The order of nature
The study of adaptation, of which Lamarck is the great originator, has not yet won for itself a secure scientific foundation or led to clear and unequivocal interpretations of nature. Although the facts that this study presents are both universal and important, biologists have neither agreed upon their place in the theory of evolution nor discovered any principle by which they may be even unified.
This failure of our modem science is not hard to understand, and may fairly be attributed, in part at least, to the lack of a systematic study of adaptability; which at the bottom is a physical and chemical problem, uncomplicated by the riddle of life.
Many of the characteristics of inorganic nature, like the stability of the solar system and the enduring movements of the waters of the earth, are the very condition of existence for life as we know it and the source of diversity in organic evolutionز
This is perhaps one of the oldest interpretations of nature. But since Darwin's time, the fitness of the environment has only occasionally aroused passing comments without ever entering the main current of scientific thought. And yet, whatever may be the final judgment of natural science upon either organic or inorganic harmonies, biological fitness is manifestly a mutual relationship.
For, however present order may have developed out of past confusion, the organism and the environment each fits and are fitted by the other. In a recent book, I have tried to recall attention to the many interesting peculiarities of the environment and to state the facts concerning the fitness of the inorganic world for life. This has turned out to be more notable and extensive than biologists had supposed, and more important in The Fitness of the Environment. New York, The Macmillan Co., determining the universal characteristics of living organisms.
The very nature of the cosmic process and of the physical and chemical phenomena of matter and energy bring about not only stability of the solar system, but very great stability of land and sea. Thus the temperature of the earth is more equable than it could be if the composition of the surface of the earth were other than it is. Thus the alkalinity of the ocean possesses a constancy which is nearly perfect, and this depends upon certain unique properties of carbonic acid.
Thus the currents of the atmosphere and of the ocean, the fall of rain and the flow of streams are almost ideally regular and are so only because water is different from any other substance. Secondly, the properties of water cause a mobilization all over the earth of most of the chemical elements in very large quantities, and no other substance could so effectively accomplish this result. Once mobilized, these elements penetrate everywhere, borne by water, and the penetrating qualities of water are unique. In this manner, the whole earth has become habitable.
Even more significant appear what the chemist calls the properties of the three elements, hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, from which water and carbonic acid are formed. These are the most active of all elements (if we take into account both intensity and variety of activity), their compounds are the I most numerous, and the molecular structures which they form are incomparably the most complex and elaborate which have been brought to might moreover, the energy which they yield in their mutual chemical transformations is more than other elements can provide, yet, because of their manifold reactions, easier to regulate, to store, and to release.
In short, the primary constituents of the environment, water and carbonic acid, the very substances which are placed upon a planet's surface by the' blind forces of cosmic evolution, serve with maximum efficiency to make stable, durable, and complex, both the living thing itself and the world around it. With otherwise unattainable effectiveness they provide both matter and energy in many forms and in great abundance for growth and repair, and in the ensemble of characteristics upon which these results depend they are unique.
Nothing else could replace them in such respects, for their utility depends upon a coincidence of many peculiar and unequalled properties which they alone possess. It is therefore certain that in abstract physical and chemical characteristics the actual environment is the fittest possible abode of life as we know it, so far as the elements of the periodic system are concerned. In truth fitness of the environment is quite as constant a component of a particular case of biological fitness as is the fitness of the organism, and fitness is quite as constantly manifest in all the properties of water and carbonic acid as in all the characteristics of living things.
Such a conclusion, however, only touches the surface of the problem. This relationship, although mutual, is not symmetrical: it is something more than adaptation for it involves great adaptability. In every case, the particular characteristics of the organism fit a special environment, while the general physical and chemical properties of water and carbonic acid fit the general characteristics of life. But it may be shown that stability, mobility, durability, complexity, and availability of matter and energy are favourable not merely to live as we know it; they are favourable to any mechanism, to any possible kind of life in this universe.
For it is not by chance that life needs to be stable, that it needs food, that it needs to be complex if it is to evolve. Accordingly, it is not for any special or peculiar form of life, whether life as we know it or another form, that this environment is the fittest. Just because life must exist in the universe, just because the living thing must be made of matter in space and actuated by energy in time, it is conditioned. In so far as this is a physical and chemical world, life must manifest itself through more or less complicated, more or less durable physicochemical systems.
Introduction.--Aristotle.--The seventeenth century.--The eighteenth century.--Biology.--Nature.--Evolution.--The problem.--The three elements.--The teleological order.--Appendix: Clerk Maxwell on determinism and free will. Fechner on the tendency to stability
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