I’ve been planning a birthday party this week with my daughter. Her birthday is Feb. 13, sandwiched right in between Charles Darwin’s birthday on the 12th, and Valentine’s Day. With Darwin and my daughter both celebrating big decades this year (my daughter her 10th, Darwin his 200th), love, family and Darwin’s legacy have been on my mind.
Darwin, of course, is known for his theory of natural selection, often simplistically summed up as: “survival of the fittest”. For most non-scientists, reference to Darwin brings to mind the concepts of competition, conflict, aggression, and selecting out the weak. Herbert Spencer and others co-opted from Tennyson the phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” to characterize natural selection as a brutal process. With “Darwin Day” much in the news these days, it’s worth reflecting on the deeper meaning and significance of his work.
Darwin recognized that “success” in nature can be as much about cooperation as it is about competition, and that behaviors that improve an organism’s circumstances do not necessarily occur at the expense of another individual. He wrote much about social behavior and introduced the idea that reciprocity, altruism and sharing resources can in fact be very beneficial. This aspect of Darwin was ignored by the social scientists of his day but has become an increasingly appreciated aspect of evolution in the last 40 years. Despite Darwin’s Victorian perspective, our understandings of ecological interactions, our bodies, and even our social interactions owe much to his early insight.
It is not by competition but by cooperation that humans apply meaning to our lives, and we can apply this not just in our personal and family lives, but also in our professional lives. As we navigate our way through our complex network of family, academic, and social relationships, we would do well to acknowledge this gentler implication of the Darwinian revolution.
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