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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V



     

Part IV: The Survival of the UN-fit

Chapter 2

Natural Selection: Fact or Fancy?

Is Nature Really in a Constant State of Warfare?

     IT IS truly amazing how, once an idea has seized the public mind because it suits the temper of the times, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. It must have been apparent to millions of ordinary people who had any firsthand knowledge of Nature at all that the picture proposed by Darwin of a state of chronic warfare was completely unreal. Obviously, Nature has not essentially changed since Darwin's time, so the behaviour we see in the open country, whether in Canada or England or Africa, is what it was in those days. And we do not see animals constantly battling with each other. The supposed "struggle" for existence is comparatively mild. Animals establish their territories rather with enthusiasm than viciousness. Nature is far from "red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson pictured it.
     
One of the first naturalists who had the opportunity to study Nature at first hand over a period of many years was the Russsian prince Petr Kropotkin. Petr was born in Moscow in 1842 and came of a family belonging to the highest stratum of Russian aristocracy. His home life was filled with love and gentleness, and though his mother died when he was very young, her extraordinary gentleness and affection stayed with her children all their lives. Although his father owned very many serfs, it is evident that they were always treated with exceptional kindness, and Petr himself in his writings again and again returns to the gentility and great-heartedness of these common people. He was educated for a military career, but his real interests were in geography, zoology, botany and anthropology -- more particularly with special reference to Siberia. So Petr sought and obtained a commission in a Siberian regiment where he seems to have spent more time in the study of nature than in the study of warfare. Indeed, his work in zoology from 1862 to 1866 is consideered outstanding.
     
Under the influence of Darwin's Origin of Species, which had come into his possession a little while before he went to Siberia,

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Kropotkin tells us in the very first paragraph of his book how eagerly he looked for "that bitter struggle for the means of existence among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution."
     
The book to which reference is made above is his Mutual Aid, which was published by Kropotkin in 1902. (17) This appeared first as a series of articles in the English journal The Nineteenth Century, the first installment appearing in 1890. The book, in which these papers were bound together, appeared subsequently. It should be carefully borne in mind that this work was the result of close observation in Nature, observation initially stimulated by a search for evidence to bear out Darwin's thesis that a constant struggle went on between living forms. The result, however, was a total repudiation of the whole concept of struggle.
     
At first he found himself in an area where there was no pressure of numbers, where there was a paucity of life, where under-population, not over-population, was the distinctive feature of the area. Here he found that there was no "fearful competition for food," which was an article of faith with most Darwinists. So he attributed his failure to validate Darwin's basic thesis to the fact that there were too few animals in northern Asia to fulfill the requirements of adequate competitiveness.
     
But when he sought out particular localities in which there was a super-abundance of animals, he found that even here there was no evidence of the kind of struggle which Darwin postulated: (18)

     Wherever I saw animal life in abundance, as for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migrations of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming deep snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life and the preservation of each species. . .

     It should be noted that Kropotkin still believed this kind of mutual aid did contribute to "further evolution." He was quite convinced

17. Kropotkin, Prince Petr, Mutual Aid, Extending Horizon Books, Boston, 1955, Introduction, p.viii.
18. Ibid, p.viii.

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Darwin's main thesis was correct, but his own observations continually and in every way, and most emphatically, drove him to the conviction that struggle in itself did not lead to improvement. Indeed, struggle, when it became critical due to local famine had the effect only of impoverishing the animals involved, both in vigour and in health, so that, as he said, "No progressive evolution of the species, can be based upon such periods of keen competition." (19)
     
He found himself forced to reject completely the view that competition was essential to improvement: (20)

     I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit something which not only had not yet been proved but also lacked confirmation from direct observation.

     Kropotkin was quite willing to admit that there is within each species a certain amount of real competition for food "at certain periods." But he was very doubtful from his own studies at first-hand in over-populated areas where the competition is carried on to the extent argued by Darwin, whether what competition there was played the part assigned to it in the evolution of the animal kingdom. He felt that Darwin was weakest when dealing with this point, which was, after all, so crucial to his whole thesis. So he wrote: (21)

     If we refer to his paragraph entitled, "Struggle for Life most severe between Individuals and Varieties of the same Species," we find in it none of that wealth of proofs and illustrations which we are accustomed to find in whatever Darwin wrote. The struggle between individuals of the same species is not illustrated under that heading by even one single instance [my emphasis]: it is taken for granted; and the competition between closely allied species is illustrated by but five examples, out of which one at least (relating to the two species of thrushes) now proves to be doubtful.

     So, Kropotkin asked, "To what extent does competition really exist within each animal species? Upon what is the assumption based?" And his whole book is a striking demonstration of the doubtfulness of Darwin's basic proposition in this respect. Yet so powerfully had Darwinism captured public imagination that very few people were either aware of or paid the slightest attention to Kropotkin's writings. Nevertheless, what he reported has continued to be of such interest that Mutual Aid has constantly been reprinted and is constantly running out of stock. (The latest reprint apparently was undertaken in 1972 by the New York University Press.)

19. Ibid., p.ix.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid., p.61.

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     This happy practice of reprinting some of the older works has fortunately helped to offset the distressing tendency of publishers of new works to favour only the printing of pro-evolutionary literature, a not unnatural reaction to public demand, since they have to stay in business by making a profit. But it has had the unhappy effect of confirming in the public mind the supposition that there is nothing to be said against evolution.
     
Fortunately, Kropotkin's work stimulated others to take a fresh look at the evidence. And some of these, even though they remained confirmed evolutionists, nevertheless produced works, the cumulative effect of which must in the end serve to undermine the whole evolutionary fabric. I am thinking, for example, of W. C. Allee's book, The Social Life of Animals, a work which as might be supposed from its title, (22) sets out to demonstrate from evidence acquired since Kropotkin's time that Nature is not a series of warring states but a remarkably well-balanced cooperating society of animals and plants.
     
In this last work and in another book of similar nature entitled, On Being Human, by Ashley Montagu, we may find an answer to another question asked in the previous chapter. (23)

Do Animals Really Overpopulate Their Territory?

     Most people, when they go to see pictures of animals in the wild, expect to see large numbers. So animal photographers not unnaturally take their cameras where the animals are numerous. The consequence is that one inevitably has an impression of "the wild" as teeming with animal life. In the Rockies we imagine that everywhere there are flocks of mountain goats or other such creatures; in Africa vast herds of zebra, giraffe, and even elephants. In point of fact, this impression is the result very largely of selective photography. So also, the inexperienced camera-man or the impatient amateur comes away with one or two pictures showing a few animals together only after days of searching and a substantial number of false alarms leading to wasted footage. Even where man has not been the most common predator and where the fear of him has not spread the alarm upon his approach, it is likely to be the occasional animal, the curious and unafraid, which will provide the amateur naturalist with his best opportunity.
     
The fact is that very few parts of the earth are in any way

22. Allee, W. C., The Social Life of Animals, Beacon Hill Press, Boston, 1938, p.233.
23. Montagu, Ashley, On Being Human, Schuman, New York, 1951, p.118.

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crowded with animals. The total number of birds per acre in most parts of the world is very small and has been calculated out by weight as being only a few pounds. Thus there may be a number of very small birds whose total weight is a few pounds, or one or two larger ones whose total weight is about the same. But the density of individuals is very low. This is not true, of course, where a small island standing alone as a refuge in a vast expanse of ocean is occupied by tremendous number of birds or other shoreline animals. For here the population per acre must take into account the territory over which these animals feed which is, of course, far greater than the area of the island itself. It should also be remembered that in terms of freedom of movement birds enjoy a third dimension of dispersion, altitude.
     
This is not to deny that birds flock together in vast numbers, a fact which would seem to challenge the available food supply. Nevertheless, there is very little fighting among such flocks unless they are hedged in by man. And even here, as has been shown for geese, when the animals are resting they will orient themselves as far as possible so that each individual has a certain minimal free space, or "facial distance" as it has been called, in front of it. (24) And though it may take some time for a large flock to settle down in this way, the birds respect this "individual need" and avoid conflict. Even if, due to a wire fence, crowding is extreme, it has been noted that the peripheral individuals will all turn outwards taking up a position which allows them to achieve the required facial distance by looking through the wire fence and thus give the central birds a better chance to achieve a position of no conflict. It seems, therefore, that even under unnaturally stressful conditions most animals will do all they can to keep the peace.
     
Prior to man's interference, it appears that Nature is seldom crowded. But wherever man has gone, he has been Nature's great disturber, either exterminating animals entirely or forcing them to crowd together unnaturally. Among species in which internicene warfare has been observed, rats are probably pre-eminent. Yet rats are in a special category, since they spread with man and compete chiefly where men are crowded together. Due to historical circumstances, therefore, it has often come about in the past that man's chief acquaintance with behaviour patterns within species of animals other than himself has been badly distorted because of his own influence on these same species. In former times the rat population

24. McBride, Glen, "The Conflict of Crowding," Discovery, April, 1966, pp.16-19.

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was much greater than it now is, and city people commonly derived their picture of Nature from these unnaturally congested creatures.
     
Such crowding and its accompanying competition is not characteristic of animals in the wild, even where the environment might be expected to encourage it because of its abundant food supply. Kropotkin's initial researches were conducted in Siberia, which did not seem to him to constitute a sufficiently favourable environment for large numbers of animals. Nevertheless, he noted that many regions enjoying a far more congenial climate than Siberia are equally under-populated. For example, along the shores of the Amazon River, in spite of the fact that food is plentiful as evidenced by the great variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles, these are very widely scattered, and it is only rarely that animals are seen in any numbers. The fact is even more strikingly observed in the forests of Brazil which afford ample food for birds and yet, like the forests of Asia and Africa, are not over-populated but rather under-populated. (25) The same is true, according to Kropotkin, of the pampas of South America, which, although so admirably suited to herbivorous quadrupeds, affords the observer with an astonishingly small number of visible animals. Indeed, to one observer, W. H. Hudson, only one small ruminant was seen in this immense grassy area. Land birds are also few in species and numbers. By contrast, millions of sheep, cattle, and horses introduced by man now graze upon a portion of these prairies.
     
That areas can, under human husbandry, support far larger populations of animals clearly suggests that the numbers to be found there naturally are not being held down by competition. Nature does not naturally over-populate; if anything, it under-populates.
     
Even so, many years after the publication of The Origin of Species, the average city dweller still has the impression that every inch of ground is teeming with life in such a way that there is constant conflict between individuals for the available food supply. The country man, on the other hand, is well aware of the fact that for almost all species the distribution is sparse, thinly spaced. One may have to search to find a live representative, and as a rule one would have to scrutinize the area keenly to find any dead animals.
     
Yet if Darwin's picture had any truth behind it, the open country ought to be teeming with competing animals and the competition itself ought to result in many corpses lying around. Moreover, among those species which are highly gregarious, such as

25. Kropotkin, Prince Petr, Mutual Aid, Extending Horizon Books, Boston, 1955, pp.309, 310.

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rabbits in a local warren, or gophers, or any creatures which are found in comparatively large numbers here and there, there is no evidence whatever that their crowding has in itself led to a progressive change in form. Yet, according to Darwin, the consequence of this crowding should be just that, namely, progressive change, leading to improvement of the species as a whole. It sounds reasonable enough, but what has become more apparent as research among natural communities of this kind has been extended, is that such competitive crowding has precisely the opposite effect than was supposed by Darwin. It leads to the elimination of the extremes and the perpetuation of the norm. The odd or exceptional individuals tend to be either destroyed or bred out by being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the common types. Leo Berg, after a discussion of the imagined effects of the supposed struggle for existence pointed out that careful students of nature he (26)

. . . could not observe any perceptible difference between the individuals which have survived and those which have perished. As far as may be judged from the available data, natural selection cuts off deviations from the standard by destroying extreme variations [his emphasis].

     He then gave some illustrations from both animals and from plant species, and concluded: (27)

     All the foregoing renders it doubtful whether mortality in natural conditions possesses selective value, i.e., is contributing to evolution: as a rule, individuals approaching the standard survive, and all those which deviate therefrom perish, no matter whether their distinguishing characters are retrogressions or give promise of being able to advance.
     Selection in natural conditions thus not only does not assist evolution but appears in fact to be a hindrance thereto.
     Such an opinion was held by Korshinsky: "The struggle for existence, and selection connected with it, is an agency tending to restrict the development of forms already produced by checking further variations, but never contributing to the production of new forms. It is a principle antagonistic to evolution."

     Some years ago the animal ecologist Charles Elton pointed out that this absence of evolutionary change in crowded areas applies equally to plants. He wrote: (28)

     Only in certain intertidal communities of the sea do we find that animals have reached the limits of space that will hold them. . . .

26. Berg, Leo, Nomogenesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1969, reprint, pp.63, 64.
27. Ibid., p.64.
28. Elton, Charles: in a report quoted as originating in Nature, September 23, 1969, but not verified. See also his "Animal Numbers and Adaptation," in Evolution, edited by Sir Gavin de Beer, Oxford University Press, 1938, pp.127-137.

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     What are the commonest objects meeting the eye in such spots? The answer is mussels and seaweed. If there is a struggle for existence, mussels and seaweed are thus in the very midcentre and vortex of it. Evolution should here be proceeding at top speed. What are the facts?
     The eminent professor J. Ritchie, in his presidential address to the Zoological Section of the British Association in August, 1939, handed down the latest bulletin about mussel evolution. He said, "the edible mussel (Cardium edule) has retained its specific characteristics for two millions of years or more, its genus in a wide sense lived 160 millions years ago in the triassic."

     And as for the seaweed, those existing today are not in any way different from those found in Cambrian and Silurian seas -- which according to the evolutionists themselves date back to at least 500 million years.
     
In terms of numbers, the prize must certainly be given to insects where one might therefore suppose that competition would be most keen and evolution most in evidence. Estimates show that insect species probably represent half of all species known, and in terms of total numbers of individuals they are possibly four-fifths of the world's population. One would expect to find even less similarity between living specimens and their fossil ancestors (by reason of the very pressure of numbers) than one finds between living reptiles and their ancestors, where, because of the smaller populations involved, there ought to have been very little pressure towards change. In point of fact, precisely the opposite is the case. Our reptile world is very different from the ancient world, but our insect world is remarkably similar, a fact noted by Charles Brues: (29)

     In general the picture we get from two surveys spanning the past 70 million years is that of a decline in primitive types of insects, a gain in the relative abundance of the specialized orders, and some substantial changes in the rates of certain groups of the total population. But by and large the insect population of today remains remarkably similar to that of an earlier age. All the major orders of insects now living were represented (with little or no change indicated) in the Oligocene Forest. Some of the specific types have persisted throughout the 70 million years since then with little or no change, indicating a pronounced fixity that gives little promise of adaptive change in the future. Furthermore, the insects of that age already showed great variety indeed, in some groups that we have been able to compare in detail, we find a greater diversity in the Oligocene insect fauna than in the present one.

     This means simply that there is no real evidence of progressive diversification into the present. The truth is that in various ways God seems to have so arranged things that when severe conflict within a species is imminent, due to a scarcity of food, migratory instincts

29. Brues, Charles, "Insects in Amber," Scientific American, November, 1951, pp.60f.

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lead a sufficient number of the community to go somewhere else. The idea of constant warfare within the species is not borne out. In fact some creatures, which would have a hard time to migrate any distance, such as wingless aphids, if raised on an inadequate diet actually develop wings and fly away.
     
The spread of animals, in so far as it is not accomplished by human disturbance, is generally assumed to be due to real ovepopulation, that is, to the pressure of numbers. However, Charles Elton has observed: (30)

     The studies of Middleton on the introduced American gray squirrel in England, and of Harrisson and Hallom on the great crested grebe, also in England, have shown that spreading takes place equally in years of abundance and in years of scarcity; in other words, a great deal of spreading may be due to local movements at the edge of the range and not to the pressure of numbers in the ordinary sense.

     In order to float his theory, Darwin had to find some basis for selective pressures within a species. Warfare between species was, he argued, of significance in favouring animals whose structure gave the predator an edge in powers of capture, or the preyed-upon an edge in the powers of escape. This is how the horse got his longer legs, he suggested. But the real effect of natural selection was supposed to be taking place within a species as a result of conflict between members of the same family or herd. But the way in which animals gradually spread does not support this concept at all, because the so-called territorial imperative leads rather to the expulsion of unwelcome members of the species than to their destruction. The expelled animals merely take up residence somewhere else: they are not destroyed. Fighting over territory in the vast majority of cases results in little or no bodily injury, as J. P. Scott put it: "The occurrence of destructive fighting within a species tends to be extremely rare." (31)
     
Again: (32)

     Animal society in the natural habitat shows very little harmful destructive fighting, even under conditions of great stress, as when . . . subjected to general starvation. On the contrary, such societies exhibit behaviour that would in human terms be called cooperative or even altruistic.

     Moreover, it is not the strong that throw out the weak as a rule, but the original settler who drives out the latecomer, and the term

30. Elton, Charles, The Ecology of Animals, 3rd edition, Methuen's Monographs in Biological Subjects, London, 1951, pp.71f.
31. Scott J. P.: reviewing "The Natural History of Aggression" (a reported symposium), Science, vol.148,1965, p.820.
32. Ibid., p.821.

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"latecomer" applies equally to later generations, i.e., younger animals. The courage of an animal is not dependent on its physical fitness, its size, or its age, apparently, but upon its sense of proprietorship. So, provided it remains within its home base, a weak unfit specimen may drive out the stronger, fitter member of its own species. The term "survival of the fittest" becomes meaningless, until one defines what one intends in any particular situation by fitness.
     
Recent evidence from the study in their natural environment of those species which are supposed to be nearest to man (gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan) indicates that they do not fight with one another even for territory. (33) The impression which Darwin seems to have had of Nature as a battleground may well have arisen from the fact that he limited his observations very largely to animals in captivity. In a recent work by Claire and W. M. S. Russell entitled (34) Violence, Monkeys and Man, the authors show very clearly from some fifteen field studies undertaken in natural conditions that aggressiveness between monkeys and apes living together is rare. By contrast when the same species are kept together in captivity, aggression between cage-mates is frequent and sometimes severe. Evidently, they conclude, food shortage is not the cause; unnatural crowding itself would appear to be at the root of the trouble. And animals see to it that crowding is avoided in Nature, unless it is normal to the species.
     
It seems clear enough that there is something basically wrong with Darwin's Malthusian picture of Nature as being in a state of antagonism as a consequence of the imbalance between the numbers of animals in any given area and the food supply there. In the first place, animals for the most part appear to be widely dispersed, and they maintain their dispersion by territorial instincts which lead them to defend their home country only by driving away to a distance unwanted trespassers of their own species. Such trespassers are not killed as a rule nor even seriously injured. The end result is that the population density is maintained at a low level. And yet this does not have the effect of weeding out those animals which are slightly less capable and favouring those which are more capable of survival, because the real strength of the individual to defend his own territory depends not upon his size or his fitness, but upon his 

33. Montagu, Ashley, Letter to the Editor under the heading "Animals and Man: Divergent Behaviour," in Science, vol.161, 1968, p.963.
34. Russell, Claire, and Russell, W. M. S., Violence, Monkeys, and Man, Macmillan, New York, 1968: reviewed by V. Reynolds under the heading "Cures for Human Violence," in Nature, January 4, 1969, p.99.

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distance from the geographical center of it. A very superior individual of any given species trespassing outside his own territory and into the heart of the territory of an inferior individual of the same species will almost always be put to rout because, in Nature, the courage and tenacity of the defendant is normally found to be far greater than that of the trespasser. This has been observed and reported time and again. The sickly animal at home has many times the courage and energy of the trespasser, bursting with vitality though he may be.
     
One can observe this, if one lives in the country, by studying the behaviour of little creatures such as chipmunks. The defender is full of valour the nearer he is to the center of his homeland. When he chases a trespasser, he has all the edge at first, but this edge slowly diminishes as the chase carries him further from the centre. If the trespasser is being chased toward his own home, he, in turn by contrast, will begin to develop greater courage until there comes a point at which he is no longer trespassing. The chase, meanwhile, may have carried the original homeowner out of his own territory. Suddenly becoming aware of this, his courage evaporates, he hesitates for a moment, and then somewhat fearfully turns around and runs back to safety. As soon as this happens, the original trespasser for a moment is in the ascendant until the situation has once again reversed. And so one may see two chipmunks chasing each other furiously nose to tail, A to B, until the boundary is crossed, and then B to A with the same vigour until the boundary is crossed in reverse. Robert Ardrey noted: (35)

     A proprietor's confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder's at its lowest. Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest. That confidence, however, will wane as the proprietor approaches his border and vanish as he crosses it. Having entered his neighbor's yard, an urge to flee will replace his urge to fight, just as his neighbor's confidence and fighting urge will be restored by the touch of his vested soil.

      So these creatures maintain a certain distance without doing violence to each other by a means which allows the weak to survive as well as the strong, and the countryside is not, as a consequence, loaded to the bursting point with animals competing for the available food. As Ronald Good and many other naturalists have been pointing out with increasing emphasis in recent years, Nature is a beautiful system of balanced harmony. In his review of Natural Communities by Lee R. Dice, Good notes with satisfaction the gradual 

35. Ardrey, Robert, Territorial Imperative, Delta Books, New York, 1966, p.90.

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change that is taking place in the interpretation of Nature by more recent authorities: (36)

     The third and deepest reason for dissatisfaction is our failure to abandon outmoded biological conceptions, and this has two main aspects. More important, because of its profound significance to the wild in general, is what may be called the "nature red in tooth and claw" fallacy. One would imagine that the influence that such a belief has had on human affairs in the past half-century would at least raise doubts about its validity; but even more odd is the apparent continuing failure to admit that the very existence of a science of "natural communities" belies it. For if nature was indeed as the poet (Tennyson) described it, its condition would be chaotic and in a perpetual state of disequilibrium. If there is nothing else to thank Dr. Dice for, there is the support his book gives to the view that nature is essentially a state of beautiful and delicate balance to which each and every member makes its due, but only due, contribution.

    In the second place, Darwin was quite wrong in applying certain principles which he derived from Malthus. Malthus had said, among other things, that animals raise more offspring than they need to do to maintain their kind. This constantly challenges the available food supply. But in commenting on this, Medawar showed its essential fallaciousness: (37)

     The catch in this Malthusian syllogism, pointed out years ago by Fisher, lies in its major premise. So far from producing a vastly excessive number of offspring, most organisms produce just about that number which is sufficient and necessary to perpetuate their kind. . . .

     And where, by contrast, there are tremendous numbers of animals, such as rabbits, insects, birds, or even fishes, all the evidence points to the conclusion that among these species there has been virtually no evolutionary change. So, if evolution has ever occurred, it seems to have nothing to do with population density or natural aggressiveness among animals. L. L. Whyte pointed this out: (38)

     The decisive evolutionary steps, the branching-out into many different types, seem to have occurred just when the ecological niches were relatively empty, as in the conquest of land by vertebrates. . . . These explosive phases seem to have happened when competition was at a minimum rather than a maximum.

     Commenting, Bertalanffy says that "the identification of evolution

36. Good, Ronald: in a review of the book by Lee R. Dice, Natural Communities, Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Nature, July 11, 1953, p.46.
37. Medawar, Sir Peter B., The Uniqueness of the Individual, Basic Books, New York, 1957, p.14.
38. Bertalanffy, Ludwig von, "Chance or Law," in Beyond Reductionsism, ref.16, p.68.

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with adaptation is therefore by no means proved. It is a debatable point, not an a priori principle of evolution."

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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