The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories
Professors Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke
February 13, 2009
A Discussion of the Word “Perfect”
Its Role in Origin of the Species
In the conclusion of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin makes a statement that is of critical importance for an analysis of his thinking. “As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being,” he says, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection” (397). That which is “good” is easily definable in a Darwinian sense: something is good if it allows a being reproductive advantages over other beings in the same environment, whether they are of the same or of another species. That which is “perfect,” however, is much more difficult to define. Origin of Species is a work that subsequently helped give birth to the modern, non-essentialist thought process of most biological thinkers, but its modern significance only complicates the issue of Darwin himself. What kind of thinker was he? Darwin’s usage of the concept of perfection helps illuminate his struggle to interpret his enormous quantity of empirical data about evolution and natural selection.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, perfection is characterized by “a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon.” Its origin (the word from which it has evolved) is the Latin term “perficio,” which can be literally translated as “a finishing.” If all beings are progressing toward perfection, the very use of the words “progressing” and “perfection” implies that at some point in time evolution will no longer be necessary, a suggestion that is extremely essentialist in nature. Is Darwin an essentialist thinker?
When Darwin first talks of natural selection, he asserts, “No country can be named in which all the native inhabitants are now so perfectly adapted to each other and to the physical conditions under which they live, that none of them could anyhow be improved” (145). Certainly he does not believe that any current species is perfect, but he frequently cites a kind of relativistic perfection. “How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected?” (132) he asks. He provides his answer in an explanation of the symbiotic relationship between flowers and bees when he says, “ I can understand how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneously or one after the other, modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other, by the continued preservation of individuals presenting mutual and slightly favourable deviations of structure.” (153)
The kind of perfection that Darwin sees in nature is a kind of temporary, fluctuating perfection that exists between different beings and between beings and their environment. When Darwin discusses the role of geographic isolation in modifying island species, he claims that “new places in the polity of each island will have to be filled up by modifications of the old inhabitants; and time will be allowed for the varieties in each to become well modified and perfected” (161). In other words, after environments shift, it is necessary that beings find a new state of relative perfection. Darwin continues this line of thought when he suggests, “in the general economy of any land, the more widely and perfectly the animals and plants are diversified for different habits of life, so will a greater number of individuals be capable of there supporting themselves. (167).
Darwin summarizes his vision of perfection in natural selection in the conclusion to Origin of Species, where he writes:
As natural selection acts by competition, it adapts the inhabitants of each country only in relation to the degree of perfection of their associates; so that we need feel no surprise at the inhabitants of any one country, although on the ordinary view supposed to have been specially created and adapted for that country, being beaten and supplanted by the naturalised productions from another land. Nor ought we to marvel if all the contrivances in nature be not, as far as we can judge, absolutely perfect; and if some of them be abhorrent to our ideas of fitness...The wonder indeed is, on the theory of natural selection, that more cases of the want of absolute perfection have not been observed. (387)
The phrase “absolute perfection” is intriguing in this context. After specifically describing adaptation as “only in relation to the degree of perfection of their associates,” he implies that there is a form that is most perfect. Perhaps Darwin and his naturalist contemporaries can be seen as a variety or a subspecies of thinkers, who provide a missing link between their essentialist ancestors and their existentialist descendents.
Darwin, Charles (2003). On the Origin of Species. James Carroll (Ed.). Canada: Broadview Texts.
Perfection (1989). In J.A. Simpson and ESC Weiner (Eds.), Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press.