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Problems in Our Vocabulary

Lynn's picture

 On Thursday we talked about the identity of the selector in "natural selection". People used phrases like "survival of the fittest", "superior", "progress", etc., when explaining that no one actively, knowingly controls the evolution of a species, but what struck me about the discussion was the nature of the words I just listed. They all rely on a concept of improvement - of forward progress. 

I'm not convinced. I think that people find the notion of gradual improvement - of a driven, even if indirectly, evolution - comforting, and therefore cling to it. Our collective notion of evolution as change for the better (I won't squabble over judgement words here, as I've already done that in class) is so internalized that our very vocabulary reflects it. That the species that are now extinct evolved before succumbing to death is ignored; the idea of ungoverned change is disquieting enough, but ungoverned, directionless change? When we can be bothered to think that we, too, are evolving, we assume that our evolution is an improvement. Yet, perhaps it isn't.

I don't pretend that no one has raised the idea of aimless evolution before. I simply wonder if the vocabulary we use for evolution would be the same, if the idea were fully explored. "Survival of the fittest" may only apply to a single moment at a time.


elly's picture

The comfort of gradual improvement

 I agree that people find comfort in the notion of "gradual improvement" because otherwise, where is our society going? Have we actually moved backwards? Or simply stayed still in the sense that everything is relative to our current position both in time and on our planet? I think this is how the idea of a "selector" comes into our vocabulary, because as a people we would like to think that there is some greater plan, or order, to things. I sometimes find myself thinking of death as the selector, and not in the sense of the dark hooded figure of fairy tales and ghost stories, but just the natural process of death aka that every living thing eventually dies is the final "selector." Darwin says, in a very simplified version of my understanding, that it is a species lack of ability to reproduce that will lead to its extinction. Therefore, the possible death of their last "living piece" (or pair) will decide whether the traits present in that creature and its line will disappear or continue and thrive.

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