Charles Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest remains a sacred idea in science—no indeed, in modern Western culture. The imagined war of every organism against every other represents a profound enculturation of science, prejudicing theories and obscuring the facts. The evidence, however, clearly shows that nature is not competitive but cooperative.
“Charles Darwin was a master of metaphor, and much of his success may be attributed to his uncanny feel for timely comparisons that virtually compel understanding,” according to Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. The principal metaphors used by Darwin were the struggle for existence and natural selection. Gould finds these “wonderfully apt and poetic.”
In the Introduction to On the Origin of Species (1859, the first edition), Darwin credited Malthus for his first principal metaphor: “The Struggle for Existence… is the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” He reiterated the argument given in Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principles of Population: The growth of population necessarily outstrips food supply, leading to inevitable struggle for limited resources, to war, famine, and disease, resulting in life for the winners and death for the losers. In Chapter III of the fifth and final edition of On the Origin of Species (1869), Darwin acknowledged for the first time that “the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate” than his own term, natural selection.
Before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin, under the pressure of Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent formulation of natural selection, declared that “all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature. Seeing the contented face of nature, this may at first well be doubted; but reflection will inevitably prove it to be true.” Wallace had also proclaimed that animals and plants were locked in “a struggle for existence, in which the weakest and least perfectly organized must always succumb.”
In modern Western culture, competition is an idée fixe, so that no philosophical proof or scientific evidence is necessary to validate the claim that competition rules nature. Competition and the resulting survival of the fittest are so embedded in the public consciousness that I do not think they can be dislodged. These idées fixes are seen as so obvious and so fundamental as to render all opposition futile. Nevertheless, I intend to argue that competition is rare in nature and thus the metaphor survival of the fittest must be replaced.
How Nature Prevents Competition
Similar species living together avoid competition by dividing the habitat into ecological niches. The habitat is where an organism lives; the niche is its profession.
The presence of one species no more harms another species with a different livelihood than “the practice of a doctor harms the trade of a mechanic living in the same village,” to use a comparison of ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Niche means not only the physical space the plant or animal uses, but also how it fits into the community: Whether it is a food producer, consumer, or decomposer; how it uses energy sources; what predators and prey it may have; and its period of activity.
Among the most thoroughly documented principles in the science of ecology is the dictum that two species never occupy the same niche. Each plant species occupies a distinct niche: Some specialize in sandy soil, others in rich humus; some prefer acidic soil, others alkaline; some exploit the early growing season, others the late; some get by because they are tiny, others because they are huge.
Plant physiologist Frits Went observes that “in the desert, where want and hunger for water are the normal burden of all plants, we find no fierce competition for existence, with the strong crowding out the weak. On the contrary, the available possessions—space, light, water, and food—are shared and shared alike by all. If there is not enough for all to grow tall and strong, then all remain smaller. This factual picture is very different from the time-honored notion that nature’s way is cut-throat competition among individuals.”
Food specialization is one of the simplest ways the animal species avoid competition. Along the shore of Lake Mweru in Central Africa, three species of yellow weaver birds live side by side without struggle. They do not fight over food, since one species eats only hard black seeds, another eats only soft green seeds, and the third only insects. Twenty different insects feed on the North American white pine without competition, because five species eat only foliage, three species concentrate on buds, three on twigs, two on wood, two on roots, one on bark, and four on the cambium.
Sometimes spatial division of the habitat is sufficient to prevent competition. Five species of cone-shelled, carnivorous snails live segregated from each other in five parallel strips along the shores of Hawaii, where within each strip each species attacks with poison darts a unique group of prey. The space that defines a niche need not be large or far away from others: Three different species of mite occupy three different areas of the honey bee’s body as their niches.
Dividing the habitat in terms of time is another strategy nature uses to prevent competition. Most habitats support two ecological communities, the diurnal and the nocturnal. During the day, bees, butterflies, weasels, most lizards, and most birds are active. At dusk they retire, and the night shift takes over, including cockroaches, moths, mice, bats, and owls. Moths feed on white or pale-yellow flowers that open only at night, thereby avoiding competition with bees and butterflies.
Because each species has its own niche and its own task, fights between animals of different species are exceedingly rare, if they occur at all. Lorenz after many years of studying fish remarks, “Never have I seen fish of two different species attacking each other, even if both are highly aggressive by nature.” Lions often steal the kills of cheetah, but there is never a struggle. The cheetah, much too wise to take on an opponent more than double its weight, abandons its prey without a fight. The same prudent retreat occurs if a monarch eagle intrudes on a smaller eagle’s meal of carrion. The smaller bird withdraws without protest and waits until the monarch eats its fill. Ecologist Daniel Colinvaux puts it succinctly: “A fit animal is not one that fights well, but one that avoids fighting altogether.”
How Species Cooperate
Peaceful coexistence among animals and plants is only part of the story. Nature’s manner is not merely peaceful coexistence but cooperation. Biologist David Kirk declares, “It is doubtful whether there is an animal alive that does not have a symbiotic relationship with at least one other life form.” An organism can be helpful to another by providing food, protection from predators, a place to live, transportation, or by ridding the other organism of pests. The innumerable cooperative associations between different species constitute one of the most intriguing subject areas in all natural science. The variety and subtlety of interdependence is astounding. A few examples will give some idea of the magnitude of this mutual interdependence among living things.
The simplest service one organism can offer another is a place to stay. The sea worm Urechis campo is nicknamed “the innkeeper,” because it regularly harbors various fish, mollusks, arthropods, and annelids—up to thirteen species—in the U-shaped burrow it makes in California’s coastal mudflats. Though able to live independently, the lodgers reside in the worm’s tube for protection, some of them feeding on whatever Urechis brings in but does not consume. The snapping shrimp shares a burrow with the goby fish; the burrow is built and tended by the blind shrimp, and the keen-eyed goby provides protection by watching out for danger, so that in case of danger, both can retreat into the safety of the shared burrow. (See illustration. )
Bacteria and protozoans have developed symbiosis with hundreds of ruminants, including elephants, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, giraffes, deer, and antelopes, digesting cellulose for these animals and thriving in one of their multiple stomachs.
Another service one animal can offer another is cleaning, an important service for animals that are anatomically incapable of cleaning their own bodies. The arrangement is mutually beneficial since the client is rid of parasites and the cleaner gets fed. Among land animals the tickbird cleans the rhinoceros, egrets clean various cattle, and the Egyptian plover enters the mouth of the crocodile to feed on leeches and emerges unharmed.
On the report of marine biologist Conrad Limbaugh, the cleaner-client association “represents one of the primary relationships in the community in the sea.” Known cleaners include some forty-two species of fish, six shrimps, and Beebe’s crab.
Cleaners establish fixed stations that are visited by numerous species of fish. The client fish approaches the station and poses, allowing the cleaner to forage within its gills and even to enter its mouth without danger. No one yet knows what prevents ordinarily voracious fish from eating the cleaners. Limbaugh found that the cleaners could prevent the spread of bacterial infections that would normally prove fatal to the client. He concludes, “The extent of cleaning behavior in the ocean emphasizes the role of cooperation in nature as opposed to the tooth-and-claw struggle for existence.”
Certain large animals support whole communities of species. The elephants of Sri Lanka are sloppy eaters and make much forage available to other browsers. In a single day ten elephants can deposit on the forest floor a ton of feces. None of that dung is wasted: Butterflies and beetles feed on it; birds retrieve seeds from it; mushrooms and fungi thrive on it; insects lay eggs in it; and termites convert most of its cellulose into sugars. All these uses set up further food webs, including termite eaters such as the sloth bear and the pangolin. So, what is a waste product for the elephant becomes an organic treasure for scores of other creatures. In a community, “every species… directly or indirectly, supplies essential materials or services to one or more of its associates,” reports Lee Dice, a geneticist and an ecologist.
The Red Queen hypothesis proposes that an organism must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage but simply to survive, since it is pitted against ever-evolving, opposing organisms in a constantly changing environment.
This hypothetical arms race between species is supposedly seen in predator-prey relationships. Let’s contemplate the results of a classic field study. After a three-year study of the wolf population on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Michigan, L. David Mech concluded that “the wolves appear to have kept the moose herd within its food supply, culled out undesirable individuals, and stimulated reproduction. Wolves and moose probably will remain in dynamic equilibrium.” In addition, Mech reported that the fifty-one moose kills he examined were composed of the very young, the old, and the diseased. None of the animals killed by the wolves was in its prime. A wolf pack sensibly seeks out prey that will offer the least fight.
On Isle Royale, the wolves and the moose are not engaged in a competitive struggle, with the wolves becoming fiercer and the moose stronger; the wolves and the moose are not locked into a struggle to death. If we look at the two groups, not the individuals, then the wolf pack and the moose herd are in a symbiotic relationship. The wolf pack keeps the moose herd strong and healthy; the moose herd feeds the wolf pack. Except for plants that live off light, that “eat” photons, all organisms live off life; the killing of one organism by another does not mean all nature is at war. The wolf pack and the moose herd depend upon each other to flourish; they are bound together in a symbiotic relationship, best seen as a dynamic whole—wolf pack/moose herd.
Predators do not practice wanton killing, and even the pain of their prey seems to be minimized. Rodents attacked by snakes commonly go into shock before being killed and devoured. A wildebeest surrounded by attacking lions does not even resist but falls into shock. The best account of the interior state of an animal before being killed by a predator was given by David Livingstone, an explorer and missionary to Africa in the mid-ninetieth century. While traveling through Botswana, he was attacked by a lion. He said the lion “shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by carnivora.”
The moose, of course, are herbivores, but are not at war with the plants they eat. Darwin described how herbivores serve the plants they live off: “If turf which has long been mown, and the case would be the same with turf closely browsed by quadrupeds, be let to grow, the more vigorous plants gradually kill the less vigorous, though fully grown plants; thus out of twenty species growing on a little plot of mown turf (three feet by four) nine species perished, from the other species being allowed to grown up freely.” Stated the other way around, constant browsing allowed nine more species of grasses to thrive than would otherwise be possible. Here the browser eating the grasses prevents the competitive elimination of some species from the turf.
Herbivores have their preferences, and this leads to a kind of cooperation. In a mountain meadow, goats keep down the population of the plants they like best to eat. This gives other plants more chance to grow. These other species may be preferred by elk or big horn sheep, leading to a rich variety of plant species and food for all without competition. As a general rule, the larger the mammal herbivore, the longer the list of plant species it eats, taking only a little of each one to minimize the effects of toxins and at the same time producing a balanced crop.
In summary, entomologist P.S. Messenger reports that “actual competition is difficult to see in nature;” ecologist E.J. Kormondy concurs that competition in natural conditions is rare; and biologists Allee, Emerson, Park, Park, and Schmidt, in a collaboratively produced text, affirm, “Instances of direct mutual harm between species are not known to us.”
I suspect that the undeniable pattern of noncompetition and cooperation that emerges from the direct observation of animals and plants fails to overthrow the common conviction that nature is competitive; in this case, culture overrules reason.
Darwin’s “struggle for existence,” Spencer’s “survival of the fittest,” and Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” are metaphors that sprang from laissez-faire capitalism and probably cannot be dislodged from biological thinking, because scientists as well as laypersons project their experience of living in a highly competitive society on to nature. In the workplace, “the isolated individual has to fight with other individuals of the same group, has to surpass them and, frequently, thrust them aside,” Karen Horney concludes from her years of psychiatric practice. “The advantage of the one is frequently the disadvantage of the other.” Psychoanalyst Rollo May agrees: “Individual competitive success is… the dominant goal in our culture.” Nevertheless, the ecologists who argue that competition in nature is rare are correct, given their well-documented field studies. Richard Lewontin, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist, points out that historically Darwinism would more accurately be called “Biological Competitive Capitalism.”
If the metaphor “survival of the fittest” is jettisoned as a relic of the past, then nature is seen as a network of symbiotic relationships. No plant or animal is a solitary entity, an isolated individual. Plants and animals are interdependent and work together for the mutual welfare of all. A conclusion that calls into question Darwin’s second metaphor, natural selection.
The Failure of the Modern Synthesis
Before the discovery of the physical structure of DNA, the Modern Synthesis, sometimes called Neo-Darwinism, promulgated the dogma that new genes are needed for new body designs and structures to arise. The prevailing argument among evolutionists, then, was that new organic forms require new genetic information, and therefore, new genes. The diversity of living forms resulted from each species evolving its own unique set of genes. More advanced species had to have many more genes than lower forms of life; flatworms and fruit flies had to have few, if any, genes similar to those in fish, mice, or human beings. In the 1960s, the total content of a DNA molecule could not be determined; the number of genes in a human being was estimated to be 100,000 and in a mouse 75,000. Ernst Mayr, one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis, summed up the established opinion in 1963, “Much that has been learned about gene physiology makes it evident that the search for homologous genes [the same genes in different species] is quite futile except in very close relatives.”
Twenty years after Mayr’s directive not to bother to search for common genes among widely differing species, genome sequencing showed this certainty of the Modern Synthesis was monumentally false. The failure of the Modern Synthesis gave rise to a new unity of living things and to a deeper understanding of evolution.
The complete genome sequences of fruit flies, nematode worms, mice, humans, and a few other animals show that mice and humans have almost the same set of 25,000 genes and that chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans are nearly identical at the DNA level. Gene for gene, we humans are very similar to mice. For the most part, a one-to-one correspondence exists between the genes of a mouse and that of a human being. But we look entirely different, so how can this be?
To understand this, let’s first consider one gene we share with mice as well as with fruit flies. The Pax-6 gene controls the development of the eye. The mouse eye, obviously similar to ours, is camera-like with a lens and a retina. The fruit fly eye, on the other hand, is compound, consisting of thousands of different photoreceptor units. If a mammalian eye were made small enough to fit an insect, it would be worthless, because such a small lens diffracts light into a fuzzy pattern instead of focusing it as an image on the retina. The mammalian eye and the insect could not be more different; yet, the Pax-6 gene in a fruit fly can be replaced by the one in a mouse with no ill effects.
Recent experiments in the new field of evolutionary developmental biology, known by the punk-rock sounding name Evo Devo, showed that a mouse Pax-6 gene inserted into a leg, wing, or an antenna of a fruit fly resulted in a compound eye! This ectopic eye was normal, but functionless, because of the lack of wiring to the brain. Discovered in 1996, such weird ectopic eyes at first seemed like science fiction to biologists. Pax-6 is a master control gene that turns on other genes. In the fruit-fly experiment, the mouse Pax-6 set into motion the 2,500 fruit-fly genes needed to produce a compound eye. (The total number of genes in the genome of a fruit fly is 13,469.)
The Pax-6 gene is associated with eye development throughout the animal kingdom, from flatworms to vertebrates. Consequently, another central tenet of the Modern Synthesis is called into doubt: The belief that the eye was invented from scratch as many as forty or sixty times in the course of animal evolution is certainly wrong.
Besides Pax-6, other master genes have been found. The Distal-less gene (Dll for short) is used to develop limbs of fruit flies, butterflies, spiders, centipedes, and crustaceans, all members of the same phylum that share a common jointed limb design.
Surprisingly, Dll is used in the formation of chicken legs, fish fins, and even the tube feet of sea urchins. Indeed, the development of legs, wings, arms, and fins are all under the control of virtually identical genes, and, as with the Pax-6 genes, are often interchangeable between widely divergent species. When Dll is expressed in places where it is normally not active, ectopic limbs appear.
Another master gene is dedicated to the formation of hearts. The fruit fly heart, located on its topside, contracts to pump blood around inside of the body. In the absence of arteries and veins, the fly heart bathes the internal tissues with blood. Evo-Devo researchers found the gene required to make a fly heart, and whimsically named it tinman, after the character in The Wizard of Oz who lacks a heart. Several mammalian versions of tinman have been found. “Despite their great differences in cardiac anatomy and circulatory systems, flies and vertebrates have the same type of gene dedicated to the formation and patterning of their hearts,” explains Sean Carroll, an Evo-Devo biologist.
Pax-6,Dll, tinman, and several hundred more genes make up the developmental-genetic toolkit that directs embryonic development. Most genes in the toolkit play multiple roles in building body parts. Pax-6, for instance, not only is crucial for eye development but also helps build part of the brain and nose in mammals.
Evo-Devo biologists discovered that the Hox genes in the developmental-genetic toolkit shape the development of animals as different as flies and mice. Hox genes are found in virtually all animals, from worms to humans. Fruit flies and worms have only one set of eight Hox genes; fish and mammals have four sets of eight. Each set of Hox genes found in fish and mammals is remarkably similar to the single set in fruit flies and worms. Similar Hox genes direct the development of a fertilized ovum of every insect and animal. (See illustration for the homologous Hox genes in the common mouse and the human being.)
Hox genes pattern the body axis of a fertilized ovum. In a fruit fly, for instance, the eight Hox genes determine the placement of the head, rear, and the segments in between. (See illustration for the eight Hox genes of a fruit fly and the body regions each gene shapes.) In addition, Hox genes determine where limbs and other appendages will grow in the developing embryo. Depending upon which Hox gene is expressed locally, other genes are activated within each segment, establishing a finer division of the embryo, and so antennae and other body parts are formed. The Hox genes and a few other master genes in the developmental-genetic toolbox control the patterning and development of a fruit fly. Most of the 13,469 fruit fly genes are either for building structures or for routine cellular dynamics.
If disparate insects and animals are built by the use of similar developmental-genetic toolkits, often employing the same genes, then why do creatures look so different? How can a mouse and a human being result from nearly identical genes and a similar toolkit?
A multitude of insect and animal designs occur because the same genes are expressed in diverse organisms at different times and different places. Gene switches, tiny devices embedded in DNA, govern when and where genes are activated. Jacques Monod and François Jacob, in 1961, discovered the first gene switch. An E. coli bacterium normally digests glucose, but when glucose is absent and lactose is present, a switch actives a gene, so the bacterium, then, can digest lactose. Monod immediately grasped the significance of this discovery and quipped, “What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant.”
Most genes, including those in the developmental-genetic toolbox, have switches near them that determine whether they are on or off in a specific cell at a particular time.
For instance, one switch might turn on the INS gene in the pancreas to begin the production of insulin. Not only are toolkit genes turned on and off by switches, but when turned on they make proteins that toggle other gene switches. A toolkit protein might switch a host of genes on and off. The union of the sperm and the ovum begins a complex, precisely choreographed molecular dance: Toolkit genes are switched on and off, which in turn switch other genes on and off, some of which then switch yet other genes on and off—the molecular dance aims at the production of a live, healthy organism.
An animal is built protein by protein, cell by cell, and piece by piece; switches being thrown on and off in cascades throughout the genome organize patterns in space and time, while other genes endow cells and tissues with physiological and mechanical properties. Carroll resolves the paradox that a mouse and a human being are so different and yet have essentially the same genes and toolbox: “It is the switches that encode instructions unique to individual species and that enable different animals to be made using essentially the same toolkit.”
In the parlance of Evo Devo, an insect or an animal is built by both regulatory and structural genes. The distinction between the two kinds of genes can be seen by an analogy. Consider Christmas tree lights arranged in a flat, rectangular gird. An electrical switch is turned on, and a Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer appears on the grid; if a different switch had been thrown, a Santa Claus waving hello would have resulted. In the analogy, the Christmas tree lights are structural genes and the electrical switches are regulatory genes. A human finger throws the electrical switches; gene switches direct the molecular dance when an ovum is fertilized.
Evo Devo unifies all animals in a most wonderful and surprising manner; all animals are made in more or less the same fashion. As we have seen, humans are connected in a profound way with mice and fruit flies. Some of the DNA we share with all animals must go back more than 540 million years, because the evolutionary lines that led to mice and fruit flies diverged before the Cambrian Explosion that gave rise to most animal types. To generalize, despite their great differences in appearance, flies and mice, dinosaurs and trilobites, butterflies and zebras, and chimps and humans share common workhorse and regulatory genes that form and pattern all insect and animal bodies. The evolution of living forms, then, is primarily a matter of throwing genetic switches. Such a result forces us to broaden our understanding of how new species arise.
Without variation in species no evolution occurs. But biological variation is constrained by toolkit genes; the function of Pax-6, Dll, tinman, and Hox genes have been preserved for more than 500 million years. All organisms are built on anatomical ground plans that transcend historical circumstances; yet, those organisms are well adapted to their immediate environment.
Over the past twenty years or so, studies of Hox genes in flies, centipedes, shrimp, and lobsters found that the great diversity of appendages in these organism results from the activity of different Hox genes in different zones along the main body axis. The obvious inference for evolution is that all arthropods, that is, those invertebrates with segmented bodies and jointed appendages, are an extensive variation on a common theme governed by the placement and activities of Hox genes along the body axes of a developing embryo. In the distant past, gene switches transformed appendages on the head, trunk, and tail into specialized tools for feeding, locomotion, burrowing, and defense.
A deeper understanding of evolution follows from the new first principle that present-day as well as extinct organisms are constrained variations on themes. Both nature and art produce novelties through variation on a theme within prescribed boundaries. A fly, a centipede, and a lobster are akin to string quartets written by Mozart, Schumann, and Shostakovich. To produce original musical works, all three composers used the same twelve tones in an octave, exploited similar forms, varied themes, and utilized old and new principles of composition. In nature, we will call this manner of generating novelty Thematic Development.
Before the recent discoveries in Evo Devo, many explanations of the origins of animal forms and behaviors given by evolutionists were just-so stories told in the vocabulary of neo-Darwinism. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin decry the unfounded speculation and outright storytelling that pass for science merely because they employ the vocabulary of natural selection and adaptation: “The criteria for acceptance of a story are so loose that many pass without proper confirmation. Often, evolutionists use consistency with natural selection as the sole criterion and consider their work done when they concoct a plausible story. But plausible stories can always be told.”
In the main, Thematic Development avoids the criticism of telling just-so stories by anchoring itself in the understanding of how animal form is encoded in DNA.
Arrival of the Fittest
Let us consider the classic example of evolution, Darwin’s Finches. When Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835, he collected fourteen separate species of finch.
(The fourteen Darwin’s Finches that evolved from a common ancestor are shown in the illustration, note the different beaks.) The fearless and noisy birds are sparrow-size, unmusical, and similar in appearance with gray, brown, black, or olive feathers. Beak size and shape distinguish the finches: One uses its broad, deep beak for crushing hard seeds; another has a long, narrow beak to punch holes into prickly pear cacti in order to eat the fleshly pulp. The finches recognize each other by their beaks. Ornithologist David Lack reports that “we have often seen a bird start to chase another from behind and quickly lose interest when a front view shows that the beak is that of a species other than its own.”
The standard Modern Synthesis explanation of beak variation in Darwin’s Finches begins with the supposition that the founder birds that strayed millions of years ago from the coast of South America had beaks not suitable for crushing hard seeds or eating cactus pulp. Additionally, the assumption is made that a dramatic alteration in beak shape, width, and strength requires the accumulation of many chance mutations in many genes. Through the accumulation of small differences caused by genetic mutation, some finches began to acquire a beak to crush hard seeds, while others started to gain success eating cactus pulp. Thus, in the struggle for existence, winners began to emerge. In this manner, the population of the original founders split into various species.
In the Modern Synthesis, evolution is like a movie that appears continuous, but each frame shows abrupt, small changes from the previous one.
Thematic Development begins with what is known experimentally about beak formation in present-day Darwin’s Finches. Developmental biologist Clifford Tabin and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School examined beak development in six species of finches. They found that the broader and deeper the beak, the more strongly the finch embryo expressed the BMP4 gene in early development. The BMP4 gene produces BMP4 protein that signals cells to produce bone. But like all toolkit genes, BMP4 plays many roles; it also directs early development of architectural plans, signaling in the early embryo where to place the front-back axis.
To verify that an increase in BMP4 protein could trigger the growth of a thicker, deeper beak for cracking hard seeds, the researchers increased BMP4 protein in the developing beaks of chicken embryos. The chicks grew thicker, deeper beaks similar to those of the seed-cracking finch.
In finches with long, narrow beaks, researchers found at work a different gene, calmodulin. The calmodulin proteins bind calcium in cells. The more calmodulin is expressed in a finch embryo the longer and narrower the beak. Increased calmodulin in chicken embryos produced chicks with extended beaks, just like the cactus-eating finch.
In both experiments with chicken embryos, the artificially produced beaks were integrated into the anatomy of the bird’s body and never gave the impression of a monstrous aberration.
Hence, the discovery of the dynamics of the BMP4 and calmodulin genes in Darwin’s Finches opens the possibility that a single mutation in a regulatory gene can produce an organism that differs substantially in appearance from non-mutated members of the original stock. Another example is the 100,000 butterfly and moth wing patterns that result from the expression of the Distal-less gene. Yet, another example is the two species of small stickleback fish, typically around two inches in length, that occur in many lakes.
If, as seems plausible, the seed-cracking finch came about because of an increase in BMP4 protein at a particular time of its embryonic development, then the seed-cracking finch appeared with its own unoccupied ecological niche. At that time, no finch lived off hard seeds. The Galapagos Islands “provided an unusual number of diverse, and vacant, environmental niches in which the birds could settle and differentiate.” The seeding-cracking finch, then, is not a result of the struggle for survival, but rather the success of avoiding competition by doing something completely different. The success of the seed-cracking finch is similar to the founding of Apple Computer. Instead of competing with IBM and DEC, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak avoided going head-to-head with established computer manufacturers by doing something entirely different, by creating a new niche—the personal computer.
To summarize by way of contrast. The evolution of species envisaged by the Modern Synthesis occurs through the accumulation of small mutations in genes that give their possessor a slight advantage in the struggle for life; every organism is infinitely malleable in the hands of natural selection, with no constraints locked in from the evolutionary history of an organism. In Thematic Development a small change in a regulatory gene can result in a major change in an animal’s form. When compared to the slow accumulation of traits imagined in the Modern Synthesis, anatomy can rapidly evolve through small changes in gene switches; yet, the basic ground plans have been locked into place for hundreds of millions of years. Furthermore, major changes in animal form happen not because of competitive pressure but by filling unoccupied ecological niches that are free from competition. Instead of the survival of the fittest, Thematic Development posits the arrival of the fittest. Lastly, the way Thematic Development produces new species can be duplicated and verified in the laboratory.
Despite the discovery of gene switches and that the universal developmental-genetic toolbox has been remarkably stable over hundreds of millions of years, the survival of the fittest remains a sacred idea in science—no indeed, in modern Western culture. That society is made up of winners and losers is learned in school, in sports, and in the workplace. The “dog-eat-dog world” is projected on to nature. The imagined war of every organism against every other, then, represents a profound enculturation of science, prejudicing theories and obscuring the facts. The struggle for existence is immune to reasoned argument because a challenge to the competition paradigm directly attacks the way Westerners see themselves and how they live with others. The evidence, however, clearly shows that nature is not competitive but cooperative.
We have arrived at the dismal conclusion that we will only see the harmonious symbioses in nature, where plants and animals work together for mutual benefit, if we change our institutions to instill cooperation instead of competition, to foster striving together for common goals rather than individual successes.
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1 Stephen Jay Gould, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1994), p. 300.
2 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1st edition (London: Murray, 1859).
3 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 5th edition (London: Murray, 1859).
4 Charles Darwin, “The Linnean Society Papers,” in Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Philip Appleman (New York: Norton, 1970), p. 83.
5 Alfred R. Wallace, “The Linnean Society Papers,” p. 92.
6 For a comprehensive presentation of how nature avoids competition, see Robert Augros and George Stanciu, The New Biology: Discovering the Wisdom in Nature (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), Ch. 4.
7 Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (New York: Harcourt, & World, 1963), p. 33.
8 Eugene P. Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1971), p. 214.
9 Frits W. Went, “The Ecology of Desert Plants,” Scientific American 192 (April 1955): 74.
10 Paul Colinvaux, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist’s Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 146.
11 Peter Farb, The Forest (New York: Time-Life, 1969), p. 116.
12 Paul Colinvaux, Introduction to Ecology (New York: Wiley, 1973), p. 346.
13 Helena Curtis, Biology (New York: Worth, 1968), p. 747.
14 Lorenz, p. 11.
15 James L. Gould, Ethology: Mechanisms and Evolution of Behavior (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 468. See photograph.
16 Colinvaux, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, p. 144.
17 David Kirk, ed., Biology Today (New York: Random House), p. 641.
18 Ibid., p. 649.
19 I. Karplus (1987). “The association between gobiid fishes and burrowing alpheid shrimps.” Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review 25: 507–562.
20 All illustrations are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Alpheus bellulus with partner Cryptocentrus cinctus by Nick Hobgood (Figure 1); Hox protein classification across model organisms by CLANS analysis by Stefanie D. Hueber, Georg F. Weiller, Michael A. Djordjevic, Tancred Frickey (Figure 2); and Hox genes drosophila (Figure 3).
21 Conrad Limbaugh, “Cleaning Symbiosis,” Scientific American 205 (August 1961): 42.
22 Ibid., p. 49.
23 Thomas B. Allen, Marvels of Animal Behavior (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 1972), pp. 195-196.
24 Lee R. Dice, Natural Communities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), p. 290.
25 L. David Mech, The Wolves of Isle Royale: Fauna of the National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966), p. xiii.
26 David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (London: Murray, 1857).
27 Darwin, The Origin of Species, 5th edition.
28 P. S. Messenger, “Biotic Interactions,” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia (15th ed.), Vol. 2, p. 1048.
29 E. J. Kormondy, Concepts of Ecology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 143.
30 W. C. Allee, Alfred Emerson, Orlando Park, Thomas Park, and Karl Schmidt, Principles of Animal Ecology (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1959), p. 699.
31 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, ed. Robert Ross (New York: Norton, 1973), stanza 56, p. 36.
32 Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York: Norton, 1937), p. 284.
33 Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 173.
34 Richard C. Lewtonin, “Why Darwin?” The New York Review of Books (May 28, 2009).
35 Ernst Mayr, Animal Species and Evolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 609.
36 Walter J. Gehring, “The master control gene for morphogenesis and evolution of the eye,” Genes to Cells (January 1996) No. 1: 11-15.
37 See Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 1124-1125.
38 Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (New York: Norton, 2005), p. 70.
39 Jacques Monod, quoted by Carroll, p. 53.
40 Carroll, p. 111.
41 Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme,” Proceedings of the Royal Society London Series B 205 (1979): 587-588.
42 David Lack, “Darwin’s Finches,” Scientific American 188 (April 1953): 72.
43 Abzhanov, Arhat; Meredith Protas, B. Rosemary Grant, Peter R. Grant, Clifford J. Tabin, “Bmp4 and Morphological Variation of Beaks in Darwin’s Finches,” Science 305 (September 3, 2004): 1462–1465.
44 Abzhanov, Arhat; Winston P. Kuo, Christine Hartmann, B. Rosemary Grant, Peter R. Grant and Clifford J. Tabin, “The calmodulin pathway and evolution of elongated beak morphology in Darwin’s finches,” Nature 442 (August 3, 2006): 563–567.
45 Sean B. Carroll, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (New York: Norton, 2006), pp. 208-210. Also see H. Frederick Nijhout, “The Color Patterns of Butterflies and Moths,” Scientific American 245 (November 1981): 139-151.
46 See the video Pitx1 Expression.
47 Lack, p. 72.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Charles Darwin” (1883 copy of the 1881 original) by John Collier (1850-1934), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.