Published on May 27, 2017
The concept of the struggle for existence concerns the competition or battle for resources needed to live. It can refer to human society, or to organisms in nature. The concept is ancient, and the term struggle for existence was in use by the end of the 18th century
The essential assumption of the theory of natural selection holds that there is a fierce struggle for survival in nature, and every living thing cares only for itself. At the time Darwin proposed this theory, the ideas of Thomas Malthus, the British classical economist, were an important influence on him. Malthus maintained that human beings were inevitably in a constant struggle for survival, basing his views on the fact that population, and hence the need for food resources, increases geometrically, while food resources themselves increase only arithmetically. The result is that population size is inevitably checked by factors in the environment, such as hunger and disease. Darwin adapted Malthus’s vision of a fierce struggle for survival among human beings to nature at large, and claimed that “natural selection” is a consequence of this struggle.
Further research, however, revealed that there was no struggle for life in nature as Darwin had postulated. As a result of extensive research into animal groups in the 1960s and 1970s, V. C. Wynne-Edwards, a British zoologist, concluded that living things balance their population in an interesting way, which prevents competition for food. Animal groups were simply managing their population on the basis of their food resources. Population was regulated not by elimination of the weak through factors like epidemics or starvation, but by instinctive control mechanisms. In other words, animals controlled their numbers not by fierce competition, as Darwin suggested, but by limiting reproduction.8
Even plants exhibited examples of population control, which invalidated Darwin’s suggestion of selection by means of competition. The botanist A. D. Bradshaw’s observations indicated that during reproduction, plants behaved according to the “density” of the planting, and limited their reproduction if the area was highly populated with plants.9 On the other hand, examples of sacrifice observed in animals such as ants and bees display a model completely opposed to the Darwinist struggle for survival.
In recent years, research has revealed findings regarding self-sacrifice even in bacteria. These living things without brains or nervous systems, totally devoid of any capacity for thought, kill themselves to save other bacteria when they are invaded by viruses.10
These examples surely invalidate the basic assumption of natural selection-the absolute struggle for survival. It is true that there is competition in nature; however, there are clear models of self-sacrifice and solidarity, as well.