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  • George C. Williams, Kenneth Burke, and "The Goal of the Fox":Or, Genes, Organisms, and the Agents of Natural Selection
  • Debra Journet (bio)

Evolutionary Biology, Motive, and Narrative

Evolutionary theory is based on Darwin's key concept of natural selection, that is, his realization that those organisms that are best suited to their environment tend to survive and pass characteristics in increasing number to succeeding generations, while organisms that are less adapted tend to be eliminated. From the start, however, the term natural selection gave Darwin trouble. The word select implies, as readers from as early as the first edition of On the Origin of Species suggested, some entity that is doing the selection—a seeming anomaly given that evolution is theorized as blind to the future. There is thus a fundamental ambiguity in the term natural selection, signaled in the nominalization of the motive verb to select. Nevertheless, in Origin Darwin continually turns to selectionist language, not only in his key phrase natural selection but also throughout his argument. Such selectionist language appears for example, in the agentive acts of competition and adaptation performed by species participating in the "great battle for life" (76), or the day-to-day acts of individual organisms engaged in what Darwin continually called the "struggle for existence."

Darwin insisted that these agentive terms are only metaphors: "I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense" (62). But as a number of scholars have argued (e.g., Young, Campbell, Gross), Darwin's metaphors perform enormous epistemic as well as rhetorical work. Not mere simplifications of a more complexly understood theory, agentive metaphors are instead integral to Darwin's ability to theorize evolution. In particular, because he lacked an understanding of genetics as the mechanism of variation and the source of heritability, Darwin used [End Page 216] agentive language, in part, to conjecture about concepts and connections for which neither data nor terminology was yet available.

Metaphors have an epistemic function in scientific rhetoric because they offer a way for scientists to speculate as well as clarify. That is, metaphors provide a discursive space where scientists can engage in provisional and exploratory attempts to understand phenomena they often cannot study directly or, because of the status of contemporary scientific knowledge, understand adequately.1 The resulting ambiguity that is necessarily built into such metaphors often provides what Kenneth Burke describes as a resource or an alchemic opportunity for transformation (xix). I do not mean to suggest here that all ambiguous metaphors are equally productive or that ambiguous metaphors are not sometimes simply marks of confusion. But what is sometimes later judged as mistaken or "muddled" terminology can also function first as a powerful tool that helps scientists actually build the knowledge necessary to understand limitations or complications of earlier language.2

In his own discussion of Darwin, Burke draws attention to the transformative possibilities generated in Origin by the tension between what Burke calls action and motion. Action, in Burke's sense, is the conscious, purposive, meaning-making movement of human beings; motion is the unmotivated, non-conscious movements of unthinking phenomena. Natural selection, then, is a clear case of motion. Nevertheless, as Burke points out, Darwin continually uses action terms in describing the motion of evolutionary phenomena. Furthermore, what is true of Darwin is also true of most others writing about natural selection.

In this essay, I draw on Burke's discussion of the transformative potential offered by ambiguities of motive in evolutionary biology as they play out in what is sometimes called the "levels of selection debate," a project in evolutionary biology that tries to answer the question of who or what is the real agent of evolutionary change. I further draw on Burke's grammar, particularly his pentad, to analyze how motive statements in this debate are structured. The pentad identifies what Burke sees as the five constituent parts of any statement about motive. These include "act (names what took place, in thought or deed); scene (the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred); agent (what kind of person performed the act); agency (what means or instruments he used); and purpose" (xv). As Burke...


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pp. 216-228
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