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When it comes to discussing the discursive significance of the Darwinian theory of evolution in general, and the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle in particular, it is always crucially important to understand that they are essentially concerned with the functioning of biological species, as the part of the affiliated environmental system.
One of the main qualitative features of how this system operates is that it is functionally self-sustainable. Moreover, the overall quality of such a system is not merely the sum of the qualities of its integral parts, but something that creates the discursive realm of its own. This presupposes that the alteration of even a single element of just about any environmental system, will result in effecting its innate subtleties as a whole.
Therefore, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that Barry Commoner’s article The Four Laws of Ecology is indeed consistent with the main provisions of Darwin’s theory, in the sense of implying that the very systemness of randomness makes it possible for the latter to grow increasingly less-chaotic, which creates the illusion of ‘intelligent design’.
The same cannot be said about William Paley’s Natural Theology – in light of recent breakthroughs in the fields of biology, cybernetics and physics, the author’s line of argumentation (in defense of creationism /‘intelligent design’), does not appear to hold any water, whatsoever. This, of course, sets Natural Theology apart from both: Darwin’s Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest and Commoner’s The Four Laws of Ecology. In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this thesis at length.
The main theoretical premise behind The Four Laws of Ecology is that it is specifically the systemic interconnectedness of living organisms within a particular environmental niche that defines this niche’s overall quality. As Commoner notes: “Each living species is also linked to many others.
These links are bewildering in their variety and marvelous in their intricate detail” (346). What it means is that within such a niche, causes exert an exponential influence of the would-be induced effects – something that relates to the so-called ‘butterfly effect’ in the theory of systems.
The mentioned effect has to do with the fact that, within an open system (such as human society), the seemingly insignificant (externally induced) alteration of one of its structural elements can result in changing the manner, in which this system functions. In plain words – micro-causes are capable of triggering macro-effects (Dong 464).
Moreover, it is most likely for the alteration’s effects to prove detrimental: “When such an effect originates outside the cycle, it is not controlled by the self-governing cyclical relations and is a threat to the stability of the whole system” (349). Commoner’s four laws, in this respect, can be outlined as follows:
“Everything is connected to everything else” (347). This law implies that there is the quintessential interdependence between the elements that make the global eco-sphere, as we know it.
“Everything must go somewhere” (350). This specific law stresses out that, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, the amount of energy in the universe is finite.
“Nature knows best” (351). This law points out to the fact that what we see around us is most adequately defined in terms of a ‘best possible scenario’, in the evolutionary sense of the word.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch” (353). Because the qualitative dynamics within the global ecosystem consume energy, and because the amount of the latter in the universe is fixed, the improvement of this system’s functional efficiency can be accomplished only at the expense of reducing the measure of its spatial longevity.
Even a brief glance at these Commoner’s laws will reveal that they do correlate with the main provisions of the Darwinian theory of evolution, based upon the assumption that “Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad; preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers” (Darwin 318).
The reason for this is quite apparent – just as it was mentioned earlier, Commoner’s laws imply the functional self-sustainability of the natural environment, which in turn has to do with the ecosystem’s innate ability to react to the externally induced stimuli. As Commoner notes, while trying to illustrate his point: “When there are many rabbits the lynx prosper; the rising population of lynx increasingly ravages the rabbit population, reducing it; as the latter become scarce, there is insufficient food to support the now numerous lynx; as the lynx begin to die off, the rabbits are less fiercely hunted and increase and numbers. And so on” (348).
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The principle of Natural Selection plays a crucial role in this respect, because it causes plants and animals (including the representatives of the Homo Sapience species – ‘hairless apes’) to become increasingly adapted to the environment – the main precondition for them to remain competitive. This results in reducing the amount of entropy in the associated environmental niche, and in increasing the measure of the niche’s structural resilience.
Thus, the mentioned four laws indeed relate to the Darwinian theory of evolution. There is, however, even more to it – Commoner’s laws (especially, the third one) appear to be fully consistent with Darwin’s suggestion that humanity is far from being considered the final product of evolution, and that when assessed from the biotechnological point of view, the works of nature are much more efficient than those of men: “Nature’s productions should he far ‘truer’ in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions” (318).
After all, there is indeed much similarity between the above-quoted Darwin’s suggestion, and Commoner’s belief that: “The artificial introduction of an organic compound that does not occur in nature, but is man-made and is nevertheless active in a living system, is very likely to be harmful” (352).
This apparent similarity can be explained by the fact that both: Commoner and Darwin were aware that the existence of the objective laws of nature makes it possible for orderliness to emerge out of chaos, without the involvement of any ‘third party’, such as God, for example.
As Alan Turing (one of the founding fathers of cybernetics) pointed out: “(Chaos) although it may originally be quite homogeneous, may later develop a pattern or structure due to an instability of the homogeneous equilibrium, which is triggered off by random disturbances” (37).
Therefore, the views of Commoner and Darwin are indeed fully compatible – at least in the systemic sense of this word. After all, while exposed to either The Four Laws of Ecology or Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest, one will be naturally prompted to consider the probability for the observable complexity of the natural environment to be caused by the cybernetic principle of ‘self-organization’.
What differentiates Commoner’s line of argumentation from that of Darwin is that there is the clearly defined ethical dimension to the former’s point of view, in regards to what makes possible the continual self-sustainability of the surrounding natural environment.
Whereas, Darwin used to assume that the principle ‘nature knows best’ (natural selection) is being somehow suggestive of the sheer irrelevance of humanity’s influence on the overall state of nature, Commoner could not possibly not agree with this assumption.
Quite to the contrary – he never ceased stressing out the importance for the representatives of the Homo Sapiens species to be willing to collaborate with nature, within the context of how the latter goes about ensuing the normal flow of self-supporting processes within the surrounding biosphere. In particular, Commoner believed that it represents the foremost duty of humanity to grow ever more environmentally aware.
William Paley’s Natural Theology, on the other hand, does not correlate with the main provisions of the Darwinian theory of evolution even slightly. The reason for this is that, as opposed to what it happened to be the case with Commoner and Darwin, Paley considered the systemic complexity of the global ecosystem to be the indication that the latter has been ‘intelligently designed’. The author’s logic in this respect may indeed appear somewhat reasonable.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to Paley’s ‘allegory of the watch’: “When we come to inspect the watch, we perceive – what we could not discover in the stone – that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose” (312). After all, this kind of suggestion does appear thoroughly sensible.
The impression, however, is misleading. The reason for this is that, while arguing in favor of ‘intelligent design’, Paley failed to take into account the so-called principle of ‘Occam’s Razor’ – there is no need to resort to the complex (phenomenological) explanations of a particular phenomenon, for as long as a plenty of the simplistic (naturalistic) ones are available (Riesch 76).
For example, if perceived as a ‘thing in itself’, a human eye may initially appear ‘designed’ – all due to its utter complexity and apparent ‘purposefulness’. However, if we take into consideration the billions of years of biological evolution (driven by random mutations), which resulted in the eventual emergence of Homo Sapiens as the dominant species, it will appear that the mentioned complexity is essentially instrumental.
What it means is that it has been brought about by the process of natural selection – something that does not have any ‘higher’ purpose, by definition. Thus, Natural Theology does contradict the ideas contained in The Four Laws of Ecology and in Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. This simply could not be otherwise – whereas, Darwin and Commoner viewed nature as a self-organizing entity, Paley assumed that the existence of nature has been predetermined by the existence of God.
I believe that what has been mentioned earlier, in regards to the discussed subject matter, fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good rationale in referring to the mentioned works by Darwin and Commoner as being mutually complimentary. William Paley’s Natural Theology, on the hand, stands in striking opposition to both of them – all due to the author’s ill-concealed religious agenda.
Commoner, Barry. “The Four Laws of Ecology.” Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. Ed. Michael Austin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. 344-355. Print.
Darwin, Charles. “Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.” Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. Ed. Michael Austin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. 314-325. Print.
Dong, Chunyu. “Intelligent Design from the Viewpoint of Complex Systems.” Theory Frontiers of Philosophy in China 5.3 (2010): 461-470. Print.
Paley, William. “Natural Theology.” Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. Ed.
Michael Austin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. 311-312. Print.
Riesch, Hauske. “Simple or Simplistic? Scientists’ Views on Occam’s Razor.” Theoria 25.1(2010): 75-90. Print.
Turing, Alan. “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 237.641 (1952): 37-72. Print.