Re: Question on Natural selection

Brian D Harper (
Mon, 18 May 1998 15:29:50 -0400

At 08:12 AM 5/18/98 -0700, Adrian wrote:
>I've heard more than once before that the idea of natural selection was
>already widely circulated prior to Origins of the Species, but then it
>was understood as a stabilizing force. Darwin combined that with Adam
>Smith's ideas to develop our modern concept of NS. Is this accurate?

I have found a couple of quotes anticipating natural selection,
however, in both cases the idea was to warn apologists against
the excessive use of the design argument. If people have other
examples I would be very interested.

As far as NS being primarily a stabilizing effect, this seems
to me to be the view of some in the self-org crowd, for example
Brian Goodwin.

Here are the quotes:

However absurd the assertion may be to those who have
not considered the question as a matter of strict reasoning,
it would be difficult to _prove_ a Designing Creator, only
from individual cases of adaptation of means to ends. If
all extaraneous evidence that each race had a beginning
(such as that afforded by Geology, as well as that of
Revelation), were annhialated, no _proof_ could be adduced
that they had not been eternally reproducing themselves as
at present. And, if any number of beings had come into
existence, without that adaptation to their conditions of
existence which we observe in those now living, they would
long ago have disappeared from the surface of the globe. In
fact, it has been from changes in the external conditions
to which they had not the power of conforming, that many
races _have_ become extinct. It _might_ be argued, then,
that the cases in which we observe this adaptation are only
those in which it chanced to exist, out of a much larger
number in which it was deficient; and, however _improbable_
such a supposition may be, it would not be easy to prove
its _impossibility_.
-- William B. Carpenter <Principles of General and Comparative
Physiology>, 2nd ed. 1841. <as quoted by Dov Ospovat,
"Perfect Adaptation and Teleological Explanation:
Approaches to the Problem of the History of Life in
the Mid-nineteenth Century", _Studies in History of
Biology_, vol.2, 1978, p33-56.>

The above was written about two decades before OoS, the
following more than 100 years before.

May we not say that, in the fortuitous combination of
the productions of Nature, since only those creatures
_could_ survive in whose organization a certain degree
of adaptation was present, there is nothing extraordinary
in the fact that such adaptation is actually found in
all those species which now exist? Chance, one might
say, turned out a vast number of individuals; a small
proportion of these were organized in such a manner that
the animals organs could satisfy their needs. A much
greater number showed neither adaptation nor order;
these last have all perished... Thus the species which
we see today are but a small part of all those that a
blind destiny has produced.
-- Pierre L. M. de Maupertuis, _Essaie de cosmologie_,
1750, <as quoted by Bentley Glass in _Forerunners of
Darwin: 1745-1859_, Johns Hopkins Press.

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"It is not certain that all is uncertain,
to the glory of skepticism." -- Pascal