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The Evolution of Natural Selection

Student Blogger's picture

Evolution and Evolution of Stories

13 February 2009


The Evolution of Natural Selection

            It was 200 years ago when Charles Darwin introduced his idea of evolution driven by natural selection to a community of individuals who believed that a divine being created all species on Earth.  Today, his concept of natural selection is still being taught in schools as he first described it in his publication, On the Origin of Species.  In 1859, when Darwin published the first edition of his text, he describes natural selection as “Individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind [...] This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection” (1).  During his time, this was a logical explanation to the changes he was witnessing with his research in pigeon breeding and his observations of finches in the Galapagos Islands.  Currently, new advances in our culture have made seeing the observable changes that Darwin saw a bit more difficult. From in vitro fertilization to braces, individuals who would have been at a disadvantage for survival now have opportunities to not only survive but pass on their genetic material to successive generations.  Due to all of the modern technologies available to provide advantages to those who in Darwin’s days would not be the fittest for survival, has the definition of natural selection changed? My question is has Darwin’s idea of evolution and the process of natural selection itself also evolved in parallel with evolution of humans?


The word natural, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “being in accordance with or determined by nature”.  Selection, or select, is defined as a “chosen from a number or group by fitness of preference.”  When these two words are associated with one another, Darwin’s idea of natural selection is defined.  When he studied the finches, he was observing and recording natural selection in its original form.  The finches had adapted to environmental pressures in an undirected and unprogrammed fashion and the traits that assisted in their survival were generated by random mutations in their genetic makeup, which if successful were passed on to future generations.  Today, there are many new technological advances that intervene with the organic nature of natural selection as described by Darwin.  I think that as a result of the plethora of information that has become available since the publication of On the Origin of Species, our definition of natural selection will need some refinements that encompass the environmental and technological changes that have forced the human population to evolve and develop.  The current revised definition should not include the word natural because humans now have the ability to alter the traits that nature has provided us with, making the process no longer natural but artificial.  What the complete definition of modern natural selection should be, I have yet to completely determine.

One of the components Darwin described for the survival of a group of organisms explains that individuals of a group will die due to their disadvantageous adaptations in response to environmental pressures.  These adaptations assist the fitness of the group as a whole because the disadvantages will not be passed on in further generations.  However, this idea does not apply to modern thinking and sentiments as American culture is heavily rooted in individualism.  New technologies that have been developed over the years benefit the ability of an individual to survive, such as the development of Lasik eye surgery to permanently correct vision in an individual that in Darwin’s eyes would be a disadvantage to group fitness.  These new technologies decrease the fitness of the group because the genes for these disadvantageous adaptations are still passed on to further generations as the phenotypes are corrected after the individual has fully developed. 

From Charles Darwin’s description of natural selection to its new definition in today’s world, the word itself has evolved.  Due to the capacity of humans to change the adaptations that nature has given us, the idea of evolution and natural selection has also been altered.  We as humans have come a long way from our origins and ancestry, and with us Darwin is still following.



Happy 200th Birthday Charles!



Works Cited

Darwin, Charles. "On the Origin of Species" Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts, 2003. Pg. 144






Anne Dalke's picture

Unnatural Selection

A full quarter of the essays I’ve read this week deal with this question of the human manipulation of selection. You might be interested to look @ what your classmates have to say about this conundrum; see, for example
amirby’s essay on“Natural selection among humans
epeck01’s paper on “Mankind’s Influence on Evolution
crrichar’s piece on “The Evolution of Species in Relation to Technology in 21st Century” and Sophiaolender’s “How We Made the World What We Wanted it to Be.”

Your central claim here is that the idea of “natural selection” has evolved since Darwin first laid it out, so much so that the word “natural” should be removed from the phrase. One irony in the narrative you have to tell is that of course Darwin only recognized “natural” selection because he had for so long been involved in the “artificial selection” that was his hobby of pigeon breeding—so that the original “natural” selection was actually preceded by a human-manipulated version of the process. Your definitional work also points to an irony: is “selected” means “chosen,” who or what does the choosing, if the process is “natural”?

What isn’t quite clear to me from your paper is whether you see natural selection evolving as a result of our evolution as human interveners in the world (which is what you say first) or the opposite: that (as you also say) ”environmental and technological changes have forced humans to evolve and develop.” One other irony emerges here. You argue that, since technology now enables us to preserve the life of humans who, @ an earlier point in history, would have died as “unfit,” we are thereby “decreasing the fitness of the group.” But fitness is always context specific, and if our context, our environment, has also evolved (so that, say, people who cannot walk naturally can now—with the help of technology--be mobile) then what “counts” as disability? For a profound essay on this topic, see Culture as Disability.