Current Genres of Fate: Darwin and the Conditions of Existence

by Paul North

Dg001578_tifFate is a conspiracy between past and future, a compact, mostly secret, that forbids us to deviate from what was decided ages ago. Fate is a keyhole through which you glimpse the secret compact. Fate is also a feeling. Out of a series of little glimpses arises an overwhelming sense that there is nothing to be done.

The last person we would associate with a predetermined future, oblique glimpses, and a feeling of paralysis is Charles Darwin, who liberated natural history from a pre-existing plan. In a certain sense, after Darwin, nature becomes a zone of freedom. For a quick comparison, some of the most forward-thinking of his contemporaries, the geologist Charles Lyell for instance or anatomist Richard Owen, believed in fixed species—despite their commitment to evolutionary ideas considered radical in the day. What separated Darwin from many of his contemporaries was the inkling that became his theory of “natural selection.” The theory says that little has been decided in advance. A “species” is a complex, contingent negotiation between a generation and its environment, as well as between the species and its past, not to mention between that species and its ongoing possibilities for transmutation—its future. At any moment the environment could find itself at a turning point, and the species could find itself, without the inherited resources, unable to transmute sufficiently in order to survive. Then the species goes extinct and an unanticipated form of life takes its place.

“Natural Selection” does sound like a force beyond our control, a force that, although we can't see it, nevertheless controls us. Say “Natural Selection” and the three Greek old ladies, the fates, appear before us, laying out our destinies on their great loom. It also sounds like the “invisible hand” in laissez-faire economics. “Invisible hand” was Adam Smith's phrase that became a popular metaphor for the orderly distribution of wealth without any external source for that order. Isn't it odd? To describe a situation without an external force governing events, we use a phrase that means precisely an external force governs events. In economics as well as in biology, when we want to say there is no such thing as fate, we name an intractable, invisible authority, an economic hand that orders, a natural hand that selects.

Darwin knew that “natural selection” was an analogy, and in some ways a misleading one. He derived the phrase from its counterpart, domestic selection, a long-standing human practice, and a phrase that is not metaphoric. Humans breeding animals—domestic selection—was the handiest proof that selection for traits was biologically possible. Indeed, it was ubiquitous. The phrase “natural selection” is however a metaphor. The natural agent is likened to a human agent—as though selection were carried out by a giant, benevolent rancher in the sky. The difference is of course that nature has no will and no agenda, except perhaps survival, and survival is not an agenda, as we will learn. Survival is neutral; it happens or it doesn't. It is not made to happen by a force or manipulated into being. Nature has no hands.

So natural selection is not like choosing or picking out something desirable. There is no agent who isolates desirable traits to allow this or that species to survive. An organism survives if it should happen to possess what allows it to survive, and doesn't if it doesn't. Such traits come about by accident and are preserved and reinforced by their “success,” although this metaphor is also misleading. They are successful to the extent that the environment and certain structural limits to the organism don't render them unsuccessful. This may in fact be saying very little—as little as: an organism survives when it survives. Things are like they are because they somehow satisfied a host of conditions only ever partially knowable.

One of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's main objections to Darwinism was that evolutionary theory talks a lot about survival, but little about life. It is more about “sur-life”—we could call it—than about lived life. “Sur-life” points toward those not-fully knowable conditions above the life of any individual organism that a species will have satisfied should it survive. Sur-life brings up a different kind of determinism, one that has little to do with the shifty metaphor of “selection.” You could call this more robust fateful aspect to Darwin's theory “needs.” What is determined from primordial times for any living being is the minimum of whatever it needs in order to survive until the age of procreation and pass on the traits that allowed it to live that long and procreate.

You might ask: what's wrong with that? Needs draw a tight circle. What an organism, a species, the whole of living nature does outside its basic needs is not specified. You could say, in positive terms: survival is fate, but it is also an extreme minimum. The majority of life is free. Yet, the freedom of the majority is circumscribed too. “Free” would mean to Darwin that organisms can look and behave in a virtually unlimited set of ways, so long as the minimum determinism is conserved. This is to say, the wide zone of freedom is defined through the tight circle of needs. What an organism is free for is the manner in which needs are fulfilled. Traits, behaviors, etc., arrange themselves creatively to fulfill needs. No doubt about it, a huge variety of species will “survive” in the exact same environment through a host of different anatomical and behavioral strategies. Yet their multiplicity is oriented toward their survival. Surlife names this surfeit of tactics constrained to fulfill a limited number of conditions. Sur-livers, so to speak, are absolutely free to fulfill their fate. Within this picture, nature does indeed look like an abundance, abundant difference transforming in abundantly different ways… so long as no single transformation crosses the circle of needs. When it does, it triggers a fateful reaction.

Without a doubt, Darwin leaves a lot of deterministic models in the past. He breaks with the idea of fixed species. This is crucial. If species were created forms, if they were sets of given characteristics, there would be no significant variation and no meaningful natural history. Darwin also takes the air out of that Aristotelian balloon, the idea of a “final cause” in nature. Nature moves toward no end. Just like one of his less acknowledged role models, David Hume, Darwin believed that the future could only ever be known partially, through probabilities. And here is where this other mode of fate crops up. It is true that we cannot tell what shape nature will take in the future. It has not yet been determined. Nothing in the past prepares us for the organisms to come, for what nature will look like now, or now, or now. To homo sapiens sapiens this could mean—why not—a return to the ocean one day, provided, that is, that the oceans don't rise so quickly because of climate change that our fins don't have time to re-evolve. Nothing in the past prepares us for what is to come—over these very long evolutionary time spans—except for one thing. Shapes, colors, interactions, behaviors, organic strategies, symbioses vary, but their limited set of purposes largely do not, and purposiveness itself is the immutable condition for freedom.

In a passage of On the Origin of Species, Darwin explains that “the law of the Conditions of Existence” is higher than the law of “Unity of Type.” With this seemingly innocuous distinction, Darwin was in fact taking a strong position. Structure is subordinate to function, he was telling us. “Conditions of Existence” refers to a debate 30 years prior between the leading lights of that generation, French biologists Georges Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire. Geoffroy supported a structural view of organisms and a transcendent species type, whereas Cuvier gave a functional account of organisms and would not stand for a fixed species form. This meant that, to Cuvier, structure could vary within the widest possible parameters. It also meant that no matter what they looked like or how their parts were arranged, the purposes for which the infinite variety of structures arose remained the same. Form varied widely but purpose was narrow. This attitude has been called “functionalism.” With a few tweaks, the notion of function made popular by “the illustrious Cuvier,” here celebrated in the phrase “Conditions of Existence,” fit perfectly into Darwin's theory of natural selection. “Conditions of Existence” refers to traits of the organism as well as to traits of the environment. It shows where the two overlap, organism, environment—in needs—such that an organism is a function of its environment, and the environment is a function of the organism.

Darwin eliminates “final cause” once and for all from discussions of living nature, but this does not mean that nature lacks finality. Ends are smaller and more intimate, but the ways of achieving them are tenacious little machines. To give another contrast, more than a century earlier in the rather staid view of Linnaeus, individuals were instances of created forms, living in harmony with created landscapes. You find little trace of fate in Linnaeus. In Darwin however, fate creeps back in. Demise of individuals, obstacles to reproduction, extinction of whole species, the ground full to bursting with petrified evidence of a vast continuum of death—the almost infinite expansion of tragic history in the theory of evolution weighs on the life of every organism, pushes on its sur-life. Its sur-life, though colorful, is little more than resistance to extinction.

And so, the ultimate “function” of organs or limbs, neurons or behaviors is to hold off the great flood of death surging around all life. In this view, death is the primary force that has shaped our existences over the longest temporal expanses. A million million deaths shaped the eye and its vision. “Function” may be seen as a desperate strategy for avoiding individual death and species extinction, as well as for survival in that other sense, for living beyond a single lifetime, through offspring.

An opposable thumb was a functional variation that served a huge variety of purposes. This variation and the new ways of living that it opened up saved us from the fate of countless other species. I am condensing many topics here for emphasis, but the principle is clear. Evolutionary functionalism says that forces out of our control shape us down into our very matter. Armies of doom are closing in on our species, on all species, on all sides, all the time. An organism's body holds within it the evidence of a million million who already fought against and succumbed to a destiny that will sooner or later take us as well.

Linnaeus's creationist view may seem quaint, and to many obviously wrong. Forms are fixed. Life cannot meaningfully deviate from its original set of forms, so there can be no real freedom here, no historical life. Yet there also can be no fate in the Linnaean view, since, over these long time spans, nothing moves. Only where life is in full free motion and nevertheless a paralyzing feeling arises is fate truly in play. So we could see Darwinian evolutionary theory as a return to the kind of fateful thinking at home in a pre-Christian interpretation of nature. Life is not divided, Darwin admonishes, like some jigsaw puzzle. It is absurd to think there are a limited set of forms cut out in advance that fit together in prescribed ways. On the contrary, there are in fact a plethora of forms and none of these stays the same for very long. The plethora of forms, however, are oriented toward but a few purposes. That is to say, we may want to consider the thought that Darwinism is the system that released fate back into the world in a fairly virulent form.

With each current genre of fate, we find it prudent to ask: what is the net effect on an individual who hears this story? You wouldn't think the following sentences applied to Darwin's evolving world. Powers out of your control determine you, the largest framework for your activities is out of sight and beyond your reach. Laws you can't see or change have to be followed or else you face individual death and the death of your line. This picture of the order of nature verges on kismet. It is a picture in which, as the surreal scientist Roger Caillois observed in 1970, nature “is so strong that human skill can modify it only by obeying it.”

With Caillois' observation in mind, let us ask another question. Is the emphasis on “function” in Natural Selection that which leads us—when we find ourselves searching for a modicum of freedom in an overly determined world—to take up monstrous activities like cloning, gene editing, and other new processes of “domestic selection”? That is: is evolution a story we tell ourselves about how we can only modify nature by obeying it completely?