The survival of the unit


IN the Garden of India there is a little hillock of which I wot -: a mound raised by the hand of man from the great level plain. Upon the summit stands the ruin of a Muhammadan tomb. The white veneer of marble has fallen away, leaving bare the cold greystone of the domed roof and the crumbling bricks of the massive walls. The white gown with which man clothed the building has been swept away by Nature to be replaced by a garment woven in her own loom -: a garment composed of flowered weeds and soft green moss. Apart from its ruined state, the solidity of the pile proves that it belongeth not to this superficial age.

Beneath the dome lie the ashes of some great warrior, long since dead, whose very name seems to have passed from the memory of man. His bones lie neglected, for his whole race has died out.

From the mound a panorama of the fertile plain is obtained. Exuberant life is visible all around. A pied kingfisher (ceryle varia) hovers over the lake near by; little birds are singing in the greenwood tree; flocks of boisterous "green parrots" (Palaeornis torquatus) hurry overhead, nor do they hush their shrill voices as they fly past the abode of the dead. Hard by, from behind a picturesque bamboo clump, ascends the blue smoke from a tiny hamlet.

Some of the little naked village children are actually playing among the ruins of the tomb. It is an interesting sight this. Those children are the sons of the soil, they are little plebeians, descendants of the men who once cringed and cowered before him whose tomb is now a ruin, whose race is extinct, and whose very name has been forgotten. How are the mighty fallen!

Is not this a case of the survival of the unfit? Is it not a paradox that the race of puny, ill-fed men should have survived, while that of the warrior chieftain, superior in intellect and physique, should have become extinct ?

But look! two jackals are making their way out of the cover at the base of the mound. Timid creatures these, they look the picture of cowardice as they sneak along, the tail between the legs. Is this not another instance of the survival of the unfit? How is it that these poor fear-stricken jackals are a flourishing species, found all over India, while mighty animals, such as the elephant, the lion, the giraffe, and the tiger, are fast disappearing from off the face of the earth? The question may be extended. How comes it that rats, mice, moles, rabbits, hares, and the other small fry of the mammalian world hold their own in the struggle for existence, while the mammoth, the mastodon, the glyptodon, the giant sloth and the great pterodactyle reptiles have become extinct ? What mean these paradoxes? How reconcile them with the doctrine of the survival of the fittest ?

In Nature the battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift. The survival of the fittest does not mean the survival of the ideally fit, but of those best adapted to their surroundings. Many are the habitations of the earth, and Nature fills each of these with the most suitable occupant at her disposal. Every creature that now exists is a victor in the struggle for existence. Every one has been offered a situation by Nature and accepted it. The mole survives, not because he is a magnificent, comely creature, but because he is willing to live a lowly life under the earth. The brown rat flourishes because it is ready, for the sake of life, to live in dark, noisome drains and eat garbage.

Every animal now living has survived, because it is willing to occupy the place assigned to it by Nature, no matter how lowly that position be. Many animals have, to use a figure of speech, preferred to perish to thus occupying menial positions; they have refused to accept the station offered them by Nature; they have elected to wage war with the giants of the earth and have been defeated, and hence are known to us only as fossils.

Other great animals have, so to speak, overreached themselves, and hence are no more. There is no room on this little earth for giants. They have all become extinct, with the exception of the elephant, the whale, and the giraffe, and these species are struggling against their inevitable doom. So that even before man came upon the scene, those animals to survive were by no means always the ideally fit, but those who were best able to adapt themselves to the nook or cranny in the world that Nature assigned to them. Man, however, has been more ruthless than even Nature in the destruction of the nobler mammals.

There is an ancient fable that tells of a staunch old oak and a feeble sapling which grew side by side in a forest. A mighty tempest came, the oak tree bravely held up its head and haughtily refused to bow down before the storm, so it was uprooted and died a noble death. The sapling, on the other hand, meekly bent before the stormy blast, acknowledging its supremacy; so the gale passed over it leaving it unharmed.

This fable explains the survival of the unfit.

Before man was evolved the world may be compared to India in pre-British times. There were conquering species and conquered ones. No one race stood head and shoulders above all the rest. Now one species established a supremacy, now another, but the position was invariably a short-lived one, and, even while it lasted, was constantly in jeopardy.

In those days, great pachyderms disputed with monster edentates and powerful carnivora the supremacy of the earth ; sometimes one prevailed for a little, sometimes another. Often these conquering species existed side by side, maintaining a kind of armed neutrality, half afraid of each other, and contemptuous of the great mass of the animals, allowing them to occupy those places in the earth which they themselves could not fill. Then suddenly one species prevailed.

This mammal was of no great size, nor was it very muscular. Physically it was by no means the finest of the denizens of the earth. It, however, turned into a weapon an organ which hitherto had not been held of much account -: the brain. By using this wonderful organ it learned to defeat strength by craft; it further learned that it was possible to adapt its environment to itself, instead of adapting itself to the environment, as all other animals were compelled to do.

But, for a long while the contest hung in the balance. In spite of his large brain, in spite of the fact that he was able to make implements of stone with which he could sometimes kill the great carnivora, these latter would often seize and devour man, so that he was forced to take shelter in caves. But, as time wore on, his brain enlarged; he grew more skilful in the manufacture of weapons, and soon asserted his supremacy. He has not spared his mighty adversaries. One by one he has swept them off the face of the earth, or forced them to take refuge far from him in swampy places and impenetrable jungles.

The big herbivorous animals he had to destroy, for they required too much food. The elephant and the camel he has allowed to remain because they have consented to act as his slaves. But every great and powerful animal, which refused to recognize his ascendancy, has been swept off the face of the earth, or is being hunted to extinction, so that our present fauna is but a pigmy remnant. All that which is noblest has disappeared.

Were I a poet I would write an ode to the gigantic animals which have found this little earth too small for them; to the mighty flying reptiles the expanse of whose leathery wings measured thirty feet, and which, had they lived in these days, would have been capable of flying off with a bullock; to the great sloth-like creatures -: megatherium, glyptodon, and mylodon -: whose height was three times that of a tall man and twice that of the average elephant; to the huge hairy mammoths; to the giant mastodons, -whose tusks were twelve feet in length; to the enormous lizards which were large enough to swallow a sheep at a gulp ; to the moa, once " the lord of the great Polynesian islands of New Zealand."

When we contemplate such extinct monsters which must be numbered among the unfit, the words "survival of the fittest" acquire a new significance.

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
The survival of the unit
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Survival Of Unit

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