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own good—Nature selects only for the good of the being which she tends. But, of course, nature, at least as we would understand her operations, hardly works for the good of each being in her selections—she destroys most of the beings which she tends. Darwin’s formulation, however, is not a slip of his pen. In the same section of the Origin, he reiterates:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.

Darwin (1859, p. 84)


The conceit that nature is working for “the improvement of each organic being” is repeated several more times throughout the Origin (1859, pp. 149, 194, 201, and 489). Despite the ravages of natural selection, the nature that appears in Darwin’s theory nonetheless expresses compassion and altruistic concern—and thus hardly acts as a mechanical, indifferent force.

Darwinian evolution, under the aegis of natural selection, is also progressive. As Darwin expresses it in the penultimate paragraph of the book: “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection” (Darwin, 1859, p. 489). This kind of progress is not merely local. In chapter 10 of the Origin, for instance, Darwin asserts that “the more recent forms [of creatures] must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms” (1859, pp. 336–337). This is a universal proposition, not confined to a local population. He then provides an operational test—at least in imagination—of this consequence. If Eocene creatures adapted to a particular environment were put in competition with modern animals, Darwin conjectures, “the Eocene fauna or flora would certainly be beaten and exterminated” (1859, p. 337). He assumes that the accumulation of improvements would give the advantage to more progressive (i.e., recent) creatures—even if compared with animals adapted to the same environment. This presumption of cumulative adaptational advantage, of course, does not play a role in neo-Darwinian theory. But then, as I’ve pedantically argued, Darwin was not a neo-Darwinian.

Stephen Jay Gould (1977a, 1989) and others have assumed that any acquiescence in the idea of global evolutionary progress would suggest a teleological structure to biological history. I don’t think that logically follows. Michael Ruse has found that many leading evolutionary biologists in the 20th century, as secular in their orientation as one could desire, yet



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