WASHINGTON, May 23, 2013 — Charles Darwin has never drifted far from political or scientific discussion. Over the decades, his book “The Origin of Species” has been both widely embraced and condemned, and worse, largely oversimplified.
Findings from two recent studies centered on some of Darwin’s most fundamental theories, however, tell us the world is vastly more complicated than the black and white lens many view it through.
Recent genetic tests in Paris appear to suggest flaws in Darwin’s “tree of life” model which attempts to explain the interrelationship between organisms. Conversely, new research at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) appears to validate Darwin’s belief that diversity among species promotes productivity (more on this in a moment).
Evolutionary biologist Eric Bapteste at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, says there is “no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality,” a position echoed by evolutionary biologist Michael Rose at University of California, Irvine, in a recent interview with Britain’s The Guardian.
New tests on everything ranging from bacteria to plants to animals not only suggest organisms crossbreed, meaning genes in the “tree of life” aren’t always inherited from the branch species reside, far more frequently than previously understood. Those genes frequently transfer from one species to another despite traveling separate evolutionary pathways.
Phys.org, a leading science, research, and technology news outlet wrote about the holes in Darwin’s “tree of life” model as far back as 2007, saying “there is no external evidence to support the idea that evolution is inclusively hierarchical.” Darwin, however, proposed dozens of theories over the course of his influential and controversial career. To disregard his entire catalogue would be disingenuous.
A separate second study at UTSC recently confirmed Darwin’s theory that a multi-species plot of land is more productive than a single-species plot of land—a finding that carries with it far more important socioeconomic implications than whether or not species are hierarchical.
In a summary at Science Daily last week, UTSC scholars found “environments containing species that are distantly related to one another are more productive than those containing closely related species.”
In other words, diversity yields greater, more efficient output.
According to Marc William Cadotte, the author of the study, “If you have two species that can access different resources or do things in different ways, then having those two species together can enhance species function.”
If the idea that two organisms with access to different resources, employing different skill sets, are more proficient when they work together sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It’s called the division of labor, an economic concept that transformed Western Europe and the United States into beacons of productivity and prosperity throughout the industrial revolution.
If UTSC is correct in its findings, evolutionary biology would appear to suggest that division of labor and diversity is the most effective form of production and survival. According to Darwin, species wouldn’t have adopted them if they weren’t. The same findings would also appear to suggest that species, like humans, are not all created equal and some are more adept at certain tasks than others.
No economic theory comes without its critics and the division of labor has its longstanding share. The social scientist and philosopher Karl Marx considered the division of labor the catalyst behind human inequality and predicted specialization of skill would be eradicated to the betterment of mankind.
Darwin and UTSC’s latest study, however, challenges Marx. The division of labor is very much beneficial and here to stay, not just conceptually, but biologically.
The irony of this is that many of the same critics of the division of labor—many which reside on the left of the political spectrum—are also proponents of science, particularly Darwin, which raises an interesting question: Now that science has inadvertently vindicated a very important cornerstone of free market capitalism, will the left embrace it?
Equally, will those residing on the right side of the political spectrum bring themselves to accept the fact that diversity and immigration are beneficial, not detrimental to a national economy? It’s doubtful.
Regardless of how one might feel about Darwin, it shouldn’t take a scientific study to affirm what Americans can already tangibly see and sense with their own eyes. History is ripe with examples of countries that have enjoyed greater economic output and higher standards of living as a result of division of labor and social diversity. With an economy in the dumps and immigration levels the lowest they’ve been in years, however, perhaps a reminder of this is what’s most needed now.
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