The Problem With 'Survival of the Fittest'

The Problem With 'Survival of the Fittest'
Jens Buettner/dpa via AP
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Today, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species is recognized as one of the greatest books in scientific history, but when it was initially published, the broad reaction was hostile. Laypersons in general were uncomfortable with, and even insulted by, the ramifications of evolution by means of natural selection. "Humans aren't apes!" they proclaimed.

One reader who was a fan was English polymath Herbert Spencer, who envisioned the concept of evolution touching culture, ethics, and even the human mind. Spencer did have one key nitpick, however. He thought that the phrase "survival of the fittest" was a more apt descriptor for the mechanism that drives evolution, rather than the term "natural selection" that Darwin employed.

Hearing of Spencer's idea, noted British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently conceived of evolution by natural selection, wrote to Darwin and urged him to adopt the phrase "survival of the fittest" in future editions of On the Origin of Species. Natural selection seemed to personify nature as "selecting" successful species, he contended. Using "survival of the fittest" would do away with that misconception.

Darwin agreed. Beginning with the fifth edition of his book, he wrote "Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest," fully crediting Spencer for the "convenient" and "accurate" revision.

But in an attempt to dispel one misconception, Darwin inadvertently created another. While Darwin intended "fittest" to refer only to the ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment, others misunderstood it as a description of an organism's physical prowess – bigger, stronger, faster, etc.

As evolution gained evidential backing and adherents over the years, some misused "survival of the fittest" to support eugenics polices that favored rooting out undesirable traits in humanity, leading to racism, oppression, sexism, and genocide.

It's ironic that "survival of the fittest" has been misused to advocate meanness. Oftentimes, the most reproductively successful species and individuals are the ones who cooperate, who are the friendliest.

"Homo sapiens are the best example of what survival of the friendliest is," science writer Vanessa Woods said.

Woods and her husband Brian Hare, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, laid out the case for this in a book published last year. We co-existed with four other human species for a hundred thousand years, they wrote. Neanderthals, for example, had brains that were at least as big as ours. They had technology. They had culture. They were stronger. Homo sapiens morphology suggests that we were the friendlier species, however. Cooperation likely allowed us to win out.

"Survival of the fittest" probably isn't going out of style anytime soon, so it's important to understand what it truly means. It's not meant to refer to 'Hunger Games'-style ruthless competition, only to an organism's ability to thrive and reproduce in a specific environment.



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