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tautology 1a: corrections

So Gary Nelson reminded me of his paper on “The Two Wallaces” (2009) in which he points out that Wallace used the tautology argument himself, and responded to criticisms as early as 1873. Wallace also used the term “fitness” in a general sense.

Gary cites Jacob:

Curiously enough, natural selection has not of recent years received any increased recognition of scientists as the vera causa of species. The pure Darwinists, among whom Dr. Wallace may be reckoned, still cling to it as all-explanatory, but other biologists are searching and finding specific causes for the differentiation of species. Strangely enough Dr. Wallace himself has been one of the chief incentives of this more specific kind of work. His views on the coloration of animals and insects have perhaps contributed more by example of method to the more modern researches into species than the general doctrine of natural selection, which, while declaring that the fittest shall survive, scarcely determines why any variation is fittest, and in the end only leaves us with the almost tautologous result that those who survive are the most fit to survive.

The earliest Wallace comment speaks of fitness and selection as a “truism”:

Notwithstanding the objections which are still made to the theory of Natural Selection on the ground that it is either a pure hypothesis not founded on any demonstrable facts, or a mere truism which can lead to no useful results, we find it year by year sinking deeper into the minds of thinking men, and applied, more and more frequently, to elucidate problems of the highest importance (Wallace, 1873:227).

Wallace is defending against the truism charge. Now a truism isn’t a tautology, but rather an obvious truth, almost not worth the stating, but it is clear that few saw it that way before Darwin. This is a point made later by Wallace:

And the more important principles arising out of these facts are also of the most simple and obvious nature, so much so that the objection is often made that they are self-evident truisms (Wallace, 1909:411).

Finally, however, Wallace in a discussion of moral progress (Wallace 1913:95f) says:

This “struggle for life” is either against the forces of inorganic or those of organic nature. Among the former are storms, floods, intense cold, long-continued droughts, or violent blizzards, all of which take toll of the weaker or less wary individuals of each species — those that are less adapted to survive such conditions. In judging how this would act, we must always remember the enormous scale on which Nature works, and that, although now and then a few of the weaker individuals may live and a few of the stronger be killed, yet when we deal with hundreds of millions, of which eighty or ninety millions inevitably die every year, while about ten or twenty millions only survive, it is impossible to believe that those which survive, not one year only, but year after year throughout the whole existence of each species, are not on the average better adapted to the complex conditions of their environment than those which succumb to it. It is a mere truism that the fittest survive.

It is clear from the foregoing discussion that Wallace thinks this is not an empty truism. He is taking great pains to explain Darwin’s theory. He later says (p100f) that:

One of the weakest and most foolish objections to the Darwinian theory is that it does not explain variation and is therefore worthless. We might as well say that Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravitation was worthless because its cause was not and has not been discovered…

The truism comment defends its worth as a truth. The objection about variation is, as we have seen with Goodwin a defence of the explanatory power of selection (and fitness, etc.) even in the absence of a clear description of the causes of variation on which it acts. Later, Wallace says that variation is a universal rule, which is also roughly what Peirce had said.

So in context I doubt that Wallace meant that selection was a tautology, but Jacob clearly read him that way, and so we might expect that this was a general impression at the time.

In his Darwinism (Wallace 1889: 11–12), he had used the term “fitness” in something like the modern sense. It is worthwhile looking at the passage in which it occurs:

Then comes the question, Why do some live rather than others? . . . We cannot doubt that, on the whole, any beneficial variations will give the possessors of it a greater probability of living through the tremendous ordeal they have to undergo. There may be something left to chance, but on the whole the fittest will survive. . . .

It is therefore proved that if any particular kind of variation is preserved and bred from, the variation itself goes on increasing in amount to an enormous extent; and the bearing of this on the question of the origin of species is most important. For if in each generation of a given animal or plant the fittest survive to continue the breed, then whatever may be the special peculiarity that causes “fitness” in the particular case, that peculiarity will go on increasing and strengthening so long as it is useful to the species. But the moment it has reached its maximum of usefulness, and some other quality or modification would help in the struggle, then the individuals which vary in the new direction will survive ; and thus a species may be gradually modified, first in one direction, then in another, till it differs from the original parent form as much as the greyhound differs from any wild dog or the cauliflower from any wild plant. [emphasis added]

So Fisher didn’t invent it, although he defined it mathematically. Notice that Wallace doesn’t think fitness is any particular physical or biological property apart from usefulness to the species (he must mean to organisms in the typical conditions of the species). It also pays to remember that Wallace held that selection was about survival rather than overall reproduction, unlike Darwin. Indeed, it was a large part of the problem he had with human cognition.


Jacobs, J. 1906. An auto-didact: Alfred Russel Wallace’s frank autobiography – a natural philosopher au naturel. The New York Times Saturday Review of Books Jan 13:13-14.

Nelson, Gareth. 2009. The Two Wallaces Then and Now. The Linnean 9:25-34.

Wallace, A.R. 1873. Modern applications of the doctrine of natural selection. Nature 7(172, Feb 13):277-279.

Wallace, A.R. 1909. The world of life: As visualised and interpreted by Darwinism (Being the revised lecture, a portion of which only was delivered at the Royal Institution on Friday, January 22, 1909). Fortnightly Review, new series (London) 85(507, March 1):411-434 (old series: vol. 91).

Wallace, A.R. 1913. Social environment and moral progress. London and New York: Cassell & Co.

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