Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Is Natural Selection Superior to Human Selection as “Nature is to Art”?

Given that most people do not have advanced degrees in mathematics or the sciences, debates and discussions surrounding evolution and creationism appear in the public square in the form of competing metaphors, similes, and extended analogies.

In other words, we use metaphors, similes, and extended analogies to simplify and grasp issues that might be otherwise inaccessible to us.

Hence we can keep a look-out for the ways in which our use of language, especially metaphorical language, frames and structures discussions of evolution and creationism.

Today’s metaphor comes from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). At the beginning of the third chapter of Darwin’s book, he declares that his term “Natural Selection” was chosen for its analogous associations with animal domestication and plant hybridization—or, in other words, human selection:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.

But Darwin doesn’t stop his “Natural Selection is like human selection” analogy there, but expands it still further—and with impressive literary flourish—by offering still another metaphor. He says that Natural Selection is to human selection as Nature is to art. Here’s how Darwin sonorously puts it:

We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

In other words, human domestic selection on the farm is, like a painter’s canvas, rather limited, and, as it were, “two dimensional.” The farmer, like the artist, must necessarily focus on just a few things that he or she finds in Nature. As a practical matter, the farmer and artist are simply unable to see or take in all of Nature’s rich variables and capture them and modify them.

Nature, however, is “incessantly ready for action”—that is, it is ever poised to select an organism’s adaptive traits, wherever and however they might appear. If a modification is beneficial to an organism’s survival, Nature is unlikely to miss it for very long.

Hence, claims Darwin, the power of Natural Selection is vastly superior to its analogous process of human selection, “as the works of Nature are to those of Art.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Is Natural Selection Superior to Human Selection as “Nature is to Art”?

  1. Ken says:

    You write about many interesting things here.

    Here is why I think Darwin used the metaphor “natural selection:”

    I think that Darwin’s first readers may have been inclined to compare natural selection with divine selection rather than human selection. The use of the metaphor seems to be a way to take God out of the discussion – to keep readers from comparing natural selection with divine selection. No one could argue with the successes of human selection in creating differences in the characteristics of plants and animals by controlling their breeding to take advantage of variations that occurred among offspring. No one could argue that the variations occurred or that selective breeding could be used to perpetuate these differences in future generations. This prepared the reader to accept Darwin’s argument that over a very long period of time the struggle for survival was the agent that selected the species now existing. The readers had already accepted the idea that life is a struggle, even as Malthus had argued. The readers had begun to accept the argument that the earth was very old. Darwin’s task was to put these ideas together along with the fossil record to build the convincing argument that natural selection, not divine selection or special creation accounts for the origin of the species.

    I have wondered why he argued the superiority of natural selection over human selection. I don’t mean that I disagree with him; I only mean that I wonder why he thought it was important to make that argument. I think that he may have thought that this would be a way to convince readers that natural selection was capable of causing much greater change than human selection could cause and therefore would be sufficient, without special creation or divine intervention, to account for the origin of the species.

    When I think about the superiority of natural selection to human selection today, I think about, or worry about, genetic engineering and I think about the human selection that has occurred over thousands of years through the conversion of forest to grassland and grassland to agriculture and industry. When I think about that in connection with the ever expanding population, I worry about the destructiveness of human selection. But I don’t think Darwin was worrying about that.

    I also wonder why Darwin held nature up against art. Perhaps that was something that many people would have agreed with in his time. It is ironic, in a way, for Darwin to contrast them, because from the evolutionary perspective, art has either played a role in sexual selection or some indirect role in the survival of one person or another long enough to leave offspring, or else it is simply one of the superfluities of life, like unnecessary organs. It seems from the evolutionary perspective that art is part of nature, one way or the other, and in no sense does it compete with nature for beauty or truth or life.

    The power of Darwin’s metaphors is overwhelming. I wish he had made the argument for divine selection rather than natural selection.

    Perhaps, to some degree, art has always, even in modernity, been associated with our response to divinity, while nature has been thought to be the work of divinity. Perhaps that is why readers might have agreed with Darwin’s claim about nature and art.

  2. Very interesting. It is sort of refreshing to see someone speaking of Darwin’s ideas outside of the typical realm of evolution/creation debates. I’m sure the nature/art and natural/artificial selection topics are not ones that are typically discussed when speaking of Darwin’s ideas. Thanks for sharing!

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