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In the Light of Evolution, Volume I: Adaptation and Complex Design
In the concluding chapter XIV of The Origin, Darwin returns to the dominant theme of adaptation and design. In an eloquent final paragraph, Darwin asserts the “grandeur” of his vision:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved (Darwin, 1859b, pp. 489–490; emphasis added).
Darwin’s Origin addresses the same issue as Paley: how to account for the adaptive configuration of organisms and their parts, which are so obviously designed to fulfill certain functions. Darwin argues that hereditary adaptive variations (“variations useful in some way to each being”) occasionally appear, and that these are likely to increase the reproductive chances of their carriers. The success of pigeon fanciers and animal breeders clearly shows the occasional occurrence of useful hereditary variations. In nature, over the generations, Darwin’s argument continues, favorable variations will be preserved, multiplied, and conjoined; injurious ones will be eliminated. In one place, Darwin avers: “I can see no limit to this power [natural selection] in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life” (Darwin, 1859b, p. 469).
In his Autobiography, Darwin wrote, “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, falls, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by a man” (Barlow, 1958).
Natural selection was proposed by Darwin primarily to account for the adaptive organization, or design, of living beings; it is a process that preserves and promotes adaptation. Evolutionary change through time and evolutionary diversification (multiplication of species) often ensue as by-products of natural selection fostering the adaptation of organisms to their milieu. Evolutionary change is not directly promoted by natural selection, however, and therefore it is not its necessary consequence.