§6. The Triad in Biological Development


395. Whether the part played by natural selection and the survival of the fittest in the production of species be large or small, there remains little doubt that the Darwinian theory indicates a real cause, which tends to adapt animal and vegetable forms to their environment. A very remarkable feature of it is that it shows how merely fortuitous variations of individuals together with merely fortuitous mishaps to them would, under the action of heredity, result, not in mere irregularity, nor even in a statistical constancy, but in continual and indefinite progress toward a better adaptation of means to ends. How can this be? What, abstractly stated, is the peculiar factor in the conditions of the problem which brings about this singular consequence?

396. Suppose a million persons, each provided with one dollar, to sit down to play a simple and fair game of chance, betting for example on whether a die turns up an odd or even number. The players are supposed to make their bets independently of one another, and each to bet on the result of each throw one dollar against a dollar on the part of the bank. Of course, at the very first bet, one-half of them would lose their only dollar and go out of the game, for it is supposed that no credit is allowed, while the other half would win each $1 and so come to be worth $2. Of these 500,000 players, after the second throw, 250,000 would have lost, and so be worth only $1 each, while the other 250,000 would have won, and so be worth $3. After the third throw, 125,000, or one-half of those who had had $1 each, would be ruined; 250,000 would be worth $2 (namely one-half the 250,000 who had had $1 each, and one-half the 250,000 who had had $3 each) and 125,000 would be worth $4 each. The further progress of the game is illustrated by the table on page 216, where the numbers of players are given having each possible sum after the first, second, third, etc., throws. It will be seen by the table that, at the end of the fourth throw, the most usual fortune is $3, at the end of the ninth $4, at the end of the sixteenth $5, and in like manner at the end of the twenty-fifth it would be $6, at the end of the thirty-sixth $7, and so forth. Here, then, would be a continual increase of wealth, which is a sort of »adaptation to one's environment,« produced by a survival of the fittest, that is, by the elimination from the game of every player who has lost his last dollar. It is easy to see that the increase of average and usual wealth comes about by the subtraction of all those small fortunes which would be in the hands of men who had once been bankrupt had they been allowed to continue betting.

397. Now the adaptation of a species to its environment consists, for the purposes of natural selection, in a power of continuing to exist, that is to say, in the power of one generation to bring forth another; for as long as another generation1) is brought forth the species will continue and as soon as this ceases it is doomed after one lifetime. This reproductive faculty, then, depending partly on direct fecundity, and partly on the animal's living through the age of procreation, is precisely what the Darwinian theory accounts for. This character plainly is one of those which has an absolute minimum, for no animal can produce fewer offspring than none at all and it has no apparent upper limit, so that it is quite analogous to the wealth of those players. It is to be remarked that the phrase »survival of the fittest« in the formula of the principle does not mean the survival of the fittest individuals, but the survival of the fittest types; for the theory does not at all require that individuals ill-adapted to their environment should die at an earlier age than others, so long only as they do not reproduce so many offspring as others; and indeed it is not necessary that this should go so far as to extinguish the line of descent, provided there be some reason why the offspring of ill-adapted parents are less likely than others to inherit those parents' characteristics. It seems likely that the process, as a general rule, is something as follows: A given individual is in some respect ill-adapted to his environment, that is to say, he has characters which are generally unfavorable to the production of numerous offspring. These characters will be apt to weaken the reproductive system of that individual, for various reasons, so that its offspring are not up to the average strength of the species. This second generation will couple with other individuals, but owing to their weakness, their offspring will be more apt to resemble the other parent, and so the unfavorable character will gradually be eliminated, not merely by diminished numbers of offspring, but also by the offspring more resembling the stronger parent. There are other ways in which the unfavorable characters will disappear. When the procreative power is weakened, there are many examples to show that the principle of heredity becomes relaxed, and the race shows more tendency to sporting. This sporting will go on until in the course of it the unfavorable character has become obliterated. The general power of reproduction thereupon becomes strengthened; with it the direct procreative force is reinforced, the hereditary transmission of characters again becomes more strict, and the improved type is hardened.

398. But all these different cases are but so many different modes of one and the same principle, which is the elimination of unfavorable characters. We see then that there are just three factors in the process of natural selection; to wit: first, the principle of individual variation or sporting; second, the principle of hereditary transmission, which wars against the first principle; and third, the principle of the elimination of unfavorable characters.

399. Let us see how far these principles correspond with the triads that we have already met with. The principle of sporting is the principle of irregularity, indeterminacy, chance. It corresponds with the irregular and manifold wandering of particles in the active state of the protoplasm. It is the bringing in of something fresh and first. The principle of heredity is the principle of the determination of something by what went before, the principle of compulsion, corresponding to will and sense. The principle of the elimination of unfavorable characters is the principle of generalization by casting out of sporadic cases, corresponding particularly to the principle of forgetfulness in the action of the nervous system. We have, then, here, a somewhat imperfect reproduction of the same triad as before. Its imperfection may be the imperfection of the theory of development.1)


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