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Thursday, October 15, 2009

NIETZSCHEAN EVOLUTION: the extravagance of the natural world

I was reading a book called The Herring Gull's World by Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch biologist, and came across a passage that made me think of Nietzsche's critique of Darwin. The passage deals with color sense in birds:

"In all these species, the bright colour-patterns concerned could not have developed without the species having a colour sense. But why do Little Owls have a colour sense? I think the solution is probably that in birds the power of colour-discrimination is a rather old acquisition, of which the species makes use or not. In other words, the colour sense was evolved first, and coloured structures with signal functions have developed as adaptations to various needs. If so, we may reasonably expect most birds to be able to distinguish between colours." (emphasis added).

Darwin and Darwinians have tended to make survival the central force moving evolution. This is what Nietzche critiqued in Darwin. Now if this passage from Tinbergen is correct, it implies that color sense in birds did not originally develop as a survival necessity, but as an extravagance, which only later developed a usefulness for survival, and this only in some of the species that had the trait. And if we get rid of the ideological content of Darwin's theory and look at its basic premise--that chance changes in living beings bring about the evolution of species--then such extravagance is to be expected (I would argue it is absolutely necessary). The changes brought about by chance processes may be harmful, indifferent or useful. Only the harmful ones would be definitively weeded out. The indifferent ones would be extravagances, excesses, things of wonder. Undoubtedly, over time, in new environments, in conjunction with other changes, these extravagances may become useful, but in the meantime, they are signs of the flourishing luxury of life, signs of the fact that the "struggle for survival" is not the norm, but an extremity. Extravagance, exuberance, excess are what provide the basis for the ever-changing interweaving of life.

On a broader level, this same point comes out in Loren Eiseley's beautiful book, The Immense Journey. The book is a poetic look at the marvelous meaninglessness of the evolution of life. Like Tinbergen, Eiseley makes it evident that the evolution of life must operate through extravagance, exuberant squandering, through excess of life. Only in this way can we explain the wide and marvelous variations of traits that allow adaptations to new environments--traits that must have developed before the journey to the new environment (otherwise the creature would not have survived their)--which thus may well have been useless when they were developing. Perhaps if science would detach itself from the utilitarian ideology that dominates our times, and particularly the science of our age, it might be able to see this more clearly, and so embrace the surreal marvel that is life...

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