single animal in the common acceptation of the term; or than that they eat and drink?

The heat whereby the water is heated, the water which is turned into steam, the piston on which the steam acts, the driving wheel, &c., &c., are all one as much as another a means whereby a train is made to go from one place to another; it is impossible to say that any one of them is the main means. So (mutatis mutandis) with modification. There is no reason therefore why "the survival of the fittest" should claim to be an especial "means of modification" rather than any other necessary adjunct of animal or vegetable life.

I find that the late Mr. G. H. Lewes has insisted on this objection in his 'Physical Basis of Mind.' I observe, also, that in the very passage in which he does so, Mr. Lewes appears to have been misled by Mr. Darwin's use of that dangerous word "means," and, at the same time, by his frequent treatment of natural selection as though it were an active cause; so that Mr. Lewes supposes Mr. Darwin to have fallen into the very error of which, as I have above shown, he is evidently struggling to keep clear--namely, that of maintaining natural selection to be a "cause" of variation. Mr. Lewes then continues:--

"He [Mr. Darwin] separates Natural Selection from all the primary causes of variation either internal or external--either as results of the laws of growth, of the correlations of variation, of use and disuse, &c., and limits it to the slow accumulation of such variations as are profitable in the struggle with competitors. And for his purpose this separation is necessary. But biological philosophy must, I think, regard the distinction as artificial, referring only to one of the great factors in the production of species."[355]

The fact that one in a brood or litter is born fitter for the conditions of its existence than its brothers and sisters, and, again, the causes that have led to this one's having been born fitter--which last is what the older evolutionists justly dwelt upon as the most interesting consideration in connection with the whole subject--are more noteworthy factors of modification than the factor that an animal, if born fitter for its conditions, will commonly survive longer in the struggle for existence. If the first of these can be explained in such a manner as to be accepted as true, or highly probable, we have a substantial gain to our knowledge. The second is little--if at all--better than a truism. Granted, if it were not generally the case that those forms are most likely to survive which are best fitted for the conditions of their existence, no adaptation of form to conditions of existence could ever have come about. "The survival of the fittest" therefore, or, perhaps better, "the fertility of the fittest," is thus a sine quâ non for modification. But, as we have just insisted, this does not render "the fertility of the fittest" an especial "means of modification," rather than any other sine quâ non for modification.

But, to look at the matter in another light. Mr. Darwin maintains natural selection to be "the most important but not the exclusive means of modification."

For "natural selection" substitute the words "survival of the fittest," which we may do with Mr. Darwin's own consent abundantly given.

To the words "survival of the fittest" add what is elided, but what is, nevertheless, unquestionably as much implied as though it were said openly whenever these words are used, and without which "fittest" has no force--I mean, "for the conditions of their existence."

We thus find that when Mr. Darwin says that natural selection is the most important, but not exclusive means of modification, he means that the survival in the struggle for existence of those creatures which are best fitted to comply with the conditions of their existence is the most important, but not exclusive means whereby the descendants of a creature, we will say, A, have become modified, so as to be now represented by a creature, we will say, B.

But the word "circonstances," so frequently used by Lamarck for the conditions of an animal's existence, contains, by implication, the idea of animals which shall exist or not according as they fulfil those conditions or fail to fulfil them. Conditions of existence are conditions which something capable of existing must fulfil if it would exist at all, and nothing is a condition of an animal's existence which that animal need not comply with and may yet continue to exist. Again, the words "animals" and "plants" comprehend the ideas of "fit," "fitter," and "fittest," "unfit," "unfitter," and "unfittest" for certain conditions, for we know of no animals or plants in which we do not observe degrees of fitness or unfitness for their "circonstances" or environment, or conditions of existence.

The use, therefore, of the term "conditions of existence" is sufficient to show that the person using it intends to imply that those animals and plants will live longest (or survive) and thrive best which are best able to fulfil those conditions. Hence it implies neither more nor less than what is implied by the words "struggle for existence, with consequent survival of the fittest"--that is to say, if we hold the complying with any condition of life to which difficulty is attached to be part of "the struggle" for life, and this we should certainly do.

The words "conditions of existence" may, then, be used instead of the "struggle for existence with consequent survival of the fittest," for as they cannot imply any less than the "struggle, &c.," when they are set out in full, and without suppression, so neither do they imply more; for nothing is a condition of existence, in so far as its power of effecting the modification of any animal is concerned, which does not also involve more or less difficulty or struggle; for if there is no difficulty or struggle there will be nothing to bring about change of habit, and hence of structure. This identity of meaning may be also seen if we call to mind that the conditions of existence can be only a synonym for "the conditions of continuing to live," and "the conditions of continuing to live" a synonym for "the conditions of continuing to live a longer time," and "the conditions of continuing to live a longer time," for "the conditions of survival," and "the conditions of survival," for "the survival of the fittest," inasmuch as the being fittest is the condition of being the longest survivor.

But we have already seen that "the survival of the fittest," is, according to Mr. Darwin, a synonym for "natural selection"; hence it follows that "the conditions of existence" imply neither more nor less than what is implied by "natural selection" when this expression is properly explained, and may be used instead of it; so that when Mr. Darwin says that "natural selection" is the main but not exclusive means of modification, he must mean, consciously or unconsciously, that "the conditions of existence" are the main but not exclusive means of modification. But this is only falling in with "the views and erroneous grounds of opinion," as Mr. Darwin briefly calls them, of Lamarck himself; a fact which Mr. Darwin's readers would have seen more readily if he had kept to the use of the words "survival of the fittest" instead of "natural selection." Of that expression Mr. Darwin says[356] that it is "more accurate" than natural selection, but naively adds, "and sometimes equally convenient."

I have said that there is a practical identity of meaning between "natural selection" and "the conditions of existence," when both expressions are fully extended. I say this, however, without prejudice to my right of maintaining that, of the two expressions, the one is accurate, lucid, and calculated to keep the thread of the argument well in sight of the reader, while the other is inaccurate, and always, if I may say so, less "convenient," as being always liable to lead the reader astray. Nor should it be lost sight of that Lamarck and Dr. Erasmus Darwin maintain that species and genera have arisen because animals can fashion themselves into accord with their conditions, so that, as Lamarck is so continually insisting, the action of the conditions is indirect only--changed use and disuse being the direct causes; while, according to Mr. Darwin, it is natural selection itself (which, as we have seen, is but another way of saying conditions of existence) that is the most important means of modification.

The identity of meaning above insisted on was, on the face of it, almost as obscure as that between "evêque and bishop." Yet we know that "evêque" is "episc" and "bishop" "piscop," and that "episcopus" is the Latin for bishop; the words, therefore, are really one and the same, in spite of the difference in their appearance. I think I can show, moreover, that Mr. Darwin himself holds natural selection and the conditions of existence to be one and the same thing. For he writes, "in one sense," and it is hard to see any sense but one in what follows, "the conditions of life may be said not only to cause variability" (so that here Mr. Darwin appears to support Lamarck's main thesis) "either directly or indirectly, but likewise to include natural selection; for the conditions determine whether this or that variety shall survive."[357] But later on we find that "the expression of conditions of existence, so often insisted upon by the illustrious Cuvier" (and surely also by the illustrious Lamarck, though he calls them "circonstances") "is fully embraced by the principle of natural selection."[358] So we see that the conditions of life "include" natural selection, and yet the conditions of existence "are fully embraced by" natural selection, which, I take it, is an enigmatic way of saying that they are one and the same thing, for it is not until two bodies absolutely coincide and occupy the same space that the one can be said both to include and to be embraced by the other.

The difficulty, again, of understanding Mr. Darwin's meaning is enhanced by his repeatedly writing of "natural selection," or the fact that the fittest survive in the struggle for existence, as though it were the same thing as "evolution" or the descent, through the accumulation of small modifications in many successive generations, of one species from another and different one. In the concluding and recapitulatory chapter of the 'Origin of Species,' he writes:--

"Turning to geographical distribution, the difficulties encountered on the theory of descent with modification are serious enough;"[359] and in the next paragraph, "As, according to the theory of natural selection, &c.," the context showing that in each case descent with modification is intended.

Again:--

"On the theory of the natural selection of successive, slight, but profitable, modifications,"[360] that is to say, on the theory of the survival of the fittest; while on the next page we find "the theory of descent with modification," and "the principle of natural selection," used as though they were convertible terms.

Again:--

"The existence of closely allied or representative species in any two areas implies, on the theory of descent with modification, &c.;"[361] and, in the next paragraph, "the theory of natural selection, with its contingencies of extinction and divergence of character," is substituted as though the two expressions were identical.

This is calculated to mislead. Independently of the fact that "natural selection," or "the survival of the fittest," is in no sense a theory, but simply an observed fact, yet even if the words are allowed to stand for "descent with modification by means of natural selection," it is still misleading to write as though this were synonymous with "the theory of evolution," or "the theory of descent with modification." To do this prevents the reader from bearing in mind that "evolution by means of the circumstance-suiting power of plants and animals" as advanced by the earlier evolutionists; and "evolution by means of lucky accidents" with comparatively little circumstance-suiting power, are two very different things, of which the one may be true and the other untrue. It leads the reader to forget that evolution by no means stands or falls with evolution by means of natural selection, and makes him think that if he accepts evolution at all, he is bound to Mr. Darwin's view of it. Hence, when he falls in with such writers as Professor Mivart and the Rev. J. J. Murphy, who show, and very plainly, that the survival of the fittest, unsupplemented by something which shall give a definite aim to the variations which successively occur, fails to account for the coadaptations of need and structure, he imagines that evolution has much less to say for itself than it really has. If Mr. Darwin, instead of taking the line which he has thought fit to adopt towards Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and the author of the 'Vestiges,' had shown us what these men taught, why they taught it, wherein they were wrong, and how he proposed to set them right, he would have taken a course at once more agreeable with ordinary practice, and more likely to clear misconception from his own mind and from those of his readers.

Mr. Darwin says,[362] "it is easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as 'the plan of creation' and 'unity of design.'" Surely, also, it is easy to hide want of precision of thought, and the absence of any fundamental difference between his own main conclusion and that of Dr. Darwin and Lamarck whom he condemns, under the term "natural selection."

I assure the reader that I find the task of forming a clear, well-defined conception of Mr. Darwin's meaning, as expressed in his 'Origin of Species,' comparable only to that of one who has to act on the advice of a lawyer who has obscured the main issue as far as he can, and whose chief aim has been to make as many loopholes as possible for himself to escape through in case of his being called to account. Or, again, to that of one who has to construe an Act of Parliament which was originally framed so as to throw dust in the eyes of those who would oppose the measure, and which, having been since found unworkable, has had clauses repealed and inserted up and down it, till it is in an inextricable tangle of confusion and contradiction.

As an example of my meaning, I will quote a passage to which I called attention in 'Life and Habit.' It runs:--

"In the earlier editions of this work I underrated, as now seems probable, the frequency and importance of modifications due to spontaneous variability. But it is impossible to attribute to this cause" (i. e. spontaneous variability, which is itself only an expression for unknown causes) "the innumerable structures which are so well adapted to the habits of life of each species. I can no more believe in this" (i. e. that the innumerable structures, &c., can be due to unknown causes) "than that the well adapted form of a racehorse or greyhound, which, before the principle of selection by man was well understood, excited so much surprise in the minds of the older naturalists, can thus" (i. e. by attributing them to unknown causes) "be explained."[363]

This amounts to saying that unknown causes can do so much, but cannot do so much more. On this passage I wrote, in 'Life and Habit':--

"It is impossible to believe that, after years of reflection upon his subject, Mr. Darwin should have written as above, especially in such a place, if his mind was clear about his own position. Immediately after the admission of a certain amount of miscalculation there comes a more or less exculpatory sentence, which sounds so right that ninety-nine people out of a hundred would walk through it, unless led by some exigency of their own position to examine it closely, but which yet, upon examination, proves to be as nearly meaningless as a sentence can be."[364]

No one, to my knowledge, has impugned the justice of this criticism, and I may say that further study of Mr. Darwin's works has only strengthened my conviction of the confusion and inaccuracy of thought, which detracts so greatly from their value.

So little is it generally understood that "evolution" and what is called "Darwinism" convey indeed the same main conclusion, but that this conclusion has been reached by two distinct roads, one of which is impregnable, while the other has already fallen into the hands of the enemy, that in the last November number of the 'Nineteenth Century' Professor Tyndall, while referring to descent with modification or evolution, speaks of it as though it were one and inseparable from Mr. Darwin's theory that it has come about mainly by means of natural selection. He writes:--

"Darwin's theory, as pointed out nine or ten years ago by Helmholtz and Hooker, was then exactly in this condition of growth; and had they to speak of the subject to-day they would be able to announce an enormous strengthening of the theoretic fibre. Fissures in continuity which then existed, and which left little hope of being ever spanned, have been since bridged over, so that the further the theory is tested the more fully does it harmonize with progressive experience and discovery. We shall never probably fill all the gaps; but this will not prevent a profound belief in the truth of the theory from taking root in the general mind. Much less will it justify a total denial of the theory. The man of science, who assumes in such a case the position of a denier, is sure to be stranded and isolated."

This is in the true vein of the professional and orthodox scientist; of that new orthodoxy which is clamouring for endowment, and which would step into the Pope's shoes to-morrow, if we would only let it. If Professor Tyndall means that those who deny evolution will find themselves presently in a very small minority, I agree with him; but if he means that evolution is Mr. Darwin's theory, and that he who rejects what Mr. Darwin calls "the theory of natural selection" will find himself stranded, his assertion will pass muster with those only who know little of the history and literature of evolution.


FOOTNOTES:

[347] 'Origin of Species,' Hist. Sketch, p. xiii.

[348] 'Physical Basis of Mind,' p. 108.

[349] 'Origin of Species,' p. 146.

[350] Ibid. p. 75.

[351] Ibid. p. 88.

[352] 'Origin of Species,' p. 98.

[353] Ibid. p. 66.

[354] 'Physical Basis of the Mind,' p. 109, 1878.

[355] 'Physical Basis of the Mind,' p. 107, 1878.

[356] 'Origin of Species,' p. 49.

[357] 'Origin of Species,' p. 107.

[358] Ibid. p. 166.

[359] 'Origin of Species,' p. 406.

[360] Ibid, p. 416.

[361] Ibid. p. 419.

[362] 'Origin of Species,' p. 422.

[363] 'Origin of Species,' p. 171, ed. 1876.

[364] 'Life and Habit,' p. 260.


Samuel Butler

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