Futurist thought for the day

Having invoked death here the other day, here’s a thought on the larger scale significance of death – which is natural selection, obviously.

 

Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species of each genus, and all the species of many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct. We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretel that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generationhas never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

So said Darwin in the penultimate paragraph of the 1st edition of The Origin of Species – as many will probably recall because the last paragraph of all, with its tangled bank, is the most famous in the whole book. I like this one for its disingenuous, double-edged quality. It sounds progressive, as many took evolution to be. But Darwin is departing from his own theory here and slipping into teleology. That “perfection” is not absolute, only perfection of adaptation to a particular environment. And it comes at the price of a large heap of death, in this case death of species –  if there is improvement, it comes at the price of extinction…  H. G. Wells, among many others, got the point.

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