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LIFE THE TRAVELER
WHEN I was a boy and studied astronomy at school I thought of Kepler's radius vector as a real thing that played an important part in celestial mechanics. Later, in following Darwin's theory of animal evolution, I found the same tendency in myself and in others to objectify natural selection and regard it as a positive agent or principle that controlled and determined the origin of species.
Darwinians are prone to imply that Nature selects as man selects, by positive interference. Even so great a natural philosopher as Weismann speaks of natural selection as a positive force. He says in so many words that it "is the cause of a great part of the physical evolution of organisms on the earth – the guiding factor of evolution which creates what is new out of the transmissible variations, by ordering and arranging them, selecting them in relation to their number and size, as the architect does his building stone, so that a particular style may result"! (The italics are mine.) Natural selection, then, according to this ultra-Darwinian, is something that knows what it wants from the first, as the architect does when he begins his building, or as the breeder does, say, when he sets out to produce a pouter or a tumbler pigeon.
In his work on "Heredity," Weismann proceeds further to illustrate his conception of the positive character of natural selection in originating new species, by comparing it to a traveler on a journey. His traveler proceeds from a certain point on foot by short stages at any given time and in any direction – the direction being determined by the lay of the land, and by its features of mountain, wood, and stream, and other obstacles. He will take the line of least resistance. But if he is a real traveler, and not a vagrant, an aimless wanderer in the wilderness, will he not be going somewhere, aiming at some predetermined goal? Some purpose, and not the lay of the land, set him traveling; he will keep, in a general way, a given direction. His course will be modified more or less by the obstacles he encounters, but these obstacles will not keep him going, nor determine his goal.
Will the organizing impulse, set aimlessly wandering in the wilderness of inert matter, and taking only the line of least resistance, finally attain to all the beautiful and wonderful living forms that people the earth? Will it evolve the fish, the bird, the mammal, and finally man? Do we find anything in the constitution of the primary elements that foreshadows these things? Or in organized matter itself? Could we infer the bird from the reptile? or man from the unreasoning brute?
Even if we accept Weismann's conception of natural selection as like unto a man on a journey in a pathless wilderness, do we not still want some explanation of why he has undertaken the journey and what his ultimate goal may be? A man lost in the woods or in the desert wanders blindly on in a circle and gets nowhere. Could evolution ever have arrived at man, had not man, in some way beyond our power to grasp, been potential in the primal organizing impulse? And so of all other forms? But Weismann's traveler does not know where he is going; he goes where "the most tortuous and winding route leads him." There is no intelligence in the matter, there is only blind groping. Then Weismann's traveler starts on his journey as one of the very low forms of life, and by sheer luck, and by blindly running the gantlet of all the countless hazards of the long geologic ages, he ends as man. Other forms on the same journey, through the law of probability, end as reptiles, or birds, or butterflies, or quadrupeds. It is all a chance throw of the dice. A stream of water starting on the mountainside takes the easiest way and reaches the river or the lake or the sea. It is all a matter of physics. Whether it flow north or south or east or west depends upon the lay of the land. All its loopings and doublings are, in a measure, accidental. But it ends as it began, a stream of water and only that. But the stream of We begins in definite forms, and, as it flows on, changes perpetually and increasingly into higher and more complex forms. Its physics and chemistry are the same as that of the stream of nonliving bodies, its elements are the same, but changes and transformations take place of which non-living forms know nothing. Of course the fortuitous plays a part in the course of the living as in that of the non-living, but it plays an entirely secondary part. The seeds that fall upon rocky or barren places do not sprout, and they fall where the chance winds or floods drop them.
We may never be able to make a logical statement about this something here hinted at, but that there is no controlling purpose in organic nature, that the eye, the heart, the brain of man, are mere molecular accidents, like a profile in the rocks, or a face in the clouds, is unthinkable. Natural selection does not work on dead things, and it does not beget life, and in the origin of species it can play only a secondary part. As has been said, it may, in a measure, account for the survival of the fittest, but not for the arrival of the fittest.
Natural selection is only a name for a weeding-out or eliminating process, and were it not for the inherent tendency to development which organisms possess, coupled with the variations that result from environmental influences, natural selection would have nothing to go upon. It is the conflict between the push of life and the obstacles which it encounters that results in the survival of the fittest. The prime factor in the origin of species is this aboriginal push or organizing tendency, the modifying factor is the stress of the environment. Are we not compelled to look upon organic nature as a whole, and to say that it knows from the first what it wants, and the means to obtain it? Could any struggle for life of the lower organisms have resulted in the higher forms had not these forms been in some way predicated in the lower? The German biologist and philosopher makes this struggle creative. It does not merely bring out inherent capabilities, it begets those capabilities de novo. Natural selection is all-potent. "No leaves or flowers," he says, "no digestion or system, no lungs, legs, wings, bones, or muscles were present in the primitive forms, and all these must have arisen from them according to the principle of natural selection." Natural selection invented and perfected the wonderful piece of mechanism we know as the human body. The kidneys, the liver, the lungs, the heart, the brain, the eye, the hand, the double circulation, – all the result of chance, or the hit-and-miss method of the blind, irrational physical and chemical forces!
Why these forces left some forms so low down in the animal scale, and carried others so much higher up, does not appear. Natural selection has shown great partiality. Weismann admits that "these primitive forms were in a certain sense predestined to development." The traveler was predestined to get out of the woods and reach his goal, but only in case he had a goal, and knew in what direction it lay.
Does not the plasticity of living forms, their power of adaptation, their capacity to profit by fortuitous circumstances, imply something super-mechanical and super-chemical that natural selection could neither give nor take away?
Behold an army on a forced march; see the weak and incompetent fall out and drop by the wayside. That is natural selection, the survival of the fittest; only the strongest and the least handicapped reach the goal. The only positive things are the plans of the commanding general and the impulse that sends the troops forward. Darwin himself never looked upon natural selection as a cause, or in any sense a directing agent, but as a name for a process – a sifting process that led to the survival of the most fit. Darwinism makes no account of the evolutionary impulse – the constant push of life that lies back of, and makes possible, this drama of creation. Development implies an inward tendency to development, something that profits by development. The myriad of living forms could only arrive under the pressure of an organizing tendency in living matter. Natural selection may trim the tree, but it does not plant it, nor make it grow, nor prescribe one form to the pine and another to the oak. Do we not have to think of all these things as involved in the mystery of the evolutionary impulse itself? What that impulse is, in the terms of the rest of our knowledge, or whence it comes, or how it adheres to matter, is one of the fundamental mysteries.
Biologists who hold to the mechanistic conception of life, or to its explanation in terms of chemistry and physics, lose their reckoning when confronted by the strange power of regeneration which certain low forms of animals possess, and which the higher forms do not possess. The body of the newt has power to grow a new eye to take the place of a lost one, and to reproduce it by a new process, radically different from the process that gave it the first eye. This, and other like phenomena, to my mind can be interpreted only in terms of intelligence. Such a procedure transcends all we know of chemistry and physics. Something in the body knows what it wants, and knows how to proceed to obtain it. The impulse or organizing tendency that certainly had a beginning in geologic time is equally mysterious, and equally beyond the reach of the chemical and physical forces as we know them in the inorganic world. I am compelled to think of this impulse as inherent in matter, and as involved in the physicochemical forces, but I am aware that this form of words throws no light upon the mystery.
The water from the fountain seeks the easiest course to the lake or the river; the river seeks the easiest course to the sea; but the prime cause of its seeking, of its flowing, is the mystery we call gravity. Is there anything in the constitution of water, or in the laws of hydrostatics, from which we could predict or infer the tides, did we not look beyond the tides and beyond the earth itself? Running water selects the sand, the silt, the gravel, from the soil, and deposits each in separate places, but here again the result is the working of the law of gravity. This is natural selection without struggle or competition. Only living things struggle. The living world is always pitted against the nonliving, and it is this conflict that constitutes the drama of evolution; the one is flexible, adaptive, compromising; the other is rigid, stereotyped, remorseless. Only in so far as life overcomes and uses the obduracy of matter is it life, and on the road to development. We are thus compelled to speak of life as an entity, as we do of gravity and chemical affinity, when in the one case as in the other we can only mean a specific activity or tendency in matter. Science with its rigid methods cuts the ground from under our feet and we have recourse to philosophy to save ourselves from falling into the bottomless abyss.
More than any other man of our era, Charles Darwin has contributed to the tremendous growth which biological science has made in our time. No matter whether his theory of natural selection as an adequate explanation of the origin of species stands the test of time or not, it aroused men's minds to the feasibility of the subject for scientific investigation. The questions Darwin put to Nature were all fruitful and stimulating. Whether he got the right answers or not, he showed men how to question and cross-question her, and showed that she was not so dumb as we had thought. Darwin loosed the whole animal world from its moorings in the theory of the fixity of species, and set it afloat on the sea of change. His solution of the origin of the various forms is bound to be greatly modified, may be negatived altogether, but he did a mighty service to biological science in simply raising the question of their instability, and in calling attention to the natural grounds upon which their stereotyped characters may be questioned. Life is so fluid and elastic, so various and adaptive, that, on a priori grounds, one would say that species are not rigid and fixed. Darwin's proof that they are not is overwhelming, and his provisional explanation of how their origin was brought about is stimulating it not convincing. He was a great, honest, patient, penetrating investigator, and his inquiries put biological science in the front ranks of the great sciences, alongside of astronomy and geology, making with them the great trinity of sciences.
Darwin made no attempt to grapple with the question of the nature and origin of life itself, but only with the evolution of the many forms of life. He was not a laboratory naturalist, but a student of the drama of animate nature as it is enacted on the earth's surface. He held to the special and miraculous creation theory of his fathers, but limited it to one or more forms. Out of this beginning he thought, through the fortuitous operation of natural selection, all the myriad forms of life have been evolved. This is Darwinism in its simplest terms – a miraculous beginning of life, but a natural unfolding. Is it not like asking us to credit the immaculate conception, followed by the birth of a normal baby, and its normal development into child and man?
Darwin formed his ideas of natural selection upon artificial selection, but the two are fundamentally unlike. There is an active agent involved in the one case, which has specific and limited ends to attain, and hence which thwarts the tendencies of nature. But what is the active agent corresponding to man, in the other? Natural selection is the name for a process set going and kept going by the evolutionary impulse. It is natural rejection as well. It is not an arbitrary interference with the course of nature, like artificial selection. It is not the name of a force or of an active principle, as seems so often implied, but an explanation of the survival of the fittest, or the best equipped, for the natural competitions of life. Artificial selection is man at the helm guiding the vessel; natural selection, on Darwin's own theory of fortuitous variation, is like a fleet of vessels unequally equipped, all drifting with the wind and tide, and only the most stanch and seaworthy ones by good luck reaching some port.
When Darwin declares that "if organic beings had not possessed an inherent tendency to vary, man could have done nothing" in modifying species or in developing new ones, he unwittingly takes the process of evolution out of the mechanical or automatic series, and places it in another and higher order; he recognizes the original push of life which is the central thought of Bergson's "Creative Evolution." Variability is certainly a characteristic of living bodies to an extent and in a sense that it is not characteristic of non-living. Creative evolution is only the principle of growth illustrated by the whole biological series; there is the inherent tendency to grow, to develop, which is characteristic of all life. It may be true that the initial variation is caused by slight changes in the conditions of life, yet the variations could not be initiated in a non-growing, a non-vital, a non-developing body. Darwin had a vision of spontaneously varying organisms, the form their variations should take determined by outward conditions, or contingent upon them, but the inward push and plasticity of life is implied in his theories. He saw a world of living forms arise and people the earth under the action of natural selection, but natural selection working on an ever-growing, expanding, irrepressible, self-renewing vital impulse. Natural selection can do nothing without variation, and variation springs from an inherent tendency to vary. Outward conditions determine in the same way the course and the form that water from a fountain shall assume, but it plays no part in the pushing and flowing properties of the water itself. Darwin took pains to say that "there is no innate or necessary tendency in each being to its own advancement in the scale of organization," but is not the innate tendency to vary the first step in this advancement?
None of man's ways throw light on Nature's ways. Man works to specific or partial ends. Nature works to universal ends. Artificial selection throws no light on natural selection, because man singles out one or more forms and favors them against all others, whereas Nature favors all forms and multiplies her types endlessly. She has no choice of types, but favors the more perfect of a given type as against the imperfect. The weak and the strong in animal life alike succeed if each is complete, or well equipped of its kind; the mouse gets on as well as the lion, if it is a perfect mouse. The weak, the unfit, fall out because of their scant measure of life-force. Natural selection works to harden and confirm a species, but plays no part in originating it.
If the unfit arrives, it is cut off by the stress of the struggle for life, but it is unfit only so far as it is malformed or feeble; the unfit in any other sense never arrives. I saw a two-headed trout recently in a collection of several hundred thousand fingerlings. It was a year old. It was unfit to survive, and in a state of nature would soon have perished, but it had been isolated and carefully looked after. Artificial selection had preserved it. How long it can preserve it against natural selection is a question. Tumbler and pouter and fan-tailed pigeons are all preserved by artificial selection against the working of natural selection. Nature's interest lies not in such extreme forms, but in forms nearer the mean – the rock dove, the wood pigeon, the band-tailed pigeon, and the like. The myriad forms of fish in the water, of birds and insects in the air, of quadrupeds and bipeds on the land, are all equally fit to survive and do survive, because each has its full measure of life, and finds its place in the total scheme of life. If the invertebrate gave rise to the vertebrate, or the reptile gave rise to the bird, or the lower mammals gave rise to the higher, it was not because the former were unfit to survive; they did survive, and still survive, but because the evolutionary impulse is inherent in the first forms of life, and was stimulated, rather than stamped out, by the vicissitudes of time. "No statement of the universe," says the wise Emerson, "can have any soundness that does not admit of its ascending effort." Is it thinkable that man could have arisen from the manlike apes by the mere clash and friction of an irrational environment alone? Is one man superior to another by reason of outward conditions, and the discipline of life alone? Is the secret of Plato or Paul or Shakespeare or Lincoln in the keeping of pans and pots? Man arose from his humbler ancestors because the manward impulse, in some way beyond our ken, was inherent in the evolutionary impulse. Man was potential in the monkey. He might never have arrived had the race of apes, or some kindred tree-living form, been cut off, say in Oligocene times. But it was not cut off, and here we are, and rather ashamed of our forebears. One has to say that all other forms of life, down to the flea and the cockroach, were also potential in the life-impulse – the enemies of man as well as his friends.
The three-toed woodpecker evidently gets on as well as the four-toed; the downy as well as his larger and more powerful brother, the hairy; the creepers and the nuthatches, with their slender beaks, as well as those with powerful beaks; animals without legs, as snakes, as well as animals with legs; and the bipeds flourish as well as the quadrupeds; birds without the power of flight also flourish; animals with horns succeed no better than animals without horns. Natural selection works in each species, weeding out the weak and the imperfect, but the competition among species has only the effect of clinching and developing the species, not in originating new ones.
The struggle for life, outside of man's disturbing influence, is not so much a struggle of the weak against the strong, or of one form against another, as it is a struggle of the plant or animal with its environment. If there were but one plant, or one animal, or one tree on the earth, the life of that one individual would be a struggle, much more, of course, in some parts of the earth, and in certain climates, than in others, and the severer the struggle within certain limits, the greater the tenacity of life. An oak-tree growing amid the rocks and on a scanty soil has tougher fibre but less size and grace of form than the tree growing on an alluvial plain. A life is made strong by the obstacles it overcomes. We do not feel the force of the wind or the tide when we go with them. The balloonist rides in a profound calm. Life is a struggle always. Only living things struggle; in the organic world alone is there an activity that is an effort. There is activity in all matter, visible and invisible activity, the end of which is to reach an equilibrium.
The key-word of evolution is organic effort, the inherent impetus of life. No conjuring with merely mechanical forces can, in my opinion, account for the upward or aspiring tendency of organic nature. Life struggled out of the fish into the reptile, and out of the reptile into the bird, but left these forms still flourishing behind it. According to natural selection these unfit forms ought all to have gone out. The fish is as fit to survive as the reptile, and the reptile as fit as the bird and the mammal, and the mammal as fit as man; the invertebrate as fit as the vertebrate. The individuals of these species that do not survive are cut off by accident largely, then by reason of low vitality, or a scant measure of life. The competition with other living forms plays only a secondary part. I fancy that all the animals of any and every kind that are well born, that is, with a normal life endowment, thrive equally well and survive equally well, except so far as accident enters into the problem. If food is scarce, they go hungry together, until those enfeebled by age and other things are eliminated.
The variations which lead up to the formation of a new species are so insensible, they stretch over such a vast period of time, that their survival value from generation to generation is and must be very slight.
Take the case of the horse, for instance. The development of the horse seems to stretch over a period of at least three millions of years, or from the eohippus of Eocene times, an animal less than two feet high, and probably weighing less than one hundred pounds, to the horse of later Tertiary times, the pliohippus, much like the superb creature we know to-day, five feet high, and weighing ten or twelve hundred pounds. If this animal increased in height only one quarter of an inch in ten thousand years, he would be six feet high in less than two million years. So if we allow him three million years to develop in, his increase in height must have been even less than one fourth of an inch in ten thousand years. Think of it! Our horse of to-day might be increasing or diminishing in size at that rate and the fact never be noticed during the whole historic period. In weight the same; one eighth of a pound in one hundred years, and he would weigh fourteen thousand pounds in less than two million years, a rate of increase that our scales would hardly detect in a century of time. The transformations of the other animals have probably been equally slow. Science would feel safe in saying that a flying fish never becomes a bird, but can we conceive how slight the change would have to be in every one thousand years to bring it about in geologic or biologic time?
Where does such an estimate leave natural selection? Of what survival advantage to the eohippus could the gain of an inch in height in forty thousand years, or of one pound of weight in four hundred years, amount to? Such an application of mathematics to the problems of evolution leaves us with the conviction that there is something else at work besides natural selection. Could natural selection work on a capital of a gain of the one one-hundredth of an inch in height in four hundred years? – assuming, of course, that the gain was uniform. Must there not have been an inherent tendency to increase in size and to all the various modifications – a primal push, as Bergson urges? With man it has, no doubt, been the same. His evolution has been so infinitely slow, that the mechanical conception of it is utterly inadequate. It is very certain that his line of descent in Miocene times was through a small animal form probably no larger than a new-born baby.
Or take the case of the elephant. These forms changed and enlarged under the discipline of their environment, the augmenting force or impulse within always meeting and filling the changing needs from without. The size of the channel of the stream kept pace with the increasing size of the stream. The stream branches or divides when some obstacle intervenes; but the obstacle does not account for the new branch, but only for the form it takes and the direction it flows. The four-toed horse was evidently just as fit to survive as the one-toed, as is evinced by the fact that it did survive for millions of years, but it eventuated in a series of progressive forms because of the push of life meeting and utilizing the changing outward conditions.
Life got out of the sea upon the land and developed lungs instead of gills, and legs instead of fins, not because the competition in the sea drove it out, but because of this primal push and aspiration to new forms.
Life is so flexible and adaptive, the table which Nature spreads for her creatures is so varied and bountiful, that the most delicate and minute forms survive as well as the large and powerful, and finally outlast them. Size and strength count in the arena where they are the determining factors. If other things did not count, the vast army of lesser creatures, with man at their head, would not have been here. The early gigantic forms did not prevail. The savage and powerful carnivorous animals do not exterminate the weaker herbivorous. Professor Bailey well says that "the minor things and the weak things are the most numerous, and they have played the greatest part in the polity of nature." "The whole contrivance of Nature is to protect the weak." Rather, I should say, Nature has a thousand contrivances to protect the weak and defenseless.
Henri Bergson's conception of the creative energy as struggling with matter, hampered and delayed, and often defeated by it, subject to what we call chance or contingency, like us mortals, taking half a loaf when it cannot get a whole one, seems to be a fruitful conception in explaining the condition of life as we see it, past and present, on this planet. There has been a steady struggle and progression toward higher forms from the first. The creative energy shows itself to be very human, very fallible, often vacillating and short-sighted. Indeed, man is the image of his maker in this respect. God has gone on with his work very much as man goes on with his – blundering, experimenting, but doing the best he could. I spent an hour in a medical museum recently and was nearly made sick by what I saw there – such failures, such monstrosities, such miscarriages of life, such deformities, such evidence of pain and agony, men no more exempt in this respect than pigs or monkeys, children impotent to be born, or brainless, or with only one eye. What did it all mean? It meant, if it meant anything, that the life-impulse, or life-energy, was subject to the accidents and uncertainties of time and chance, before birth as after, and that we are part of a system of things that seems struggling to a goal, but is delayed in reaching it, and, furthermore, that the goal is not an end in itself. The Eternal seems to indulge creative energy just as an artist does for the sake of self-expression – the joy of creation. The cosmic energy seems to have no other end than this. It fills the world with life just to see it struggle and develop. The earth is a canvas of living pigments, or a page of living words, or a score of living chords, and the picture or the poem or the symphony is for the joy of self-activity. The picture is in high lights and low lights, it is shaded with suffering and pain and failure; the poem halts and is full of dull and prosaic as well as of lyric passages; the symphony is full of discords as well as of harmonies.
Nothing is plainer, I think, than that forms of life of the same species begin life with different degrees of vitality, whatever that may be. Of a thousand spears of corn in May, some will stand a frost better than others; nine hundred may be killed and one hundred may live. The same is true of many other plants. Occasionally a severe freeze in May will kill ninety or ninety-five per cent of the young shoots on a grapevine. Expose a thousand babies six months old to the same test, and the result will probably be as variable; a fraction of them will survive a test that would prove fatal to the majority. Of a thousand eggs of any bird or fowl subjected to the same test, a few will pull through when the majority will perish. In a state of nature, of course, the exposure to the cold will be greater in some cases than in others, and the test of endurance will not be equal, but I am thinking of equality of exposure. Or, subject any number of living animals or men to test trials of labor or of cold, or of deprivation of food, and a few of each will distance the majority. Of our various kinds of farm and garden seeds, ninety or more per cent will, under the right conditions of soil, warmth, and moisture, sprout the first season; usually less than fifty per cent, the second season, and a still smaller percentage, the third season; all of which indicates the different degrees of vital power which living things possess. No doubt the secret resides in certain peculiar properties of the somatic cells or of their arrangement – which is past finding out. The races of all forms of life have been tested in some such way by outward conditions for untold ages, and the weaker have been eliminated. The process has resulted in deepening the hold of each upon life, or has increased their hardiness, till life is as we see it to-day. Man interferes with this weeding-out process in his own species; the weak are shielded and preserved, and the fund of vitality of the whole is thus depleted. It is no figure of speech to say of certain men that they have a deep hold upon life, – an abounding, or plus, vitality, – while the opposite is true of others. In a brood of chickens or a litter of pigs or of puppies this inequality of the gift of vitality is often very pronounced; it of course has its prenatal causes, but they are involved in the hidden activities of the cells. The term "a good constitution" has a scientific value, though quite beyond the tests of scientific analysis. The term "constitution" is only a name for a certain totality of physical endowment, as the word "vitality" is only a name for certain activities in matter; but if the latter has no standing in the court of science or of philosophy, neither could the former have standing. Yet how very real both are to us. The diathesis of a person – his predisposition to certain diseases – is a very real factor in his physical life. No doubt by artificial or arbitrary selection a race of very long-lived men might be developed. By allowing only the offspring of long-lived parents to marry, the term of human life could doubtless be greatly lengthened. But Nature does not work on this plan. She constantly crosses these opposite tendencies, because her solicitude is not about the few, the exceptional, but about the many, or the average. Tall men are prone to marry short women, one temperament to unite with its complementary, the robust with the delicate. Robert Browning marries the invalid Elizabeth Barrett. In the human species Nature thus brings up the average, and prevents the too great dominance of any one type.
The struggle of life with life results in deepening the hold of both sides upon life, because it increases effort. It develops cunning, it develops speed, it develops strength, it develops weapons. The weak, those whose measure of life is scant, fail or fall out. It is not this struggle that develops new species; it is this struggle that hardens and perfects species; it eliminates the unfit, but does it hasten the fit? No scientific explanation of this fullness of life, this power of adaptation, is possible. The resistance of the environment, or of outward obstacles, may account for variation, as the obstacles in the way of a stream of water account for the form and changing course of the stream; but it does not account for the onward flow or the constant push of the water – only the inherent nature of water and gravitation account for this. Indeed, the full genesis of the fountain and flowing stream involves the sun, the clouds, the rains, the shape of the land surfaces, and the break in the deadlock of the elements which all these things bring about. Science easily sees through this riddle, but the explanation of the organic effort that seems to pervade nature is, in its final terms, beyond the reach of science. Science can duplicate or repeat the formation of the fountain and the stream, even to the formation of water from its two constituent gases, but it cannot repeat the genesis of living matter without the aid of other living matter. The cows in the pasture crop off the tender shoots of the young red-thorn and apple-trees, and thus increase the struggle of the sapling to become a tree. They do not eliminate it; they retard its growth and add to its toughness.
All these considerations illustrate how living things straggle with and against one another and survive. All the grasses and the herbs of the field struggle in the same way. If they are exterminated, it is usually by fire or by flood, or by protracted drought, or other elemental agencies. But not always. The chestnut blight which has lately attacked our chestnut-trees threatens to exterminate the whole race; the potato-beetle would doubtless, if left alone, exterminate the potato; the currant-worm, exterminate the currant; but these pests would not be factors in developing new species. There would be no survival of the fittest; all would go. With the myriad forms of life that have become extinct during the geologic ages, doubtless similar agents were at work; enemies or unfavorable conditions, or some mysterious failure in the springs of life, have led to their disappearance. Natural selection has played no part. Adaptation implies adaptability – something fluid and mobile – which is characteristic of life. Osborn says that certain characters are adaptive from their first appearance. Are not all characters adaptive from the first? Do not all organs have an inherent tendency to shape themselves for the use of the organism? Does natural selection do any pruning here? The eye, from its first appearance as a pigmented spot in the earliest form, is adapted for seeing, the ear for hearing, the teeth for cutting and grinding. Life knows what it wants from the start. I do not believe that there is any blind groping in the organism. The blind groping begins when the organism begins to live, or to find its way in the world. Then it comes in contact with blind forces whose cooperation it needs, but which heed it not. Then it must fit itself to its environment by the trial-and-error process.
The winds and air-currents do help to explain the winged seeds, but do not help to explain why Nature is so much more solicitous about some seeds than about others. What a beautiful and ingenious device is the delicate parachute of the dandelion-seed, and the balloon of the thistle! but scores of other troublesome plants have no such device.
What possible advantage can it be to the honeybee that it should lose its sting, and hence its life, in the wound it inflicts – any more than it would be to the advantage of a man to lose his sword in the flesh of his enemy, and have his arm pulled out of the socket into the bargain? The wasps and hornets and bumblebees live to sting another day; why should this cruel fate attend only the honeybee? Why should the drone fertilize the queen at the cost of his own life? Where is the gain to the swarm? Where does natural selection come in?
When we begin to ask the whys and the wherefores of Nature's doings, our human standards soon fail us. No plummet can sound these depths. Why does one species often destroy another, or why a parasite exterminate its host and thus exterminate itself?
There are no rational checks in Nature – all is left to chance; and the scheme works because Nature has all power and all time. There is no other, no rival. The All can go its own way; to play the game, to win and lose – the stakes are Nature's in any event.
Our little plans and wants are specific, individual, but our activities are hemmed in by general laws which work to no special end. We row and steam against the currents and against the winds; we check or thwart or control the natural forces: this is life as opposed to gravity; but life could not oppose gravity without the aid of gravity. Thus are we a part of that from which we seek to detach ourselves, and are kept going by the force we seek to overcome.