Go West, Young Species? Like Ulysses and Darwin, Launch Out?

Exploiting an open territory appears to be a larger driver of big evolutionary changes than getting into an already crowded market and competing for local territorial niches, suggests a new scientific study that, at first glance, might seem to contradict Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Here’s the BBC:

The new study proposes that really big evolutionary changes happen when animals move into empty areas of living space, not occupied by other animals. For example, when birds evolved the ability to fly, that opened up a vast range of new possibilities not available to other animals. Suddenly the skies were quite literally the limit, triggering a new evolutionary burst. Similarly, the extinction of the dinosaurs left areas of living space wide open, giving mammals their lucky break.

It might have been different. The study, for example, might have found that the most obvious driver of big evolutionary changes is burrowing and elbowing your way into already existing ecological “niche markets.” But that’s not what the researchers found:

This concept challenges the idea that intense competition for resources in overcrowded habitats is the major driving force of evolution.

But this study probably shouldn’t be read as a rejection of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” or Tennyson’s Canto 56, in which he proclaims “nature red in tooth and claw.” These are not bogus concepts to be replaced with a kinder, gentler theory of openness and cooperation as the chief engines for the evolution of species. Obviously, competition and predation are also still central to evolution. As Yale biologist Stephen Stearns cautions about the study:

“[W]hat is the impetus to occupy new portions of ecological space if not to avoid competition with the species in the space already occupied?”

So, rather than being a challenge to Darwin’s engine of evolution (survival of the fittest), this appears to be an instance of biology inadvertently affirming a rule of thumb from business: to make a really big fortune, get somewhere first. To put it in the vernacular:

Go west, young man!

Or, as it was put to Dustin Hoffman by a family friend over drinks in The Graduate:

Plastics!

In other words, plastics was the next big frontier—the industry where a savvy young person in the 1960s could make serious money ahead of others.

During the Irish Potato Famine, the smart money was on finding one’s way to somewhere else—somewhere open—to America.

And less than 120 years later we had a young Irish president calling the United States to the moon. Ireland, by contrast, remained traditional; “old school.” The lesson, perhaps, is never to get into too regular a rhythm: stir the pot; find a new canvas or block of marble to work with where you can creatively rave first, then chisel.

Another thing that jumps out at me concerning this study is this: life needs very little prompting to launch onto the waves of an open sea. I’m thinking of the restlessness of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, who is not content to sit around his palace, even in old age, but is determined to launch forth into new adventures:

It little profits an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees . . .

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Like Gilgamesh, who is not content to hang around the city of Uruk with Enkidu, but must seek out a risky new adventure that will test the extremities of his being, so Tennyson’s Ulysses must move, as it appears that all life must move.

I also think of Charles Darwin, whose father discouraged his world travel. But Charles Darwin did not heed his father’s safe and sensible advice, but took great risks with his life out on the edge of discovery, and brought something new, and apparently permanent, into the world: his great book, The Origin of Species.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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