Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Evolution is not "survival of the fittest"

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.


  1. I understand what "survival of the fittest" means; this could well mean that an organism which has a feature will do better than another one that doesn't have it. But:

    "but it is just as likely that organisms that are smaller, weaker, slower and socially cooperative will do so as well."

    "Just as likely"? Is there evidence to back up the "just as likely" claim, at least to the "weaker, slower" part?

    I could envision a situation where a slower organism might well adapt some behavior (via genetic mutation) that ends up more than making up for the slowness factor.

  2. I had tried to start a meme to change the term to "Survival of the Fit (for now)" but as with most of my suggestions, it was ignored.

    This "Survival of the fittest" phrase is so much a part of the colloquial that I don't see how it will ever be fixed to match the reality of evolution.

  3. Ollie;

    As I read it, he's making the distinction between "bigger, stronger, faster and brutishly competitive" and "smaller, weaker, slower and socially cooperative" in terms of social cohesion.

    Being strong, fast and highly competitive will get you an edge in some ways. Being weaker and slower is a disadvantage, but that's made up by the social collaboration that those individuals are willing to take part in (which the bigger stronger ones aren't).

    That's how I read it, anyway. He's not just plain saying that weaker individuals do just as well as stronger ones.

  4. As Anonymous said, social cohesion may compensate for lack of strength etc, but it is also true that "bigger, stronger, faster" have costs as well as benefits, especially, but not I think only, in needing higher energy intake.

  5. Both the "survival" and the "fittest" are misleading. For many years now, I have encouraged my students to think of natural selection as "nonrandom differential reproduction" instead.

  6. the Only problem with your suggestion, Sven, is that "NonRandom Differential Reproduction" doesn't have the Pizzaz, in effect, the 'Sex Appeal' that natural selection will most likely have trouble catching on with , the proletariat, the masses; I am a student in Sociology/Anthropology, hailing from Akron, Ohio, USA; I found your discussion via Google...

  7. Evidence? How about the fact that most large predators are endangered and would possibly be extinct whereas cockroaches, rabbits, sparrows etc are plentiful?

    What survived the dinosaurs holocaust? Not the biggest and strongest that's for sure!