I’ve wanted for some time to write this note, but have hesitated because there are so many others who know Darwin far better than I. Nonetheless, I have a certain conviction I’d like to share. Two minds seem to be at work as Darwin surveys the natural world and its evolution. One sees natural selection in terms of confrontations between individuals or species in the search for limited resources. We all know that scenario, which in most of our discussions has become the very paradigm of Darwinian selection.
But Darwin has unmistakably another line of thought, which grasps the utter complexity of the selection process: not as a competition between individuals, but as a system whose complexity defies analysis. If we were to make an improvement in a breed in order to increase its chances of survival, we would not, he remarks, know what to do. In another passage, he remarks on the flourishing of a certain flower in one particular English village. What advantage does this plant have here, which it lacks elsewhere? The answer, he has decided, is the absence of dogs. (Dogs, he reasons, eat cats; cats eat mice; mice eat seeds.) I’ve forgotten why there are no dogs, it might be some village regulation. Whatever it is, there lies the strength of the flower: not in its own design alone, but in the structure of that ecosystem, which has at least for a time stabilized in a pattern collective survival –a pattern, we might say simply, of collective health.
This I believe is an overriding principle, which we have tended since Darwin’s time to miss. That principle, almost systematically ruled out of all facets of our thinking – even our very ideas of medicine or science itself, is the overriding concept of organism, the recognition that we live, flourish and evolve as a whole – not as a sum of individual parts. Only in recent years have we begun to study ecosystems, of all sorts and levels, as wholes. As a society, we’re far behind the demands pressing upon us in catching Darwin’s other, and I believe higher, insight.
The stereotype in describing the components of living systems, to ever-higher levels of resolution, is mechanism. Wrong! We will never understand living organisms as summations of mechanisms. A living system is a different concept altogether from a machine, and study of it calls for different strategies, and different conceptual tools.
Much new work is being done now in the spirit of this new understanding. I’ve found exciting studies of ecosystems to which I want to call attention in an upcoming blog posting. Indeed, it’s not a new thought on this blogsite, which has traced the idea of organism back to its rich source in the writings of Aristotle, and fast-forward through western history to Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange, Maxwell, Hamilton, Feynman and modern physics. But in the din of our celebration of Newton, isolation and competition, we haven’t heard, or perhaps have deliberately rejected, these other voices. We’ve caught only the lesser of the two voices of Charles Darwin.