Nature, red in tooth and claw

“You’re trying to live without enemies. That’s all you think about, not having enemies.” Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry

“Enemies are the most important agencies of selection.” Geerat Vermeij, Evolution and Escalation

Much of what we’ve been seeing since the onset of the Cambrian, Friday February 27, is the outcome of evolutionary arms races, leading to steady improvements in teeth, claws, armor, and mobility. It may well be that the onset of predation is what triggered the Cambrian explosion in the first place. The paleontologist Geerat Vermeij argues that arms races – not adaptation to the physical environment – are the greatest cause of progressive evolution. And we’ll see when we start getting into human evolution, biological and social, that enemies – other people especially – and arms races go on being a major motor of change.

Yet it’s sometimes among refugees from arms races that the greatest evolutionary advances arise: fish moving onto land may have been doing it partly to get to someplace where enemies were weak or scarce. Vermeij himself is competitively handicapped, having lost his sight at three years old, but has made a distinguished career studying shelled invertebrates by touch.

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One thought on “Nature, red in tooth and claw

  1. Pingback: Plagues and Peoples | Logarithmic History

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