Paper by David Flash for His 322M at the University of Texas At Austin, Spring 2018

In the third edition of edition Charles Darwin’s paradigmatic work, The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, the famed naturalist acknowledges “Natural Selection” to be a “misnomer.” In the fifth edition, he goes so far as changing “misnomer” to “false term.” However, Darwin’s acknowledgment that Natural Selection is a “false term,” is not a concession that the term is not apt or fit. In fact, his acknowledgment of the term as “false” while simultaneously utilizing said term as arguably the key term in all six editions of Origin, underlines Darwin’s assertion that “Natural Selection,” or any useful scientific metaphor, can be both “false” and “fit.” That is, if the scientific metaphor flows from the pen of an intellectually honest researcher and is analyzed by an audience void of agenda or preconceptions limiting comprehension.

The explosive popularity of Origin was instrumental in displacing the “Genesis account” of speciation. “Ideal types,” so-called “insignificant variations,” and attempted reconciliation to Biblical accounts of creation predominated even amongst the scientific community prior to the 19th century. Origin advances a new paradigm in the natural sciences: the “struggle for existence” (Darwin, 140) in biological systems drives speciation through natural variation. Both the mechanism and result of this “struggle for existence” leading to adaptation and ultimately speciation are metaphorically termed “Natural Selection” in Origin.

Darwin likens the natural process, wherein new variations emerge as divergent and new species ultimately emerge, to artificial “selective breeding.” Such practices prove capable of propagating desired alterations in selective breeders’ flocks or crops. The naturalist’s metaphorical means of expression and tendency to anthropomorphize natural processes are typical of terminology pervading modern scientific lexica. The language systems necessary for scientific analysis as defined by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac at the dawn of modern analytical science are frequently built on metaphor. After all, Darwin asks in the fourth chapter of Origin, “Who ever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of various elements?” Nobody. However, the same could not be said of Origin’s new term defining the process driving evolution. Several contemporary notables, among both Darwin’s admirers and detractors alike, took issue with the term “Natural Selection” seeming to imply the existence of a conscious “selector,” a divine intelligence, playing the role that the farmer or breeder plays in the artificial selection process.

Darwin’s friend and collaborator Alfred R. Wallace, famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest,” is initially amongst detractors of Origin’s use of the “Natural Selection” moniker for the revolutionary new paradigm of biological speciation, which both men were instrumental in articulating. In an 1866 letter to Darwin, Wallace acknowledges the term Natural Selection as “clear & beautiful to many of us.” However, he also points out that it provokes from some readers a “charge of something like blindness…not seeing that ‘Natural Selection’ requires the constant watching of an intelligent ‘chooser’ like man’s selection to which you so often compare.”

Darwin acknowledges Wallace’s argument, as well as his contribution to the creation of the paradigm, by renaming Origin’s fourth chapter on Natural Selection to include the phrase that Wallace created and advocated: Natural Selection; or The Survival of the Fittest. However, acknowledgement does not constitute agreement. As previously stated, in the fifth edition of Origin, he went so far as changing “misnomer” to “false term” in reference to Natural Selection, arguably in response to critiques from Wallace and others. However, for the purposes of conveying and analyzing the natural mechanisms and principles behind speciation, in penning all six editions of Origin, Darwin continues viewing it advantageous to “bring into connection natural & artificial selection” (Darwin, Ch. 4).

Further answering Wallace’s suggestion that he curb his utilization of the term Natural Selection, Darwin’s reply questions if any term would suffice for those unwilling or incapable of reviewing Origin objectively: “I doubt whether the use of any term would have made the subject intelligible to some minds, clear as it is to others; for do we not see even to the present day Malthus on Population absurdly misunderstood.” In both the first edition of Origin published in 1859 and the sixth and final edition published in 1872, Darwin clearly and repetitively articulates and elaborates on exactly what is, and is not, meant by his utilization of the word “selection” in the paradigmatic term he coined.

The “selector” Darwin repetitively refers to in Origin is “the aggregate action and product of many natural laws…” (Darwin, Ch. 4). The sixth edition of Origin clearly states exactly what is meant by “silent and insensible” selector: “It may metaphorically be said. 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…” From the very first edition of Origin, Darwin clearly illuminates the distinction between artificial selection as practiced by man and natural selection that occurs as a process in nature. Darwin’s theory of speciation asserts that the natural world, acting in aggregate as a complex adaptive system, “selects” traits: “Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being” (Darwin, 142).

In Darwin’s reply to Wallace’s letter on Natural Selection, he said, “The term Natural selection has now been so largely used… I doubt whether it could be given up, & with all its faults I should be sorry to see the attempt made.” Whether the term “Natural Selection” would be adapted as the term for the paradigm which Darwin dedicated his life to advancing and articulation must ultimately depend, as Darwin replied to Wallace, “on the survival of the fittest.” Turns out, Wallace himself utilized the term in titling his 1889 work, Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection, with Some of Its Applications.

As an author utilizing the term Natural Selection, Wallace is far from rare. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which measures the frequency with which words and phrases appear in the 5 million plus books in Google’s database, between the 1850s and 2008, Natural Selection appears a minimum of nine times more frequently than the term Wallace coined. By Wallace’s own standard, the term “Natural Selection” surviving to be utilized in centuries of literature relating to evolutionary theory, much more frequently than “survival of the fittest,” a frequently used term as well, proves that it was and is a fit term. Natural Selection is not perfectly descriptive. No scientific metaphor is. But Natural Selection is an apt metaphor to convey the paradigms of speciation that Wallace and Darwin both believed in and worked to establish as norms of natural science.