Essay About Survival Of The Fittest

For other uses, see Survival of the fittest (disambiguation).

"Survival of the fittest" is a phrase that originated from Darwinian evolutionary theory as a way of describing the mechanism of natural selection. The biological concept of fitness is defined as reproductive success. In Darwinian terms the phrase is best understood as "Survival of the form that will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations."

Herbert Spencer first used the phrase, after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, in his Principles of Biology (1864), in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin's biological ones: "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 favoured races in the struggle for life."[1]

Darwin responded positively to Alfred Russel Wallace's suggestion of using Spencer's new phrase "survival of the fittest" as an alternative to "natural selection", and adopted the phrase in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication published in 1868.[1][2] In On the Origin of Species, he introduced the phrase in the fifth edition published in 1869,[3][4] intending it to mean "better designed for an immediate, local environment".[5][6]

History of the phrase[edit]

Herbert Spencer first used the phrase – after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species – in his Principles of Biology of 1864[7] in which he drew parallels between his economic theories and Darwin's biological, evolutionary ones, writing, "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."[1]

In July 1866 Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Darwin about readers thinking that the phrase "natural selection" personified nature as "selecting", and said this misconception could be avoided "by adopting Spencer's term" Survival of the fittest. Darwin promptly replied that Wallace's letter was "as clear as daylight. I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer's excellent expression of 'the survival of the fittest'. This however had not occurred to me till reading your letter. It is, however, a great objection to this term that it cannot be used as a substantive governing a verb". Had he received the letter two months earlier, he would have worked the phrase into the fourth edition of the Origin which was then being printed, and he would use it in his "next book on Domestic Animals etc.".[1]

Darwin wrote on page 6 of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication published in 1868, "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". He defended his analogy as similar to language used in chemistry, and to astronomers depicting the "attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets", or the way in which "agriculturists speak of man making domestic races by his power of selection". He had "often personified the word Nature; for I have found it difficult to avoid this ambiguity; but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws,—and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events."[2]

In the first four editions of On the Origin of Species, Darwin had used the phrase "natural selection".[8] In Chapter 4 of the 5th edition of The Origin published in 1869,[3] Darwin implies again the synonym: "Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest".[4] By the word "fittest" Darwin meant "better adapted for immediate, local environment", not the common modern meaning of "in the best physical shape" (think of a puzzle piece, not an athlete).[5] In the introduction he gave full credit to Spencer, writing "I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient."[9]

In The Man Versus The State, Spencer used the phrase in a postscript to justify a plausible explanation of how his theories would not be adopted by "societies of militant type". He uses the term in the context of societies at war, and the form of his reference suggests that he is applying a general principle.[10]

"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".[11]

Though Spencer’s conception of organic evolution is commonly interpreted as a form of Lamarckism,[a]Herbert Spencer is sometimes credited with inaugurating Social Darwinism. The phrase "survival of the fittest" has become widely used in popular literature as a catchphrase for any topic related or analogous to evolution and natural selection. It has thus been applied to principles of unrestrained competition, and it has been used extensively by both proponents and opponents of Social Darwinism.[citation needed]

Evolutionary biologists criticise the manner in which the term is used by non-scientists and the connotations that have grown around the term in popular culture. The phrase also does not help in conveying the complex nature of natural selection, so modern biologists prefer and almost exclusively use the term natural selection. The biological concept of fitness refers to reproductive success, as opposed to survival, and is not explicit in the specific ways in which organisms can be more "fit" (increase reproductive success) as having phenotypic characteristics that enhance survival and reproduction (which was the meaning that Spencer had in mind).[citation needed]

Critiquing the phrase “survival of the fittest”[edit]

While the phrase "survival of the fittest” is often used to refer to “natural selection”, it is avoided by modern biologists, because the phrase can be misleading. For example, “survival” is only one aspect of selection, and not always the most important. Another problem is that the word “fit” is frequently confused with a state of physical fitness. In the evolutionary meaning “fitness” is the rate of reproductive output among a class of genetic variants.[13]

Interpreted as expressing a biological theory[edit]

The phrase can also be interpreted to express a theory or hypothesis: that "fit" as opposed to "unfit" individuals or species, in some sense of "fit", will survive some test.

Interpretations of the phrase as expressing a theory are in danger of being tautological, meaning roughly "those with a propensity to survive have a propensity to survive"; to have content the theory must use a concept of fitness that is independent of that of survival.[5][14]

Interpreted as a theory of species survival, the theory that the fittest species survive is undermined by evidence that while direct competition is observed between individuals, populations and species, there is little evidence that competition has been the driving force in the evolution of large groups such as, for example, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Instead, these groups have evolved by expanding into empty ecological niches.[15] In the punctuated equilibrium model of environmental and biological change, the factor determining survival is often not superiority over another in competition but ability to survive dramatic changes in environmental conditions, such as after a meteor impact energetic enough to greatly change the environment globally. The main land dwelling animals to survive the K-Pg impact 66 million years ago had the ability to live in underground tunnels, for example.

In 2010 Sahney et al. argued that there is little evidence that intrinsic, biological factors such as competition have been the driving force in the evolution of large groups. Instead, they cited extrinsic, abiotic factors such as expansion as the driving factor on a large evolutionary scale. The rise of dominant groups such as amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds occurred by opportunistic expansion into empty ecological niches and the extinction of groups happened due to large shifts in the abiotic environment.[15]

Interpreted as expressing a moral theory[edit]

Social Darwinists[edit]

It has been claimed that "the survival of the fittest" theory in biology was interpreted by late 19th century capitalists as "an ethical precept that sanctioned cut-throat economic competition" and led to the advent of the theory of "social Darwinism" which was used to justify laissez-faire economics, war and racism. However, these ideas predate and commonly contradict Darwin's ideas, and indeed their proponents rarely invoked Darwin in support.[citation needed] The term "social Darwinism" referring to capitalist ideologies was introduced as a term of abuse by Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought published in 1944.[16][17]

Creationists[edit]

Critics of theories of evolution have argued that "survival of the fittest" provides a justification for behaviour that undermines moral standards by letting the strong set standards of justice to the detriment of the weak.[18] However, any use of evolutionary descriptions to set moral standards would be a naturalistic fallacy (or more specifically the is–ought problem), as prescriptive moral statements cannot be derived from purely descriptive premises. Describing how things are does not imply that things ought to be that way. It is also suggested that "survival of the fittest" implies treating the weak badly, even though in some cases of good social behaviour – co-operating with others and treating them well – might improve evolutionary fitness.[16][19]

Anarchists[edit]

Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin viewed the concept of "survival of the fittest" as supporting co-operation rather than competition. In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution he set out his analysis leading to the conclusion that the fittest was not necessarily the best at competing individually, but often the community made up of those best at working together. He concluded that

In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense — not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress.

Applying this concept to human society, Kropotkin presented mutual aid as one of the dominant factors of evolution, the other being self-assertion, and concluded that

In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support not mutual struggle – has had the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race.

Tautology[edit]

"Survival of the fittest" is sometimes claimed to be a tautology.[20] The reasoning is that if one takes the term "fit" to mean "endowed with phenotypic characteristics which improve chances of survival and reproduction" (which is roughly how Spencer understood it), then "survival of the fittest" can simply be rewritten as "survival of those who are better equipped for surviving". Furthermore, the expression does become a tautology if one uses the most widely accepted definition of "fitness" in modern biology, namely reproductive success itself (rather than any set of characters conducive to this reproductive success). This reasoning is sometimes used to claim that Darwin's entire theory of evolution by natural selection is fundamentally tautological, and therefore devoid of any explanatory power.[20]

However, the expression "survival of the fittest" (taken on its own and out of context) gives a very incomplete account of the mechanism of natural selection. The reason is that it does not mention a key requirement for natural selection, namely the requirement of heritability. It is true that the phrase "survival of the fittest", in and by itself, is a tautology if fitness is defined by survival and reproduction. Natural selection is the portion of variation in reproductive success that is caused by heritable characters (see the article on natural selection).[20]

If certain heritable characters increase or decrease the chances of survival and reproduction of their bearers, then it follows mechanically (by definition of "heritable") that those characters that improve survival and reproduction will increase in frequency over generations. This is precisely what is called "evolution by natural selection." On the other hand, if the characters which lead to differential reproductive success are not heritable, then no meaningful evolution will occur, "survival of the fittest" or not: if improvement in reproductive success is caused by traits that are not heritable, then there is no reason why these traits should increase in frequency over generations. In other words, natural selection does not simply state that "survivors survive" or "reproducers reproduce"; rather, it states that "survivors survive, reproduce and therefore propagate any heritable characters which have affected their survival and reproductive success". This statement is not tautological: it hinges on the testable hypothesis that such fitness-impacting heritable variations actually exist (a hypothesis that has been amply confirmed.)[20]

Momme von Sydow suggested further definitions of 'survival of the fittest' that may yield a testable meaning in biology and also in other areas where Darwinian processes have been influential. However, much care would be needed to disentangle tautological from testable aspects. Moreover, an "implicit shifting between a testable and an untestable interpretation can be an illicit tactic to immunize natural selection [...] while conveying the impression that one is concerned with testable hypotheses."[14][21]

Skeptic Society founder and Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer addresses the tautology problem in his 1997 book, Why People Believe Weird Things, in which he points out that although tautologies are sometimes the beginning of science, they are never the end, and that scientific principles like natural selection are testable and falsifiable by virtue of their predictive power. Shermer points out, as an example, that population genetics accurately demonstrate when natural selection will and will not effect change on a population. Shermer hypothesizes that if hominidfossils were found in the same geological strata as trilobites, it would be evidence against natural selection.[22]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ abcd"Letter 5140 – Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R., 2 July 1866". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 12 January 2010. 
    "Letter 5145 – Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., 5 July (1866)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 12 January 2010. 
    ^ "Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Biology of 1864, vol. 1, p. 444, wrote: '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 favoured races in the struggle for life.'" Maurice E. Stucke, Better Competition Advocacy, retrieved 29 August 2007 , citing HERBERT SPENCER, THE PRINCIPLES OF BIOLOGY 444 (Univ. Press of the Pac. 2002.)
  2. ^ ab"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." Darwin, Charles (1868), The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 1 (1st ed.), London: John Murray, p. 6, retrieved 10 August 2015 
  3. ^ abFreeman, R. B. (1977), "On the Origin of Species", The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist (2nd ed.), Cannon House, Folkestone, Kent, England: Wm Dawson & Sons Ltd 
  4. ^ ab"This preservation of favourable variations, and the destruction of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest." – Darwin, Charles (1869), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (5th ed.), London: John Murray, pp. 91–92, retrieved 22 February 2009 
  5. ^ abc"Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin's Untimely Burial", 1976; from Philosophy of Biology:An Anthology, Alex Rosenberg, Robert Arp ed., John Wiley & Sons, May 2009, pp. 99–102.
  6. ^"Evolutionary biologists customarily employ the metaphor 'survival of the fittest,' which has a precise meaning in the context of mathematical population genetics, as a shorthand expression when describing evolutionary processes." Chew, Matthew K.; Laubichler, Manfred D. (4 July 2003), "PERCEPTIONS OF SCIENCE: Natural Enemies — Metaphor or Misconception?", Science, 301 (5629): 52–53, doi:10.1126/science.1085274, PMID 12846231, retrieved 20 March 2008 
  7. ^Vol. 1, p. 444
  8. ^U. Kutschera (14 March 2003), A Comparative Analysis of the Darwin-Wallace Papers and the Development of the Concept of Natural Selection(PDF), Institut für Biologie, Universität Kassel, Germany, archived from the original(PDF) on 14 April 2008, retrieved 20 March 2008 
  9. ^Darwin, Charles (1869), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (5th ed.), London: John Murray, p. 72 
  10. ^The principle of natural selection applied to groups of individual is known as Group selection.
  11. ^Herbert Spencer; Truxton Beale (1916), The Man Versus the State: A Collection of Essays, M. Kennerley  (snippet)
  12. ^Federico Morganti (May 26, 2013). "Adaptation and Progress: Spencer's Criticism of Lamarck". Evolution & Cognition. 
  13. ^Colby, Chris (1996–1997), Introduction to Evolutionary Biology, TalkOrigins Archive, retrieved 22 February 2009 
  14. ^ abvon Sydow, M. (2014). ‘Survival of the Fittest’ in Darwinian Metaphysics – Tautology or Testable Theory? (pp. 199–222) In E. Voigts, B. Schaff & M. Pietrzak-Franger (Eds.). Reflecting on Darwin. Farnham, London: Ashgate.
  15. ^ abSahney, S., Benton, M.J. and Ferry, P.A. (2010), "Links between global taxonomic diversity, ecological diversity and the expansion of vertebrates on land"(PDF), Biology Letters, 6 (4): 544–547, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.1024, PMC 2936204, PMID 20106856. 
  16. ^ abJohn S. Wilkins (1997), Evolution and Philosophy: Social Darwinism – Does evolution make might right?, TalkOrigins Archive, retrieved 21 November 2007 
  17. ^Leonard, Thomas C. (2005), "Mistaking Eugenics for Social Darwinism: Why Eugenics is Missing from the History of American Economics"(PDF), History of Political Economy, 37 (supplement:): 200–233, doi:10.1215/00182702-37-Suppl_1-200 
  18. ^Alan Keyes (7 July 2001), WorldNetDaily: Survival of the fittest?, WorldNetDaily, retrieved 19 November 2007 
  19. ^Mark Isaak (2004), CA002: Survival of the fittest implies might makes right, TalkOrigins Archive, retrieved 19 November 2007 
  20. ^ abcdCorey, Michael Anthony (1994), "Chapter 5. Natural Selection", Back to Darwin: the scientific case for Deistic evolution, Rowman and Littlefield, p. 147, ISBN 978-0-8191-9307-0 
  21. ^Cf. von Sydow, M. (2012). From Darwinian Metaphysics towards Understanding the Evolution of Evolutionary Mechanisms. A Historical and Philosophical Analysis of Gene-Darwinism and Universal Darwinism. Universitätsverlag Göttingen.
  22. ^Shermer, Michael; Why People Believe Weird Things; 1997; Pages 143–144

External links[edit]

Origins of the phrase[edit]

Tautology links[edit]

Morality link[edit]

Kropotkin: Mutual Aid[edit]

  1. ^Though Spencer was an advocate of the inheritance of acquired characters, he considered Lamarck’s failure to explain organic evolution in physical terms as a serious weakness of his theory.[12]

On April 3, President Obama called Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” In a Huffington Post article, Obama Sparks Debate On His Meaning Of ‘Social Darwinism’, a quizzical Jennifer C. Kerr asked: “But what exactly does the president mean? And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?”

The key word in Kerr’s first question is “exactly.” This question can easily be answered: Obama didn’t mean anything exactly. The expression “social Darwinism,” when applied to free-market economics and a limited government, has no precise meaning, and it never did. Nor has the term ever been embraced by libertarian advocates of laissez-faire. Rather, “social Darwinism,” a term that first appeared during the 1880s, was concocted by the enemies of free-market capitalism to smear their adversaries. And this is how President Obama used the term, exactly.

Kerr’s second question – “And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?” – is a curious one, especially since she cites the questionable opinion of a “language expert” to the effect that “social Darwinism” is “a risky term to use for political ammunition.”

Here we may chalk one up to President Obama and demagogues everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether or not people understand what Obama meant by “social Darwinism.” All that matters is that “social Darwinism” evokes ugly connotations of the “law of the jungle” — a society without compassion in which the helpless poor are sacrificed to the avaricious rich.

In a speech given in January of this year, President Obama declared:“We are not a country that was built on the idea of survival of the fittest.” Here at least we have an expression that was actually used by free-market advocates – most notably the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who coined the term; and his American counterpart, William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), the first professor of sociology at Yale.

It is clear that “social Darwinism” and “survival of the fittest” were intended by Obama to evoke feelings of fear and disgust. It is highly doubtful that Obama knows anything about the history of these ideas, and it is even more doubtful that he cares. A concern for truth is not the coin of the political realm. But these expressions have long been of interest to me, mainly because the great libertarian Herbert Spencer is frequently said to have originated social Darwinism.

Spencer – again, he never used the term “social Darwinism” — repeatedly protested that his views had been grievously distorted, but to no avail. The myths surrounding his theory of survival of the fittest became standard fare in generations of textbooks, and these myths received a shot of adrenaline in the 1977 BBC production of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Age of Uncertainty. This thirteen-part television series, which was the basis for Galbraith’s best-selling book of the same title, purports to be a history of economic thought from Adam Smith to modern times, one that focuses on ideas about capitalism. But the series is little more than leftist propaganda, chock-full of distortions and falsehoods. Galbraith stated explicitly what Obama left to the imagination of the American booboisie (to use H.L. Mencken’s memorable word).

I first watched The Age of Uncertainty in 1977, when it was aired by a PBS station in Los Angeles. I found the series annoying throughout, but what especially incurred my wrath was Galbraith’s treatment of Herbert Spencer – a segment, around five minutes long, that barely contains a shred of truth. (The segment can be seen here, beginning at 3.50.)

I felt like throwing my plaster bust of Adam Smith at the television screen, but I decided on a less destructive course of action. I wrote an article, “Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?” that was published in Libertarian Review (December 1978) [PDF]. After calling Galbraith’s presentation “crude and grossly inaccurate,” I continued: “The traditional interpretation of Spencer on this point is so fundamentally wrong – in fact, Spencer explicitly repudiated it on many occasions – that one must wonder whether any of Spencer’s critics bother to read him.”

A few days ago, after reading Obama’s comment about social Darwinism and deciding to interrupt my Cato series on education with this essay (and one more to follow), I watched Galbraith’s segment on Spencer again. It is even more deplorable than I remembered. Ham-fisted from start to finish, it could be mistaken for a Monty Python parody.

Immediately after Herbert Spencer is mentioned, we see a caged tiger devouring a chunk of meat. Then, as a Spencer voice-over talks about survival of the species in a biological context, the camera pans up to a sign that reads: “THESE ANIMALS ARE DANGEROUS.”

Seconds later Galbraith enters stage left and surveys three dummies of Victorian capitalists. These figures, with money strewn about their feet – we all know that capitalists would rather throw money on the ground than give it to the poor – are labeled “CAPITALOPITHECUS ROBUSTUS.” Galbraith shuffles his feet and then drones on about the “higher primates” that survived through natural selection: “They are the strongest of the species, those best-adapted to their environment, and so they survived.”

Spencer is soon quoted again, but this time we are treated to more than a voice. We see an actor in pale-blue makeup who appears to have climbed out of a grave. After this zombie reads a passage from Spencer about how humans adapt to their “conditions of existence,” the camera moves back to Galbraith. With a stuffed tiger to his right – a prop to drive the message home, just in case the ravenous tiger shown earlier left any doubt – Galbraith lets us know he is a serious thinker by putting on his glasses in a professorial manner. He then proceeds to misrepresent Spencer’s ideas with reckless abandon.

Galbraith tells us that Spencer applied his doctrine of “survival of the fittest” not only to survival in the animal kingdom but also “to survival in the equally cutthroat world, as Spencer saw it, of economic life.” Spencer “eliminated all guilt” that the wealthy might experience by assuring them that “wealth was the natural result of strength, intelligence, capacity to adapt. The wealthy were innocent beneficiaries of their own superiority.” The poor, according to Galbraith’s fictional Spencer, were “biologically inferior” and “were being selected out.”

Cheesy theatrics aside, virtually the only reliable statements that Galbraith makes about Spencer are the years of his birth and death, and the fact that it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Our first impressions will often determine whether we will study a given thinker or theory in greater detail. We must be selective, after all; we cannot possibly read what every prominent writer has written about every significant issue. This is where secondary “textbook” accounts play a significant role in shaping public opinion. If a college student, in her first textbook encounter with Spencer or Sumner, is told that they favored a ruthless social Darwinism, she is unlikely to be enthusiastic about reading these villains for herself. And should that student ever become a teacher, she will teach her students the same errors that were taught to her.

Social Darwinism, as that label has been applied to libertarian theory, is sheer fabrication. For one thing, Spencer’s approach to evolution (which he developed independently of Darwin) was essentially Lamarckian. Spencer, unlike Darwin, believed that some acquired characteristics are genetically transmitted from one generation to the next, and he placed relatively little emphasis on the process of natural selection. This Lamarckian approach, despite its failures as a biological theory, is a better model of social development than is its Darwinian counterpart. Humans do indeed build upon the acquired skills and accomplishments of preceding generations — as we see in language, the transmission of knowledge, technology, capital investment, social institutions, and the like. 

Both Spencer and Sumner used the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and both men lived to regret it, because it made them easy targets for their critics. Spencer complained that his views were frequently distorted beyond recognition, and in some cases deliberately so. “I have had much experience in controversy,” he wrote in later life, “and my impression is that in three cases out of four the alleged opinions of mine condemned by opponents, are not opinions of mine at all, but are opinions wrongly ascribed by them to me.” Sumner became so frustrated by the same problem that he stopped using the phrase “survival of the fittest” altogether; it never appears in his later writings and speeches.

It is largely owing to the “survival of the fittest” doctrine that Spencer and Sumner have been condemned as social Darwinists. Social Darwinists, we are told, were infused with a stern and implacable contempt for the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged — those allegedly unfit persons who, by a law of nature, should give way in the struggle for existence to those who are more fit. It is a safe bet that if you consult a standard text on the history of ideas, you will find this view (or a close approximation) attributed to Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.

The ideological purpose of this caricature is evident. The textbook assaults on Spencer and Sumner are intended to characterize the attitude of laissez-faire advocates in general. We have advanced, it is said, from the heartless dog-eat-dog attitude of social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics to the compassionate welfare policies of modern governments. We are told that the modern liberal (in contrast to the classical liberal, or libertarian) cares about people more than profits, that he values human rights over property rights — and so on, until we drown in a sea of tiresome clichés.

So what did Spencer and Sumner mean by “survival of the fittest”? Before I address this question, we need to be clear about what they did not mean.

Spencer repeatedly emphasized that in using the terms “fit” and “fittest” in a social context, he was not expressing a value judgment; nor was he referring to a particular characteristic, such as strength, wealth, or intelligence; nor was he expressing any kind of approval or disapproval; nor was he referring to the biological competition to survive. This doctrine, wrote Spencer, “is expressible in purely physical terms, which neither imply competition nor imply better and worse.” Most importantly, “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.”

The law [of survival of the fittest] is not the survival of the ‘better’ or the ‘stronger.’… It is the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed; and very often that which, humanly speaking is inferiority, causes the survival.

In a social context, the “fittest” are those persons who are able to adapt to the survival requirements of their society. If, for example, a government decrees that all redheads shall be executed on the spot, then it follows that the persons best fitted for survival in such a society would be non-redheads, or those natural redheads who adapt by changing their hair color or shaving their heads.

We can apply this survival of the fittest principle without condoning the penalty against redheads, and without regarding non-redheads as superior people. It is a simple, inescapable fact: If a government kills redheads, then (other things being equal) you will have a better chance to survive – that is, you will be more “fit” under the specified conditions – if you do not have red hair.

This interpretation, which treats “survival of the fittest” as a value-free description of what in fact does occur, rather than as a prescription or an approval of what ought to occur, was also put forward by Sumner, who tried – in vain, as it turned out – to correct the distorted interpretations of his critics.

At the meeting of the Liberal Union Club at which I read a paper, it seemed to me that there was some misapprehension in regard to the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Such misapprehension is very common in spite of many efforts of the leading evolutionists to correct it. It is supposed that the doctrine is that the best survive. This is an error, and it forms the basis for all disputes about evolution and ethics. For the word “best” implies moral standards, a moral standpoint, etc.; and if the doctrine were affirmed in that form, it would not be scientific at all, but would be theological, for it would involve the notion that man is the end of creation and that his notions of things are the standard to which things must conform. The doctrine is that those survive who are fittest to survive.

The idea expressed here was central to the sociological theories of Spencer and Sumner. Both believed that human beings respond to incentives and that they adapt to social conditions through the formation of their characters and habits. Both believed that character traits play a more important role in social interaction than do abstract beliefs and theories. Which character traits tend to develop in a given society depend a great deal on the social and political sanctions found in that society, i.e.., on what kinds of behavior are encouraged or discouraged, rewarded or punished.

Suppose a society rewards indolence and penalizes industry. In this case, according to Spencer, indolent people will tend to fare better than industrious people. The indolent, having adapted to the conditions of their society, will be more “fit” than the industrious who fail to adapt. This is the meaning of Spencer’s oft-quoted remark, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.”

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