Survival of the fittest explains much of our way of life doesn’t it? That is why it is acceptable, even expected, that some members of society aggregate to themselves the riches and positions of authority. It explains why nations mobilise their militaries and condone sending those troops into battle. It explains the current prevalent philosophy of global neoliberalism.
For that is the state of human nature, or so the myth goes. It is the fit that will survive, so we must become the fittest. It is only natural that those who are not fit will slip to the back of the queue, fall to the bottom of the heap. The fit are obliged to climb to the top. Because that’s the way of the world – the survival of the fittest.
The idea that human nature is this way predates Charles Darwin by at least 200 years. Thomas Hobbes, writing in Leviathan describes “the life of man (sic)…(as) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” For Hobbes it is a case of “every man is enemy to every man.”1
The notion that human beings are base at our core has remained a common myth right through to the 20th century. George Santayana, the Italian philosopher, proclaimed that if you “dig a little beneath the surface you’ll find a ferocious, persistent, profoundly selfish man.”2
Freud, the granddaddy of psychology, did nothing to dispel this view. Freud considered that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting, instinctual disposition.”3 It is little wonder then, that with the voices of such heavy-weights of philosophy and psychology being added to the survival of the fittest catchphrase that the dark side of human nature should come to be commonly accepted as the natural state of human beings.
But it is this catchphrase – survival of the fittest – that most commonly is quoted, accepted and tacitly agreed with in our cultural realm. But it is a myth. It is a myth in two ways. Myth 1. Darwin used the phrase. Myth 2. It is correct. Both are myths.
Survival of the Fittest. What could more succinctly sum up Charles Darwin’s thesis that this? It is quintessentially Darwin isn’t it? But, it was not Darwin who wrote it. In 1866 Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin suggesting that because the phrase natural selection was misunderstood that Darwin might like to adopt the phrase survival of the fittest which had been used by Herbert Spencer. Darwin accepted Wallace’s suggestion and thereafter used the term in preference to natural selection.
However, Darwin did not use the phrase in the way that it has come to be used. There are at least two ways to define fit. One is that it means healthy, strong, enduring. In this sense, if one is fit then one has the capability to outrun, outjump, outdo someone who is unfit. The second possible definition is that of fitting something within something else, much like how a jigsaw piece fits neatly and correctly into the jigsaw. It is the second of these meanings that Darwin was alluding to when he thought of the fitness of species.
But, our culture has chosen to use the first, incorrect, meaning. We are living with a myth.
The idea that, biologically, we are all just competitors for the same scrap of food, territory or power has not been without it’s critics. Perhaps the first major rebuttal of this notion came in 1902 when Peter Kropotkin published Mutual Aid.4 Kropotkin studied the lives and societies of many animals in Siberia and Manchuria and concluded that “if we ask who are the fittest…we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.”
Since Kropotkin’s time many biologists and social scientists have investigated the more cooperative, compassionate and mutually encouraging aspects of evolution and human beings. In 2014 Stefan Klein’s book, Survival of the Nicest,5 was translated from the German into English. The title of his book was a deliberate play on the survival of the fittest notion. In the book Klein brought together an impressive array of studies, experiments and research that indicated that humans may well have survived because of our natural inclination towards cooperation, altruism, selflessness, and empathy.
But, our culture has chosen to assume that we have survived because of competition, dominance, and hierarchies. We are living with a myth.
Do We Think Too Much?
The survival of the fittest myth has taken hold within our culture and our psyches. The myth has been used to justify all manners of malevolence, violence and destruction. Hitler used it to justify his atrocities. In Mein Kampf he writes, "existence is subject to the law of eternal struggle and strife....where the strong are always the masters of the weak and where those subject to such laws must obey them or be destroyed."
We see the myth everywhere; from Wall Street bankers to hawks in many of the western nations militaries; from dictatorships world-wide to local politicians posturing in parliaments. And we accept it, because we have so thoroughly identified the myth with reality that we no longer are able to discern nature from culture.
Human beings are thinking creatures. On this issue have we over-thought ourselves? We have come to think of human nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and that it is only the fit that survive. We have thought it so much that we now accept it as reality.
But it is not so. The catchphrase – the survival of the fittest - may just be the most toxic one we have ever uttered.
1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XIII, 1651.
2. I have found many references to this quote by various authors, but have not tracked down the original source, but said somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century.
3. Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and it’s Discontents, 1930.
4. Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: a factor of evolution, 1902
5. Stefan Klein, Survival of the Nicest: how altruism made us human, and why it pays to get along, Scribe Publications, London, 2014
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