Letter: Competition and natural selection

Sir: I am delighted to see a digestible and coherent explanation of evolution aimed toward the uninitiated, but David Bodanis (The DIY University; "Evolution", 7 August) has risked misleading his readership on one or two important points.

First, Charles Darwin's autobiography makes clear that he had begun seriously to question his (previously absolute) religious faith by 1839, two years before the birth of his beloved daughter Annie, whose death was later to devastate him completely. As early as 1836 Darwin had already reasoned that God was unlikely to exist, given the contradictory nature of different faiths' religious teachings. Therefore it is not accurate to suggest that Annie's tragic death in 1851 either prompted him to reject the creator, or motivated him to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection (he had essentially completed his development of the theory by 1839).

Second, David Bodanis is wrong when he says, " ... direct competition only rarely drives evolution". If natural selection is the driving force of adaptive evolution, then competition is the nourishment and inspiration of natural selection. Darwin reasoned that vastly more creatures come into existence than survive to reproduce; most die early and so the stage is set for competition. Those best adapted to their environment will necessarily have an advantage in the struggle for existence. And whatever David Bodanis would have us believe, cheetahs form part of the environment of gazelles, and gazelles serve cheetahs similarly. Neither would have become adapted to anything like their present state without natural selection, and without direct competition for limited resources, natural selection is nothing.

ROBERT HOWE

Skinburness, Cumbria

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