Like every kid, I’d heard of Darwin by junior high school: “survival of the fittest” and all that. But he and I didn’t really meet until college, in Evolutionary Biology class, and we bumped heads. I got a D.
The prof and the teaching assistant kept saying, “nature prefers” by way of explaining how evolution works. Nature prefers the orange salamandar … Nature prefers the bird who lays the hardest shells … Nature prefers the cute puppy over the ugly one.
This anthropomorphization of nature threw me. It wasn’t until the end of the semester – just before the final exam – that I realized what these scientists meant. Nature didn’t really prefer anything. “Nature prefers” was a short hand to describe the process by which critters evolve. You’ve got two mulie bucks in Montana. One is born all white, a cool-looking ghost deer; the other is camouflaged. Camo deer outruns hunters for ten seasons, impregnates half a dozen does every fall, and over time the woods fill with his camouflaged kids. Meanwhile, the gorgeous albino gets spotted by every hunter from Choteau to Glendive. He dies in a blaze of gunfire before he gets to pass on his genes. Nature prefers camo-deer. Survival of the fittest.
These days, society tells me it’s okay to have married an older woman. It’s downright hip. My family sees what a wonderful woman I’ve married and tells me that I’ve found the perfect partner. And what they say is true. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, Sheri is my companion, my fellow, my self, my solace and my delight.
But now and then Darwin whispers in my ear, reminds me that years ago I married a woman too old to bear children, and he tells me that – in evolutionary terms – something in me has failed. I am ashamed to say that I listen to him. “Nature does not prefer you,” he says. Then there is silence between us as I search for that thing that makes me an aberration, that prevents me from passing on my genes. I’m not sure what that thing is, but I’m sure of this: Charles Darwin, I reply, you never understood love.