On "Natural Selection" and "Survival of the fittest"

The term Natural Selection is often misused, with people saying things like:

natural selection at its finest


he’s about to win a Darwin Award

when they see people doing things that are questionable.

Not only is this a huge festering pool of negativity, but it actually totally misses the point of natural selection.

Natural selection is the process by which those animals and plants which are best suited to the conditions in which they live have more young and live longer.

It is not a matter of only the best individuals of a species surviving, but those that are best adapted to their environment.

On “Survival of the Fittest”

Darwin didn’t say “survival of the fittest”.

Evolutionary biologists certainly aren’t happy with the way it is used by most people, and negative connotations it has in popular culture. It also hides and smoothes over the highly complex nature of natural selection, so modern biologists prefer and almost exclusively use the term natural selection instead.

So where does it come from? Why do we use it the way we do?

Herbert Spencer gave us the phrase in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology, published 5 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

He correlated his conservative ideas about economics and what Darwin had written about evolution.

This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.
- Principles of Biology

Spencer later uses it to argue for things like “might is right” in his 1884 work The Man Versus the State:

Thus by survival of the fittest, the militant type of society becomes characterized by profound confidence in the governing power, joined with a loyalty causing submission to it in all matters whatever.
- The Man Versus the State

This work went on to inspire an ideology that we know today as “Social Darwinism”, which is ironically named since it is neither social nor Darwinist. It’s a revolting and disdainful ideology, one that belongs, in the words of journalist Robert Wright, “in the dustbin of intellectual history”. I think that’s a suitable fate for it.

Coming back to Spencer.

In committing this mistake - this “naturalistic fallacy” - the idea that morality and ethics can be derived from nature, he ended up providing the ethics equivalent of a blank check to the capitalists.

As the 19th century (and the Industrial Revolution) chugged along, Spencer’s writings ended up being used to justify laissez-faire economics, war, racism and various heinous political doctrines. It justified the power of capitalists because they where the fittest according to themselves.

However, these ideas pre-date and commonly contradict Darwin’s ideas, and indeed their proponents rarely invoked Darwin in support.

This is all wrong of course. For instance, many species aren’t strong on their own, but still thrive because they cooperate. Humans are pretty weak. Our children are a huge burden on the parents before they grow up. We’re not fast, and neither can we outrun most predators. Most people can’t even outrun a chicken.

A single human is unlikely to thrive. But because we have community and care for each other we managed to succeed as species.

Darwin’s Biggest Mistake

Alfred Russel Wallace suggested Darwin to use the words “survival of the fittest” as an alternative to “natural selection”. He caved.

In 1868, Darwin used the phrase in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication., going so far as to even call it a “bad term”

This preservation, during the battle for life, of varieties which possess any advantage in structure, constitution, or instinct, I have called Natural Selection; and Mr. Herbert Spencer has well expressed the same idea by the Survival of the Fittest. The term ‘natural selection’ is in some respects a bad one, as it seems to imply conscious choice; but this will be disregarded after a little familiarity
- The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication

In the 1869 (5th Edition) of On The Origin of Species, Darwin changed it from “Natural Selection” to “Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest”

Closing Thoughts

Stephen Jay Gould (in Life is Beautiful) points out that the survival of a species at a certain time only reflects its fitness at that point in time, and not an absolute value of fitness, which doesn’t exist: there are plenty of genes (or even species) that disappeared for a reason or another, but would be a better fit for today’s conditions than the ones who survived, if they were still here.

Therefore seeing evolution as a continuous improvement of a gene pool towards evergrowing fitness is a misconception anyway. This is why eugenics and the people who bandy it about miss the point, or the randomness of it all. As well as the loooooong timelines and odd (but incredibly egoistic) idea that the most intelligent thing life has produced is somehow stupid compared to imaginary things us stupid things created in our minds.

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