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Evolution & the Natural Sciences

This is the second part in our short series on evolution. Please also see “The Real Origin of Species: Lynn Margulis’s ‘Symbiotic Planet’,” and “Evolution & the Social Sciences.”

The concept of evolution, or change over time, is not new. As Kenneth V. Kardong (1943-2018) explains in his Introduction to Biological Evolution, such ideas were held by the ancient Greeks and others including Anaximander, Empedocles, and Aristotle. The great contributions of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), and the reason Darwinian evolutionary theory underlies the entirety of contemporary life sciences, is the proposed mechanism for evolution: natural selection.

It should be noted that both Darwin and Wallace independently developed the concept of natural selection, with Wallace initiating a correspondence with Darwin. Underlying this exchange was the work of political economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Malthus’s 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, would inspire the development of natural selection, in addition to Malthusianism and “social Darwinism.” Indeed, Malthus can be seen as formalizing the overly competitive view of nature, held at least since Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and marks the entry of political economy into the natural sciences. Interestingly, both Darwin and Wallace had independently read Malthus prior to their correspondence. Further discussion of Malthus, Malthusianism, and social Darwinism can be found in our post “Evolution & the Social Sciences.”

The evidence for evolution is compelling and overwhelming. As Kardong discusses, this includes the presence of a chronological sequence of progressive changes in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, and the presence of vestigial or atavistic structures in organisms.

Darwin and Wallace proposed conditions for evolutionary change through the mechanism of natural selection. For them, three conditions prevailed: the intrinsic increase in the number of individuals within a species, competition occurring for natural resources, and the survival of the few.

Before continuing, it should be noted that some novel concepts will be introduced. Some of these are in the mainstream of scientific opinion, yet little known by the general public. Others may currently be minority opinions within the scientific community. There may even be critique of current scientific consensus around some issues within evolutionary biology. None of this invalidates evolutionary theory, nor is it intended to. With the prevalence of pseudo-scientific theories and the outright rejection of evolutionary science by some, it is important not to confuse scientific critique with a rejection of science, or critique of certain aspects as invalidating an entire project. We are attempting to highlight some underappreciated aspects within evolutionary theory that can potentially alter our understanding of nature and human society.

Natural Selection

In discussing natural selection as the mechanism of Darwin-Wallace’s evolutionary theory, Kardong defines the concept as “a culling process, wherein those with advantageous features survive; those without perish.” The result of this process is “change through time,” and “descent with modification” (p. 123).

Kardong notes that competition and predation between individuals was the early focus of natural selection research, now known as biotic selection factors. “Eventually Darwin recognized that equally important for survival was the outcome of an organism’s confrontation with the physical environment,” or the abiotic selection factors (p.123). Nevertheless, Kardong tellingly goes on to define natural selection as the “weeding out of organisms by biological factors,” directly affecting the phenotype, not the genotype of the organism (p. 129).

An alternative description for natural selection is “survival of the fittest,” coined by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was also the first to apply the concept to human society and an early proponent of the “social Darwinist” perspective.

Indeed, the extent to which biotic and competitive factors of natural selection are emphasized, by Darwin as well as contemporary evolutionary science, is great. Historian George Woodcock (1912-1995), in his introduction to Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), elaborates:

In later years, like Wallace, [Darwin] granted that co-operation was also important, but he never developed the idea, and the concept of progression through conflict was what Darwinism came to mean in the public mind, particularly when [Thomas Henry] Huxley appeared in the field with his presentation of the continual strife between groups and individuals as a law of life.

“Introduction,” Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1989), p. xxiv

Cooperation in Addition to Competition

An early attempt to counter the overemphasis of competition within the Darwin-Wallace evolutionary theory, both in the natural and social spheres, is found in the work of Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). His best known work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution was published as early as 1890 in serialized form for the publication The Nineteenth Century. In large part a response to Thomas Henry Huxley’s (1825-1895) earlier essay, “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” Mutual Aid “offered the first extensive counter argument to those who emphasized the struggle for existence as the major factor in evolution” (p. xi).

Like Spencer, Huxley (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”) subscribed to the basic Malthusian position–population outstripping food supply. This is part of a conception of the natural world that spans at least from Hobbes and his “war of everyone against everyone” as the state of nature to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892) idea of “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

Kropotkin regarded such extreme stuggle-for-existence views as a distortion of Darwinism. He opens Mutual Aid by stating:

Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find–although I was eagerly looking for it–that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.

Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1989), p. xxxv.

Social Darwinism and the battle of each against all as constituting the “law of Nature,” was rejected by Kropotkin, who held up Russian zoologist Karl Fedorovich Kessler’s (1815-1881) “law of Mutual Aid” alongside the “law of mutual struggle” (p. xxxvii-xxxviii). Though titled Mutual Aid, when discussing the role of mutualism within the natural world Kropotkin was primarily concerned with that between members of the same species, commonly referred to today as cooperation. Mutualism (or interspecific cooperation) is commonly referred to as a mutually beneficial relationship between members of different species. Both are types of symbiosis.

For Kropotkin, cooperation and competition were the two main factors in the “struggle for existence,” with cooperation being as much a natural law as mutual struggle, but of far greater importance as a factor of evolution (p. 6). He noted that Russian Darwinists were much more receptive to the importance of cooperation than their western counterparts (p. 9).

Kropotkin contends that Darwin’s proofs for competition, which Darwin argues is a necessity due to the overstocking of animal life, is insufficiently convincing. Specifically, he notes that “The Struggle for Life Most Severe Between Individuals…” in The Origin of Species–the main portion dealing with competition–does not actually give proofs for competition, but takes it for granted.

This–the tempering of competitive factors–along with punctuated equilibrium (discussed below) and symbiogenesis, which Lynn Margulis saw as providing an actual explanation of the initial origin of species (the emergence of the biotic from the abiotic) represent challenges to classical, competitive, orthodox Darwinism that could lead to a further extended evolutionary synthesis.

For further discussion of symbiogenesis see “The Real Origin of Species: Lynn Margulis’s ‘Symbiotic Planet’.

Stephen Jay Gould’s Defense of Kropotkin

More than 100 years after Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution sought to temper the competitive aspects of evolutionary theory and caution against efforts to apply them to human nature and society, leading evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) came to Kropotkin’s defense.

In “Kropotkin was No Crackpot,” Gould reminded his readers that Darwin intended the concept of the “struggle for existence” in a metaphorical sense, but that “his actual examples certainly favored bloody battle.” Gould also lamented Darwin’s acceptance of the “dismal view of Malthus,” and cited Darwin’s metaphor of the wedge as demonstrating the latter’s commitment to competition over all other factors.

Nature, Darwin writes, is like a surface with 10,000 wedges hammered tightly in and filling all available space. A new species (represented as a wedge) can only gain entry into a community by driving itself into a tiny chink and forcing another wedge out. Success, in this vision, can only be achieved by direct takeover in overt competition.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Kropotkin was No Crackpot” (1997)

Gould notes that Kropotkin’s arguments in Mutual Aid were rooted in a Russian evolutionary tradition characterized by “a standard, well-developed Russian critique of Darwin, based on interesting reasons and coherent national traditions….” and “based its major premise upon a firm rejection of Malthus’s claim that competition, in the gladiatorial mode [a term introduced by Huxley], must dominate in an ever more crowded world, where population, growing geometrically, inevitably outstrips a food supply that can only increase arithmetically.”

Summarizing Kropotkin’s argument, Gould reinforces the idea that Darwin, influenced by Malthus, did indeed favor competition over other factors:

Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general notion of struggle–two forms with opposite import: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition; and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation…. Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed, but his loyalty to Malthus and his vision of nature chock-full of species led him to emphasize the competitive aspect. Darwin’s less sophisticated votaries then exalted the competitive view to near exclusivity, and heaped a social and moral meaning upon it as well.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Kropotkin was No Crackpot,” (1997).

Gould did fault Kropotkin for a limited, technical misunderstanding of Darwin’s position of natural selection pertaining to individual organisms, noting that Kropotkin sometimes argued that cooperation “selected for the benefit of entire populations or species.” In addition, Kropotkin arguably fell into naturalistic fallacies or appeals to nature by finding there the characteristics he sought for his social theories. Yet, Gould saw Kropotkin’s work as a counterbalance to the overemphasis of competition by Darwin and his adherents:

What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today, and that of the entire Russian school represented by him? Were they just victims of cultural hope and intellectual conservatism? I don’t think so. In fact, I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Kropotkin was No Crackpot” (1997).

Punctuated Equilibrium

The concept of evolution as “change over time” has long been associated with gradualism. Punctuated equilibrium, first put forward by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972, challenges this orthodox view. Gould has noted that Darwin was a strict adherent of gradualism and tied this view to natural selection, over the objection of Thomas Henry Huxley.

In “The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change,” Gould argues against Darwin’s gradualism:

[T]he modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change. In fact, the operation of Darwinian processes should yield exactly what we see in the fossil record. It is gradualism that we must reject, not Darwinism.

Stephen Jay Gould, “The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change,” The Richness of Life (2007), p. 263.

Gould’s argument seeks to better explain the seeming lack of intermediate forms found in the fossil record. To a gradualist such as Darwin, this was a result of the fossil record’s incompleteness. To Gould, this was because evolutionary change often happened at a much quicker rate than Darwin allowed in his theory of natural selection. Therefore, in Gould’s view the fossil record was not incomplete, but a reflection of the sudden appearance and then stasis of species that the theory of punctuated equilibrium predicted (p. 264). While evolutionary change via punctuated equilibrium occurs much faster than under gradualism, they both occur relatively slowly, across geologic time.

Gould contends that “speciation is responsible for almost all evolutionary change…” and that this occurs primarily in peripheral isolates of larger, otherwise stable and homogenizing, populations (p. 264-265).

Further support for punctuated equilibrium also comes from the work of Lynn Margulis and her serial endosymbiotic theory (SET). It is fascinating how mutualism and cooperation, punctuated equilibrium, and symbiogenesis mutually reinforce one another. Taken together, these pose a challenge to orthodox Darwinism and the vision of nature (and by implication, human “nature” and society) as overly or exclusively competitive: “red in tooth and claw.”

The Gradation from Natural to Social Evolution

In his treatment of Kropotkin discussed above, Stephen Jay Gould was skeptical about importing natural facts and observations of nature to justify social attitudes or institutions. Yet, he was also aware that social values do impact the scientific endeavor.

Interestingly, he compares the theory of punctuated equilibrium with the dialectical method:

If gradualism is more a product of Western thought than a fact of nature, then we should consider alternate philosophies of change to enlarge our realm of constraining prejudices. In the Soviet Union, for example, scientists are trained with a very different philosophy of change–the so-called dialectical laws, reformulated by Engels from Hegel’s philosophy. The dialectical laws are explicitly punctuational. They speak, for example, of the “transformation of quantity into quality.” This may sound like mumbo jumbo, but it suggests that change occurs in large leaps following a slow accumulation of stresses that a system resists until it reaches the breaking point. Heat water and it eventually boils. Oppress the workers more and more and bring on the revolution. Eldredge and I were fascinated to learn that many Russian paleontologists support a model similar to our punctuated equilibria.

Stephen Jay Gould, “The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change,” The Richness of Life (2007), p. 266.

Gould concludes his Cold War-era essay “with a simple plea for pluralism in guiding philosophies, and for the recognition that such philosophies, however hidden and unarticulated, constrain all our thought. The dialectical laws express an ideology quite openly; our Western preference for gradualism does the same thing more subtly” (p. 266).


The presence and prevalence of symbiosis–particularly mutualism and cooperation–should serve to temper notions of nature primarily “red in tooth and claw.” Malthusian tenets adopted by Darwin and Wallace into the natural sciences also brought certain assumptions regarding the “nature” of nature. Such views and assumptions would result in a skewed, overly competitive vision of the natural world that exists to this day.

Further, we have seen the interrelation of factors such as punctuated equilibria, mutualism, and cooperation as challenging the overly competitive, orthodox Darwinian view of nature. Given this, and the complexity of the “struggle for existence” between individuals, between individuals and environment, and between species, the usefulness of defining individual “fitness” exclusively as the reproductive success of the individual may start to be challenged.

In the next post, titled “Evolution & the Social Sciences,” we will turn from the natural to the social sciences to show how, in dialectical fashion, such a skewed vision of nature would become the basis for a skewed vision of human “nature,” as well as society. Such a skewed vision allows for the justification of certain economic systems or human behaviors as “natural,” when in fact no such justification exists.

From this preliminary investigation, a vision of nature emerges from the social and natural sciences that is often inaccurate and drenched with social biases. While biases may never be eliminated entirely, they can be minimized to a great extent. Further, it is clear that the prevailing views of nature and society are mutually influencing: each shapes, and is shaped by, the other.

Given the scientific fact of ongoing ecological crisis (not to mention current social crises), it is imperative that a clearer vision of the natural world, and humanity’s place within it, be obtained. Emphasizing the largely overlooked facts outlined here is a good start toward this end.

Charles Imboden is a social ecologist with expertise in non-profits, solar energy, and liberatory technology. He specializes in arid lands and is based in the American Southwest. Contact him here.


Gould, S.J. (1997). “Kropotkin was No Crackpot,” Natural History (106): 12-21.

Gould, S.J. (2007). The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.: New York, NY.

Kardong, K.V. (2008). An Introduction to Biological Evolution. 2nd Edition. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.

Kropotkin, P. (1989). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Canada.

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