Inconsistencies in Evolutionary Environmentalist Thought
Ralph E. Ancil
The modern evolutionist rejects the vulgarisms of Darwinism and the jungle version of Spencerian social theory. Instead, he recognizes a certain harmony, or ecological balance in nature as well as cooperation and mutual interactions. However, the idea of the struggle for survival of the fittest has not been abandoned, only softened Today, it usually means that the best adapted organisms survive, but they must still struggle or compete for limited resources with the more successful ones leaving more offspring. There is still a lingering Malthusian concept of wastefulness which requires environmental exploitation and opportunism for evolutionary progress I In this sense, then, there is still an attitude which places the organism at odds with its environment.
Man himself is believed to have emerged in a "hostile environment" The imagined "harmony" of the early hunter-gatherer is not a blissful cooperation of man and nature. Rather it is man against nature with nature winning. Thus Miller writes:
"Population size was limited directly and quickly by the availability of food.... The consequences of overhunting important animal species or stripping on area of its edible vegetation were severe and final. Early man undoubtedly produced small ecological imbalances but these imbalances in the long run limited and controlled his numbers. creating a new equilibrium.. Although our image of early man as being in a constant tooth and fang struggle for survival is inappropriate, it is equally wrong to picture him as existing in blissful harmony with nature.... Although, he lived n close ecological relationship, early man also exploited his environment."2
William Ophuls comments on "primitive man"
"In earlier days, the benefits ot environmental intervention probably outweighed the costs by a large margin. Through ignorance, man damaged ecosystems more than he needed to in order to get the benefits, but his numbers and the level of technology he possessed made it impossible for him to tear asunder the fabric of nature."3 Rene Dubos and Barbara Ward add under the heading "Man Makes Himself'..
"But the actual life of most mankind has been cramped with backbreaking labor, exposed to deadly or debilitating disease, prey to wars and famines, haunted by the loss of children. filled with fear and the ignorance that breeds fear.... Man shares with his animal forebears many of the responses required for dealing successfully with a natural world that is at once beneficial and destructive,"4 Thus, although the modern version of evolution is less crude than the l9th century Darwinian version, a certain level of man vs, nature is retained which includes man's necessary exploitation of the environment. Any harmony with nature was maintained only because man's damage was insignificant or because nature's response was harsh and final.
The Inconsistencies of Evolutionary Environmentalists
It is clear. however, that in spite of this lingering "man vs. nature" attitude inherent in modern evolutionary thought. most. if not all, environmentalists are evolutionists. But is this consistent with an evolutionary world view and if not, how could such an inconsistency be sustained?
One of the first inconsistencies stems from the very nature of the assumed evolutionary process. This supposed process from simple to complex has no particular direction or purpose and proceeds on the basis of time and chance. As Baker and Allen write'.
"It was Darwin's work. more than that of anyone else, which showed that chance, not purpose or direction, is the basis of the origin of species. There is no evidence that evolution has any preconceived purpose, or that organisms evolve in a predetermined direction toward some absolute ideal form. They undergo random variations which make them more or less adapted to given environments. Evolution along a given line, from ancestral form to the present, takes place because the environment itself does not remain absolutely constant. The types of variations that survive are those which best adapt the organism to its environment."5
There is, then. a large element of uncertainty in the production of an evolutionary novelty. Hence. our present environmental problems cannot be condemned with certainty for they could be the necessary conditions of future evolution. Indeed. the pollutants of today may be the natural constituents of tomorrows environment Furthermore, man's understanding of this process is itself evolving. There is no assurance that this understanding is correct or that the process is even knowable. There may be other "laws" of nature yet to be discovered which would significantly alter his perception or opinion of the present circumstances Presumably life has been evolving for millions of years. but man has studied nature for only a few hundred and evolutionary concepts for only about a century. How sure can he be? So due to the nature of the alleged evolutionary process, as well as man's understanding of that process, the evolutionist lacks the moral certainty needed to judge present environmental conditions, let alone condemn them.
The second inconsistency arises in regard to the inferred ecological crises of the assumed evolutionary past. Baker and Allen6 again comment that repeated massive deaths and near extinctions of many groups of animals (families) throughout different geographical periods are usually followed by great evolutionary activity and that this is a prediction of the evolution-by-natural-selection "hypothesis". In other words, evolution is thought to proceed in spite of or because of these ecological catastrophes. Kenneth Boulding seems to say as much in the following comment:
"The history of this planet seems to have been punctuated by ecological catastrophes which usually mark the boundaries between one geological era and another It is not easy to assess the significance of these catastrophes in the general evolutionary process whether, for instance, they are necessary tar continued evolutionary development out they do represent the destruction of some previously established equilibrium out of which more complex forms of life have emerged. Man perhaps represents the latest in this long series of catastrophes."7
If more complex forms emerge from ecological disasters. the evolutionist, it would seem, should welcome the present ecological crisis as the herald of evolutionary progress. It is through disruption of the ecological equilibrium that evolution proceeds: evolution by pollution. At east. it seems to proceed in spite of, if not because of these disruptions In either event. there is good reason for being optimistic about our present environmental pollution if the evolutionary scenarios of the past are to be taken seriously. Even when specifically considering man. evolutionists claim he has evolved through many different environments. including the ice ages. and that even now he is capable of living almost anywhere, even the moon. With such an assumed bright past and flexible present, what is the basis for pessimism?
A third inconsistency of the evolutionary environmentalist lies in the use at the second law of thermodynamics. It is argued that massive industrial activity degrades the environment by increasing the amount of entropy.8 To reduce such entropy production, and thus reduce environmental degradation. we must either make fewer goods or make them more efficiently. But if our present environment has evolved from the past despite the entropy production tram countless evolutionary transformations. then it ought to continue evolving despite the entropy from industry. On the other hand, if entropy is a hindrance to environmental evolution. how did evolution occur at oil?
The evolutionary environmentalist has a questionable philosophical basis from which to proceed. He lacks the certainty to pass judgement. His past would seem to require that he welcome the present environmental crisis with optimism and hope for evolutionary progress And finally, to believe evolution has occurred in spite of the second law makes an argument on entropic environmental degradation less than convincing These inconsistencies are sustained because of the uncritical acceptance of the doctrine of evolution and because many evolutionary environmentalists may be more interested in the social dimensions of various environmental programs than in philosophical coherency
1 Baker, Jeffrey J.W. and Allen. Garland E.; 1971; The Study of Biology; second edition; Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: Reading, Massachusetis: p. 19.
2 Miller, Jr. G. Tyler: 1975; Living in the Envirooment: Concepts, Problems, and Alternatives: Wadsworth publishing Company, Inc.; Belmont, California (94002), pp. 24-25.
3 Ophuis, William: 1977: Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, W.H. Freeman and Company: San Francisco; pp. 32-33.
4 Word, Barbara and Dubos, Rene; 1972; Only One Bonn, Ballanfine Books, New York; p.3
5 Baker and Alen. op. cit., p 718
6 Baker and Alen op. cit., p 868
7 Miller. op. cit, p.327.
8 The second law of thermodynamics is a description of the tendency for things to decay, fall apart, or become less orderly. More rigorously, it means that in any energy transformation, some useful energy, instead of being transformed in the intended manner, is wasted as heat energy and becomes unavailable for work; hence no process is 100% efficient and the more energy transtormations made, the more hear is dispersed to the environment and the amount of useful energy rs reduced. Entropy is a measure of this increase in heat energy or dissorder.