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An essay by John Burroughs

The Arrival Of The Fit

Title:     The Arrival Of The Fit
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

In my youth I once heard the then well-known lecturer Starr King speak on "The Law of Disorder." I have no recollection of the main thought of his discourse, but can see that it might have been upon the order and harmony that finally come out of the disharmonies of nature and of man. The whole universe goes blundering on, but surely arrives. Collisions and dispersions in the heavens above, and failure and destruction among living things on the earth below, yet here we all are in a world good to be in! The proof that it is good to be in is that we are actually here. It is as if the Creator played his right hand against his left--what one loses the other gains.

It has been aptly said that while Darwin's theory of natural selection may account for the survival of the fittest, it does not account for the arrival of the fittest. The arrival of the fittest, sooner or later, seems in some way guaranteed by tendencies that are beyond the hit-and-miss method of natural selection.

When we look back over the course of organic evolution, we see the unfolding of a great drama, or tragedy, in which, for millions upon millions of years the sole actors are low and all but brainless forms of life, devouring and devoured, in the old seas. We see, during other millions upon millions of years, a savage carnival of huge bestial forms upon the land, amphibian monsters and dragons of the land and air, devouring and being devoured, a riot of blood and carnage. We see the shifting of land and sea, the folding and crumpling of the earth's crust, the rise of mountains, the engulfing of forests, a vast destruction of life, immense numbers of animal forms becoming extinct through inability to adapt themselves to new conditions, or from other causes. We see creatures, half beast, half bird, or half dragon, half fish; we see the evolutionary process thwarted or delayed apparently by the hardening or fixing of its own forms. We see it groping its way like a blind man, and experimenting with this device and with that, fumbling, awkward, ineffectual, trying magnitude of body and physical strength first, and then shifting the emphasis to size of brain and delicacy and complexity of nerve-organization, pushing on but gropingly, learning only by experience, regardless of pain and waste and suffering; whole races of sentient beings swept away by some terrestrial cataclysm, as at the end of Palaeozoic and Mesozoic times; prodigal, inhuman, riotous, arming some vegetable growths with spurs and thorns that tear and stab, some insects with stings, some serpents with deadly fangs, the production of pain as much a part of the scheme of things as the production of pleasure; the creative impulse feeling its way through the mollusk to the fish, and through the fish to the amphibian and the reptile, through the reptile to the mammal, and through the mammal to the anthropoid apes, and through the apes to man, then through the rude and savage races of man, the long-jawed, small-brained, Pliocene man, hairy and savage, to the cave-dwellers and stone-implement man of Pleistocene times, and so on to our rude ancestors whom we see dimly at the dawn of history, and thus rapidly upward to the European man of our own era. What a record! What savagery, what thwartings and delays, what carnage and suffering, what an absence of all that we mean by intelligent planning and oversight, of love, of fatherhood! Just a clash of forces, the battle to the strong and the race to the fleet.

It is hard to believe that the course of organic evolution would have eventuated in man and the other higher forms of life without some guiding principle; yet it is equally difficult to believe that the course of any guiding intelligence down the ages would have been strewn with so many failures and monstrosities, so much waste and suffering and delay. Man has not been specially favored by one force or element in nature. Behold the enemies that beset him without and within, and that are armed for his destruction! The intelligence that appears to pervade the organic world, and that reaches its conscious expression in the brain of man, is just as manifest in all the forms of animals and plants that are inimical to him, in all his natural enemies,--venomous snakes and beasts of prey, and insect pests,--as in anything else. Nature is as wise and solicitous for rats and mice as for men. In fact, she has endowed many of the lower creatures with physical powers that she has denied him. Evidently man is only one of the cards in her pack; doubtless the highest one, but the game is not played for him alone.

There is no economy of effort or of material in nature as a whole, whatever there may be in special parts. The universe is not run on modern business-efficiency principles. There is no question of time, or of profit, of solvency or insolvency. The profit-and-loss account in the long run always balances. In our astronomic age there are probably vastly more dead suns and planets strewing the depths of sidereal space than there are living suns and planets. But in some earlier period in the cycle of time the reverse may have been true, or it may be true in some future period.

There is economy of effort in the individual organism, but not in the organic series, at least from the human point of view. During the biologic ages there have been a vast number of animal forms, great and small, and are still, that had no relation to man, that were not in his line of descent, and played no part in his evolution. During that carnival of monstrous and gigantic forms in Mesozoic time the ancestor of man was probably some small and insignificant creature whose life was constantly imperiled by the huge beasts about it. That it survived at all in the clash of forces, bestial and elemental, during those early ages, is one of the wonders of time. The drama or tragedy of evolution has had many actors, some of them fearful and terrible to look upon, who have played their parts and passed off the stage, as if the sole purpose was the entertainment of some unseen spectator. When we reach human history, what wasted effort, what failures, what blind groping, what futile undertakings!--war, famine, pestilence, delaying progress or bringing to naught the wisdom of generations of men! Those who live in this age are witnessing in the terrible European war something analogous to the blind, wasteful fury of the elemental forces; millions of men who never saw one another, and who have not the shadow of a quarrel, engage in a life-and-death struggle, armed with all the aids that centuries of science and civilization can give them--a tragedy that darkens the very heavens and makes a mockery of all our age-old gospel of peace and good will to men. It is a catastrophe on a scale with the cataclysms of geologic time when whole races disappeared and the face of continents was changed. It seems that men in the aggregate, with all their science and religion, are no more exempt from the operation of cosmic laws than are the stocks and stones. Each party to this gigantic struggle declares that he is in it against his will; the fate that rules in the solar system seems to have them all in its grip; the working of forces and tendencies for which no man was responsible seems to have brought it about. Social communities grow in grace and good-fellowship, but governments in their relations to one another, and often in relation to their own subjects, are still barbarous. Men become christianized, but man is still a heathen, the victim of savage instincts. In this struggle one of the most admirable and efficient of nations, and one of the most solicitous for the lives and well-being of its citizens, is suddenly seized with a fury of destruction, hurling its soldiers to death as if they were only the waste of the fields, and trampling down other peoples whose geographic position placed them in their way as if they were merely vermin, throwing international morality to the winds, looking upon treaties as "scraps of paper," regarding themselves as the salt of the earth, the chosen of the Lord, appropriating the Supreme Being as did the colossal egotism of old Israel, and quickly getting down to the basic principle of savage life--that might makes right.

Little wonder that the good people are asking, Have we lost faith? We may or we may not have lost faith, but can we not see that our faith does not give us a key to the problem? Our faith is founded on the old prescientific conception of a universe in which good and evil are struggling with each other, with a Supreme Being aiding and abetting the good. We fail to appreciate that the cosmic laws are no respecters of persons. Emerson says there is no god dare wrong a worm, but worms dare wrong one another, and there is no god dare take sides with either. The tides in the affairs of men are as little subject to human control as the tides of the sea and the air. We may fix the blame of the European war upon this government or upon that, but race antagonisms and geographical position are not matters of choice. An island empire, like England, is bound to be jealous of all rivals upon the sea, because her very life, when nations clash, depends upon her control of it; and an inland empire, like Germany, is bound to grow restless under the pressure of contiguous states of other races. A vast empire, like Russia, is always in danger of falling apart by its own weight. It is fused and consolidated by a turn of events that arouse the patriotic emotions of the whole people and unite them in a common enthusiasm.

The evolution of nations is attended by the same contingencies, the same law of probability, the same law of the survival of the fit, as are organic bodies. I say the survival of the fit; there are degrees of fitness in the scale of life; the fit survive, and the fittest lead and dominate, as did the reptiles in Mesozoic time, and the mammals in Tertiary time. Among the mammals man is dominant because he is the fittest. Nations break up or become extinct when they are no longer fit, or equal to the exigencies of the struggles of life. The Roman Empire would still exist if it had been entirely fit. The causes of its unfitness form a long and intricate problem. Germany of to-day evidently looks upon herself as the dominant nation, the one fittest to survive, and she has committed herself to the desperate struggle of justifying her self-estimate. She tramples down weaker nations as we do the stubble of the fields. She would plough and harrow the world to plant her Prussian _Kultur_. This _Kultur_ is a mighty good product, but we outside of its pale think that French _Kultur_, and English _Kultur_, and American _Kultur_ are good products also, and equally fit to survive. We naturally object to being ploughed under. That Russian _Kultur_ has so far proved itself a vastly inferior product cannot be doubted, but the evolutionary processes will in time bring a finer and higher Russia out of this vast weltering and fermenting mass of humanity. In all these things impersonal laws and forces are at work, and the balance of power, if temporarily disturbed, is bound, sooner or later, to be restored just as it is in the inorganic realm.

Evolution is creative, as Bergson contends. The wonder is that, notwithstanding the indifference of the elemental forces and the blind clashing of opposing tendencies among living forms,--a universe that seems run entirely on the trial-and-error principle,--evolution has gone steadily forward, a certain order and stability has been reached in the world of inert bodies and forces, and myriads of forms of wonderful fitness and beauty have been reached in the organic realm. Just as the water-system and the weather-system of the globe have worked themselves out on the hit-and-miss plan, but not without serious defects,--much too much water and heat at a few places, and much too little at a few others,--so the organic impulse, warred upon by the blind inorganic elements and preyed upon by the forms it gave rise to, has worked itself out and peopled the world as we see it peopled to-day--not with forms altogether admirable and lovely from our point of view, but so from the point of view of the whole. The forests get themselves planted by the go-as-you-please winds and currents, the pines in one place, the spruce, the oaks, the elms, the beeches, in another, all with a certain fitness and system. The waters gather themselves together in great bodies and breathe salubrity and fertility upon the land.

A certain order and reasonableness emerges from the chaos and cross-purposes. There are harmony and cooeperation among the elemental forces, as well as strife and antagonism. Life gets on, for all groping and blundering. There is the inherent variability of living forms to begin with--the primordial push toward the development from within which, so far as we can see, is not fortuitous, but predestined; and there is the stream of influences from without, constantly playing upon and modifying the organism and taken advantage of by it.

The essence of life is in adaptability; it goes into partnership with the forces and conditions that surround it. It is this trait which leads the teleological philosopher to celebrate the fitness of the environment when its fitness is a foregone conclusion. Shall we praise the fitness of the air for breathing, or of the water for drinking, or of the winds for filling our sails? If we cannot say explicitly, without speaking from our anthropomorphism, that there is a guiding intelligence in the evolution of living forms, we can at least say, I think, that the struggle for life is favored by the very constitution of the universe and that man in some inscrutable way was potential in the fiery nebula itself.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Arrival Of The Fit