By the 6th edition of Origin of Species Darwin had begun to adopt the term "survival of the fittest" and a synonym for "natural selection." His decision was prompted by several colleagues, notably Alfred Russel Wallace. The term "survival of the fittest had recently been coined by Herbert Spencer.
Unfortunately, modern society interprets "survival of the fittest" to mean that only the strong survive. They think of evolution in terms of a winner take all competition between the weak and the strong.
I was reminded of this misconception a few nights ago at our book club meeting. We were discussing Origin of Species and every single member of the group viewed evolution in these terms. Much of the discussion was about the future of human evolution and the book club members were fixated on what kind of mutations would make us stronger and better. What would happen to the poor individuals who couldn't compete?
Michael Shermer has written a nice article in the latest issue of Scientific American: A Skeptic's Take on the Public Misunderstanding of Darwin. His main point deserves to be widely publicized.
Natural selection simply means that those individuals with variations better suited to their environment leave behind more offspring than individuals that are less well adapted. This outcome is known as “differential reproductive success.” It may be, as the second myth holds, that organisms that are bigger, stronger, faster and brutishly competitive will reproduce more successfully, but it is just as likely that organisms that are smaller, weaker, slower and socially cooperative will do so as well.
This second notion in particular makes evolution unpalatable for many people, because it covers the theory with a darkened patina reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog” defender, promoted this “gladiatorial” view of life in a series of popular essays on nature “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day.” The myth persists. In his recent documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein linked Darwinism to Communism, Fascism and the Holocaust.