Can Darwinism be considered optimistic or pessimistic?

Can Darwinism be considered optimistic or pessimistic?

Oh man, I wrote this a while ago and never posted it! :O

In Wednesday’s seminar, we discussed this question in small groups, and in my group (which I think consisted of Yun and Karen? Maybe?) we found it to be a really difficult question to answer. We eventually decided that it’s both… or neither…? If we look at what Darwin says on page 209, we can see both sides : “[optimistic] Natural selection tends only to make each organic being as perfect as, or slightly more perfect than the other inhabitants of the same country [pessimistic]  with which it has to struggle for existence.”

Initially we were leaning more towards pessimism. The “struggle for existence” though realistic, is rather sad. It’s this idea that all of nature is a competition. Every organism in an ecosystem has to fight to have the resources to live, which means that some will lose. It’s sort of depressing to think that pretty much no matter what, there are going to be some organisms that are just not good enough to survive.

But then we realized that while the weaker organisms die off, the weak traits die with them. The sacrifices made during the course of natural selection are for the benefit of the species as a whole. With every generation of a species, that species improves itself to better survive in its environment. It’s almost inspirational, like ‘bad things will happen, but it’s ultimately for the better’.

But then you keep reading, and Darwin says “Natural selection will not produce absolute perfection” (209). You may, like me,  ask yourself  is it really worth it then?’. Well, probably. But still.

And now, a brief message to future Arts One students:
Don’t be like me, kids. Write your blog posts earlier on in the semester, so you don’t have to do three in a row.

2 thoughts on “Can Darwinism be considered optimistic or pessimistic?

  1. Christina Hendricks

    Nice reflections here! And I like you’re advice at the end. 🙂

    I do find that Darwin sometimes writes in a very hopeful, optimistic way, like that quote towards the bottom of 214 where he says that “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” I mean, if that doesn’t sound optimistic I don’t know what does! Organisms are on a path towards continual improvement over time.

    But you’re right, he also says that natural selection won’t actually produce perfection (the quote you gave from 209). All it can do is give organisms an advantage in the “struggle for life” over other organisms, and they only have to get enough improvement to do better than those who are competing with them for resources.

    So I guess for Darwin organisms continually progress towards perfection, but they won’t ever get there? And since “perfection” in this context can only be defined in terms of fitness for one’s environment and having advantages over other organisms in that environment, insofar as the environment and other organisms change over time, each species has to change too. It’s not like you can progress towards some kind of static perfect state, because once a species gets an advantage in competition, other species might start to do so too so the first one has to change again. Maybe that’s another reason why there won’t ever be some kind of ultimate perfection?

    On another note, can you activate a plugin that allows those who make comments to check a box to get an email if anyone responds to their comments? Otherwise, the commentator would have to remember to check back to your blog to see if you or anyone else responded (and most of us aren’t going to remember to do that!). When you’re logged into your site, go to the dashboard and find “plugins” on the left menu. Then find one called something like “subscribe to comments,” click “activate,” and you should be good to go!


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