Friday, February 06, 2009

Shermer on the use of "survival of the fittest"

Actually, more appropriately, it is about the misunderstanding of natural selection. In particular he focuses on two myths that may be traced to the unfortunate use of the phrase "survival of the fittest" (coined by Herbert Spencer), to describe the process of natural selection. From what I remember from Janet Browne's Darwin biography, Darwin himself was unhappy with this phrase, but in the absence of another short way of describing his theory, he went along with it. Here is Shermer on two key misunderstanding that stem from using this phrase:

Unfortunately, that is what happened, and it led to two myths about evolution that persist today: that there is a prescient directionality to evolution and that survival depends entirely on cutthroat competitive fitness.

Contrary to the first myth, natural selection is a description of a process, not a force. No one is “selecting” organisms for survival in the benign sense of pigeon breeders selecting for desirable traits in show breeds or for extinction in the malignant sense of Nazis selecting prisoners at death camps. Natural selection is nonprescient—it cannot look forward to anticipate what changes are going to be needed for survival. When my daughter was young, I tried explaining evolution to her by using polar bears as an example of a “transitional species” between land mammals and marine mammals, but that was wrong. Polar bears are not “on their way” to becoming marine mammals. They are well adapted for their arctic environment.

Natural selection simply means that those individuals with variations better suited to their environment leave behind more offspring than individuals that are less well adapted. This outcome is known as “differential reproductive success.” It may be, as the second myth holds, that organisms that are bigger, stronger, faster and brutishly competitive will reproduce more successfully, but it is just as likely that organisms that are smaller, weaker, slower and socially cooperative will do so as well.

and here is the second misunderstanding that stems from using survival of the fittest:

This second notion in particular makes evolution unpalatable for many people, because it covers the theory with a darkened patina reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog” defender, promoted this “gladiatorial” view of life in a series of popular essays on nature “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day.” The myth persists. In his recent documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein linked Darwinism to Communism, Fascism and the Holocaust. Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling misread biologist Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene to mean that evolution is driven solely by ruthless competition, both between corporations and within Enron, leading to his infamous “rank and yank” employee evaluation system, which resulted in massive layoffs and competitive resentment.

This view of life need not have become the dominant one. In 1902 the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin published a rebuttal to Huxley and Spencer in his book Mutual Aid. Calling out Spencer by phrase, Kropotkin observed: “If we... ask Nature: ‘who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” Since that time science has revealed that species practice both mutual struggle and mutual aid. Darwinism, properly understood, gives us a dual disposition of selfishness and selflessness, competitiveness and cooperativeness.

Read the full article here.


zakir thaver said...

Excellent article.

These myths are super prevalent. Omar Cheema's rebuttal to Irfan Hussain's article 'Imran Khan vs Charles Darwin' being yet another example:

"Ironically, it was Darwinism that was used by the propounders of the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’, which was a central theme of extremist racist doctrines like Nazism and the Apartheid notions of the Afrikaans."

That natural selection also favored tit-for-tat reciprocity and (what Dawkins calls) our "lust" for morality isn't sufficiently talked about and hence hardly understood by intelligent laypersons.

Salman, perhaps something you could clarify in your upcoming documentary on Evolution/Origins for a Muslim audience ;-)

Salman Hameed said...

Ha! Thanks Zakir for the link to the letter. And yes, we should get it in the documentary - its clarification is quite important because of the colonial past of most Muslim countries.

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