Competition

A popular science writer, Hazen, describes evolution in the following way:

Charles Darwin proposed that evolution occurs because of the constant struggle for survival. Many more individuals of most species are born than can possibly survive. In the brutal competition for limited resources, individuals with advantageous traits are more favoured to survive long enough to pass those traits on to offspring. (1997, p.197)

This scary way of interpreting the evolutionary process, using phrases such as ‘survival of the fittest', ‘struggle', ‘brutal competition' and so forth, is fairly typical. Such a view was already popular in Darwin's time, probably as a reaction to the idealisation and glorification of nature by the Romantic movement.[3] However, this outlook is biased. No doubt that struggle and competition exist, but cooperation and symbioses within a species and between species is at least equally important[4]. For example, in order to start creating multi-cell organisms, some single-cell organisms must give up their capacity to reproduce - which is a striking example of symbiotic cooperation leading to complexity, but is contrary to ‘selfish gene' (or similar) interpretations. Using loaded adjectives such as ‘brutal' even in connection to the predatory nature of certain species is misleading. Every organism must die, and the suffering of those individuals who are unfit or misfit would probably be longer and more brutal without predators.

More importantly, if competition is the only driving force (between species, as well as within a species), one would expect that super-bacteria, super-plants or super-animals would have developed well before the appearance of humans and have taken over the whole eco-system. Yet, a delicate balance in nature that allows development seems to be permanently preserved. In rare cases when a particular type of species starts to dominate to the extent that they prevent further evolution, they conspicuously get wiped out. Many researchers have argued, for example, that mammals and thus humans could not have evolved without the demise of the dinosaurs (presumably, this has not been the fate of humans, although they are now dominant, because evolution so far has continued within the species - a point taken on in the following chapters).

  • [3]. His contemporary, poet Tennyson, famously characterised nature as ‘red in tooth and claw'.
  • [4]. After a long battle, the scientific community nowadays looks more favourably upon the proposition of Lynn Margulis that the cooperation between organisms, rather than competition, is the chief agent of natural selection. In a consolatory fashion, she said that ‘Darwin's grand vision was not wrong, only incomplete'. The position here is that the same applies to some other tenets of Neo-Darwinism.