Reminder that “struggle for existence” is a conceptual metaphor.

December 12, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More

In the November, 2009 edition of Nature (available only to subscribers online) Daniel Todes has written an article entitled “Global Darwin: Contempt for Competition.”  Todes points out that although Darwin’s idea of a “struggle for existence” made sense to his English peers, other biologists from other countries rejected this metaphor.  Todes focuses on the alternative viewpoint embraced by many Russian biologists.

Image by Buffafamily at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Buffafamily at Flickr (creative commons)

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin noted that “there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” Through this quote, Darwin recognized that he was using “struggle for existence” in a metaphorical sense.  Darwin had been urged to adopt this metaphor by Russel Wallace, who feared that natural selection “seemed to personify a perceptive and forward thinking selector, or god.”

Todes holds that Darwin’s metaphor was common sense to those “who were living on a crowded island with a capitalist economy and highly individualist culture.”  Russian biologists lived in a very different place, however, which led them to “reject Darwin’s Malthusian metaphor.”  Russians did not tend to explore densely populated tropical environments. Rather, they tended to investigate “a vast underpopulated continental plain . . . it was largely empty Siberian expanse in which overpopulation was rare and only the struggle of organisms against a harsh environment was dramatic.”  Todes points out the Russian political system also contrasted sharply with that of Darwin’s England. In Russia, capitalism was only weakly developed, and the social classes stressed cooperation rather than individual struggle, one against the other. In fact, many Russian political commentators “reviled Malthus as an apologist for predatory capitalism and the soulless individualism.” This context for the Russian research led to (many successful) studies in which the focus was “mutual aid” more than “struggle for existence. ”

The critique of Darwin’s metaphor led many Russian naturalists to the theory of mutual aid, which emphasized the importance of cooperation. Darwin too had called attention to such cooperation, but the theory of mutual aid went further. It held that the central aspect of the struggle for existence is an organism’s struggle with abiotic conditions, that organisms to join forces in this struggle, that such mutual aid is favored by natural selection, and that cooperation so vitiated intraspecific competition as to render it unimportant in the origin of new species.

Todes notes that Westerners came to associate this view with Peter Kropotkin, who had read Darwin’s Origin while in Siberia “and found the emphasis on overpopulation and intraspecific competition unconvincing.”

In his conclusion, Todes makes a general point about the use of metaphors by scientists:

[R]esearchers bring their life experiences and culture with them into the field and laboratory, and in the course of their investigations actively originate, interpret, develop and reject metaphorical pathways. . . . . metaphors are part of the ineffably human process by which scientists mobilize their experiences and values to explore the infinite complexity of nature.

Todes’ article served as a reminder to me that we must be careful to avoid the mistake of reification.  We must take care so that we don’t interpret metaphors literally lest we push them beyond their limits and mislead ourselves.  Is life literally a “struggle for existence?”  No. Rather, this metaphor is an often fruitful way for us to make sense of the extremely complex history of our ecosystem.   Reifying the “struggle for existence” makes the grotesque conflict-based theories as social Darwinism semi-palatable and it blinds us to the ubiquity of cooperation and empathy, as pointed out recently by Frans de Waal.

For more on the creation and use of conceptual metaphors, see this earlier post concerning the theories of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff.


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Category: Communication, Evolution, Language

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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