In all that has thus far been said it should be clear that the greatness of Darwin’s achievement is being neither minimized nor denied. What is denied is its soundness, since it fails to tell the whole story. An incomplete or even a wrong theory can be the start ing-point of a sound one. And, indeed, the develop ment of science could well be written in terms of a history of fruitful errors. Darwin’s conception of nat ural selection is perhaps the most outstanding exam ple in the whole history of science of such a fruitful error. It is a conception which is only partially erro neous, firstly because it overemphasized the role of competition, and, secondly, because it failed to recog nize the importance of co-operation in evolution.
Natural selection is a sound enough principle, taken in the round. It has been operative in deter mining the fate of populations of organisms since the beginning of life. There is evidence, however, that it has been rather more operative in terms of co-op eration, than it has been in terms of what is gener ally understood by competition.
Today, contrary to the “nature, red in tooth and claw” school of natural selectionists, the evidence in creasingly indicates that natural selection does not act principally to favor variations which through a ruthless kind of competition better adjust the organ ism to its environment. Adjustment is, of course, nec essary, but the important point is that natural selec tion favors the co-operative, as opposed to the disoperative, struggle for life. To “struggle for life” is to be co-operative, for life is of its nature social and all activities calculated to maintain it in the individ ual and in the species are co-operative. As Delage and Goldsmith put it, “Natural selection always as serts itself and is a mighty factor, but how does its action make itself felt? Through the survival of those who know best how to make use of their aptitude for social life, which, in the universal struggle, becomes one of the most efficient weapons.”
This does not mean that under natural conditions the process of life does not involve some relationships which may be largely or exclusively ruthlessly com petitive. Natural selection frequently involves some kind of “competition,” but this competition need be no more ruthless than the competing of boys for a prize or persons sitting in a room unconsciously compet ing with each other or as a group with other groups for the air in the room which it is necessary for them to breathe if they are to survive. Furthermore, the type that ultimately contributes its gene complex to succeeding generations may have been more success ful than its ” competitors” because the requirements of the situation, over tIle course of biological time, placed a premium upon co-operation. From this point of view, then, co-operation would be said to have greater adaptive value in “the struggle for life.”
Professor Paul R. Burkholder concludes a notable study of this subject with the following words, “The most important basis for selection is the ability of associated components to work together harmoni ously in the organism and among organisms. All new genetic factors, whether they arise from within by mutation or are incorporated from without by vari ous means, are accepted or rejected according to their co-operation with associated components in the whole aggregation.”
We begin to understand, then, that evolution itself is a process which favors co-operating rather than disoperating groups, and that “fitness” is a function of the group as a whole rather than of separate indi viduals. The fitness of the individual is largely de rived from his membership in the group.
In so far as man is concerned, if competition, in its aggressive combative sense, ever had any adaptive value among men, which is greatly to be doubted, it is quite clear that it has no adaptive value whatever in the modem world. Today the adaptive value of human aggression is so low as to threaten the existence of all the members of groups exhibiting it. Perhaps never before in the history of man has there been so high a premium upon the adaptive value of co-opera tive behavior, of peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.
Natural selection through “competition” may se cure the immediate survival of certain types of “competitors,” but the survivors would not long sur vive if they did not co-operate. Darwin regarded natural selection as equivalent to preservation. That is evident from the title of his book: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It is also clear from a letter to H. G. Bronn in which he writes, “Man has altered, and thus im proved the English race-horse by selecting successive fleeter individuals; and I believe, owing to the strug gle for existence, that similar slight variations in a wild horse, if advantageous to it, would be selected or preserved by nature; hence, Natural Selection.”
Again in August, 1860, Darwin writes, “If I had to rewrite my book, I would use ‘natural preservation’ or ‘naturally preserved.’ ”
Although it may not have been obvious that organ isms are not selected for survival by means of natural selection through “competition,” it should have been clear that they could not be preserved by any other means than co-operation.
Ashley Montagu, 1952