In a beechwood in the Cotswolds, a rural idyll1 in the South West of England, the sun streams through a canopy high above, creating dappled pools of light across the moist loam. Fully grown trees stretch thirty or forty metres into the air, barely allowing for competition. But competition there is — saplings extend as high as they dare, their inch-wide trunks bearing a minimum of leaves. Only a few will survive, but those capturing just enough sunlight will develop faster than their peers, eventually becoming the giant trees that cast shade on the others.
When we reference Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we tend to personify the nature of adaptation, as though the trees actively strive for the light. They do not: it is their nature to respond to sunlight’s life-giving energy, just as it is the nature of a grass root to follow a trail of humidity through a porous brick wall. These are not near-hopeless attempts to survive; rather, they represent chemical responses to external stimuli. They remain mind-bogglingly impressive, as are the adaptations that gave hover-flies the ability to mimic the sounds (and have the same colourings) as wasps, or the physiological capabilities of humans to change the thickness of their blood based on altitude.
Equally thrilling is the unforced, cool inevitability of innovation, made possible as human nature, its precociousness and ingenuity derive energy from the pools of light beneath the canopies of our existence, its consequences sometimes quite unexpectedly bursting into life.
If you haven’t walked the section of the Cotswold Way between Bisley and Cranham, you probably should. ↩