I grew up in the era of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where Saturday evenings were filled with adventure into lands that contained creatures I’ve yet to personally see in my lifetime. Zebras that roamed open fields, lions that preyed on the very young, old or ill in the group. This is where I learned the term “survival of the fittest”.
In its context we were taught that it was the young, the old or the ill in the group that were at risk. Survival of the fittest meant all those that didn’t fit that category – or as I like to remember it – lunch for the lion pack (hey, I was six, what do you expect?). These were the lucky ones that lived to graze the fields another day. None of which fits perfectly into what I’ve learned about evolution and the true meaning of survival.
The term “survival of the fittest” is but a misnomer and creates the image that it is always only the strongest of the species in a group that survives to procreate. This being the case, the small fry in a school of fish would be unable to sneak his DNA into the circle of life, the oldest buck in the herd would not continue to father offspring and my ex-husband would have never been able to contribute his DNA to the human gene pool (sorry, just couldn’t resist).
Darwin himself wasn’t even the originator of this coined expression. The phrase was actually coined by Darwin’s 19th century contemporary Herbert Spencer, and it is perfectly ambiguous. The phrase could mean that “of all the possible creatures that one might imagine, only the fittest possible survive”. Or it could mean something considerably less lavish – that “only the fittest creatures that happened to be around at a particular moment tend to survive”. Over time, we have come to use the expression as a mere excuse for the unacceptable – even brutal behavior we exhibit; why does the school bully get to eat everyone’s lunch? Survival of the fittest baby! Why do some people show so little empathy for the earthquake victims in Haiti and do so little to help them? Natural selection thins out those less desirable who choose to live in areas where natural destruction is commonplace (I actually overheard this reasoning as I was sipping on my caramel macchiato at Starbucks). None of these concepts were part of Darwin’s reasoning when he penned The Origin of Species. Darwin himself was somewhat of an optimist, who believed that our species was actually superior because of our tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice – concepts miles away from our modern take on the expression. This fact is apparent to anyone willing to take the time to read Darwin’s further works on humanism as found in Descent of Man:
“For firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them…Such actions as the above appear to be the simple result of the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive; for they are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or even misery might be felt”.
The fittest, to Darwin, were not those which survived, but those which could be expected to survive on the basis of their traits – it is our assumption that cruelty defines our capacity to survive; however, it is our altruistic abilities that define us as a superior being; to care for others without reward, to sympathize with the pain others experience, to dare to break away from a bystander position in order to assist an ailing stranger. In these actions, we reward ourselves with the release of chemicals within our systems that help create feelings of well-being and happiness.
These behaviors are speculated to have evolved within us because of the rewards they offer. Research indicates that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. Activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity.
It is these very “feel good” releases that encourage us to repeat the behavior that inhibits them, as introduced in Mean Genes. Hiding behind the misnomer of the expression “Survival of the Fittest” as a means of excusing unacceptable behavior prohibits our ability to release these very chemicals within us that provide meaning to our existence and prohibits our ability to evolve to our greatest potential.
Mean Genes – Penguin books, 2000; Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan