To me, Charles Darwin was always one of the good guys. Growing up, the knowledge of evolution offered all the creative wonder I needed, thank you very much, and in conversation with pals I’d play Clarence Darrow to anyone’s William Jennings Bryan. In my little heathen mind, I naturally most often won the day. (Some kids liked cowboys and Indians. I liked Inherit the Wind. Go figure.)
As I got older, however, I was dismayed to discover how robber barons, past and present, had used the “survival of the fittest” argument to justify all kinds of vile behavior. From turn-of-the-century monopolists to today’s slum-lording real estate magnates, the Great Man’s concepts have been co-opted for evil purposes. (And I use the word “evil” advisedly. We are, in fact, talking Evil here.) Would Darwin see these thieves, oligarchs and social criminals as part of a natural order? Is it simply an evolutionary principle that the weak are taken advantage of and are, as they say, weeded out?
Then one day, someone added a phrase to my lexicon: “It’s just as much “˜survival of the luckiest.'” This explains how “acts of god” (so to speak) could wipe out otherwise “fit” populations. An asteroid? A political or economic system gone awry? Take your pick. Yes, the fittest survive – sometimes. And yes, the not-necessarily-more-fit-than-anyone-else take advantage of situations. Often.
Now, a new study offers another angle (or perhaps layer) to Darwin’s original theory. It not only helps put the Rockefellers in their evolutionary place, but should also give us all pause to think again about how we view our world, and how we use it.
Here’s the headline (from the BBC this past Monday): “Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims – Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.”
Aw, those Brits and their headlines. Indeed, “wrong” is the wrong word here, but this certainly is interesting news. Here’s the rub: Recent research from the University of Bristol shows “the availability of “˜living space,'” along with competition, as centrally important to evolution.
Studying patterns and fossil records covering more than 400 million years of land-animal biological history, the scientists, says the story, “showed that the amount of biodiversity closely matched the availability of “˜living space’ through time.”
Living space – that’s the area where an animal and its species survive in a fairly comfortable way. What this study shows, say the researchers, is that important evolutionary advancements occur when a group gets more elbow room that’s free from predators and competitors.
Two examples they provide are birds and mammals. The former, once they took to the unoccupied air, made explosive strides. The latter waited for the Dinosaurs to get out of the way before making their evolutionary move. “This concept,” notes the story, “challenges the idea that intense competition for resources in overcrowded habitats is the major driving force of evolution.”
Now whether or not the study’s more radical conclusions hold up over time remains to be seen. (Co-author Professor Mike Benton goes so far as to say that “competition did not play a big role in the overall pattern of evolution.”)
Of course, there are already those who question those conclusions, including Yale Professor and evolutionary biologist Stephen Stearns who says he “found the patterns interesting, but the interpretation problematic,” and asks, “What is the impetus to occupy new portions of ecological space if not to avoid competition with the species in the space already occupied?”
But the point is made that living space rocks a species’ world and the lack thereof can keep (or bring) it down.
I’m left with two thoughts from this bit of news. First, it offers a rebuttal to the Trump-esque, entitled egos of the world who gloat over their gets and glories. Consider their “living space” – an environment cleared of true competition, where skids are greased, incumbents bought, arenas cleared of threat or responsibility. Maybe that’s a stretch, but what the hell, there is surely more at play in these folks’ “landscapes” than pure smarts and fitness.
The second takeaway, I think, is something to consider as we gobble up habitats and witness subsequent extinctions. We ought to note that we’re not immune from gobbling up our own living space, whether we poison it with chemicals, rip open its arteries of oil or simply pave it over at every opportunity in the name of “development.” This might be a study to remember if we truly want to make sure our ultra-fit species will ultimately have a place to live.
Says Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Try adapting to having no place to go.
Images: Simon Welsh and shehal