Darwin, Disabilities, and Ecosystems


ecosystemWhat happens to disabled plants and animals? Do such things even exist? As Mark and I explore the concept of disability in education, I wonder if there’s any parallel to Mark’s notion of an “enabling environment” in the natural world.

The dominant view of pretty much every social institution rests on the Darwinian concept of natural selection: those beings best adapted to their environments will thrive and reproduce. According to this logic, those with disabilities will struggle and ultimately perish. If the species cannot adapt to its environment, its environment will most certainly not adapt to it.

This notion of nature as a cold, heartless place where only the strong survive serves to justify educational practices and policies, like high-stakes testing and Race to the Top, that are aggressively competitive. It’s natural, the logic goes, to place students and schools in competition with each other; such competition will bring out the best in all involved and will allow the truly gifted to thrive and prosper. (Incidentally, I’ve never been clear about what happens next in this narrative. Are the winners supposed to do something nice for the rest of us?)

In any case, this Darwinian approach to education consistently ignores students with disabilities. Such students, after all, present a difficult problem. If it’s natural for only the best adapted students to succeed, then we’re doing something unnatural by providing special education services.

I’m wondering, though, if it’s entirely true that “disabled” species are always left behind. The natural selection narrative that we’ve constructed seems suspiciously neat and tidy to me. Nature is nothing if not complicated. So, if we have any zoologists, biologists, or animal buffs out there, maybe you can answer the following questions:

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One thought on “Darwin, Disabilities, and Ecosystems

  1. I’m not a biologist but it seems to me that while natural selection may increase the survival of those best fitted to the surroundings, the reproductive process itself always creates such variety that some offspring will be disabled or weaker in various ways than others. In other words, evolution will never lead to a place where there are no “less fit” organisms. In humans, the impulse to support those less well adapted is part of the impulse towards sociability and cooperation that is so strong in us. The same may be true of some primates, I would guess.

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