From The American Scholar comes this article about historical change and the need to for historians to study and assess it not by perceived successes and failures but in evolutionary terms: how sustainable has the cultural adaptation become or is the practice maladaptive?
People have developed strategies to meet changes in climate, in energy sources, or in the diseases they confront. In some cases they have developed, through thoughtful observation, ways to avoid degrading or depleting their environment. They have learned how to become more resilient in the face of change.
But adaptation, even in nature, has never been perfect or sufficient. Before Darwin, naturalists like Bishop William Paley, author of the 1802 religious classic Natural Theology, liked to talk about the marvelous fitness of plants and animals to their environments; a world that was perfectly harmonized and perfectly adapted showed, they believed, the handiwork of a rational God. They insisted that everything in the world is perfectly organized and perfectly adapted, that every creature has its assigned place. But Darwin’s theory of evolution overturned the notion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Darwin, for all of his admiration of natural selection, forced us to begin paying attention to the reality and frequency of maladaptation.
After him, the science of adaptation could no longer claim to reveal a perfect world in which everything works for the best or where nature always achieves the ideal solution to a problem. Nature cobbles together solutions from whatever material is available. When those solutions fail, the costs of mal-adaptation can be severe. Contrary to modern critics like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, the so-called “adaptationist program” in modern biology does not teach that we live in the best of all conceivable worlds. Nature shows us many examples of failure, impoverishment, dysfunction, and death as much as fitness, functionality, and good health. And this maladaptation is certainly evident when we examine human cultures through history.
Historians need to acknowledge the importance of the environment and to embrace the theory and worldview of evolution for the dazzling light it sheds on the origins, development, and fate of humanity.