Of Sharks, Giraffes and Malthus. Mostly, Malthus.
First, let me make it clear that, as far as I know, the sentence “It’s the economy, stupid!” was never used, orally or in writing, by the (Bill) Clinton campaigns. It may be a nice summary, but it was never used as such. But let us go back to our topic.
One day, I was teaching teachers who teach biology teachers how to teach biology (yes, it is a true sentence). And I asked the teachers’ teachers to spell out the mechanism of evolution by natural selection. Everybody told me: there is variation; variation is heritable; then the best individuals survive/produce more offspring and evolution happens.
That’s right. Selection is perceived as a sort of mechanism testing ‘adequacy’ (we call it ‘adaptation’) of individuals to their environment. Somehow, we’re still pretty much innately Lamarckian*, after all: we think in terms of how an individual copes with its everyday problems. While this is certainly an important component of ‘adaptation’ in general terms, and while for sure it is individuals (and not genes, or populations, or – heavens forbid – species) who survive or die, reproduce or not, the description falls short of describing the actual mechanism of evolution, because it misses an essential component.
Thinking in terms of individual properties and problems is not the exactly right way of looking at selection and adaptation. As the Australian saying goes, “when there is a shark in the water, you do not need to swim faster than the shark: you need to swim faster than the slowest swimmer” (I’ll let you generalise to the case where there are n sharks in the water, I know you can manage; and I’m sure you know a regional version of the saying, with other threats than sharks). The point is that selection is not about individual relationships to the environment, but about whether you do better or worse than somebody else.
And this brings to the fore the essential cog of selection’s machinery that many people (including biologists – except for evolutionary biologists themselves) miss: demography. It is because there are always many more siblings than the environment can carry that eventually some of them die / do not reproduce.
The “fitness” part of the game is, of course, that those who exploit the available resources better / better cope with stress perform better from the survival / reproduction point of view, and leave more offspring (the way the parents’ traits are inherited does not change a thing). If there were infinite space and resources, nobody would suffer from selection, and everything would behave according to neutral evolution. Darwin borrowed the idea from Malthus, as everybody knows, and this is the piece that makes the difference between any evolutionary hypothesis and the Modern Synthesis’ successful one** (in terms of explanatory power). It is because some individuals die / do not reproduce that there is adaptation. Somehow, we should be happy to observe (moderate amounts of) mortality (in forests there’s a lot of it) and unequal fecundity in populations, because this is how adaptation occurs.
The Malthusian piece of Darwin’s genius idea is understandably hard to swallow. As one of the teachers’ teachers exclaimed, after I had pointed out the strict necessity of the cruel Malthusian piece in the Theory: “oh, that’s so SAD”. Yes, life is unfair, but adaptive biological evolution happens only if there are winners and losers. Now, if I were in the losers’ camp, I’d rather prefer no evolution-by-selection to happen at all, but this is the way it is – no social or anthropocentric judgement to be attached.
*Lamarck, in spite of his post-Darwin very bad press covfefe, was a true evolutionary biologist, and a clever one at that. He lacked some important pieces of understanding of how selection works, but then again, Darwin too had silly views about heritability of traits.
** I refrain from attributing the idea entirely to dear uncle Charles for two reasons. First, he lacked the mathematical formalism to model the mechanism; second, I disagree with the identification of Evolutionary theory with one person, no matter how grateful we should all be to the genius that was Charles Darwin. After all, nobody talks in terms of “Einsteinism” or “Röntgenism”, so why should we talk about “Darwinism”?