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Saturday, November 22, 2014


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The Vegetable In The Witness Box
By Islip Collyer, 1922



One fact which is pressed home with merciless insistence on the gardener is that the strongest and most vigorous plants are those which he would like to destroy. It is rather vexing to be told that all the wonderful plants which grow out of mother earth have been produced by the survival of the fittest; when just those in which we are interested require such tender care, while the weeds against which we wage incessant war flourish in spite of us.

The most beautiful of gardens, if left untended for a few years, would be over- run with weeds. It may have been cultivated for centuries, and the weeds kept down during that entire period: yet a few weeds will be there even in the day of its glory. If we leave it uncultivated only for a decade, it is doubtful whether anything useful will be left, while the weeds of their own strength will have taken possession.

Couch grass may be taken as an illustration of


vigour. The flower, such as it is, needs no special insect to make it fertile. The wind is all-sufficient for such purpose. The plant forms roots which run underground and are capable of taking possession of the soil. The tiniest piece of root will grow and re-establish the colony after every onslaught that the gardener makes. His only plan is to clean the ground thoroughly before he puts in his plants, and then by constant use of the hoe prevent weeds from growing.

The fact is, people are continually allowing their minds to be led astray by verbal juggling. The argument regarding the survival of the fittest is not the simple and logical proposition that many amateur scientists suppose.

It is necessary to ask the question, "In what sense do you use the word 'fitnes?'" Many people begin by taking the word in the sense scientists use it. They can see the logic of the proposition that in a struggle for existence those individuals most capable of living will survive. Then with this conception of the survival of the fittest in mind they turn to the consideration of totally different problems. They see a fitness of a different kind and apply the principle of survival in a sense which sometimes is the exact opposite of the original meaning. Find a man, intellectual, meek, gentle, thinking no evil of anyone, and wishing no evil to anyone, and we may readily agree that judged by the higher standard he is one of the most fit to survive. He might easily be the least fit, however, in the scientific sense of the expression --


that is, the least fit to hold his own and beat his fellows in a struggle for existence.

Find a plant, delicate, beautiful, bearing wonderful flowers or fruit, having many qualities to attract, and contrivances to interest, and we agree that, judging it by the higher standard, it is one of the most fit to survive. By the jungle law, however, it would not be fit at all, and if we want it to flourish and reveal all its qualities, we must assiduously guard against the struggle for existence.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the old scientific formula "survival of the fittest" simply meant the selection or those most capable of living; without the slightest regard to the higher standards by which we judge them. According to the Darwinian school there was no other force to give Nature an upward tendency. It was just as well for creatures to survive in the mud at the bottom of a river, as for a race of intellectual beings to develop. Nature was as well pleased with the one as with the other; or to be more exact, she does not care a jot for either.

Darwin made some attempt to grapple with this problem. He suggested that it would be of no advantage for some creatures to be highly organised, that it might be a positive disadvantage, and that was why certain lowly species had remained unchanged since the dawn of life.

So far as the vegetable world is concerned we may say, most emphatically that if there was no force behind Evolution except the survival of plants most


capable of surviving, it would always be a disadvantage to be highly organised. The production of the many beautiful and useful plants that adorn our gardens would have been utterly impossible. The plants selected by Nature would be the rankest of weeds, capable of living and flourishing, and with nothing which would readily get out of order.

If a prize were offered for the best contrivance made out of metal we might have a wonderful exhibition of .completed machines, almost as varied as the world's animals and plants. If, however, the prize was simply for the piece of metal best fitted to survive rough conditions, a simple ball of iron would beat all the clever devices. It would be no good, but what does that matter? According to the Darwinian theory Nature had no aims, and the only prize she offered was life for those most capable of surviving. The simplest form of worm living in mud would beat all the mammals. The commonest of weeds would beat all the beautiful plants.

It is very doubtful whether one could find a modern Evolutionist who would follow Darwin in this. What, however, is the alternative? As with theologians, so with scientists; they sometimes wish to hold a position which has been rendered logically untenable by the forced surrender of some of the main defences. We do well to ask, "What is your position now?"