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Darwin’s Use of Natural Selection, and Metaphors in Science

From its initial publication on November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species revolutionized the scientific field through its presentation of evolutionary theory as the biological process capable of accounting for the diversity of life observed in the world.  And the key means by which Darwin proposed evolution to be possible was a mechanism he called natural selection.

From the start, controversy arose against Darwin’s strictly naturalistic explanation for the emergence of new species, and opposition formed swiftly to denounce evolution by natural selection as an insufficient theory that is unscientific in its analysis.  Most of the early opposition was religious in nature, but a more legitimate note of dissent came from Darwin’s own colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, who criticized Darwin’s choice of diction in referring to the evolutionary process by the term natural selection as misleading to the general public, because it needlessly implied a selector in the process.  Darwin countered Wallace’s objection by making the case that, for explanatory purposes, natural selection served as a sufficient term as it gives people a descriptive (albeit metaphorical) idea of how the wholly naturalistic phenomenon operates in comparison to the widely familiar practice of artificial selection.

Wallace himself was a proponent of evolution (often referred to as its co-discoverer along with Darwin), and was by no means opposed to the idea of natural selection.  He simply preferred the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a much better alternate to natural selection, arguing:

Natural Selection is, when understood, so necessary and self-evident a principle, that it is a pity it should be in any way obscured; and it therefore seems to me that the free use of “survival of the fittest,” which is a compact and accurate definition of it, would tend much to its being more widely accepted, and prevent it being so much misrepresented and misunderstood.[1]

Wallace thought that among the scientists in the field, who understood their work, the use of natural selection was not an issue, but among those who did not understand evolution and its process, the metaphor would fail to convey Darwin’s true meaning.  Undoubtedly aware of the attacks his and Darwin’s theory was already being subjected to, Wallace must have been worried that confusing people about the function of natural selection with metaphorical language would only serve to move skeptical minds further away from embracing evolutionary theory.

Darwin responded by agreeing that natural selection can be misleading to some, and even decided to incorporate “survival of the fittest” alongside natural selection as a compromise to Wallace in subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species.  But Darwin also commented how through the continued use of natural selection, his intended meaning will become more widespread, and weaken the sort of objections Wallace made.[2]  Despite these concessions on the issue, Darwin remained largely dismissive of Wallace’s concern, even bluntly responding that Wallace overstated the case for the opposition, and implied that certain individuals will misinterpret any term simply because they are too keen on scrutinizing over matters that are trivial to the average person.[2]

Darwin introduced the concept of descent through modification (i.e. evolution) in Chapter I of On the Origin of Species by drawing parallels to the artificial selection observed in animal domestication[3], something most of his readers would have been familiar with at the time.  He does this as a means of easing his audience into his argument in Chapter IV, where he finally makes his case for natural selection.  The confusion Wallace referred to can be argued here by Darwin’s parallel between artificial and natural selection, and his stating how, “this preservations of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variation, I call Natural Selection,”[4] because it indicates the presence of intelligent oversight (as is the case for artificial selection), when in reality no such implication need be made for the process to function.  Though in his exchange with Wallace, Darwin appeared to be shrugging the matter off as a nonissue, he nevertheless thought it important to both defend his use of natural selection, and clear up any confusion about his intent in later editions of the book:  “It is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten.”[5]  Thereby reiterating his confidence that by continually familiarizing the public with his true intended meaning for natural selection, the term can be salvaged and the misguided dissent will disappear.

Charles Darwin insisted that metaphorical terms are needed in science for the sake of expressing an idea, and that it is the general descriptive quality that ought to be focused on by readers, not so much the personification of abstract concepts.  For example, when one says that particles are physically attracted to one another, few actual think there is some sort of conscious intimacy taking place between the consciousness-devoid matter.  Same goes with the description that gravity pushes down on a table, in that nobody would claim that the result caused by the force is driven by a self-awareness to hold on to the object.  In the case of natural selection, while in a literal sense a misnomer, it is nevertheless an apt description of the mechanism taking place.

Despite what is often asserted within anti-Darwinian circles, evolution by natural selection is actually not a completely random phenomenon, in that there does occur a mode of selection.  To explain it simply:  Different variants exist among and within different species, exhibiting different traits; some of them will be better adapted to a given environment, thus they will better survive in said environment, leaving more descendants with the same beneficial traits than the less adapted species.  It is blind, unguided, and in the long-run goalless, but also not really random, in that nature itself non-randomly provides the setting in which the various random traits will either flourish or flounder.  Thus, although the selector is an unintelligent and unaware agent, it is a selector nonetheless; a natural selector.  Meaning that Darwin’s use of natural selection as a metaphorical expression to describe the mechanism of evolutionary theory is a fitting one, and an entirely justifiable one.

Natural selection, as a term, is metaphorical only in the broad sense, but very descriptive in light of the proper understanding of the science involved in its function.  Darwin was right to point out that, given enough promotion, a phrase will begin to take on the definition popularly assigned to it even among the most stubborn minds.  Originally, the Big Bang was coined as a dismissive mockery of the theory, and is neither accurate not descriptive, but it has such wide use that objections have been thoroughly forgotten, and nobody emphasizes its metaphorical implications.  This leads into the main point, and it is one that Darwin himself indirectly made to Wallace, how for those who are opposed to the implications of evolution no term or explanation will be justifiable, and misconstruing natural selection is a means by which to either conform the concept to their personal liking or discredit it as insufficient.  The same would happen with “survival of the fittest,” or any other alternative phrase that could be proposed.  And it is through the merit of its work that science is judged, not by its ability to accommodate to the ignorance of its detractors.


[1] Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, eds., More Letters of Charles Darwin:  A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (London: John Murray, 1903. Vol. 1.), 270.

[2] Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, eds., More Letters of Charles Darwin:  A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (London: John Murray, 1903. Vol. 1), 272.

[3] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species ed. James Secord (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 111.

[4] Darwin, Origin of Species, 141.

[5] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species, 6th edition (London: John Murray, 1872), 63.


Private vs. Public Schools

Parents who bear the financial luxury of having the conversation, may eventually find themselves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of sending their children to a well-respected private school, over what has been described as the more lowbrow settings of many public schools.  Full disclosure: I spent some time pursuing a career as an educator in a public high school, so I can attest to the shortcomings of its structure personally, if need be.  I have also been associated with a good many private schools over the years as an academic tutor, so I can also verify how much of their oft-heralded academic superiority is greatly exaggerated by its enthusiasts.

It’s true that many private schools have higher test scores and graduation rates than their public school equivalents.  It’s also true that private schools, being primarily funded by the parents who can afford to send their students there, are not obligated to accept every child looking to enroll into their institution (having parents whose income can meet the financial demands of a private school education is also not always enough, since many private schools reserve the right to dismiss any student whose academic performance or personal views fall short of their satisfactory standards).  Public schools, being funded largely by the state through taxes, are normally prohibited from being selective about their student body (hence why it’s called public education; if you’re under 18, you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat).  However, it is also true that private schools are often better at promoting an engaged and interactive learning experience in the classroom, as opposed to public schools where preparing students on how to pass standardized tests reigns supreme.

I present all of the above not because I want to argue one educational system over the other.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably convincingly argue the talking points for either side, without ever injecting my personal views into the discussion.  What I really want to address here is the libertarian argument I often hear in my part of the country, which insists that public schools should be completely replaced in favor of private schools in order to increase the value of America’s education system.  The reason I don’t support this view is because its proponents use questionable criteria to argue against the value of public schools, and because the entire argument appears to be accepted by individuals whose real goal is to  satisfy their already existing political or philosophical ideology, rather than an actual desire to provide a better educational model for the students.

Eliminating public schools will by definition exclude certain people from getting any kind of education–primarily people who need it the most–because there will always be someone who will not be able to pay the tuition, or meet the academic standards of the private institution.  And these children also need to get a basic education if your goal is to truly have an educated populace and be economically competitive on the global market (if it’s not, then disregard this whole post and go about your day).  A proponent of the private-school-only model might argue that private schools come in a variety of forms, and several could be set up where private tuition and high academic standards will not be decisive in enrollment.  To which, perhaps, individuals can donate of their own free choosing to contribute to the basic education of those less affluent in society.  The problem with this line of reason is that it sets out to resolve something for which there is already a solution.

There is in fact already a model in place by which education is provided to those who cannot afford high tuition rates and whose scholarship is not exemplary, and it’s called the public schools system.  What motivation is there to create a complicated set of arrangements within the private school model, when the public schools already serve the function to meet those arrangements?  Essentially, I find two reasons at the heart of it offered by private school proponents, neither of which has much to do with increasing the value of education:

1.  “I don’t like taxes, and big government.”

2.  “I don’t approve of what the state is teaching my child.”

Point number one is popular with libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel that government involvement in the marketplace (be it of goods or ideas) and taxation is harmful to the system as a whole, as it leads to over regulation, a lack of productivity, and a stifling of the individual’s liberties in favor of providing communal welfare.  We can debate the validity of these economic points all day if we want, the bottom line as it relates to the public schools is that because public schools are funded by the states (through taxes) they are an infringement against the rights of citizens who may want to opt out of their requirement to pay the taxes which fund institutions they get no services from (either because they have no children, or prefer to send their children to private schools).  The issue I see with this is that while it would make for a compelling sociopolitical discussion about the role of government and civil services, none of it has anything to do with invalidating the notion that public schools serve a needed role in educating citizens who otherwise would have no access to formal schooling.  If your contention lies with the process by which public schools are funded (i.e. taxes), then you have to first voice your concern with the supreme law of the land (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8).

Whether you agree with the efficiency of it or not, the government (both federal and state) has the constitutional right to collect taxes, which it can in turn use to fund social services; education being one of those services on account that it provides a positive benefit to society.  Thus, the whole justification taken here in favor of private schools over public ones, seems to stem from the fact that the existence and funding of public schools doesn’t align with one’s political beliefs.  But this is unsatisfactory in convincing anybody outside of your mindset in the objective worth of your position, since a socialist could equally argue that private schools ought to be eliminated because they foster a sentiment of elitism and class segregation, which will lead to long-term economic ruin.  The problem with both approaches is that the topic at hand is being used to support one’s predisposed political opinions, instead of letting one’s political opinions rationally derive from the topic at hand.

The second point is, to me, a testament as to why public schools are necessary.  Speaking primarily as a former educator, it needs to be said that when I sought to teach students verifiable, testable, reliable data, I owed it to them not to let their (and their parents’) biases deter their learning process.  There is not doubt that the public school curriculum is at times undermined and dulled by the school board that overseas it, which can have negative affects on the education standards presented to the students.  But ultimately the teacher is still not held accountable directly to any parent or school administrator who may take issue with the philosophical implications of a particular topic raised in class.  Teachers are held accountable to the set district standards, whose authority lies independent of the administrators running the campus and the citizens whose taxes fund the district.  And as long as they can demonstrate that they have not violated said standards, no parent or administrator can dictate the information and content that make up the teacher’s lecture (try as they might at times, they will by necessity lose in every attempt, as they very well should).  Therefore, to promote private schools over public schools as a means to ensure the promulgation of your personal ideals and values in the classroom, is to me a position that is almost pointless to refute, because I guarantee you that there are a number of demonstrable facts, across various academic disciplines, that negate many opinions near and dear to your heart.  Once again, trying to make reality conform to whatever ideology you have chosen to accept is by definition incompatible with providing students with a thorough and comprehensive education.

It is worth mentioning that I am in no way arguing that private school should be abolished, or even that public schools provide a superior education.  I know that there are private schools that do exemplary work, whose curriculum is completely devoid of political or theological considerations, where the primary objective is to give its students a proper education based on good scholarship and proper critical thinking skills.  Hence, I take no issue with there presence in the greater educational system, serving as an alternative to parents who are considering it as a viable venue by which to educate their children.

My main point here is to argue that public schools are necessary as a social service.  Furthermore, my aim is to counter the view prevalent in my neck of the woods (conservative, libertarian-leaning America), where people are inclined to argue against public education because they feel uncomfortable with the way they are funded (i.e. taxes), or don’t like the lesson plan being taught.

If, for instance, you are a parent who prefers for your child not to learn about evolutionary biology, or analyze a work of literature you find vulgar, and opt out for the private school route to avoid the implications you think such things will have on your child’s greater thinking, you have the right to do so without considering my feelings on the matter; nor would I even try to suggest that you in anyway ought to take my considerations on the subject seriously.  However, if you come to this conclusion, and therefore insist not just that other parents should follow your lead, but that the educational system needs to be designed in such a way as to undermine the existence of the public school model, you have essentially forced me to engage you on the matter.

My position does not stem from a desire to satisfy the axiomatic precept of my political or theological identification, but from a recognition that many members of society benefit from–and are dependent on–the existence of public schools to educate their children; in hope that a decent education will provide at least some chance of letting them rise higher in the economic hierarchy than their parents.  I see no reason why I should stand in the way of this hope, or concede the argument to those who aim to do just that.

Oh, the Humanities! How Low Have Ye Fallen

Back in 2012, like many people do at least once in their lifetime, I went through a period of listlessness, brought on by a series of professional and financial downturns that left me disoriented on how to proceed forward with my time.  However, because I don’t see the point in boring anyone with a drawn out account of a life episode that was really filled more with trivial annoyance than any serious dilemmas, I’d instead prefer to do what we crusty writers do best: rant and rave about things experience long ago that left me perpetually disgruntled.

As mentioned above, in this frustrating time of my life I decided that it would probably do me some good to get out of the house I had been confined to for long enough to start seeing facial patterns etching away on the blank walls around me.  My first outing was to the one place I knew even I was cool enough never to feel unwanted in–the local college library.  And the fact that I had some overdue debts to take care of there was just the sort of icing needed to sweeten the deal to set forth on my gallant journey to the illustrious book depository, over yonder.

Wonderfully enough, in the course of taking care of my literary business [see what I did there? huh? huh? *wink, wink*], I stumbled upon a flyer at the library that advertised a small seminary/quasi-lecture/talkie-thingy at the college on the topic of Shakespeare, and his place within English Literature.  Leading me to think to myself:  I read Shakespeare, I’ve taught Shakespeare, maybe it would be fun to read and learn about Shakespeare with other bespectacled and pompous literature folks.  And on that thought, I was wrong.  Because, you see, this talk on Shakespeare wasn’t really about discussing Shakespeare’s work as much as it was about [some academic I’ve never heard of], “radically exposing the cultural dogma in the hitherto accepted canon of English literature.”  Yeah, man, getting radical…about literature; the safest of all forms of rebellion for such tenured mavericks.

The first thing we in the audience were treated to in this discussion was the revelation that William Shakespeare (yes, the William Shakespeare) was essentially a stooge of the English aristocracy, and his plays illustrate the lowest common denominator in serving as authoritarian mouthpieces.  You see, because Shakespeare never urged his audience masses to rise against the authority they stood under, his primary role in the history books deserves to reside as a man complicit in promoting the authoritarian status quo.  Furthermore, it was suggested (by this same academic) that this is the very reason that Shakespeare is so highly esteemed in the literary canon of English departments today–because the man’s work subtly teaches us to accept The Powers That Be presiding above us, and act with complacency towards it for the sake of not rocking the boat (or, I suppose, spoiling the entertainment) for everybody else.

Interesting hypothesis.  However, when it came time for the Q&A portion of the talk I couldn’t help but raise a note of observation that should have been more than obvious to the maverick intellectual.  Namely–I asked the gentlemen–if it is true that the English departments of today hold Shakespeare in such high esteem because they need him to promote complacency about the authoritarian forces ruling over us, does it not also follow that he too (the speaker for the evening) holds a share of the guilt, as he seems to happily accept a wage, speaking engagements, and (I’m presuming) book deals, by these same stooges of (evil, capital-A) Authority?  In fact, doesn’t his agreeing to be there that evening, in an event sponsored by these same mouthpieces for authoritarianism, without a word of urging on behalf of a mass uprising against The Powers That Be holding dominance over us, complicit him as much as Shakespeare’s lack of rebellion against the authoritarian aristocracy of his day?

The gentleman’s response: although he is more than happy to accept challenges to his ideas, he believed everyone’s time would be much better served not engaging with such blatant, baseless ad hominem attacks.  And one look around the audience showed that they were in agreement with him, so the evening continued unmolested, with everyone seemingly pretending I wasn’t even present from there on out.

Ah, the great spirit of 21st Century Humanities scholarship.  Where every sociopolitical idea and hypothesis at least halfway, and half-brained, conceived innately ascends above such pesky things like critical examination, or verifiable data.  With such intellectual rigor leading the way, I just can’t for the life of me figure out why a Liberal Arts education is seen as a joke by the rest of the academic community these days.

The Flaw With Personal Experience and Self-authority

It is a mainstay of social decorum to treat an individual’s personal experiences on any given issue as valid contributions to a topic.  Often, it’s quite common to observe two people arguing fiercely about a controversial topic, only to have it end with one of them bringing up the fact that s/he has been in a similar situation to the one being discussed, therefore her/his opinion on the subject has more value than the person who lacks any such personal experience.  And, usually, even if the other person doesn’t outright accept this reasoning, s/he will still yield some level of authority on the subject to the experienced individual.  This is a trend in casual discourse that annoys me to no end.

Now, allow me to clarify my discontent with anecdotal testimony by preemptively refuting my own subjective experiences.  Occasionally, a debate pops up about the issue of whether or not a terminally ill patient has the right to end her/his life, if they so choose.  For the sake of argument, let us suppose that I am passionately in favor of one side of this issue over another that I engage in regular arguments with people about it.  Let’s further suppose that in the middle of the discussion, I make the claim that I must have a great grasp of this issue because eight years ago my father died after several months of suffering due to a terminal illness.  What have I just done?  I have attempted to gain some level of authority on a subject strictly on the bases of an anecdotal experience I have had.  The problem here isn’t that I tied my personal experience into my argument, rather it’s that I am attempting to assert my rightness on the topic over my opponent strictly on account of having had this personal experience.  A line of reasoning that often goes completely unchallenged, even by the person in the discussion who is being silenced by this appeal to self-authority.  However, reasonably speaking, I would argue that having a personal experience makes one less likely to objectively examine a topic, on account that that you have a greater emotional investment in the outcome of the issue; in other words, it’s harder to be objective when you are the subject.

Again, please do not misunderstand me.  I am not objecting to people using their subjective experiences to motivate their engagement of any particular topic.  Nor do I object to referencing one’s personal experiences to add context to an issue being discussed.  The problem is the presupposition many of us accept that because I may have had a personal experience, and you have not, I am inherently more likely to be right on the topic, and have to shut up and listen to my great “anecdotal” wisdom.  This is wrong, in my view.  It’s not just wrong, it’s absurd.  Yes, experience adds perspective.  But it does not bestow infallibility.  If this were true, then only those who have gone to war should be allowed to comment on war; only those who are involved in the political process should be allowed to comment on politics; only those who have committed a crime (or have had a crime committed against them) should be allowed to comment on crimes; etc, etc, etc.

Personally, my experience is that it’s rarely the case that any one person is completely right on any one issue (though, at times, it does happen–depending on the issue).  If you happen to be more informed (thereby, more right) than the arguments you present in favor of your position will be apparent to the casual observers, without needing to pull on their heartstrings.  To attempt to persuade/silence another person by appealing to your own authority is not just wrong, but a potential discredit to the very position you are championing.  But that’s just my subjective objection on the matter.

The Intellectual Laziness of Appealing to Hypocrisy, Sans Argument

To point out a person’s failure to live up to the standards s/he advocates for everybody else is often the go-to retort of anyone looking to counter the nonsense of said person’s particularly insufferable opinions.  The implied reasoning being that if someone is proven a hypocrite on an issue, the substance of their position must also be equally dishonorable by association.  For example, let’s consider a person arguing the point that individuals who have premarital sex are perpetuating a harmful societal norm [a position which, for the record, I happen to personally disagree with].  Let us also further consider that this hypothetical person also happens to be someone who has undoubtedly had premarital sex before (confirmed either through testimonies of past lovers, or the existence of an out of wedlock child, or any other such inarguable proof).  The first instinct for many of us who happen to hold the opposing view on the topic is to point out the blatant hypocrisy of the person in question.

“How on earth can you judge the behavior of others for falling to follow a standard you can’t even abide by yourself?”

“Haven’t you ever heard how people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones?”

“Maybe you should learn to practice what you preach before stating your ideas to others.”

And, generally speaking, none of the above remarks are incorrect, as they pertain to the hypocrisy of the individual advocating the position in question.  However, they are completely immaterial to the merits of the position itself.  If right after lecturing to me about the dangers of smoking, my doctor lit up a cigarette, my correct announcement of his hypocrisy in this situation does nothing to negate the veracity of the stated claim (i.e. smoking is still unhealthy whether stated by a smoking or nonsmoking doctor).  The same would be true for the hypothetical topic and its advocate I conjured up above.

The problem I see is that, while it is a perfectly legitimate move to point out someone’s personal hypocrisy on a matter, all too often I see such a proclamation of hypocrisy serving as a crutch to avoid having to address the content of a proposed claim.  So much so, that many of us seem to immediately search out possible hypocrisy in a person’s character (even when there exists little to no reason to suspect the presence of any such personal failing), simply because s/he proposed as viewpoint we disagree with or dislike. As I already said, I happen to disagree with the position that premarital sex is a harm to society.  It is irrelevant whether I’m arguing with the most sexually promiscuous person on the planet, or a chaste nun, absent of any persuasive argument my stance will still be the same.  Therefore, it would be beyond unreasonable for me to focus the crux of my counterargument on how hypocritical the person I’m arguing with is in terms of her/his adherence to the proposed position, when its completely inconsequential to the underlying reasons for why I’m convinced in the correctness of my own position on the issue.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that I wouldn’t point out someone’s hypocrisy on a subject; I would, and I do (just as I would expect someone not to hesitate to point out my own hypocrisy if its out on obvious display for all to see).  But I take issue when people confuse refuting an argument with the prospect of discrediting the messenger of said argument.  It isn’t that hard to do the latter, but the first usually requires a bit more critical examination (depending on the topic in question, of course).

I recognize that choosing the example of premarital sex to illustrate my point here about hypocrisy is largely a softball option on my part.  In the Western world, the majority of people nowadays see the practice as a norm, where even most of those who choose not to engage in sexual activities prior to marriage (or at all) don’t go around arguing about its wickedness.  But the greater point about how, if one decides to seriously address a proposed claim–and wants her/his contribution to the discussion to be seen as a serious point on the subject matter–concentrating on the personal failings of the opposing side’s advocate should not be acceptable as a valid form of reasoning on the part of the challenger.  Yes, by virtue of their own claimed standards, the people you are arguing with are hypocrites; now, if you want to sway me to your side, explain to me why their viewpoint would be wrong even if they weren’t.

Lastly–keeping in spirit with the general discussion–if in the future I myself fail to abide by the standard I have proposed here (and anywhere else on this blog), readers are more than welcome to point out my shameful hypocrisy on the matter, and than proceed to actually argue against the merits of my position(s).  Fair enough?–I think so.