Darwin’s Dark Vision: “Ten Thousand Sharp Wedges”

Darwin has gotten to me. The third chapter of On the Origin of Species has changed how I look at nature. The name of the chapter sounds quaint at first: The Struggle for Existence. But it is an apt name for a dark, violent vision.

For Darwin, the central reason that life is a struggle is the numbers. Seeds, larvae, eggs, babies—most living things reproduce in big numbers, every year. We modern humans with our small families and our one or two pets don’t think of reproduction on that scale.

But, as Darwin writes, we should not forget that in truth “every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old…Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.”

And then this astonishing simile: “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

purple loosestrife

The invasive purple loosestrife. Each plant produces one million seeds each year, every year. (fenton.patch.com)

We don’t notice the intensity of this competition in part because plant life takes place in slow motion. Darwin studied what lived and what died; he counted the seedlings in a patch of his yard and saw that most did not survive the struggle against competing weeds and insects. “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.”


Whether an animal is sustaining itself or is destroying other life is a matter of point of view.  (telegraph.co.uk)

Darwin uses the word competition for to point to one conflict or another, but elsewhere he doesn’t find that word sweeping enough. And indeed today, for us, the term usually refers to what goes on between two individuals or teams or companies and the like. Struggle, however, points to competition in all directions at once—to the competition between a living thing and others of its own species, competition with other species, struggle against disease, against climate. It is the intensity of this struggle between the numbers of one’s offspring pitched against the strength of the adversaries that makes natural selection so effective. Any advantage, no matter how small, is big.

At the chapter’s end, the vision of the struggle slides over to “war”—along with a dubious consolation. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

roadside plants

Along a roadside, the slow-motion war goes on. (nps.gov)

Where I live, the plants and insects look vigorous and healthy as always, but I see them differently now. In the small overgrown zones between suburban backyards and along roads, I used to see beauty, vitality, and tranquility. That is what we are expected to see in nature, after all. But now I look first at what plants are the greatest in number; they are, at the moment, the winners. They are the best adapted, putting other plants out of business in slow motion, and producing the most variations that might make their offspring even fitter.

Humans are similarly primed for struggle and competition of all kinds. Even here in suburbia, we are all alert to shortages or price increases in food and fuel, to drought and flood, to violence and car crashes, to drugs and diseases, to potential enemies in the neighborhood and in the world—“incessant blows” on the “sharp wedges” that are driven in on the “yielding surface” of our lives.

Darwin and the Roots of Morality

Wikipedia’s entry on “Evolution of Morality” points to the issue: “In everyday life, morality is typically associated with human behavior and not much thought is given to the social conducts [sic] of other creatures.”

It may look as if animals and morality may have almost nothing to do with each other, but in fact the social life of animals forms the very foundation of human morality. I suggest that we might value both our biological history and our morality more fully if we were more widely aware of this portion of evolution.

Charles Darwin took on that topic in The Descent of Man. He opens the book strategically by asserting that the best way to approach an inquiry into human evolution is to look first at all the similarities, physical and mental, that humans share with any animals. His extraordinary catalogue goes on for four chapters. I remember first reading them and thinking that after such an avalanche of likenesses it would be bizarre if humans were not descended from animals. Which is no doubt exactly what Darwin wanted me to think.

Sympathy and friendship (wallpaper-million-com.jpg)

Sympathy and affection (wallpaper-million-com.jpg)

Among these similarities is social living.  Humans and social animals alike enjoy living in groups and they dislike isolation. They share activities such as raising young, procuring food, following leaders, defending the group. And, Darwin wrote, among the emotions felt by humans and these animals is “the all-important emotion of sympathy.” His animal examples include a dog licking a sick cat, primates caring for each other, young birds helping and feeding an older, weakened mate. What prompts such sympathy? Darwin thought the answer was straightforward: they have enough memory for a “strong retentiveness of former states of pain or pleasure.”

But while social living and empathy may be the foundation for morality, can one say that animals, like humans, actually have a moral sense, a conscience? Darwin’s response was careful: if the animals had enough brains, yes, we could say that. “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable–namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, … the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual power had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

In other words, the reason we don’t classify some animals as moral beings is not that they lack the necessary kindness or sympathy or sensitivity. It is that they lack the intelligence to perform certain mental operations that we associate with morality. Specifically, animals lack the awareness that their sympathy for another might be in conflict with one of their own needs and that they should make a choice; humans can fret over making that choice easily and often. Another mental ingredient of morality that animals lack, Darwin argues, is the capacity to worry constantly about how they are perceived by others. “Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection; past impressions and images are incessantly and clearly passing through his mind.” So a dog licking a sick cat is displaying sympathy and caring but not morality. But a person earnestly weighing the social imperative to help hungry children against the inconvenience or expense of doing so is making a moral and socially-aware choice.

Darwin’s detailed example of this contrast is a chilling one. He describes how swallows, while tending their eggs and raising their chicks, will abruptly abandon the nests if their strongest migratory instinct come on them at that time.

At the proper season these birds seem all day long to be impressed with the desire to migrate; their habits change; they become restless, are noisy and congregate in flocks. Whilst the mother-bird is feeding or brooding over her nestlings, the maternal instinct is probably stronger than the migratory; but the instinct which is the more persistent gains the victory, and at last, at a moment when young ones are not in sight, she takes flight and deserts them.

If the swallows were human, the nightmare images of their freezing offspring would never leave them.

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.

And the swallows would in fact be fully moral if they were capable of learning from their remorse and choosing a different path in the future. But only humans can do that.

 At the moment of [an] action, man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds, it will more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men. But after their gratification when past and weaker impressions are judged by the ever-enduring social instinct, and by his deep regard for the good opinion of his fellows, retribution will surely come. He will then feel remorse, repentance, regret, or shame. …He will consequently resolve more or less firmly to act differently for the future.

baby swallows

Swallows, Darwin wrote, will abondon their chicks… (dailymailco.uk)

swallows migrating

if their instinct to migrate is at its peak. (theworldismyoyster-blogspot.jpg)

family on beach

But human parents who fly south understand the problem.(bvonmoney.com)

So we make our resolutions and formulate our laws, creeds, and codes. But we couldn’t have done it without the animals that evolved to pass their lives together and have emotions about each other. They live out the kinds of social complexities that our moral codes attempt to resolve. Actually, our morality is doubly social: like some animals, we can feel the pain of others; unlike any animals, we worry what others will think of us. May we continue to build on both those foundations.