Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Action of Natural Selection in Producing
Old Age, Decay, and Death (S419: 1889)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A note by Wallace written "some time between 1865 and 1870," and included on page 23 of August Weismann's 1889 book Essays Upon Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S419.htm


    Supposing organisms ever existed that had not the power of natural reproduction, then since the absorptive surface would only increase as the square of the dimensions while the bulk to be nourished and renewed would increase as the cube, there must soon arrive a limit of growth. Now if such an organism did not produce its like, accidental destruction would put an end to the species. Any organism therefore that, by accidental or spontaneous fission, could become two organisms, and thus multiply itself indefinitely without increasing in size beyond the limits most favourable for nourishment and existence, could not be thus exterminated: since the individual only could be accidentally destroyed,--the race would survive. But if individuals did not die they would soon multiply inordinately and would interfere with each other's healthy existence. Food would become scarce, and hence the larger individuals would probably decompose or diminish in size. The deficiency of nourishment would lead to parts of the organism not being renewed; they would become fixed, and liable to more or less slow decomposition as dead parts within a living body. The smaller organisms would have a better chance of finding food, the larger ones less chance. That one which gave off several small portions to form each a new organism would have a better chance of leaving descendants like itself than one which divided equally or gave off a large part of itself. Hence it would happen that those which gave off very small portions would probably soon after cease to maintain their own existence while they would leave a numerous offspring. This state of things would be in any case for the advantage of the race, and would therefore, by natural selection, soon become established as the regular course of things, and thus we have the origin of old age, decay, and death; for it is evident that when one or more individuals have provided a sufficient number of successors they themselves, as consumers of nourishment in a constantly increasing degree, are an injury to those successors. Natural selection therefore weeds them out, and in many cases favours such races as die almost immediately after they have left successors. Many moths and other insects are in this condition, living only to propagate their kind and then immediately dying, some not even taking any food in the perfect and reproductive state.


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