Survival Of The Fittest: Are We Really Doing It Right?

by Vrinda Jain
Survival Of The Fittest: Are We Really Doing It Right?

January 11, 2021

We have always learned that you need to adhere to the "survival of the fittest" principle to succeed in life.

Success, we are frequently told, has to be grabbed; it has to be taken. One needs to excel in everything if they want success in life.

The theory of evolution and natural selection by the British naturalist Charles Darwin is frequently broken down into one essential phrase: ‘survival of the fittest,’ which we have come to understand as the prevalence of the strongest, most aggressive, and selfish.

As invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an idea that thrives even today to raise our shoulders at the condition of the elderly or help anti-science politicians bragging about their power as a method to combat the virus. Even without the pandemic, the generic idea of survival of the fittest is something most people follow in the wrong way.

Lioness trying to hunt a Zebra.

What is the Survival of the Fittest?

In On the Origin of Life, Charles Darwin used the term “survival of the fittest” to explain the mechanism of natural selection. However, he did not coin the phrase. Darwin borrowed it from the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who first spoke about the survival of the fittest in his Sociology Principles.

Darwin, in his book The Origin, explained natural selection while referring to the fittest’s survival. He said that natural selection in some respects is a bad aspect as it implies a conscious choice. But unfortunately, his use of the phrase has been widely misinterpreted by people.

Most Apparent Darwinian Stance

Darwin also rejected the ‘survival of the fittest’ theory in various works, presenting a sympathy-centred hypothesis for human evolution. He wrote that the communities with the most significant number of sympathetic people will flourish the best and have the greatest offsprings. Darwin asserted that the willingness of humans to live with each other, to feel the pain of each other, to care for their young and loved ones, makes the Homo Sapiens the species that succeeded over all the others.

Charles Darwin, Survival of the fittest, Natural Selection

Charles Darwin

Survival of the Friendliest

The co-authors of the book Survival of the Friendliest, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, conducted a study for 15 years on Bonobos, also called the pygmy chimpanzees, and observed their survival patterns. Their research found that Bonobos do not tend to compete with each other or kill each other. Since Bonobos are located in the South of the Congo River, they were primarily in an isolated geographical condition. 

Due to this isolation, the Bonobos developed friendships, especially the female bonobos. By living in a more naturally prosperous environment, they were able to be close to each other, raise babies together, and share their food as well. As their friendships got more robust, even the tacit animosity between the male Bonobos declined. 

This also became a factor for the species’ offsprings, as females chose the friendliest male and mated with them. While compared to the Bonobos, Vanessa Woods delineated that “humans can learn more from the Bonobos”.

HANDOUT PHOTO: Masisi, an orphan bonobo at Lola ya Bonobo [lolayabonobo.org] sanctuary in Congo with Mistique the village dog. (Vanessa Woods)

Misinterpretation of the Survival of the Fittest

As humans, we have our groups- groups in which we feel safe to share our thoughts and feelings. But when an outsider threatens this particular group, naturally the survival of the fittest becomes more aggressive than amicable. This, therefore, often leads to the belief that beating the competition is a typical result for the emergence of victors, so to say, in any competitive environment.

Such a notion has achieved a powerful influence over people, and they quickly assume that even Darwin somehow embraced the idea of ‘fitness’ as something of an aggressive force that wallops out of the game the competition. The status quo, the powers that be, is seen by many as fixed in place by nature and custom. This bias was, indeed, introduced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Still, any instrument available becomes a hammer when people feel the need to pound their views of the world on history walls.

Academic Rivalries

Most of the time, biologists and ecologists respond to ideas of academia springing out of rivalry. They don’t use the term survival of the fittest, however. They recognise that cooperation is by far the most incredible survival mechanism of all time, not competition.

Even people who claim that evolution occurs, sometimes assume that there is survival for the fittest and relates to rivalry. For those who think only in straightforward terms— there are winners and losers. The realisation that life is supremely more nuanced and complementary needs to be embraced more over time.

Implicit bias is the reason why individuals continue to exploit such a significant concept as Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’. We unwittingly pick up incorrect images in biology and see through the lens of socialisation that is convenient for us. We don’t want to believe in anything that doesn’t help our world view and we are constantly told that we must fight to win as we grow up, with Manifest Destiny concepts or work harder in the race to win.

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