Darwin noticed: “What natural selection cannot do, is to modify the structure of one species, without giving it any advantages, for the good of another species: and though statements to this effect may be found in works of natural history, I cannot find one case which will bear investigation.”
In other words, says Darwin, animals and plants were not put on Earth solely for exploitation by humankind. This is not our kingdom. Again, nothing inherently anti-deity in this but in a way rather yogic — the universe unfolds as it unfolds. We can only select whatever characteristics a given species is born with — even if it pleases us, we cannot turn donkeys into singers.
In this chapter Darwin sounds passionate. He’s spent the past three chapters dissecting the domestication process, giving example after example of how humans select domestic animals, almost lulling the reader into a state of wonder at how clever we are when it comes to manipulating plants and animals. Then “Blammo!” We’re good, Darwin says, but Nature is better. Nature acts on unseen advantages, such as organs, senses, “on the whole machinery of life.” An unfortunate use of words, machinery echoes Descartes’ idea that non-human animals were machines, devoid of mind and consciousness. I’ll come back to this, but it does imply animals have no agency.
Darwin defends his use of the term Natural Selection: because metaphors are an important way to express ideas, it’s difficult not personifying nature. Yes, the “select” implies agency but “whoever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements?” Darwin writes. Mercury is not an active element, to combine it with other elements takes effort. Does that mean mercury is lazy? Anti-social? Hydrogen combines with every element in the Periodic Table (except for the non-metal group). Does that make hydrogen promiscuous? If you’re a writer, yes, hydrogen hooks up with just about anybody — it’s effective to describe distinctly non-human objects or beings in human terms — readers understand ideas better that way. But the metaphors writers use influence readers’ thinking.
Darwin explains that Natural Selection refers to the “aggregate action and product of many natural laws” adding that more familiarity with his theory, means more acceptance of the terminology. But there’s a cogntiive dissonance here with what Darwin wants us to understand as Natural Selection and how he describes it. It’s a process with no thought behind it and yet is infinitely superior to what the the most “thoughtful” animal on the planet can do, plus, the words he uses to describe the selection of traits — “a good” mutation or “bad” mutation — or even to the phrase “the survival of the fittest,” implies life, whatever the life form, has value. Humans never accept machines as having the same value as life.
So let’s go back to Descartes and the idea of animals as complex organic machines. It leaves no room in Western thought for a world view that includes agency on the part of every life form in an ecosystem and recognizing that is actually key to a healthy ecological relationship when the top predator has enormous advantages (brain power.) Giving life forms agency might be a functional way to protect an ecosystem from overexploitation. Without the ability to assess and do something about, oh, say climate change, we may as well be just a supercolony of ants. (Maybe we really are.) By robbing other creatures of agency, a culture gives itself permission to take indefinitely.