Monday, April 2, 2012


Whatever you make of survival of the fittest and however useful it may be to understand nature in the wild, applying it to human beings is not one of Europe's proudest achievements (or America's, considering that many American intellectuals embraced it too). I say 'Europe' and not Darwin in particular because the idea of a struggle for existence (on which survival of the fittest is based) goes back before Darwin, as he acknowledged. Darwin pointed out to Asa Gray (in the Sept. 1857 letter where he first described the theory of natural selection to him) that "The elder De Candolle, W. Herbert, and [Charles] Lyell, have written strongly on the struggle for life; but even they have not written strongly enough."

Darwin and Alfred Wallace got the idea of how intense the struggle was from Malthus. But there is an important difference in the writing of Malthus. In Chapter XVI of An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus criticizes Adam Smith for missing that you do not measure how well a society is doing by how well off the the wealthy are, but by how well the lower classes are doing, especially the working poor. Darwin's focus on the fittest misses this too. I'll return to Darwin shortly.

I take survival of the fittest personally. I'm not all that fit myself. My own life is an experiment in: How long can a total idiot survive? Longer than you think.

I wake up in the morning and it takes a while for me to get over the nightmares. When I'm fully awake, I realize they've only just begun. Your kind is unwelcome. Your voices unwanted, your existence in doubt. These things happen to people, and if it's never happened to you or your culture, you can kiss your lucky star.

In dreams, I'm under the illusion that I am completely at the mercy of the demons hunting me. In life, I'm under the illusion that I'm the one in charge. I'm not. You can't be in a world that is fond of making sure that some voices are never heard and that some truths get lost forever. The only thing I know for sure: Telling the truth won't bring back the dead. Nevertheless that's the vain job of the historian.

I wonder why historical truth matters (about what Darwin actually said, what ancient Jewish culture was really like, how the historical Jesus/Joshua ended up on a Roman cross, when did slavery in the United States really end, and much more). I ask myself this a hundred times a day -- at least. Doesn't any form of historical search impede progress? How can our culture come out on top, if we entertain doubts about what happened in the past and what we're doing today? And yet, what will happen to us down the long road before us, if we destroy the past and our relationship to it?

Every morning there are scholars who wake up and wonder what fresh lies they can tell today. If you get the facts wrong about history or science, I call that a lie, whether it is done intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional lies are the worst because it means unconscious forces are at work, and those are the hardest forces to expose. The power to tell a lie and get away with it is exhilirating. Worse yet, a majority of people think this is a really cool thing to do as long as we win something valuable in the end. If our culture wipes out the competition, what can be wrong with that?

Of course, there are no fresh lies. They are all variations on the one: We are better than them and our culture must beat all others. ('Beat' is a word Darwin used a lot -- I mean, really a lot.) The more fit shall live, the less shall fit die -- and hush up. It's a law of life. I just would not be so sure who is more fit and who less. I don't know but that sometimes it is the least fit who conquer. The Tasmanians who entirely perished were perhaps more fit than their British colonizers. The six million Jews who died might have been more fit than their executioners. The Nazis abused every science they could lay their hands on, including the theory of evolution, but I remember as a child hearing so many Americans, who were not Nazis, say that the Jews who died must have been weak or they would have fought back. The notion lingers outside of Nazism that survival always means something good and not surviving is the polar opposite and something shameful.

We are told that in nature, triumph matters and that triumph is proof of fitness. I'm doubtful. Maybe those who are crushed matter the most and are the most fit. Maybe. It's open to question is all I'm saying. Survival of the fittest may or may not be racist, but for human beings it's always a nightmare.

'Survival of the fittest' is as Darwinian a term as you can find, even if Herbert Spencer was the one who came up with it. Darwin fully approved it, incorporated it into the fifth edition of The Origin of Species, and wrote (a couple of paragraphs into Chapter III), "But the expression used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate [than Natural Selection], and is sometimes equally convenient." Stephen Jay Gould, who did not relish acknowledging the dark side of Darwin (the competition and death in his work), fully admitted that Darwin approved of survival of the fittest.

This is one point that most scholars get right. I only mention this because occasionally there is a writer who thinks Darwin rejected 'survival of the fittest' because it is too brutal or too political. Adam Gopnik, in his book on Lincoln and Darwin (105), thinks this. He mentions the letter that Alfred Wallace wrote to Darwin to convince him to adopt this term, without telling his readers that Wallace thought the term personified nature too much, and then gives the impression Darwin rejected his suggestion. Gopnik writes, "Darwin calmly explained that the virtue of natural selection was that it was a sister phrase to 'artificial selection' ... whereas 'survival of the fittest' was awkward and might raise political specters." What Darwin actually replied to Wallace was: "I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer's excellent expression of 'the survival of the fittest' ... I wish I had received your letter two months ago, for I would have worked in 'the survival,' etc., often in the new edition [the fourth] of the 'Origin,' which is now almost printed off ..." As it was, Darwin had to wait until the fifth edition to work it in.

I would not be the first to point out that 'survival of the fittest' is circular reasoning. All it says is that those that survive are the best at surviving. Fitness is measured by the ability to survive. Those that are good at surviving (the fittest) are good at surviving. Brilliant.

It does not tell us a lot about nature (other than the obvious), but it does tell us a lot about those who believe in this criterion and their values. It may be circular, but it is not an empty expression in as much as it tells us so much about the values our society holds dear. That means it is not an objective truth. It is loaded with subjective assumptions. The wonder is that neither Darwin nor Wallace nor anyone else who took it up fully understood its circularity. They all believed in its objective worth, though Wallace would come to have doubts.

If 'survival of the fittest' and 'natural selection' are equivalent terms, as Darwin himself believed (the title of Chapter IV in the fifth edition was changed to read "Natural Selection; or Survival of the Fittest"), does this mean 'natural selection' is circular too? I don't think so. 'Survival of the fittest' is the purest kind of circularity. 'Natural selection' makes a causal statement about the modifications or mutations which are beneficial to survival and get passed down from generation to generation, and then these accumulated variations lead gradually to the creation of new species. Survivability is not just circular, it is the cause of species transmutation. The main cause are the gene mutations, but it is ability to survive that determines which mutations are selected to remain with descendants.

But the two terms are united in making survival absolutely central to a vision of the world. This works fine for explaining the development of flora and fauna in general. But it is questionable whether survival of the fittest should be used for human beings. Darwin continued to apply it to man. He uses it a few times in The Descent of Man. He wanted to apply natural selection to the intellect of man. The smartest, the best, the brightest, reaching the eptiome of the likes of Newton and Shakespeare -- the development of such great intellects is explicable by survival of the fittest, that is, the most intelligent in such cases. He saw gradation of intellect throughout the animal world and he would place man at the high end of that continuum. But is that right? Doesn't survival, intellect, and humanity present a problem? When you link survival to fitness in the human world, you are in dangerous waters.

There is a difference here between Darwin and Wallace. I have not completed my research yet on Wallace, but here is what I'm pretty sure of so far: Wallace began to have doubts about whether western civilization was more fit than so-called primitive cultures (though neither Wallace nor Darwin nor anyone else of that time would have said 'so-called', and they would have preferred to say 'savages' without qualification). He came to believe that we cannot make any determinations about fitness until we achieve a just society. In The Wonderful Century (1898), Wallace identified militarism and greed as the principle evils of Europe. In a letter to the editor of a journal, he wrote, "though I love science much I love justice more."

Wallace made a hugly important point. I realize the irony here. He is generally considered (quite unjustly) the less great scientist, the less fit. His words, his thinking have survived just barely. They did not conquer in the way Darwin's work did. But less fit in this case may be more fit.

I don't think 'survival of the fittest' is inherently racist, but it is worrisome that no one before the 20th century arrived (except perhaps Wallace) sensed its potential danger when applied to humanity. It means making a judgment about which human races or cultures are fitted to survive. Who makes that judgment? Scientists? Politicians? Do we vote on it? Anyone making this decision would be a farce.

For flora and fauna, 'survival' and 'fittest' may be more or less neutral and quantifiable, but for human beings, there are potentially terrible consequences. The very idea of which race is fit to survive is loaded with a preordained, western conclusion. It is always that way when the winners are making the judgment. In a July 3, 1881 letter to W. Graham, Darwin wrote, "The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence." (Of course, in The Descent of Man, Darwin would admit that such victories may only be temporary as natural selection always acts tentatively.)

'Survival of the fittest' was bound to cause trouble one day. Can a culture be more fit but less just? Wallace thought so. Applying 'survival of the fittest' to humankind is not Europe's proudest moment.

What bothers me is not the term itself -- it does not have to be used in a racist way -- but the fact that so many European and American intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries could not even conceive how brutally unfair and judgmental it had the potential to be. They could not conceive it because they sensed no immediate threat to themselves. When you're on top of the world, the dangers of survival of the fittest are very far away and beneath you. It's problematic only for those at the bottom -- for the Other, for whom even a dollop of justice could make a big difference.

Would Darwin have been so enthusiastic about the struggle for existence, if he had been writing a few centuries earlier when Europe was threatened by the "Turks"?

Fitness might make some sense in the world of animals. But among humans, survival belongs to those who have seized power and the ones with power are not necessarily the most fit.

I have never been able to get over the fact that one of Shakespeare's stage directions (perhaps his favorite?) was "Enter, fleeing." In a world that contains an idea like survival of the fittest, it is the only way to enter the world.

Copyright Leon Zitzer 2012

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