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Cool Narrative; Cruel Metaphor?

sustainablephilosopher's picture

Cool Narrative; Cruel Metaphor?

by Tim Richards

"...species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life" (On the Origin of Species, p. 176).

Did Darwin need the 'Struggle for Existence' metaphor in order to make his contributions to the theory of evolution? He seems to paint life and nature as engaged in a constant adversarial battle, where every organism has to do all it can to ensure its fair share for survival and flourishing; otherwise, it will be vanquished. Thus, we receive a Tennysonian "nature, red in tooth and claw" narrative that negatively colors our understanding of events in nature. However, is the phrase merely a trace of the influence of the social philosophy of Malthus and Spencer being applied to natural science? Could Darwin's theory have been just as groundbreaking without this distinctly warlike interpretation of nature? I hold that Darwin's theory could have been just as effective and influential without making use of this warlike metaphor. In fact, Darwin himself did not uniformly subscribe to this idea being all-pervasive throughout the 'economy of nature;' he allowed for the idea of cooperation to hold importance as well. Unfortunately, the frequency with which he used the 'Struggle for Existence' metaphor without careful qualification has skewed the understandings and uses of his theory even today.

Darwin first introduces the concept of the 'Struggle for Existence' in chapter three of On the Origin of Species (OS). After establishing that previous scientists have shown that all organisms are subject to severe competition, he writes "we behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see the superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds... are constantly destroying life; or we forget how they... are destroyed by beasts of prey... though food may now be superabundant, it is not [always] so" (OS p.133). We receive two different pictures of nature in this picture: the first in which nature is a place of plenty, with birds happily singing and having enough food to go round; the second in which birds are killing insects and crushing seeds to feed themselves, only later to be killed for the food of a predator, or die from lack of food. The use of the term "destroy" is interesting, as it implies that such processes of life and death are not cyclical, as with the 'circle of life' conception included within the first, more generous 'live and let live' view of nature. In the second 'Struggle for Existence' view, resources are limited or scarce rather than abundant; there is discord rather than harmony - nature is a constant zero-sum battle where the winners trounce the losers and increase in numbers as a result.

Of note is the fact that the idea of geometrical increase leading to limits of population and resource consumption was first crafted by Malthus and applied to human societies. Darwin himself admits that he borrowed this concept and applied it to nature - "This [Struggle for Existence] is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms" (OS p. 97). One must keep in mind that 'Struggle for Existence' is therefore very much a metaphor stemming from a uniquely negative/ cynical human philosophical view, not necessarily an accurate representation of the state of affairs in nature.

To his credit, Darwin is careful to point out this caveat: "I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny" (OS p. 133). For Darwin, cooperation and symbiosis are a part of the organismal striving for life, both of which are non-combative methods of survival - he merely uses the metaphor as an umbrella term to refer to all of these processes. Unfortunately, however, the pugnacious aspects of the metaphor are foregrounded throughout the chapter: "enemies" (OS p. 136, 137), "constantly suffering enormous destruction" (p. 137), "utter destruction" (p.138), "all cannot live" (p. 139), "great battle of life" (p. 142). And yet, Darwin is quick to admit, "in nature the relations can never be as simple as this... So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we... invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!" (OS p. 140). Isn't the Malthusian doctrine precisely an example of an invented law that attempts to place limits on the amount of life that can exist at a given time in a given space? Isn't war a severely limited conception of the kinds of events that occur in nature?

In operationalizing the combative narrative of nature with the employment of the 'Struggle for Existence' metaphor, Darwin endorses a narrative that justifies all manner of crude behaviors not only in nature, but also in human society. The evolution of the idea of "social Darwinism," which attributes what are essentially Spencerian ideas to Darwin, suggests that in using the phrase 'Struggle for Existence' without extreme care, Darwin unwittingly painted a 'dog-eat-dog' picture of nature and by extension society. This perhaps also naturalizes the idea that humans are on top - we fought our way up through the animal kingdom to get here and therefore deserve to be sovereign, no matter how many atrocities we may commit in the process of achieving and sustaining domination. In this process, a negative, confrontational human-nature relationship has been cemented.

Perhaps I am merely speaking as one member of the successful 'ruling' species that has successfully subdued all others when I say that life doesn't have to be a battle. "Of course you can say that," some witty squirrel might say to me, " you guys have won the battle, making it hard for all the rest of us to survive by warring on our habitat and natural environment in manifest ways. Now you want to wage peace at the crux of your empire." I do not deny that life and nature require struggle and competition - without some degree of difficulty, there would be no progress or change and thus no evolution; life would be easy, stagnant, and boring. However, I believe that war metaphors of nature and the accompanying narratives are more constricting and less accurate than more holistic narratives that rely on metaphors of cooperation, interconnectivity, and abundance. With a more optimistic and generous narrative of nature, we humans are better able to relate to each other and to the natural environment in which we live, harmoniously coexisting rather than being constantly embroiled in battle with each other and the rest of the biotic community. For this reason, I think Darwin would have done well to leave the doomsday narratives to Malthusian social philosophy and scrap or at least highly refine the 'Struggle for Existence' metaphor.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin's "struggle"

I'm inclined to agree with you that Darwin himself didn't have as war-like an understanding of biological evolution as others have made of it. He did indeed write explicitly about the opportunities that organisms open for each other and cooperation generally. But he also did, as you point out, make substantial use both of Malthus and of the "struggle for existence" phrase. Was Darwin conflicted here, as in other places? Or did he get caught in rhetorical/conceptual traps of his own devising? Or, perhaps, he understood that people pay more attention to some sorts of metaphors than others? (see Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor). It would be interesting to try and rewrite Origin of Species as you suggest, to see what the consequences would be both for the argument and for how it is responded to by others