Life, Struggle, Existence, Theory, Development, Evolution
We have for the moment provisionally admitted the theory of natural selection, in order to see whether it could be included in a religious interpretation of things. But in reality such an admission is not to be thought of, in face of what is at present so apparent—the breaking down of this hypothesis, which has been upheld with so much persistence. We shall have to occupy ourselves with this later on. In the meantime a few more remarks must be added to what has been already said.
It might be said, paradoxically, that the worst fate that could befall this hypothesis would be to be proved, for then it would be most certainly refuted. What we mean is this: If it is really “utility” that rules the world and things, there can be no certainty and objectivity of knowledge, no guarantee of truth. The “struggle for existence” is not concerned with selecting beings who see the world as it is. It selects only the interpretation and conception of the environment that is most serviceable for the existence and maintenance of the species. But there is nothing to guarantee that the “true” knowledge will also be the most useful. It might quite well be that an entirely subjective and in itself wholly false interpretation would be the most serviceable. And if, by some extraordinary chance, the selected interpretation should be also the true one, there would be no means of establishing the fact. And what is true of this interpretation is true also of all theories that are derived from it, for example of the theory of selection itself.
Furthermore, a great part, perhaps the greatest part of the confidence placed in the theory of selection is due to an involuntary, but entirely fallacious habit of crediting it with the probabilities in favour of the doctrine of descent. The main arguments in favour of evolution and descent are very often, though unwittingly, adduced in support of Darwinism in particular. This is a great mistake. Take, for instance, the evidence of the “palæontological” record. It affords hundreds of proofs of evolution, but not a single proof of selection. Its “intermediate” and “connecting links” do possibly prove the affiliation of species and the validity of genealogical trees. But precisely the “intermediate links” which selection requires—the myriads of forms of life which were not successfully adapted, the unfit competitors in the struggle for existence which must have accompanied the favourably adapted variants from step to step, from generation to generation—these are altogether awanting.
Another circumstance seems to us to have been entirely overlooked, and it is one which gives the theory of selection an inevitable appearance of truth, even if it is essentially false, and thus makes it very difficult to refute. Assuming that the recognition of teleological factors is valid, that there is an inward law of development, that “Moses” or whoever one will was undoubtedly right, it is self-evident that, because of the indubitable over-production of organisms, there would even then be a struggle for existence on an immense scale, and that it would have a far-reaching “selective” influence, because of the relative plasticity of many forms of life. Beyond doubt it would, in the course of æons, have applied its shears to many forms of life, and probably there would be no organisms, organs, or associations in the evolution of the ultimate form of which it had not energetically co-operated. Its influence would, perhaps, be omnipresent, yet it might be far from being the all-sufficient factor in evolution; indeed, as far as the actual impulse of evolution is concerned, it might be a mere accessory. Unless we are to think of the forms of life as wholly passive and wooden, the struggle for existence must necessarily be operative, and the magnitude of its results, and their striking and often bizarre outcome, will tend ever anew to conceal the fact that the struggle is after all only an inevitable accompaniment of evolution. And thus we understand how it is that interpretations from the point of view of an inward law of development, of orthogenesis, or of teleology, notwithstanding their inherent validity, have à priori always had a relatively difficult position as compared with the Darwinian view.
It is usual to speak of the “all-sufficiency of natural selection,” yet the champion of the selection-theory admits, as he needs must, that the struggle for existence and selection can of themselves create absolutely nothing, no new character, no new or higher combination of the vital elements; they can only take what is already given; they can only select and eliminate among the wealth of what is offered. And the offerer is Life itself by virtue of its mysterious capacity for boundless and inexhaustible variability, self-enrichment and increase. The “struggle for existence” only digs the bed through which life's stream flows, draws the guiding-line, and continually stimulates it to some fresh revelation of its wealth. But this wealth was there from the beginning; it was, to use the old word, “potential” in the living, and included with it in the universal being from which life was called forth. The struggle for existence is only the steel which strikes the spark from the flint; is, with its infinite forms and components, only the incredibly complex channel through which life forces its way upwards. If we keep this clearly in mind, the alarming and ominous element in the theory shrinks to half its dimensions.
And, finally, if we can rid ourselves of the peculiar fascination which this theory exercises, we soon begin to discover what extraordinary improbability and fundamental artificiality it implies. “Utility” is maintained to be that which absolutely, almost tyrannically, determines form and development in the realm of the living. Is this an idea that finds any analogy elsewhere in nature? Those who uphold the theory most strongly are wont to compare the development of organisms to crystal-formation in order in some way to tack on the living to the not-living. Crystal-formation, with its processes of movement and form-development, is, they say, a kind of connecting link between the living and the not-living. And in truth we find here, as in the realm of life, species-formation, development into individuals, stages and systems. But all this takes place without any hint of “struggle for existence,” of laboriously “selective” processes, or of ingenious accumulation of “variations.” The “species” of crystals are formed not according to utility, but according to inherent, determining laws of development, to which the diversity of their individual appearances is due. If “Life” were only a higher potential of what is already stirring in crystallisation, as this view suggests, then we should expect to find fixed tendencies, determined from within, in accordance with which life would pass through the cycle of its forms and possibilities, and rise spontaneously through gradual stages.
|Written By Dr. Rudolf Otto|
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