There can be no doubt that Darwin’s discovery of what he called, unfortunately I think, natural selection, was one of the great milestones of science. Organic beings are not so complex as they are because they were contrived by a divine designer, as Paley and pretty well everybody else before Darwin had maintained, but because offspring often differ in small ways from their parents, and, because populations always breed right up to the limit of the carrying capacity of their circumstances, individuals compete for resources. Those with changes that altered environments favour survive to hand on their characteristics to their offspring, who in turn sometimes also serendipitously differ from their parents in changed environments so there is ongoing incremental development, and those who do not enjoy such happily altered physical features do not. Yet great as this discovery was, Darwin, or rather not so much Darwin himself as a Victorian public only too eager to find scientific justification for the inhumanities of their own society, misunderstood its significance.
According to Darwinian doctrine such physical changes, as we now know largely genetic in their origin, only happen by chance in individual cases, or at most in few instances. What Darwin overlooked was that, if natural selection is to work, such fortunate individuals have to survive to adulthood to breed and hand on their changed characteristics. Given the many hazards of nature it is remarkable that they so often do. By far and away the most important reason why they do is the solicitude of parents. Jane Goodall gives us most moving accounts of the tender care and devotion that chimpanzee mothers show towards their offspring. Even frogs who leave their spawn to fend for itself deposit it in sheltered places. Even the ichneumon fly that pierces the skin of a victim host and lays its eggs in its host’s flesh so the newly hatched grub can feed on its host from within, a casual and dreadful cruelty of nature that the anguished Darwin could not reconcile with the existence of a loving God, even the ichneumon fly cares for its offspring with devoted foresight. What Darwin overlooked was that this parental solicitude, so marked and widespread throughout nature that even in the case of dumb brutes we could almost call it love, such devoted care is as important a condition of evolutionary survival as extermination and competition.
We see the importance of parental solicitude at its most marked in ourselves. The great British psycho-analysts, Bowlby, D.W. Winnicott and Christopher Bollas have shown, persuasively I think, that our first experiences after birth are mandatory for the whole of our lives. Winnicott’s great insight was that – for the evolutionary reason that upright walking, a narrow birth canal and an infant with a very large head are incompatible, so the only solution was the premature birth of the infant – that although in the first months of life mother and baby are physically separate, psychologically they are still fused together in a condition psychologists call symbiosis. They are one person. Winnicott thought, however, that at that stage the infant is still what he called a bundle of instincts, it is only later that it itself develops into a person. Bollas, in his books Being a Person and The Shadow of the Object, takes Winnicott’s insight further. In his account, personhood and individual identity are established during the symbiotic phase, so that all through our lives we practise both an objective and a subjective way of knowing, an accurate differentiation of external things, but also a unitive and subjective identification of emotion with both people and favoured objects that is inherited from these earliest experiences of life. It explains why we don’t always want to use and exploit other people and things for our own advantage but love them for their own sake, why we don’t want to consume but contemplate beautiful things, why we find nature not only useful but loveable, why we think justice is important for its own sake even if it does not favour us.
It is Darwin himself, in the first part of The Descent of Man, surely one of the loveliest passages of our literature, who shows us that these loving and caring features of humanity are rooted in the behaviour of animals: a baboon courageously defies a pack of dogs at great risk to itself so the rest of its troupe can reach safety, an ape solicitously brings up a puppy, a little monkey warns its keeper of the close danger of an aggressive animal he has not seen. But if the first part of the Descent of Man is so beautiful and moving, the later part is correspondingly cruel and horrifying. He complacently reports the catastrophic decline of native populations in terms of the inevitable result of natural selection as inferior races encounter a superior one, he describes the ‘hunt’, when whites hunted down and killed aboriginals in Tasmania as if it were the Pytchely or the Quorn, with, for so sensitive and loving a man, relative equanimity. What a delightful place Tasmania would be to retire he mused in his Beagle Journal, after receiving gracious hospitality from the Governor. What happened to the Darwin who was outraged to the core of his being by slavery in Brazil?
Love, or at least solicitous care, is as important a part of evolutionary development as competition. Darwin’s over-emphasis of competition and extermination have had terrible consequences. The Nazis took justification for their racial policies from a misinterpreted Darwinism. How horrified the gentle Darwin would have been, and had he known how his theory would be misused he would surely have expressed it differently. The racism that disfigured the later British Empire took much of its cue from The Origin of Species. The colonialists should have been anguished and appalled at the tragedies that were happening all around them, but most of them were not. A countless. almost infinite, multitude of smaller inhumanities have justified themselves on the grounds that dog eats dog. No, dog also loves dog.