Survival of the Fittest – a destructive re-writing of evolution

We live in a society whose cultural values and politics are significantly bound to an individual’s needs for self-fulfillment and enrichment. Society is structured to provide the maximum opportunities for the individual to enrich and empower themselves. From the Libertarian Society: “It is the only political party that respects you as a unique and responsible individual……we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another.”1 2 We have a whole national mythology built on “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” – the self-made man. The 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe contributed significantly to the focus on individual rights, autonomy, and self-reliance. It promoted the idea of individual rights and freedoms, challenging the authority of tradition and absolute rulers. This thinking has much to be admired, especially its contributions to breaking free from traditional authoritarian society and the anti-scientific thinking of religions. Combined with the seemingly natural functioning of capitalism, at least as seen from the view of the winners, the rich, and corporations, individualism serves as a tremendous political hammer to keep the masses in line. After all, in this view, your state in life is the result of your intelligence and work habits.

A common theme in this rhetoric invokes the notion that life’s successes go to the fittest, the toughest, fastest, smartest, and most ruthless. Individual success is part of the great chain of evolution—survival of the fittest.

None of these are so. 

Evolution is driven by those who survive to pass their genes to the next generation. This is partly caused by chance changes in form and function that better enable survival.  Darwin did not use the phrase “survival of the fittest” until later. And then he only meant it in the sense already indicated. Fitness is measured by success at passing your genes along to the next generation. Being the biggest, strongest, most aggressive, boldest, resistant to pain and suffering, not so much.

Here is a 7-minute video, What is really meant by “Survival of the Fittest”? that explains what this phrase means within evolutionary thinking:

Our Social Origins

The everyday use of this phrase, survival of the fittest,  also implicitly denies a fundamental essence of our species, our social, collaborative nature. Our success at populating every little niche on the planet is not due to our individual attributes. It is due to our capacity to collaborate to create a larger body of knowledge, our human culture. Unlike ants, which cohabit with us through the complete range of our homes on Earth, there is only one human species. Ants had to evolve 10,000 different ant species to accommodate the large variety of environments we both live in. This is because our species innovated cultural adaptations to allow us to live in desert environments and the far north of the Arctic. We are extremely good at copying our neighbors’ best innovations and improving on them. As one lecturer (can’t recall who) said, “Human beings are like glorified karaoke singers.”

We desperately need to acknowledge, embrace, and support our social origins. We desperately need to strengthen our social systems. From the most nuclear in the family, extended family, and amongst our friends. Social isolation is a negative all around. Expanding the circle, we need to strengthen our social systems at the national and global levels. The problems we face, for example, environmental disasters, exhaustion of the earth’s resources, extreme income and wealth inequality, and ongoing wars, require radical solutions. These will only come through cooperation and collective-mind-driven changes to our culture.

What is culture?

The word culture is frequently used to refer to the the arts of a region or group. We find the approved versions of these in our museums, theaters, and so on. Here we are talking about a different beast.

“Culture is a word that suggests social patterns of shared meaning. In essence, it is a collective understanding of the way the world works, shared by members of a group and passed down from one generation to the next.”3 The phrase “the way the world works” includes religious and moral thinking, a large array of rules that govern how we interact in intimate and public domains, the entire infrastructure of institutions that establish how our economies and governments work, all of the knowledge gained through science and engineering. It is the corpus of knowledge created by human beings over the last 200,000 years. Culture evolves as new ideas and practices prove to be beneficial to the reproduction of the species.

BUT, cultural evolution is slow. In the present situation, this strikes me as the central challenge to our species. To just take two issues already mentioned, environmental change and exhaustion of the earth’s resources, it seems unlikely that the pace of cultural evolution that has characterized our history to date can respond fast enough to save us from these two looming problems.

Rest assured, though, the much-glorified individual of our contemporary culture is not a source of the solutions required. In some yet unknown, or hopefully unrecognized, fashion, we need to push our culture towards a much more rapid pace in addressing our problems. Kind of a conscious evolution.

At the moment, it seems that the process of evolutionary cultural change is a mismatch with our emerging environment,


  2. It is significant that the rich and corporations who largely follow the Libertarian line totally ignore the closing constraint “do no harm to another”