You have probably heard the story of Darwin’s intrepid voyage to the Galapagos Islands. On those rocky outcroppings far off the South American coast, Darwin noticed small variations in the beaks of a few finches, unlocking, we are told, the mystery of life’s variation over time and space. “The struggle for life,” Darwin deduced, would naturally select those beings whose hereditary mutations made them most fit to a specific environment. Over successive generations, scientists came to see the driving force behind evolution as perpetual competition between discrete individuals, a biological arms race to eat and reproduce in a world of scarcity.

Though Darwin articulated his theories of evolution over decades, and though he traveled far and wide during his years on the HMS Beagle, few accounts of his theories fail to mention the Galapagos, their wild remoteness and exotic biota. It’s important to us that Darwin went somewhere “out of the way” to discover the nature of life. We can imagine Darwin to be observing nature directly, unmediated by human interference.

Yet, like all humans, Darwin brought culture with him wherever he traveled. His descriptions of the workings of nature bear resemblance to prevailing thinking on human society within elite, English circles at the time. This is not a mere coincidence, and tracing his influences is worthwhile. It was, after all, the heyday of classical liberalism, dominated by thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Malthus, who valorized an unregulated market. They were debating minor points within a consensus on the virtues of competition. In an especially humble (and revealing) moment, Darwin characterized the principles underlying his thinking as naught but “the doctrine of Malthus, applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.”

Even within centers of institutional power, like universities in North America, competition’s position as the central force driving evolution has been seriously challenged recently.
What if Competition Isn’t As “Natural” As We Think? — by John Favini