Some years ago, I was inspired to read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. The urge had been driven by a single phrase, that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” that I kept running up against in various readings, most notably in the excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.
It isn’t surprising that all that remains in public consciousness from Leviathan is that phrase and a Hobbesian notion of social anarchy in the absence of an autocratic government. Apparently, I even wrote a glowing review of the book, so great was my revulsion for the book.
Despite that epic waste of my kindle battery life, it’s not a bad thing to go back to the source every once in a while.
Everyone knows The Origin of Species. Everyone knows Darwin. His theory of evolution forms the basis of our understanding of our past and our hopes for the future. He is in everything from biology to psychology. There are echoes of Darwinism in our understanding of great acts of altruism to the atrocities of eugenics and racial hygiene.
Here are my 3 takeaways from The Origin of Species.
1. Darwin skips the Homo Sapien
On discussing the origin of species, Darwin notably omits the mention of one specific species: humans.
Oh there is talk of horses and cattle, insects, flowers, trees, birds, bats, dogs, butterflies, pigeons. You don’t even know about pigeons until you read the Origin of Species (Darwin was a member of a pigeon club, which is still a thing).
The allusions to humans however are few and veiled, an implied extension of the principles of natural selection and Darwin’s hypothesis that many species evolved from a few, or even one. The closest he gets to mixing humans into the equation is this quote:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”
If we assume we are those “higher animals,” then we also must accept that we are just that: animals.
The Origin of Species was published in 1859. By the time he published his follow-up, The Descent of Man, in which he explicitly stated Homo sapien’s place in the evolutionary ladder, acceptance of the idea was widespread, as evidenced by this contemporary review of the book.
2. Survival of the Fittest: Darwin the Poet
If “nasty, brutish and short” distills the essence of Hobbes’ work, then “survival of the fittest” is certainly Darwin’s most enduring soundbite. I’ll admit I felt a chill the first time I read that phrase, as though I were witnessing the birth of a new age in those four words.
But “survival of the fittest” doesn’t tell the whole story; in fact it is oversimplification at best, a lazy shortcut at its worst. To ponder the beautiful complexity of the eye, for example, and to chalk it up to “survival of the fittest,” is downright boring. Of this complexity, Darwin writes:
“Almost every part of every organic being is so beautifully related to its complex conditions of life that it seems as improbable that any part should have been suddenly produced perfect, as that a complex machine should have been invented by man in a perfect state.”
Darwin could be a poet; however large parts of the book are devoted, necessarily or not, to tedious discussions on sterility and hybridism, what constitutes a species, and various breeds of pigeons, horses, plants, etc…What Hobbes is to mundane theological debate, Darwin is to stamens and pistils. However, one can infer that Darwin had to read books way more boring than his to gain his knowledge. He often spares us the worst of it.
Regardless of the dull passages, it takes someone with imagination to ask, as Darwin does:”How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one organic being to another being, been perfected?”
It takes imagination to ask, and imagination to answer.
3. Incipient Species
Darwin opens the book discussing differences between what constitutes a “species” vs. “variety.” He cites various sources with disparate opinions on the rules for a species. One rule of thumb is that members of the same species can produce fertile offspring, but Darwin easily finds exceptions. Several times, he mentions the possibility of “incipient species.”
I find the concept of “incipient species” fascinating because it promises hope.
In my workplace, leadership is modeled on the acronym SERVE. When I am asked to choose a letter and explain how I seek to embody that principal, I always choose “E” for “Evolve” because I believe evolution is possible, both on the grand scale and in individual lives. I believe that in spite of modern life short-circuiting the efficacy of “survival of the fittest,” we can still evolve. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many of us in the modern world have all of our basic needs met; we can choose to stop there, or we can choose to continue to improve and evolve. Evolve the world around us and evolve in ourselves, in tiny, incremental changes, just the way Darwin proposed life on earth evolved.
Darwin asked where we came from. It’s our job to ask where we go.
We like to think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, the human species as nature’s pinnacle, but there’s a warning in Darwin’s work too, as he writes “…the general rule being a gradual increase in number, until the group reaches its maximum, and then, sooner or later, a gradual decrease.” If we aren’t careful, extinction will one day stare us right in the face, which would be a shame for a species that has harnessed the power that enables me to send these words out into the world.