A brilliant photo by Chris Skipper in my morning paper shows a kestrel in mid-flight snatching a vole away from the talons of a barn owl. This is yet another example of the relentless competition that goes on in Nature. On this occasion the competition was between species. As often as not, however, competition is as intense within species.
Early man didn’t realise this as he hunted the woolly mammoth and at least 200 other prey species out of existence. Agricultural man from about 8,000 years ago didn’t realise this also as he gradually discovered and exploited every square metre of land across the whole globe that was capable of growing food by manual methods. Industrial man from about 250 years ago didn’t realise it as he destroyed vast swathes of the natural environment in order to build factories for the manufacture of consumer goods.
It was only scientific man, barely 50 years old in coming to the serious attention of governments, who has finally realised that the natural environment is precious. It is only scientific man – mainly evolutionary biologists — who has realised that man is what he is — intelligent and versatile — because of competition between the small groups in which he lived for millions of years.
Intensive competition between groups, much milder — but still competitive — gradations in social levels within groups is also why we are what we are. Politicians of the left — who believe in excessive egalitarianism within groups — and politicians of the right — who believe in untrammelled competition between groups have yet to take the latest Western Enlightenment on board.
But it’s about time they did because both varieties of politician are fast losing their credibility among the people they’re supposed to be leading.