Author Heather Remoff has been published in the Letters to the Editor section of The New York Times before and raised some interesting points in this unpublished letter to The New York Times in response to their recent article, Are Trees Talking Underground? For Scientists It’s in dispute.
To the Editor,
Why are scientists having a difficult time accepting that trees in a forest might cooperate, rather than compete? Perhaps because natural selection is grounded in an assumption of competition over scare resources. But what if that assumption is, itself, flawed? The theory of natural selection did not originate with Charles Darwin. His grandfather, Erasmus, was one of many who postulated that species evolve when random change confers a selective advantage. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace received credit for the theory when they claimed Thomas Malthus’ Principles of Population convinced them that competition over scarce resources is what sorted evolutionary winners from losers.
Reverend Malthus, an English cleric, was not even an amateur naturalist. Humans were the only species he considered. Believing that feeding the poor would increase their numbers, he argued against such charity. Malthus saw no need to empirically investigate his assumptions. As he admitted in the first paragraph of his seminal work, “little more appears to be necessary than … a most cursory view of society.”
All species, except humans, guarantee the resources necessary to survive and reproduce by defending their turf with their own bodies. Since members of a species are similar in size and shape, this results in a fairly equitable distribution of resources. Not so with humans. We alone increase our access to resources, not by what we do physically, but by what we do symbolically. We alone are characterized by vast economic inequality.
A theory of evolution that continues to enjoy near-universal support and is believed sufficient to explain the evolution of all living things is based on the economic behavior of a single species, Homo sapiens, whose approach to securing material access is a complete anomaly. Mother Nature is bountiful. Human greed created the poverty informing the Malthusian argument. His cursory take on the subject has forever distorted evolutionary theory. Fitness, especially inclusive fitness, is enhanced by cooperation as much as by conflict. I celebrate the scientists who are finally collecting data on the part cooperation plays in the evolutionary process.
Heather Remoff, Ph.D.
Author of What’s Sex Got To Do with It? Darwin, Love, Lust, and the Anthropocene (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2022)