Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Darwin and the Bowerbird
It's easy being a social darwinist. The strong destroy the weak. Confirmation for this is found throughout nature. The most successful creatures are the bloodiest. The kings of the animal world are those at the top of the food chain, which is to say the predators. How we admire them! They are the most perfect examples of the undeniable proof of Darwin's dictum about 'survival of the fittest'. It is only right and proper that we should emulate their behaviour. God forbid we should emulate their victims.
And you won't find a bigger fan of Charles Darwin than yours truly. I am privileged to have him sit on my left shoulder and whisper in my ear. And I always listen. His explanation for human behaviour (amongst other things) is never wrong. But what's that Charles? You never used the phrase 'survival of the fittest'? Apparently it was some other fellow's words. Apparently Darwin put it in the foreword of his second edition of 'Origin of the Species' and regrets it. Had he known that it would come to encapsulate, and misrepresent, his description of the behaviour of species he wouldn't have touched it with a barge pole.
Darwin does not extol particular kinds of behaviour. Certainly he demands that any species (or indeed any entity) that wishes to self perpetuate must ensure the viability of its offspring. Viability here means that its offspring must be able to do what it just did, ie. produce more offspring. Beyond this he ceases to care. If humans, say, have a tendency to go mad after the age of forty or so, and this does not screw with the viability of their offspring (whom one presumes are already adult), well that's fine with him. Alternatively, if humans can better assist their offspring by living to old age, Darwin gives this his blessing too. It's all good, provided each generation is capable of ensuring the viability of those they in turn give birth to. It's as simple as that.
So where does the 'fittest' come in? To be perfectly honest, it doesn't. If creatures can ensure the viability of their offspring and yet somehow fail in the 'fitness' stakes (whatever that is) Darwin doesn't give a shit. Under Darwin they are successful, regardless. A few years back, scientists discovered a mushroom-like fungus that lived underground and occupied an area so large it spanned several countries. Belgium was one I recall (Hey Miraculix, you're probably standing on it mate). The scientists declared that this was, in all probability, the largest living creature in the world, weighing in at thousands of tons. It leaves the blue whale for dead. It is also the oldest living creature, having been there for countless millennia. That this entity has persisted, in spite of ice ages, warm spells, you name it, means that Darwin gives it his blue ribbon for excellence.
Indeed, every creature that copes with environmental depredations and ensures the viability of its offspring gets this blue ribbon. Darwin has no favourites. He is no more interested in the 'food chain' than he is in my motorcycle's drive chain. If Darwin was the judge of a beauty contest he would declare that any of the contestants who can get laid is the winner. Can you dig it? Darwin has no favourites. He does not say that this is better than that. Thus if lions can avoid having their jaw broken by the flashing heels of a springbok, and go on to catch one and ensure the viability of their offspring, Darwin pops a champagne cork. And likewise, if springboks have the ability to break a lion's jaw and bring about its death then the lion's depredations will be kept to a wary minimum. Thus, the springbok's continuance is assured, and Darwin jams a cigar in its mouth (not that the springbok would care for it, but you get the idea). The lion and the springbok are equal in the eyes of Darwin. They both get the blue ribbon and 'fittest' ain't nowhere to be seen.
And then there's the bowerbird. Ha! You thought I'd forgotten. The bowerbird is really singular. He's so called because he builds a 'bower' - an elaborate structure of twigs, variously decorated with flowers, leaves, berries, rocks, shells, and, lately, bits of modern plastic detritus (blue straws and bottle tops being particularly popular). The bower serves no purpose beyond appealing to the female. It is not a nest - the female builds the nest separately and lays eggs there. Nor does the bower provide shelter. It is merely, believe it or not, the male's expression of artistic intent, for no purpose other than impressing the female. It is literally a work of art. Astoundingly no two bowers are the same. Each is a unique expression of the male's sense of the sublime (I avoid the word 'unique' like the plague, but here it is true). The female likewise will choose the male by means of her own artistic taste. And Darwin? He claps his hands and laughs with delight.
Where's the 'survival of the fittest' here? What sort of 'fittest' consists of being the greatest artist? The truth is that 'fittest' is bullshit. Social darwinists are dimwits who utterly fail to understand Darwin. Predators, such as lions and tigers, represent the tiniest fraction of the uncountable number of creatures every single one of which receives Darwin's unconditional blessing.
We humans differ from the rest of creation insofar as we are able to choose how we behave. We may choose the means by which we obey the truth of Darwin. Neither lions, nor springboks, nor any other creature can do this. Nor can they influence others to wonder at themselves and how they might fulfil Darwin's imperatives and make the world a better place while they're at it. Only we can have a discussion as to how this might be done. It's what sets us apart and makes us singular. To those social darwinists too dim to appreciate the spectacular array of possibilities the world presents us, I say - be that stupid four-legged beast red in tooth and claw. Just leave Darwin out of it. Darwin does not think you're special. He has no more time for you than he does for a happy, little, art-mad bowerbird.