Darwin’s Blunder

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which was presented in his book On the Origin of Species, has had a profound influence on the way that many people, and not only biologists, view the world. His theory has been applied to many different disciplines, including social sciences like history, sociology, psychology, and economics. One of the salient features of his theory is the emphasis on competition between different species. The most common example of this is a predator[1] that consumes its prey so that it can survive, reproduce, and thereby perpetuate its kind. But it never occurred to Darwin to ask, “What would happen if a predator species became so successful that it was able to consume every single member of the species it consumes in order to survive?”

There are some animals like the koala that feed on only one or on a very limited range of other organisms. What would happen if koalas became so numerous that they were able to consume all the eucalyptus trees in the world? The answer, of course, is that they would become extinct. Clearly this event would be a calamity for both koalas and eucalyptus trees. Thus, it is imperative for the survival not only of koalas but also of eucalyptus trees that this does not happen. And this is true in general of all predators and their prey: it is in the best interests of neither the predator nor its prey that the predator becomes so numerous or successful that it wipes out its prey.

Looked at in this way, it is not competition but rather cooperation that is most important in Nature. In other words, when one thinks of the predator and its prey as individual entities, then the competition between them and the struggle for survival is most evident. When the predator manages to catch its prey, the predator lives another day, with the possibility of reproducing, while the prey is consumed and therefore fails to reproduce; but if the prey eludes the predator, then it will live and possibly reproduce, while the predator may starve to death. However, when one regards the two of them as forming two integral parts of one system, then it is cooperation and harmonious co-existence that become most evident. Paradoxical as it may sound, all organisms need predators in order to check their numbers and keep them from becoming too numerous, which is what would happen if they had no predators.[2]

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is encapsulated in the remainder of the title of his famous book, which continues thus: by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. For Darwin, it was the “struggle for life”, and hence the Law of Natural Selection, that was most important. But seen from the holistic[3] perspective, a very different natural law arises, which I will call the Law of Balance: no species shall become overabundant and proliferate unchecked over the face of the Earth, thereby becoming dominant over all others. What is probably true is that, prior to our extremely brief period of recent dominance, all other species have lived in accordance with this fundamental Law of Nature. Thus, we humans are, in every way and in every sense of the term, an aberration of Nature; and what is more, to judge by the calamitous effects that we have caused, are presently causing, and will continue to cause, an extremely dangerous aberration.

This kind of mutually-beneficial cooperation is widespread in forms that we would be more inclined to call cooperation, such as the insects and birds that pollinate flowers so the plants can reproduce, but which act also affords nourishment to the pollinating creatures; or birds and animals that eat a plant’s fruit and later excrete the undigested seeds in their feces, thereby spreading the plant geographically while gaining nourishment from its fruit. But the definition of cooperation needs to be expanded to include all behaviours that enable two or more different species to survive while preserving the harmonious balance that is characteristic – and, in many ways, essential to the long-term survival and well-being – of all mature ecosystems. And, paradoxical as it may seem, the predator-prey relationship is vital to allowing this to happen. In other words, the lamb needs the lion just as much as the lion needs the lamb in order to survive.

That Darwin failed to understand the great importance of the Law of Balance and the need for every species to have other species that keep its numbers in check is shown by the following excerpt from one of his letters:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae[4] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.[5]

Contrary to Darwin’s – and many other people’s – naive belief about God’s presumed benevolence, let us not forget that God also created the many different kinds of disease, which, along with famine, war, and predation, is an important means of population control. It is well known that some diseases can cause considerable pain and suffering to those organisms that are afflicted by them. Even those diseases that do not kill their victims can, by rendering them weaker or physically debilitated, leave them more vulnerable to being caught and eaten by predators. In these cases, although the disease by itself is not able to kill its victim, it is able, in conjunction with a larger predator, to accomplish this salutary aim, at least when viewed from the holistic perspective.

That Darwin’s naive argument about the benevolence of God is wrong is further shown by the following question: “How many times does the act of predation take place every day, for almost as long as living creatures have existed – that is, how many creatures have their lives prematurely ended by being consumed by other creatures on a daily basis?” To answer “billions” is almost certainly an understatement. There are almost eight billion human beings on the planet, and although a large animal like a cow or pig can feed many humans, a single human can consume many small creatures such as sardines, shrimp, molluscs, insects, or snails in just one meal. Then we must consider all the many other carnivorous animals in the world – fish, mammals, reptiles, birds, crustaceans, insects, and so forth, whose prey may be quite small, so that each predator must consumer large numbers of them every day. Hence, the number of creatures, both large and small, that die every day in order to feed other creatures is truly enormous, measuring in the many trillions, or perhaps in the quadrillions. And this system of predation was developed and refined by God in order to maintain a healthy balance in ecosystems all over the world.

It is clear that, in order for a predator species to remain in existence and in a healthy state so that it can perform the necessary function of limiting the populations of all the prey species it feeds on, it must periodically consume a certain percentage of its prey. We can regard this percentage as the predator maintenance rate, which prevents the mass starvation that would occur if they didn’t perform this vital service for their prey. Moreover, whereas starvation afflicts a species’ members indiscriminately, without regard for weaker or stronger or better or less-well adapted, predators are usually most successful in consuming the weaker, slower, less mature, physically debilitated, or genetically defective members of a species, thus stimulating the prey species to evolve in certain ways.

The very different picture that emerges, whether of ruthless competition or cooperation and mutually-beneficial coexistence, from a consideration of predation, disease, war, and starvation is comparable to the ambiguous picture of the rabbit and the duck. Our limited human perceptual system allows us to see only one of these animals in the picture at one time. But both of these pictorial representations are there: which one you seen merely depends on your perspective or the way your brain organizes the incoming visual sensory data. Another way of considering Darwin’s blunder is as an example of not being able to see the forest – the overall harmony and coexistence that exist everywhere in Nature – for the trees, due to Darwin’s – and, more generally, most people’s – focus on individual organisms.

This symbiotic, interconnected, and interdependent existence is evident in all places where there are living organisms. Studies of a unique predator-prey population, such as the Arctic fox and hare, have shown that their numbers fluctuate over time, but without either group becoming too numerous, assuming that other factors, such as the rate of growth of the plants that the hares feed on in that particular climate, remain constant. If the foxes become more successful at hunting and consuming the hares, then the number of hares will diminish, which will make it harder for the foxes to find and catch hares, which in turn will diminish their number; but when the number of foxes goes down, then the hares will multiply and increase, which will provide more food for the foxes, which will lead to an increase in their number, and so on, in a roughly cyclical pattern. The remarkable genius of such a system is that it is self-sufficient and self-perpetuating, and therefore can remain in existence indefinitely.

Most people don’t realize that the particular perceptual system that we humans have is due entirely to the fact that we are finite, mortal creatures that can be killed and will eventually die, and therefore we need to be able to perceive and categorize our environment, which includes recognizing the dangers that exist in it and the need to find the things that will enable us to live, specifically food and water, and be able to find and recognize a sexual partner in order to reproduce. Because we have no experience of any other kind of perceptual system, we naturally assume that our way of perceiving is the only way of perceiving the world. But many of us know – intellectually, at least, though not experientially – that bats and dolphins use sonar to echolocate and “see” their surroundings even in the dark,[6] that bees can see ultraviolet light, and that dogs can both smell odours and hear frequencies that we humans are unable to perceive. Each of these creatures’ perceptual worlds is clearly very different from the world that we inhabit – or, more precisely, the world that is created by our brains – in ways that are unimaginable to us. Even among our own species, it is difficult or impossible for a person who has been born and remains blind to comprehend what vision is like; nor is it possible for a seeing person to convey to a blind person merely with words what this visual world is like. The basic truth to be drawn from these facts about the particularity of our human perceptual system, or, to put it more simply, the particular way that we perceive the world, is that it is not fundamental in any way. And this is true not only of what we see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and sense in other ways, but also of how we categorize and perceive the world.

However, none of this negates Darwin’s conclusions about evolution. After all, seen from the perspective of each individual organism, it is of the greatest importance to it whether it lives to reproduce or whether it is consumed by another organism, succumbs to disease, is killed by another member of its species, or fails to find sufficient nourishment and starves to death. Seen from the perspective of the individual organism, which is how most of us view the world most of the time, it is the struggle to survive that is most obvious. But seen from the perspective of the Creator or the statistician, what is most important is the total number of organisms and species, and the total amount of Life that exists. Seen from this perspective, the survival of any particular organism is of negligible or minor importance. The situation is comparable to what happens in war: to each soldier, it is a matter of the greatest importance whether one survives or is killed; but in the grand scheme of things, what matters most is not which individual soldier survives, but whether or not one’s side is able to win the war.

Darwin’s primary blunder was in stressing competition over cooperation and symbiotic coexistence, which also includes predation, disease, starvation, and war – the things that we usually regard as the great scourges of human existence because of our myopic vision and our limited understanding of the overall harmony that exists everywhere in Nature. According to Darwin, these are all instances of competition rather than cooperation. However, it is precisely this cooperation, by restricting the numbers of all species within sustainable limits, that enables an enormous variety of different species to survive indefinitely, provided there are no sudden changes, such as a volcano that spews huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere, thereby reducing the temperature by blocking a part of the Sun’s rays and preventing them from reaching the Earth’s surface, a large meteor that hits the Earth, or an overly clever species that is able to overcome the natural restraints that prevent any single species from becoming too dominant and destructive.

This was because Darwin thought and wrote from the prevalent scientific perspective, which in turn is based on the naive human perspective that regards the Universe as consisting of discrete, self-contained entities like rocks, diamonds, trees, elephants, protons, molecules, people, bacteria, asteroids, planets, stars, and galaxies. In contrast, the non-scientific viewpoint of Eastern religions and Western mysticism is that all these seemingly separate elements in fact form parts of one interconnected whole. It is only when one adopts this perspective that one is able to see the cooperation and symbiotic coexistence that also characterize Nature – that the act of predation or infection by disease are instances not of competition but of mutually beneficial coexistence that are necessary in order, first, to provide nourishment for the predatory species, and second, to prevent the members of the prey species from becoming too numerous. We need only consider the disastrous effects that the overly great success of human beings during the last few centuries has had on most other species to see how important it is that no single species, especially one that is as dangerous and destructive as we have shown ourselves to be, becomes dominant.

In the past, religious writers and thinkers praised the glory of God’s Creation by enumerating the wonders of individual creatures like birds, animals, insects, fish, and plants, and marvellous sense organs like the human eye and ear. In doing so, they made the same mistake that Darwin made by failing to see the even greater life-sustaining complexity of the interactions between all these creatures, along with the interactions between them and the physical environment in which they live. It is one thing to create a living creature like a seagull, but it is quite another thing – and a higher degree of complexity – to create other organisms on which it can feed, as well as other organisms on which these latter can feed, together with diseases and predators that keep the seagull population in check, and in a manner so that each creature is able to find sufficient nourishment to perpetuate its kind, but without consuming entirely the source or sources of its sustenance, not to mention the physical environment that must provide the seagull with other things that it needs – water, air, land, a relatively stable climate, organic materials with which to build its nest, and so forth – in order for its kind to survive.

This natural harmonious symphony is far more complex that the most intricate musical symphony ever composed, or any other human artwork or invention that has ever been created or will be created in the future, including the most powerful computer or other artificial device. For it is a symphony that never stops and involves the interactions of staggering numbers of individual organisms, many of which are in turn made up of huge numbers of microscopic cells. We get a glimmer of how complex these interactions are when we consider the interactions of the different parts of the body of any large organism – how the sense organs deliver vital information about both the external and the organism’s internal environment, how the heart, lungs, and circulatory system deliver oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells while removing toxic wastes, how the muscles transport the body from one place to another, ensure that it is fed, and protect it from harm, and how other organs regulate the sugar level in the blood, the body’s temperature, hormones, growth, and many other vital features that need to be kept in homeostasis in order for it to develop and function properly. When one considers the enormous complexity of coordinating all these mechanisms and making sure that they work properly, it is truly a wonder that there exist any living creatures at all. But many of us are not capable of feeling wonder at the truly astonishing Miracle of Life because we have become besotted with our numerous artificial human creations, not a single one of which can perform the most basic of the functions that all living creatures perform, including even the simplest creatures like bacteria and viruses, such as reproducing and repairing themselves.

When one regards Nature in this way, one sees, not the relentless competition of one creature devouring another, but a harmonious and integrated whole in which all the individual parts play their role in keeping the whole in balanced existence. And in this view, death is finally understood in its proper sense: not as the end of life, but as an integral and necessary part of the continuance and further development of Life on Earth.

This difference in perspective is more than just an academic, religious, or philosophical debate between alternative ways of perceiving the world that has no practical consequences. According to the Darwinian view, which emphasizes competition between different species, we human beings have been the most successful species in the very long history of the planet. But according to the holistic view, which emphasizes the mutually beneficial cooperation and coexistence between different species, including when a member of one species consumes a member of another species or otherwise causes its death, we human beings have been the greatest living disaster that this planet has ever witnessed. The first view leads us falsely to suppose that we can continue doing what we are doing without any negative repercussions to either the Earth or ourselves, while the second view tells us unequivocally that it is absolutely imperative that we change course before it is too late. Which of these two divergent views is correct will clearly be revealed in the coming decades and centuries.

[1] By the term “predator” I also mean herbivores like horses, giraffes, elephants, and rabbits that feed on plants, as well as microorganisms that cause the death of their hosts; in other words, any organism that must feed on other living organisms in order to survive, reproduce, and perpetuate its kind.

[2] Interestingly, the populations of large organisms such as whales, elephants, and bears that, when they become adults, have no effective predators are limited by their small litters, long periods of gestation and development, and delayed sexual maturity. However, even these creatures are vulnerable to predation when they are young.

[3] I would prefer to write this word as “wholistic,” to emphasize its relation to “whole,” and also to minimize the associations which the word “holistic” has in many people’s brains with certain practices, beliefs, products, and medical treatments. Its standard spelling is simply another of the many irregularities that exist in the English language.

[4] Ichneumonidae are wasps that lay their eggs on living creatures such as spiders after first paralyzing them with their venom. After the eggs hatch, the larvae then slowly eat their victims alive.

[5] Letter to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860.

[6] We assume that these creatures use sonar to create images or visual representations of their surroundings because this is what we humans do with sonar. But this belief is not necessarily justified based merely on the argument from analogy.