From the New York Review of Books: Lewontin on “What Darwin Got Wrong”

[This remarkable passage, from the review essay (“Not So Natural Selection”) by Richard Lewontin of the new book What Darwin Got Wrong, places the emphasis on the active contribution of all organisms to the environment they occupy.  There is an implication here for the process called “natural selection” that redefines what is “natural,”  which has even more implications for human survival.  Human beings are not merely in this world, nor of it, nor are they alien to it.  One aspect of the evolutionary process of humans is the communication layers that have developed along with global interdependence.  A class structure has grown up along side  or within this process.  That class structure has now reached the point of inhibiting the survivability of the global community. Look at British Petroleum (most recently in the Gulf of Mexico) and the Democratic Party which OK’d further deep offshore drilling and is currently encouraging “clean coal and nuclear power.” The class of corporate demons have no interest beyond lining their immediate pocketbooks.  They are evolutionarily no longer viable; the question is whether we will allow them to take us with them.  –  Lew Rosenbaum]

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini [authors of What Darwin Got Wrong] do not discuss the fact that every kind of organism, as a consequence of its life activities, reforms the world around itself and creates its own “ecological niche” that is in constant flux as the organism behaves and metabolizes. Organisms do not “fit into” niches, they construct them, and biologists’ realization of this fact has led to the creation of theories of “niche construction.”4 It is not simply that birds and ants build nests or humans build houses. The metaphor of “construction” covers a number of activities of metabolizing creatures that create the world around themselves. Plants, putting down roots, change the physical structure of the soil in which they are growing and they extrude into the soil chemicals that encourage the growth of certain fungi. These molds, far from “infecting” the plants, form intimate connections with the roots that are a pathway for substances that promote plant growth.

In a great variety of organisms the chance of survival and the growth rate of individuals are not the highest at the lowest population density, but at intermediate numbers. Fruitflies, in their immature worm stage, for example, are farmers. They eat yeast that grows on the surface of the decaying fruit on which they live. The worms burrow into the fruit and the yeast grows on the linings of these tunnels. So, up to a point, the more worms, the more tunnels; and the more tunnels, the more food. Animals and plants create storehouses of energy on which they call in nonproductive times. Bees store honey and squirrels store acorns. Humans store grain and, in modern times, have a commodity futures market, so that affordable bread is available in the winter.

The most remarkable feature of terrestrial organisms is that each one of them manufactures the immediate atmosphere in which it lives. By use of a special kind of optical arrangement (Schlieren optics) on a motion picture camera it is possible to see that individual organisms are surrounded by a moving layer of warm moist air. Even trees are surrounded by such a layer. It is produced by the metabolism of the individual tree, creating heat and water, and this production is a feature of all living creatures. In humans the layer is constantly moving upward over the body and off the top of the head. Thus, organisms do not live directly in the general atmosphere but in a shell produced by their own life activity. It is, for example, the explanation of wind-chill factor. The wind is not colder than the still air, but it blows away the metabolically produced layer around our bodies, exposing us to the real world out there.


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