Misusing Darwin: How Misunderstanding “Survival of the Fittest” Makes us Unfit for Survival

march 2013 100

By Madronna Holden

“Never use the words higher and lower”.

— Charles Darwin, notebooks

“Perhaps there is no coincidence that amoeba, insects, animals, the human culture and society, generally follow innate rules of cooperation. Darwin’s explanation of evolution as a struggle for existence needs to be tempered with an acknowledgment of the importance of cooperation in the evolution of complexity.”

–Thomas P. Zwaka, cellular biologist

“To decide that people are the highest, most evolved species… reflects more the strongman logic of human beings than the true state of nature.”

–Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert

“Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life; few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope by a limit imposed from without [by science misused].”
Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man

“Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Charles Darwin The Descent of Man

Charles Darwin was a meticulous observer of  the natural world in his seminal Origin of the Species.  But he left a problematic legacy when he turned to the analysis of human society in his Descent of Man.  On the one hand, we see his emphasis on the importance of cooperation in the development of human societies in the quote above.  On the other hand, he violated his own scientific precepts, such as “never use the words higher or lower” in his analysis of particular societies as being “below” those of Europeans in development.

As Japanese “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka, observed, an essential question in the hierarchical notion  “survival of the fittest” is who decides what is “higher and lower”– and by what criteria. Humans who decide they are the highest and best products of evolution use criteria like human intelligence to come to this conclusion.

But as Darwin himself noted, the bee would undoubtedly use a very different critierion.

Darwin also noted that cooperation is far more important than competition in the working of natural systems, whereas social Darwinismin the guise of Manifest Destiny, for instance, emphasizes competition and thus justifies conquest.

More troubling even than its sloppy science is how social Darwinism asserts that societies on the side of “progress” are  destined to overcome and replace others as a matter of natural (or divine) law. It also asserts that impoverished classes are responsible for their own problems.  In this theory, even the children of the poor become “less fit”– and thus their hunger or poor schooling can be ignored. This view contorts  the idea of natural selection for sake of what Val Plumwood termed “dominator” societies.

Indeed, it misuses the scientific understanding of natural evolution to refurbish a notion rooted in ancient colonial history-in Aristotle’s declaration that slaves are slaves by nature, just as masters are masters. And “civilizations” or “advanced” societies have the natural license to take over the lands of others and impose their way of life on them. Darwin himself is complicit in this misunderstanding, since his own social conclusions (as opposed to his natural science investigations) included the unsupported statement that “males are more evolutionarily advanced than females”.

Such hierarchical dualism–dividing the world into male and female, poor and rich, civilization and “savage” as the higher and lower Darwin cautions himself to avoid, describes much of the history of modern nation states. But it is not the narrative that describes natural selection.  Indeed, human societies that  behave in this fashion are comparatively  short lived.

The untold part of this story is the way in which the overrun and eliminate idea of “survival of the fittest” makes those who hold it unfit for survival.

Ignoring Natural Limits

The historical experience of exploiting other lands and societies sets up the general practice of living beyond one’s limits.  The cataclysmic result is indicated in Overshoot, reviewed in Rachel’s Environmental Weekly for February 12, 2009-a fitting essay with which to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday.  Overshoot details the ways in which humans have temporarily increased the carrying capacity of the land (its ability to support human populations) by using up past resources (such as oil that takes millions of years to produce and minerals that will never be replaced) and future resources (ones necessary to the lives of our children).

Colonialism and certain dynamics of modern globalization  encourage such “overshooting”, when  some nations exploit the resources of others in order to survive, rather than living on their own natural budgets.

Ultimately however, an overshooting society runs out of “ghost acreage” on which to rely-and must face the dilemma of supporting an overblown population on ravaged natural systems.

In short, it inevitably crashes.

Social violence and unrest

Societies with beliefs in heroic conquest and legitimized oppression are fraught with internal dissension. As a result, they are the most short-lived societies in human history. They are fortunate to eke out a few hundred years before their collapse, as opposed to tens of thousands of years of longevity of certain indigenous societies.

Decreasing natural and cultural diversity

The thrust of natural evolution is to increase diversity–as Herbert Spengler, modern author of the theory of “social Darwinism”, acknowledged– though he failed to address how Manifest Destiny itself ran counter to such diversity in replacing hundreds of other human cultures with colonial ones on the North American and African continents.

In the modern industrial era, globalization directed by”mal-developed” nations (as Vandana Shiva has called them) use technological fixes unresponsive to unique ecological landscapes. Modern global development too often directly counters diversity in its emphasis on mono-technology (as in mono-cropping), as it attempts to adapt all landscapes to such one-size-fits-all subsistence strategies.

But diversification is necessary to natural selection. More choices allow more opportunities for natural selection and diverse systems are more resilient in the face of stress than homogenous ones. Place-sensitive small farming is more resilient to drought and disease than large scale industrial farming, for instance.

But modern globalization homogenizes both culture and place.  No McDonald’s is different from any other-no matter what the landscape on which it sits. Modern development results in the replacement of perhaps millions of other species with the human one.  As Murray Bookchin argues, this is not progress but reverse evolution.

Ignorance of adaptive processes

Darwin’s theory tells us that natural selection operates through the adaptation of species to their environments.  But this is hardly the same thing as the simple elimination of physically (or militarily) weak by those who are physically stronger.

Adaptation is a far different thing from seizure or reshaping of the land or control of its life systems.  Adaptation is a two-way process.  In order for there to be successful adaptation of the land to human needs, there must also be successful adaptation of humans to the land.

Physical power, that is, is not commensurate with adaptation. If the predator wipes out all its prey, it wipes out its own means of survival. Predators must have a complementary relationship with their prey in order for that relationship to be adaptive.

Ultimately, as Bookchin and Val Plumwood both observe, the sustainable predator-prey relationship is a balanced or egalitarian one. In any ecological system, even the “top predator” is eventually eaten as well as eater. In this way energy and resources are recirculated:  the life that we borrow from the natural system, as Plumwood puts it, goes back to the pool of life from whence it came.

In modern society, we try to avoid consciousness of the reciprocal nature of this process, Plumwood also notes, by embalming human bodies as if we could lift them out of the natural cycle.  But we aren’t doing either nature or ourselves any favor here. We thus enforce ignorance of the systems upon which we rely for survival-and turn cemeteries into toxic waste dumps, since the only way to stop decomposition of a human body is to fill it with poison.

An added irony here is that top predators are more vulnerable to the toxics we release in our environment today than are those lower on the food chain.  Such toxics concentrate as they move up the food chain. If, as the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top, it’s dangerous there too. This is only one way in which top predators are more fragile than their complements who live lower on the food chain.

Denied dependency on sources of survival

In any system based on domination, those at the top deny their dependency on the ones at the bottom, as Plumwood has also analyzed in detail. Thus the slave owners in the Old South devalued the real contribution of slaves to their “civilization”.  And the household labor of women is not financially compensated-as if it were worth nothing.

In worldviews marked by hierarchy and domination, humans also ignore and render invisible their dependency on the natural life that they deemed “lower” than humanity.  The ignorance of our dependency on natural systems allows us to blithely undermine our means of survival.

Denied vulnerability and bonding

There are other ways in which the overrun and overcome model of “survival of the fittest” blinds its holder to the actual workings of social and ecological relationships.  In terms of this model, there is no benefit in being vulnerable to others.  But in human societies, the links between vulnerability and bonding bring us culture itself. Just as the long dependency period of human children allows them to learn their culture, the physical vulnerability of elders puts them in a position to pass on cultural information.

As an added note to those who would link survival of the fittest to the sociobiological perspective that sees natural behavior primarily motivated by passing one’s genes around, there is the fact that in some societies social fathering is more important than genetic fathering. That is, identifying the actual genetic father of a child is of little consequence, and the man who nurtures a child and passes on personal experience and knowledge has the real status as “father”.

Humans are not the only ones to whom things other than physical strength count in the social arena. Dog and wolf packs will often defer to an older, more experienced animal in spite of its relative physical weakness or smaller stature.

Loss of achievement through competition

Contrary to the competitive notion of survival of the fittest, competition does not always breed achievement-including the transmission of genes.  Take the case of the red deer of Ireland.  Their fight to the death amidst clashing of antlers embodies the Euroamerican cultural myth of the young stag who replaces the older and weaker one.   But observation of the actual breeding habits of these deer indicates that while the more aggressive stags are fighting (often to the death), the other deer are breeding.

Similarly, in a recent study on bison University of California researchers found that the bulls  with the quietest calls are the ones most likely to breed.  Megan Wyman, the study’s lead author, speculates that these bulls keep a “low profile” in order to avoid a fight that would cause them to lose access to females.

In yet another examples, a  PBS documentary on the wolves of Yellowstone illustrates the breeding success of a wolf observers dubbed “Casanova” because he was so interested in breeding– but careful to avoid all fights with his peers.  When the alpha wolves of his clan were killed by other aggressive wolves, he wound up being the only male to pass on his genes.   A recent interview with a researcher on NPR revealed that DNA analysis verified that alpha baboons were passing on their genes far less frequently than baboons of less status that were “pals” with females.

These instances illustrate how natural selection may take more aggressive individuals out of the gene pool.

I am not saying this always happens– but I am saying the formula that asserts physical-dominance-equals-breeding is far too simplistic to explain what happens within any given species, much less in whole  ecological systems.

As for another wolf-related species with which we are intimately familiar, Temple Grandin, in her book Animals Make us Human has recently argued the scientific case that those who see dogs in the wild as having dominance hierarchies are decidedly wrong.  She undercuts the notion of the “alpha” dog with considerable data.  She does not dispute that those dogs living in human homes in contact with multiple other dogs in crowded conditions might express hierarchies as a method of maintaining order.  She only insists that this cannot be attributed to the nature of dogs.

In the human arena, psychologist Alfie Kohn has written several books on the importance of altruism and cooperation. His findings are summed up in a popular article called “How to Succeed without even Vying”, in which he tells the story of his search for an experiment that indicated competition improved performance.  He couldn’t find any-in spite of the fact that many experimenters set up their work to support the positive effects of competition.

Their results indicated that competition actually hampered performance.  Kohn speculates that the energy siphoned off in worrying about getting the other guy subtracts from performance, whereas cooperation adds energy to groups endeavors.

Fostering illness rather than health

On the basis of their research, geneticists in a recent essay in Science proposed that we define health in the physical body, natural systems, and social systems as cooperation– and illness in those same arenas as competition.

Their research  indicates  that cells in the healthy mammal body operate on complex cooperative dynamics–but when a sick cell leaves the cooperative cycle– and begins competing with others on an individualistic basis– we get illnesses such as cancer.

The Alternative: Survival of those who fit in

There is an alternative model to competitive or aggressive interpretations  of “survival of the fittest” expressed by long-lived societies who perceive human fitness for survival as “fitting into country”, in the words of indigenous Australians who explained this to anthropologist Deborah Rose. Longevity was directly linked to being “rooted to this ground” and acting with care before the “eyes” of the others who share it, as expressed by Chehalis elder Henry Cultee.

The article by Rose cites Tim Flannery’s analysis of the ecological operation of a particular Australian landscape and the resulting conclusion that “species that cooperate in large, complex systems have the best change for continuing life.”

Here is a quote from Rose, summing the knowledge she learned from her Aboriginal teachers:  unlike the “theory of survival through competition, an indigenous concept of survival of the fittest denotes…[that] those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in… It offers a synergistic account of life in which fitness is a project shared amongst living things, rather than a scare resource to be competed for. And it brings people into country as participants rather than ‘winners’” (p. 120)

Societies who have linked survival with fitting in traditionally managed their landscapes for resilient biodiversity, based on reciprocity and mutual adaptation between humans and nature.  Today these societies are in a special position to care for earth’s living systems in the face of stresses induced by industrialization, since modern indigenous peoples currently steward eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity.

It is a misuse of the theories of a man who cautioned himself “never to use the words ‘higher’ and ‘lower” to perceive evolution as based on dominating hierarchies– especially human-established ones that  falsely preach that survivors are those who wipe out and replace other natural lives.

This essay is under copyright protection as is all the material on this site, but please feel free to link to it, or to copy it, crediting its source.  If you want to reproduce it any other way, please email me for permission at holdenma@comcast.net. Thanks for visiting this site.

271 Responses

  1. Darwinian natural selection can be taken to mean survival of the fittest. However, what is “fittest” is very open to interpretation. Keep in mind that Darwin was speaking genetically not socially. Even if he was, I would interpret “fittest” as the person most able to adapt to their surroundings. Adaptation does not mean dominance. Just as Buddhism guides its followers to seek the middle path, does not natural selection do the same? The species most able to survive not only its current environment but also rapid changes to its environment is going to be the most viable species long term. Humans are the most adaptable higher organisms on the planet. We are able to modify the environment to allow us to sustain our lives in extreme conditions, from Antarctica to the Sahara. We are able to do this with the tools that our environment gives us. Social fitness is a totally different story. Fitness is completely in the eye of the beholder. Someone that “loses” a game to the “winner” may be actually more fit at survival and be able to deal with the extremes of emotions that come with losses and wins and the psychological processes that go along with these than the person that must win at all costs. That “winner” may actually be much more psychologically fragile or not! Trying to apply this on and individual scale is just not feasible. It is too subjective and short term. Darwins theory was meant to apply over many generations.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful perspectives here, Joe. There is a good deal of discussion as to whether “social Darwinism” does justice to Darwin at all. It is social Darwin that is related to ideas like Manifest Destiny. However, we can’t let Darwin entirely off the hook. On the one hand, he personally abhorred slavery; on the other hand, he baldly stated that the killing of indigenous peoples by the British colonial empire was an example of natural selection in keeping with the subtitle of his work: “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.
      Fitness may be in the eye of the beholder in the social arena (good point), but the social idea that the ability to overrun and replace others is a sign of fitness is correlated with societies that don’t last very long.
      I would certainly concur that there is a problem with applying evolutionary theory to one individual’s beating out of another. And I would add that when evolutionary science gets mixed with cultural prejudices, we get some problems in both science and ethics.
      I totally disagree with the indiscriminate mixing of sociology and (supposed) natural science in the “sociobiology” that excuses all manner of human behavior in the context of the motivation of “passing genes around”.
      As for humans being adaptive: absolutely true. But this is not the same as adapting the land to ourselves: note that those who have lived successfully for long periods of time in those extremes of climate you mention would say they have adapted themselves to the land rather than vice versa. What one sees in the history of the Pacific Northwest is a dynamic two-way adaptation of humans and their land to one another.
      Thanks again for all the thought in this comment. These issues are very important!

    • Nice point about the Buddhist middle path here, Joe. What would Buddhism say about “survival of the fittest”?

  2. I believe that the idea of survival of the fittest is a very sound doctrine in predicting the outcome of organisms in the short term. However, in the long term many other factors have to be taken into account. Population biologists describe the population fluctuations of some animals as “boom and bust” species like these can often increase their numbers 100,000 times over their average population but then just a few generations later the population will fall back down to it original level. I believe that human population may go down this same path.

    As you discuss in your post humans are living off resources that the earth cannot replenish for millions of years. If we continue to depend on these resources, our population will face a serious dilemma as these resources run out.

    Perhaps rather than thinking only of “survival of the fittest” we need a new mantra such as “continuation of the reciprocating” I think that the idea of reciprocal or balanced relationships is just as important as immediate survival when looking into the long-term outlook for humans or any other species for that matter.

    Many biologists will say that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution. However, survival of the fittest, one facet of evolution cannot begin to explain or answer every question that we face.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Heath. Keep thinking about alternatives–such as reciprocity– that cast evolutionary in a more complementary framework!
      I would concur that evolution (the dynamic interplay of natural systems over time) “makes sense” of much biology. The irony I see here is that a sort of Rambo version of “survival of the fittest”, where the “fittest” eliminate and replace others, especially when applied to societies, actually confounds the understanding of the complexity of evolutionary adaptation (and, as you indicate, reciprocity).

  3. Interesting article, though I am not sure that I agree with all of it. I don’t know much about red stags, but here in Ohio deer battles don’t last long enough for someone to breed in the place of the more dominant males. The dominant deer don’t even have to fight most of the time because the smaller weaker deer usually try to bow out gracefully. Another example that I think of is walruses. The bulls fight while the cows watch, and the loser ends up running away while the dominant bull breeds. The idea that you put forth seems to say that survival of the fittest is not a true notion, I still can’t see how you come to these conclusions when you use animals as your basis.

    On another note, what of pheromones? It has been shown that dominant males posess pheromones that are more attractive to females, leading them to breed more often. How do pheromones fit in with survival of the fittest? If the dominant, more fit, males posess more desireable pheromones wouldn’t this enable them to breed more often?

    Your thoughts on how humans are socially operating today makes good sense to me. We are running on borrowed resources, bot from our ancestors and our children. This rate of growth needs to be slowed, or our societies will crash around us. What is the carrying capacity of the earth? I think we will find out in the next few decades.

    • Hi Andrew. I am getting some very interesting responses to this post. Thanks for yours! I’m not sure how pheromones work in terms of dominance. Are you saying that the winner of the battle in this case produces more?
      I can respond partially to your comments in terms of what Joe Prince aptly said, “fitness is in the eye of the beholder”. The point I hoped to emphasize was that we need to look at more than a single-species and/or competitive approach to fitness– in both the natural and social environments. The Aborigine approach referred to at the end of this article looks at how all species benefit rather than compete with one another, which Deborah Rose indicates, might be one way to define ecology–as the study of the ways in which the lives in natural systems benefit one another.
      The article by her I referenced in this essay cites Tim Flannery’s analysis of the ecological operation of a particular Australian landscape and the resulting conclusion that “species that cooperate in large, complex systems have the best change for continuing life.”
      Here is a quote from Rose herself, summing the knowledge she learned from her Aboriginal teachers: “Unlike Darwin’s theory of survival through competition, an indigenous concept of survival of the fittest denotes…[that] those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in… It offers a synergistic account of life in which fitness is a project shared amongst living things, rather than a scare resource to be competed for. And it brings people into country as participants rather than ‘winners'” (p. 120)
      I wonder what you or Joe or Heath think of this?
      Any takers for a reply?

      • Darwin had most of the focus on the wrong end of the curve. Evolution is driven mostly by the elimination of the back end (elimination of weaker, less capable genetic combinations) and NOT by propagation of the stronger/fittest.

        The eraser is more impactful.

        • Thoughtful point: of course, then we need to have a discussion defining what is “weaker”– we are more and more coming around to the idea that our real strengths lie in things like community and compassion. Thanks for joining this discussion.

  4. I often say that we have created a society were survival of the fittest isn’t possible; it simply doesn’t work with current social structure.
    Survival of the fittest, in the traditional Darwinian sense, isn’t possible in human societies that have populated beyond their carrying capacity, such as ours. We have yet to understand or implement a natural reciprocal way to live with the earth. People are nurturing and compassionate, if we lived in a “smaller” way we could care for our young, weak, old, and poor in a more constructive way. Even in our modern society we try to take responsibility for our members… the welfare system goes against the rules of natural selection yet we implement it, just maybe not always in the most effective or humane way. Is natural selection AS effective when it is being applied to groups instead of individuals? Can those groups overcome themselves and learn to live with nature so that their group is the “fittest”? Perhaps in the long run it will be the people who have learned to adapt and form reciprocal relationships with nature who will be the “fittest.”
    I can see where one could say that implementing the rules of natural selection is destructive/ or counter productive when those rules are applied to our modern society, we are animals with technology and knowledge and with that comes great power. We are creating an earth were natural systems are out of balance and in THAT earth it is not natural selection that occurs, but something else. We are living beyond the earth’s limits, beyond the earth’s carrying capacity in artificial environments, I believe that any type of “selection” that occurs would be anything but natural.

    • Hi Kristian. I think your intimation that we are not applying the rules of natural selection our society is a well taken point. Reciprocity, which you also emphasize is one of nature’s immutable laws (at least so it seems to me). In attempting to live as if this were not so, we are undertaking as you well put it, “unnatural” selection. One of our problems is that unless we start paying attention to nature’s feedback (and the natural consequences of our actions) we won’t have the information with which to make better choices.

  5. I took an Anthropology course on evolution last term and read a book called Evolution for Everyone. At the time of reading that I thought to myself, what would Darwin say today as he witnesses a westernized version of survival of the fittest? There are so many good points in this article. I think Darwin’s basic principles make a lot of sense at the roots of it. When it comes to the strong imposing there will on the so-called weak, it begins to break down very quickly. You point out that the societies that have lasted the longest are those that live reciprocally with the land and the people around them. The short timers who have enforced their will on the the “lesser” people, and destroyed the land to profit in some way without replenishing what they take, are who western culture seems to be mirroring. Shortages of land and resources, economic crisis, and the Nimby attitude are prime examples of Darwin’s theory gone wrong. It seems to me that the “fittest” should shoulder a greater responsibility to make educated and caring decisions when considering other people and nature around them. To remain at the top we must care for our foundation, the roots, that allowed us to get there. Without that, the fit will just be the next to contribute to the poisoning of our very foundation.

    • Thanks for the perceptive comment, Aaron. Darwin was a product of his time and so wasn’t entirely on the side of cultural perspectives we have today. However, his abhorrence of slavery and his emphasis on interdependence in natural systems would certainly have given me something to correct in modern might makes right (or exemplifies natural evolution) twists on Darwin. You have some great points on the notes of the responsibility necessary to maintain a stance of fitness–and the bigger the artifice, the more we can be sure it will topple if it doesn’t care for its foundation.
      Great list of “things gone wrong” with the current use of Darwinism to bolster some self-destructive attitudes and actions.

  6. There are some really good comments on this link…hope I can add something. Like Aaron, I have taken some classes here at OSU that involve Darwin and his theory. I would first like to point out that Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, although Darwin used the phrase in “Origin of Species”. I was looking at Wikipedia, and they mention that Darwin interpreted the phrase not so much based on competition or physical strength, but “better adapted for immediate, local environment”, To me, this speaks more about intelligence and ability to adapt than physical prowess.

    This article mentions an interesting study that I think is revealing and may prove my point. I think it is clear that the wolf, Casanova, is going to be much more successful at passing on his genes than a more aggressive wolf, whose nature will eventually get the better of him. In this case, brains determine the survival of the fittest. This is also a good example for humans to follow as aggression surely and inevitably leads us down the wrong path. Nothing good can ever come from philosophies of dominance and competition when it comes at the expense of our neighbors, human or non-human.

    This article also makes a great point about hierarchal, conquering societies: “Societies with beliefs in heroic conquest and legitimized oppression are fraught with internal dissension. As a result, they are the most short-lived societies in human history. ” Think Ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, or Communist Russia. These beliefs always seem to spell doom and shouldn’t be ignored when we examine our own society

    • Good points distinguishing Darwin from Spengler, Mike. As I noted in another comment response, Darwin was strongly anti-slavery, but as the subtitle of his Origin of the Species indicates, he also justified the conquests of the British colonial empire as an example of natural selection. I think he might rethink that today on the basis of current data on environmental degradation.
      I like your statement that nothing good can come of competition “at the expense of our neighbors, human or non-human”. I also like your observation about brain power and survival in the case of the Yellowstone wolf; as you note, we humans could learn from history on the self-destructive consequences of dominator-based societies. And that would certainly link our own brains and survival.

  7. I think this essay poses some interesting thoughts about the original Darwin’s social theory and how it can be interpreted by mankind as physical superiority and overpowering of other species and cultures.
    Often perhaps it is easy to misinterpret the “fittest” as simply being superior physically, but the examples you posted about Casanova the wolf and red deer was an interesting look at perhaps a superior “fitness” of the mind. This would seem to be more important to survival and evolution…especially when we look at the evolution of the human species.
    Adaptation to one’s environment is crucial to survival…but humans manage to adjust their environment to themselves, which isn’t necessarily negative; However when we do so selfishly, and without regard for the effects on nature, it is very destructive.

    • Thoughtful response, Calin. I like your point that changing the land is not necessarily negative (sustainable cultures have done with for generations), but that such changes need to be a mutual rather than “selfish” process. I would add that this means that if adapt the land to ourselves, we also need to be adapting ourselves to the land at the same time.

  8. I love the idea of “survival of the fitting” to replace the notion of “survival of the fittest.” Because being the strongest, most dominant, most aggressive, and most competitive doesn’t mean that you will be able to survive, because you probably wiped out the ecosystem that supports your life in the process of being so competitive for resources. In contrast, those who can best fit inside, as an integral and complimentary aspect of their bioregion, will flourish and thrive. Survival is dependent on dependence…dependence on a spiritual and material level on one’s ecosystem. What an amazing relationship we would have with our world if we acted in ways such that the salmon and the spotted owl saw humans as allies and something actually beneficial to THEM.

  9. In today’s society people tend to forget what is important. It is not always being first or being the best but being yourself and helping others. It was mentioned how other animals will seek out older animals for fathering or mothering and in some cultures it’s not the genes that count but what has been taught that does. This brings to mind how many families in America are combined now days and how it really takes a good hearted person to step up to the plate and mother or father these children who are forgotten by a parent. Without this these caring and compassionate people these children are the ones who hurt and pay the price.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dianna. I certainly second your emphasis on the importance of passing on nurturance rather than genes. Foster and adoptive parents are very, very important!

    • The nurture vs. nature aspect you have pointed was really enlightening. As the definition of family continues to evolve who we are raised by will certainly play a huge role in “who” we are and “who” our children become. I have read a few articles about gay parenting in which there is evidence that suggests that the males born to lesbian parents are often less aggressive than those raised in traditional family homes. I wonder if this could ultimately have an affect on the gene pool like the example of the stag deer?

      • I hadn’t heard about this, but I would go for anything that creates less aggressive males in a culture based so much on aggression and competiiton.
        Our social choices also have selective effects, not only on ourselves but on nature. I am wondering, for instance, if the Kalapuya habit of never hurting a rattlesnake that seemed to follow a human-snake contract–and killing only those few that did not led over thousands of years to the especially mild tempered and not very poisonous species of rattler we have in the Willamette Valley. On the other hand, we have managed to create super bugs though the misuse of antibiotics and pesticides.
        Interesting point, Anedra!

  10. I had to think for a minute about the idea of “fitting in.” All too often in our society, school kids especially, can have a terrible feeling of not fitting in. Looking at modern society which seems so impersonal and cruel, it is often a real desire to not fit in, to be different. Sometimes not fitting in is a way of expressing individuality. I guess the real question is, if you don’t fit in somewhere, where DO you fit in? This article raises some very good points about how fitting in in terms of the natural system of life is where we really thrive. The Darwinian idea has been exploited to justify the destructive path. Competition and survival of the fittest need to be seen for what they really are…what we don’t want or need to do. I love the idea of the one being the most fit for survival is the one who helps others the most. That is an awesome model for those who want to compete and be the fittest to survive! Also, finding how we as individuals really fit in, in society and the natural cycle will create satisfaction and peace of mind in a culture that drives everyone mad with stress.

    • Thanks for your comment, Leslie. Your thoughts about “fitting in” in the social arena made me think how the ecological notion of fitting in is different from a sense of convention (as expressed by the way modern advertising tells us that we only need to buy the right product to join the in crowd). Interesting that in a society whose worldview emphasizes individualism, these ads sell so many products. Obviously there is some hunger for community among us–and some of us are susceptible to manipulation in this regard. The indigenous Australian and Northwest Coast ideas of fitting in are not about bending individual wills to convention– in fact, these are societies in which distinct individuality of action is accepted. As anthropologist Marion Smith phrased it in terms of the Puyallup Nisqually whose traditional territory is on Puget Sound: “Their only rule of behavior is no rule”. This lack of rules worked in a society in which individuals were responsible and caring toward one another–and whose cultural habits had grown up over thousands of years.
      Rather than on a human level, this “fitting in” refers to the ways in which humans fit into the natural cycle: and interestingly, in cultures throughout the world, the wild natural world can also serve as a place of emotional and physical refuge and support for those who did not fit into society.

  11. I am always amazed at the ignorance people have for Darwin’s “well known” theory of evolution. Maybe we should have known that such a controversial theory would be misinterpretated and used in ways to further the interests of those in a position to do so (such as the slaveholders mentioned in the essay). Maybe evolution “is” and maybe it “isn’t” – but that isn’t necessarily the point. What is clear is that theories like Spencer’s show that the idea has been lost on the general public. I think a better understanding of evolution would be an advantage for the environment because it would get people thinking about their actions and the consequences those actions have on their surroundings.

    • Great critical focus in this comment, Allison. As we have seen in other instances, science can get lost in the force of culture– or in the face of economic and political pressures. Time to change that, as you indicate. I like your assessment of the real lessons we need to learn in the way supposedly Darwinian theory has been misused.

  12. Today’s society could learn from the indigenous people that have learned to cooperatively sustain life by adapting to their environment and each-other. I appreciate the quote in this post explaining the indigenous concept of survival of the fittest denotes…[that] those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in… This illustrates the longevity of human survival to be based on a relationship of reciprocity and mutual adaptation vs. dominance and elimination of the weaker and possibly the dominant in the long run. If species cooperate in a give-take relationship the long-term may actually benefit everyone including the earth. We often spend more energy and time trying to become the “fittest” or the winner, when in reality it usually does not.

  13. I certainly agree with this article’s point about cooperation over survival of the fittest. My understanding as well is that a socially cooperative society that works together can survive much better.

    This article covers a lot. In trying to get the big picture presented here, and the idea of sustainability and interconnectedness as opposed to the struggle and victory of the individual, no matter how strong, two things come to mind. One is I envision the remains of a civilization in a place like Cambodia where they no longer exist and their stone structures have been taken back and overrun by the jungle. Although they did not survive forever, the land did. The flora survived and continues to thrive.

    In contrast, I know a family in Nebraska who bought a 15,000 acre ranch. They grow one crop, wheat, and have one type of animal they raise, cattle. But when they took over the ranch/the land, they did their best to kill every rattle snake on the ranch. During the first year they killed 138 rattle snakes, then continued to kill more each year after that. But when they did that, the gopher population exploded. They have not recovered from that purging yet to this day.

    My thought is simply that humans do not have that much intelligence to control nature and while killing off native plants and animals, we also are not so smart in being able to keep ourselves alive either. So we are not necessarily the fittest to survive, and we may not be able to survive due to anything else we think we have in our favor.

    Jim Jarrad

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response about the “big picture”, James. Excellent perspective on the ways in which we cannot control nature– the ranchers in Nebraska are perfect examples of what I call the “dominator paradox”, which states that the more we try to control nature, the less effectual we actually are. You indicate some serious questions we ought to be asking ourselves if we really want to foster our survival on this planet.

  14. It was a very interesting article which I had some trouble following. There seemed to be alot of information and alternative links to capture.

    I did find the part about “if the predator wipes out all of its prey, then it wipes out its own means of survival” very interesting. I found this most interesting in that humans would not be involved in the natural process, normally, for many animal species (some yes, but many others no). Therefore, are we needing to attempt to control nature as well?

    I am sure I am missing something with that point. Nevertheless, it is very clear that humans can ultimately effect animals and their nature, or, we would not be facing so many endangered species around the world.

    Still learning and attempting to connect all the dots,


    • Hi Paul, since the prey is the source of the predator’s life, if the predator eats them all (so that there are none left), the predator himself can no longer survive.

  15. Thanks for the followup note, Dr. Holden. Yes, I understand the concept; I was just questioning the reality of this happening in nature between one animal to another. I understand it could happen, but, is it really feasible? It just seems like Mother Nature ought to be able to sustain herself. But, if man enters the picture and causes great disruptions, then, there could very easily be an imbalance in nature.

    Thanks again for your comments,

    Paul Nash

    • Thanks for clarifying, Paul. You hit on precisely the analogy I wanted to make. Predators wouldn’t wipe out their prey in nature (without humans around anyway)– because they are dependent on them for survival. Thus the interpretation of “survival of the fittest” that has the top predators (competitors) surviving by destroying through under them misses the interdependent reality of natural systems. That is, it is not only bad sociology but bad science. I appreciate your helping me emphasize this point!

  16. As many people have posted, the idea of “survival of the fittest” is much more suitable and applicable to adaptation and finding an equilibrium with an ecosystem. Instead of control and dominance. Our ways of bending nature to sustain our overpopulation and over consumption will have to eventually destroy us. It just isn’t possible to keep this practice going through the ages without world changing consequences.
    I do disagree with one aspect of this article. I don’t believe industrialization promoted the competition and dominance aspects of our cultures. I believe that can be wholly attributed to religion. Prior to industrialization, religions as far back as Egypt and their preservation of bodies for an afterlife, have sought to destroy competing ideas and cultures instead of learning from and coexisting with them. Even today western religions seek out indigenous people and try to get them to forget their old ways, where a lot of knowledge and wisdom regarding reciprocity and balanced living reside.

    • Hi Tim, thanks for your thoughtfulness. I think there is a complex of factors involved here: a cultural thrust that came with industrialism that historian Carolyn Merchant (and others) have detailed as “the death of nature”- -the transformation of the idea of the natural world from a live world of spirit to a world of objects to be acted upon for human purposes. I do think religion got mixed into this in a very unfortunate way (as in the witch burnings that went with the supposed Enlightenment). But I don’t think all Christianity is to blame. When a religion gets institutionalized in a state society, it can be a force for substantial evil. Egypt was also a complex state or class society that ran on slave labor…
      See my previous comment to you on the point of religion. I do not think religion should be let off the hook in this regard: this is why I commend the act of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle in issuing a public apology to local Native peoples for the destructive effects missionary activity had on their culture. I think such acknowledgment is a step toward the healing that needs to be done in this regard.

      • Well, this is an interesting conversation you all are having. What do you mean when religion gets institutionalized in a state society? I’m not sure I’m following Timothy on this, but dominance has been around long before industry depending on how one defines it.

        • Hi Tina, thanks for helping me to clean up my anthropological jargon! I was referring to the ways in which, with the growth of nation states in Europe, the Church became more of an institution (bureaucratically intertwined with the power structure) than a community of spirit. In a personal image that symbolizes this history from Eastern Europe, when my grandfather was a boy, he remembering entering churches where gold and jewels were encrusted in the statuary and the local people were starving– the children so poor and sick that their sleeves were shiny from wiping mucous on them.
          This Church as religious institution spent its considerable influence protecting the power structure of colonial authorities (the Austrian empire that whipped children for speaking Czech at this point), kings and, previously, feudal authorities. There were a number of religious revolts against this, such as that of the anabaptists in Eastern Europe, who were massacred by religio-political authorities. We know little about these, since their writings were burned with them, but they were vilified for having women leaders and democratic social structures.
          When I was growing up Catholic, there was a decided outcry against the dangers of the against the Church as institution whose main goal was maintaining its structure and power– on the the parts of such folks as the Catholic Workers who aided the poor in New York City or the priests who practiced “liberation theology” on behalf of justice in Latin and Central America. Such priests have played an essential role as catalysts in the local movements to resist oppressive state authority (the ongoing indigenous women’s revolt in Oaxaca, Mexico, for instance).
          In my comment, I was thinking of the essence of the state pointed out by sociologist Max Weber: “a state is that social institution which maintains itself by force” (armies, police, laws). This has been an issue since Aristotle’s Politics (a founding philosopher in Western civilization) in which he spent most of his time on the issue of how to prevent revolution. In a stratified society (here is the other part of the definition you asked for) such as his own, societies are divided into hierarchical structures, such as classes. Aristotle noticed (he was also adviser to Alexander the Great) that such stratified societies have a tendency to unrest, since those at the bottom are not particularly happy with those enforcing the rules at the top. Stratified societies run the gamut from totalitarian societies to ones that are hoping for democracy like our own (I say hoping, given such modern problems as the widening gap between rich and poor among us–and the way in which money influences those in authority).
          Social stratification as an institution in society (as slavery was an institution in the antebellum South of the US) does not exist everywhere; in fact, it is rare if you take the number of historical human societies on earth– though it is prevalent in the modern day.
          As for dominance (and greed): my guess is that they have been around as long as humans. I like Chinua Achebe’s response with regard to this. Achebe is a Nobel prize winning Nigerian novelist who highlights the tensions between traditional society and colonial authority. When asked if he thought traditional societies were perfect, he responded that there were no perfect human societies– only some that were better at fighting the “human instincts of self-destruction” than others. I would count those destructive instincts as arrogance and greed.

  17. I suppose this is likely one of the most enlightening articles I’ve read this term; that is, one where I have learned the most.

    Here are some things I learned:

    Adaptation is a two way process. Of course, when it was explained, I was thinking, “Oh right. I get it.” I think the key thought I had was that adaptation is not dominance…it could not be. In order for a specie to survive in the future, it would have to adapt to its uses and its uses be able to provide for it tomorrow or for the 7th generation to reverberate earlier discussions.

    The top eater gets the most bioaccumulation. I’m aware of this, but while the top eater gets the most bioaccumulation, oftentimes the most important nutrients are decreasing at this trophic level.

    Fitting in is smart. I don’t know what to say about the deer and wolves except this was very surprising to me. I have learned the exact opposite. Interesting…

    Of course we know that monocultures are dangerously susceptible to disease and wipe-out. I think this is what the New Agricultural Movement recognized which is why they’re so successful. And the Indigenous cultures of Australia obviously have recognized this for a very long time.

    One question: If Indigenous cultures recognize the need to give back to the land through death, I wonder what different cultural practices are? I realize the Plains Indians built a structure above land and burned the body releasing the spirit, but it made me wonder what other worldwide cultures do.

    This really was an eye opening article for me. I think history of human cultures shows a lot of competition and dominance, but I’ve never read about the survival of fitting in, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?


    • Thanks, Tina. You have summed up the points of this article in an astute way indeed!
      There are so many ways that cultures around the world honor the dead. A classic one of the Coast Salish speaking peoples of the Northwest was to set the bodies of the dead in trees with the idea that birds would release their spirits as they carried away their bodies. Two powerful points here: the trees in which the dead were set out (in burial canoes) would grow and eventually encompass their bones; thus the sacred for these trees as sacred. Secondly, many, many earthly goods were set into canoes (and later graves) with the dead as a matter of honor. When the Chehalis began to bury the dead (after pioneers arrived) in the ground, local coffin makers had to make native coffins large enough to hold all the goods that were set into the coffins to go back to earth with them.

  18. Professor,

    Ahh…I see. Thanks for doing such a thorough job of clarifying. And thanks for the comments on dominance. I’m going to write down Chinua Achebe’s name and look for any work by this novelist.


  19. Tina and Professor Holden,

    I have found your discussions surrounding “burying the dead” very interesting. I know you are probably both aware, but, there is a special week set aside in Mexico to “remember” the dead. It is really known as the “Day of the Dead”. It has been very intriguing for me. Families will clear weeds from old cemetary plots and place fresh flowers on the grave of their lost one. Many will set up “display tables” in their homes or place of business to remember their lost one. Many will place the “favorite” cigerettes, alcohol, photos, diaries, etc…….on these display tables for the time of “celebrating the dead”. It is quite interesting for me in that I believe the dead are dead…….and the alive are alive forever.



  20. Such a very simple phrase, but WOW what a strong punch, “If a predator wipes out all its prey, it wipes out its own means of survival”, (Holden, pg.4 ). Is this something we missed as we were all puttzin along with life? Why was that so hard for us to see when the indigenous people saw it and lived it. I’m beginning to think that all the technological advancement we have created would have been better off not being created. We think it has put us on the top when it may end up putting us on the bottom.

    • I concur with you, Pam. You are getting at something I call “the dominator paradox”, where the ones who try to end up on top and in control in an interdependent system in fact wind up doing themselves in.
      I don’t think we have to through out all modern technology– but we certainly need to rethink and reshape a good deal of it. If we’re smart enough to create this technology, we should also be smart enough to use it to our benefit, rather than applying it toward destroying our means of survival. Is that asking too much?
      Thoughtful comment!

  21. Reading this essay made me realize something about eveolutionary theory: we are making ourselves (humans) weaker and weaker, which (according to Darwin) means that we are reversing our place on the earth with all of our comforts and lack of exercise. I’ve never had to hunt, unless you count the trips to the store, or looking for the leftovers in the fridge, but I don’t know if I could. Where does this comfort end? Then when you add in the fact that we DO deny the dependancy we have on every resource on this earth, that means that eventually, we’ll run out of the resources we aren’t dependent on (denial) and be too weak to do anything for ourselves.

    I really agree with the parts that talk about conquering peoples dying out fast vs. “the fittest” are the ones who fit in, concept. If you consider that you catch more honey with flies, then wouldn’t it make sense to just relax and be happy with life, rather than waste it trying to take over the world? (Didn’t Alexander die incredibly young?) It seems the people who everyone likes, the ones who fit in, have it the easiest. They have less enemies, more friends, and have a good disposition. It makes sense to me that they are really “The fittest”. (Good thing those guys don’t know it’s a contest!)

    • Thanks for your lively comment, Josh. Thoughtful scenario about our true weakness in the face of the things needed to sustain us. Your point about Alexander the Great brings up the point that the US lifespan is now decreasing.

  22. I like your association with dogs and wolf packs. I’ll focus on wolves. I’ve researched and written several reports on wolves, including morphology, genetics, physiology, behavior, ranges, etc., and even though alpha males and females generally are seen as dominant it is the respect for the elder wolf which allows the elder to eat first in many cases. Wolves, despite folklore, are vulnerable (elders and pups rely on the alpha male and female for food and the alpha male and female had to learn to hunt from the pack’s elders). Wolves are vulnerable even to their prey…elk for instance can instantly kill a wolf with one blow from a hoof. This is why wolves will only pursue a vulnerable elk if it is on the run. I’ve seen elk stand 3 feet from a wolf pack without incident, primarily because the elk was standing in a river facing and challenging the pack and wolves do not like water (unless they are drinking it of course). Let’s face it, the reason wolves can kill elk is not because they are more powerful, it is because they hunt in numbers (work together) and are able to physically (endurance wise) outlast elk and other larger prey.

    You are correct, physical dominance is far too simplistic. In essence, an elder survives..not because it is the fittest, but because it is respected as an elder. Gee, this sound familiar…Native Americans. It’s no wonder why the Native Americans were, and still are I’m sure, so in touch with wolves.

    • Thanks for the enlightening information on wolves, Patrick. Great perspective from a researcher!
      And you might be interested to know that when others balked at re-introducing wolves in Idaho, the Nez Perce willingly invited them back with celebration, since their presence was a part of their culture.

  23. I think that if we don’t get a grip soon and realize what we’re doing to our planet and therefore, to ourselves, the human race isn’t going to last much longer. If we continue to use up all of our natural resources, there isn’t going to be any left when we really need them. We depend on nature more than we probably realize and it’s time for that to end.

  24. This was a really informative essay. I especially like the notion of “survival of those who fit in.” I have heard many times that humans are the “fittest” among all creatures because of our evolutionary path and therefore have the right to rule over nature and do as we please. It is ironic that we are also the ones that are proving to be unfit for survival by taking control over our environment in order to assert our “fittest” status. And we are taking down other species with us in the process. It is up to us to once again find our place in the world and work together with nature in order to save it. This begins with getting rid of the notion of dominance once and for all because only when we are able to learn from and truly appreciate nature as well as each other without looking at the world as a “competition” can we begin to save the world from issues such as global warming, loss of species diversity, and destruction of the environment.

    • Hello Lauren; it is ironic indeed, as you say (and dangerous to our future as well as that of all life) that we try to dominate an interdependent system. There is a Chehalis story (from the the 1920s) that tells how those who try to shorten the lives of anyone else can look forward to having the earth “shrink their own lives instead”. I like your resolve in terms of getting rid of the dominator idea in order to save the natural world–and I would add, that is the only hope for ourselves as well.

  25. I enjoyed the views in this article. I find it very unsettling that our world has essentially eliminated the “survival of the fittest” way of life. In the animal community, this is still a dominant factor in natural selection. It allows the strongest to breed and continue the genetic code. With the scientific advancements that have been made, the “weak” humans are able to sustain life, and pass along genes that would otherwise be weeded out. It is contradicting to me that the scientific community is so adamant about the natural selection theory and Darwin’s evolution, but we allow this process to be interrupted by enabeling human life to get around natural selection. This could tweak the balance found in nature more than it already has been, which can lead to very detrimental results.

    • Hi Katie, I’m glad you enjoyed this article. You example of “strength” in an animal community is an interesting one. I think we need to define “strength”–and it certainly isn’t always the ability to overcome others. Check out some insights from Patrick Bright in a comment on this essay just before yours– in his research with wolves.
      I think that you have missed the main point of this article if you take it to mean that we should let the physically weak among us die! One of the central points here (or I hoped it was) was the difference between seeing strength in simple ability to overcome others physically (“might makes right”) and other things that make humans (and many other species) fit for survival, such as perception, intelligence–and yes, the ability to care for or elicit care from others.

  26. Survival of the fittest in a sociological perspective almost seems like it would better qualify as “unnatural” selection. As humans, we have moved beyond the natural processes of evolutionary adaptation and have begun to better ourselves using our cognitive ability. I think that this fact, taken in isolation, is not necessarily a bad thing: it could be as natural step as switching from primordial RNA to DNA in our past history. However, we are not simply evolving in isolation but a whole host of other organisms are getting caught up in the wave of our huge growth. We have the ability to learn and understand all our interactions with the natural world, so we should stop and take the time to make sure that we aren’t stepping on anything fragile as we climb to the top. Natural processes may eventually even themselves out without our help (or despite our help), but at what cost?

    • Thoughtful comment, Dan. I guess I would urge that we define what is meant by “advancement” here– I don’t think that we can really call the present state of industrial society much of an advance for the human species given not only the costs for the natural world–but the potential survival costs for ourselves in the long run if we continue on this course. I do think that the creation of culture and inter-generational knowledge passing among humans has shifted social evolution to whole new plane. Which is why I point out in this essay that “social fathering” is actually more potent in terms of passing part of oneself into the future than is physical fathering. Good point here!

  27. Survival of the fittest is often used by the physically strong. I believe Darwin meant that the best to adapt were the fittest. In a childhood game one has a task of placing shapes through holes matching the shapes. If there is a wrong shape it will n ot go thru. One in order to survive must live in the environment that is given to him/her. We nowadays change our environment to fit our needs. When this is done this affects other life around us trying to now adapt to our idea of an environment.

  28. It’s such a shame what we’re doing to our planet through technology such as carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and factories around the world. But the pressure to be the best and to have the biggest and baddest trucks here in America, or the fastest working factories in other parts of the world leads to the ultimate destiny of the lack of natural resources and land.

  29. I agree that we need to co-exist with nature; as stated in this essay, we need to not only adapt nature to suit our needs, but adapt ourselves, and our actions, to suit the needs of our natural world. As pointed out by Schaefer, in Grandmothers Councel, “Without reciprocity, the balance of nature is thrown off.”

  30. The alternative survival method speaks volumes to me. As a young person striving to make money and live a happy life, I have developed into a very good listening and an anticipator of needs. Working in an office setting isn’t at all complicated, and if you take one step more than you are asked you can climb and climb and climb. This is something that I have morphed into in the workplace. I have become that person who always does something extra, is able to anticipate need, is always willing to help even if it means working a weekend. This development has enabled me to make more money faster even though I do not currently hold a college education. I have applied for jobs that require them and am never asked about it while interviewing or after interviewing. I know what an employer wants and I not only fill these expectations in the interview, but I follow through once hired. This is definitely something I learned and evolved into and its more about fitting in rather than competing with any other people.

    • Hi Amy, thanks for your responding with your personal experience here. And congratulations for choosing to take a life path that entails college work even though your job does not call for it.

  31. Loss of achievement through competition:
    Absolutely, survival of the fittest is the concept that those best suited for survival pass on their genes, including ones that may not the most physically dominant but are a little wiser for it (score for casanova).

    Survival of the fittest is supposed to apply when animals of the same gene pool compete for limited resources. The concept that survival of the fittest applies across species lines is absurd. The best application we can see happening is germs and bugs. The life cycles are short enough for us to actually observe speciation. As we create stronger insecticides and germicides the “most resistant” live to breed and create a whole new generation for which we must create ever more lethal cocktails to try and eradicate.

    • Thanks for your comment, Patrick. I think you have a pointed example on insecticides: a study in Colorado grain fields indicated that the growers are now losing twice the crop percentage to insect damage as they did BEFORE beginning intensive pesticide use in the 1960s. The problem for the environment and the growers (and thus all of us but the sellers of the pesticides) is that this is an addictive process. More insecticide means more resistant bugs which means more insecticide, etc.
      In this context, it is hard to get on the wagon to make a change (it takes something like five years to transition to organic, depending on the level of chemical degradation of the land being changed over).
      But here is another point related to survival of the fittest: it seems that ultimately such survival is going to be based on those who make the sharpest environmental observations (as in those who notice and interrupt the cycle of increasing insecticide use), and in the end, this means working WITH nature rather than assuming we can make nature work for us in whatever way we wish.

      • “it seems that ultimately such survival is going to be based on those who make the sharpest environmental observations” agreed, on the level of a species. In context to individual humans, this can be problematic because of free riders “why should I go out of my way when i can let someone else do it.” Survival of the fittest then depends the ability of western culture to change everyones view of the natural world.

        • Good point, Patrick. It is going to take a good many of us pushing for this change in viewpoint to effect a change that will allow us to survive as a culture, much less a species!

  32. I thank you for this perspective on fitting in making one fit to survive, but one sentence in particular grabbed me and required thought and further comment:
    “And the household labor of women is not financially compensated-as if it were worth nothing.”
    The first thing that occurred to me was, “Well, of course it’s valuable, but who would pay them?” And then I thought, ‘The husband’. Then it occurred to me that the husband then is penalized in our modern arrangements; if he shares his earnings evenly with his spouse, he earns half of what his unmarried peer does. This is unfair to everyone involved.
    What seems to work in my evolving idea is that if everyone in the community (kinship group, whatever) shares in the work, whether it be hunting or child-rearing, then they all share in the benefits. Heresy, to be sure, in a capitalist society, but if we don’t attach a monetary value to motherhood and managing a household, then our society is saying that those activities are without intrinsic value.
    Do I have a solution? Not at the moment. I thank you for providing the spark for this chain of thoughts.

    • Thoughtful response, Patrick. It would be great if we all assumed responsibility for the future generation in this way. In fact, the husband does “pay” the wife who does not have an outside job with room and board, but this creates problems, such as the sense that it is only the wife would should nurture the children–and the unfortunate instance of domestic violence in this country. The less economic independence women have, the more such abuse occurs. So I like the notion of the negative income tax that gives the poor enough to live on without jumping through welfare hoops. Other civilized countries do this–and it was way back in Nixon’s era that this staunch conservative noted it would save us a good deal of money to do away with the welfare apparatus and simply give folks money to live on.
      It would also do away with “economic blackmail” that pressures workers to earn a living in ways they never would if they did not have to (as in the loggers– dislocated workers out of work from a mill closure– I once queried on this point. One hundred per cent of them would not have clear cut any land if they could earn a decent living for their families by NOT doing). Speaking of decent living: in 1960, the minimum wage supported a family of four above the poverty level. Today a woman (as Barbara Ehrenreich put it) would have to marry two and a half men working at minimum wage to support her out of the poverty level. Indeed, one of the current tragedies in this country is the number of full time workers who are living below the official poverty line.
      This goes back to our discussion on survival of the fittest in that there is a too generalized social sanction that assumes that the poor deserve to be there (and it does the society good by sorting out the “fittest” in this way). Since the largest proportion of poor in this country are children (the second are vets); this doesn’t quite pan out if we do the numbers– but it sanctions a good deal of human suffering.

  33. I had to appreciate that this article brought about how those who stay at home to take care of things there aren’t paid. So, in affect, we work for nothing, so our service and contributions are worth nothing. Being a stay at home mom, while being a student, I do feel like sometimes we are undervalued. Nobody sees what we do 24/7 every day or that we don’t get paid overtime, well, I guess we do if you multiply zero by time and a half. Anyways, there is something comforting and consistent about being able to spend time with my children and raise them. I just wish stay at home moms and homemakers could get more credit for it, as it can be a very tough job.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Jennifer. Zero times a million is still zero! I can’t think of a MORE important job in this society than nurturing future generations. You deserve not only credit but security in doing this job.

  34. As a fish and wildlife student, there is always talk about how the most attractive male, or biggest and strongest one will be the one to reprodcue and pass on their genes. This article gave some insight to that as in certain species some males will avoid fighting because they know that will lead to a higher chance of reproducing, more like survival of the smartest. I wonder if they have learned this trait over the years and we will begin to see it more and more in wild populations.

    • This is something to watch for, Mitch. I think it may well be more common than currently remarked, since our culture does not encourage us to look for such details. Thanks for your comment.

  35. I love the point that survival of the fittest decreases the idea of diversification. Diversity is the idea of evolution, in the sense that we change and evolve creating multiple varieties of species, with the idea that only the strong survive aren’t we limiting the amount of diversity that we could ultimately achieve.

  36. I think that humans are ingenuitive and that we will continue to find new ways to survive even when the natural resources that we use today are depleted. Someone will invent a way for dirt to be palatable and then there will be some invention of a way for dirt to be filled with calories for humans to consume. There are limitless ways for humans to cease from existence on earth and there are also limitless ways for humans to continue to exist on earth. Humans will control their own destiny and it will be up to us to choose whatever else we allow to continue to exist. This is not saying that we should act to dominate and dictate nature but we have the power to destroy nature with our knowledge and we need to act responsibly.

    • You are far more optimistic than I on this point, Kelley–and I’m not sure I would want to live in a world in which we learned to eat dirt and chose what other lives joined us. Thanks for your comment.

  37. When I read your article – and in particular the section headed ‘Ignoring Natural Limits – it reminded me of a book ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond. When reading the book, I was amazed to learn how many societies collapsed because they exhausted their natural resources. I have to admit that I myself have never thought about the natural limits in a way that Diamond did in his book until I read it. And now again I came accross the same ideas in your article. I think it is very scary to think that one day we might exhaust the limits of our environment to a point where our soil is unable to produce crops and our water is polluted to such level and we will be unable to drink it and animals will be unable to live in it. People may argue that such an idea is just a science fiction but I fear that it isn’t. As you mentioned in one of your other articles, there are already places in the US set aside as the national sacrifice areas. By definition, if we continue polluting our air and water and contaminating our land the way that we do today, the whole earth will at some point become a sacrifice area. Perhaps one might say that earth is vast and there are so many places for us to live in but we also have to bear in mind that the human population is growing at an ever-increasing rate and that will put more strain on our environment. I think that natural limits is definitely something that we should very much take into consideration in all our actions.

    One idea which I never came accross before – and which is mentioned in your article – is the idea of reverse evolution. Because that is exactly what our modern development is – we brought thousands of species to extinction and we continue doing it even faster. Perhaps if people call our development ‘reverse evolution’ rather then development, they will realise that our path may not be entirely correct and that we may need to take some action to remedy it.


    • Thanks for your very thoughtful comment, Iveta. I like this book of Diamond’s especially, since it has a bit of a cross-cultural comparison– indicating how some cultures did NOT collapse, but took wiser courses of actions. I think we need to do some learning from history on this point.
      It is scary to face up to natural limits- but what we should not do as a result is ignore them even further!
      I like your idea of calling particular kinds of development “reverse evolution” outright– after all, that is what this process is carrying out rather than the “progress” with which we often haphazardly name everything we do.

  38. “Social Darwinism” such a wonderful misapplication of a simple principle. Survival of the fittest, isn’t about killing the weak, or even making strong babies, it’s about maximizing benefit to the species. You mention social fathering and altruism, both of which are highly beneficial to the species and don’t get enough praise for that. It’s not about the individual, it’s barely about any specific family line, it’s all about the whole species. The traits that are most beneficial in the long run are going to be generosity and the ability conserve resources.

    I disagree with your ending idea that indigenous people’s views aren’t geared toward survival of the fittest. They just have a better definition of fitness in the long game than we’ve had in the West. We were short sighted, we grew fast, and now it’s coming back to bite us. We picked a bad ideal of fitness to aspire to. Lucky for us we may have caught it in time.

    As I’ve noted else where, there are some themes that just transcend specific causes. The ills of mono-culture come in may forms. Most of the deficiencies in the computer security world stem from two causes: a software mono-culture, and people’s unwillingness to take hard but correct path. Remind you of anything?

    • I appreciate the thoughtful comment, Peter. Actually, you are not disagreeing with me– it is precisely my point (or at least the one I intended to make) that we need to more closely and realistically define “fittest” in “survival of the fittest”; those who best fit into their communities and ecosystems seems like an appropriate perspective to me.

  39. I can appreciate the title of this essay “Misusing Darwinism..” As has been stated before there is almost no correlation between Darwin’s theory of evolution and what is pejoratively called “social Darwinism”. Somehow the entire scientific discipline of evolution has been co-opted to be used in a manner for which it was never intended. Natural selection (the term I much prefer to “survival of the fittest”) is primarily concerned with those traits which allow a greater chance of species survival over many generations, not societies and definitely not individuals within societies.

    I can definitely relate to the concept of “survival of the fitting in”. In no place is this idea more practiced than in the workplace. More and more work settings are team oriented, if you cannot fit in with your co-workers then no matter what your qualifications and skills you will likely be replaced by one who can. I’ve seen it happen so many times, someone is hired who has all the qualifications we’re looking for but for whatever reason they cannot adjust to become a valued member of the team. Some feel they need to “outshine” others, some cannot accept countering opinions…whatever. Some of the most rewarding career relationships I’ve had have been with those who “fit”. At my company we’re much more likely to hire someone like the wolf “Casanova” than one of the alpha dogs constantly fighting each other.

    • Thanks for noting that “natural selection” is a much better term than “survival of the fittest”– unless we redefine “fittest” as those who “fit in”– that is, who adapt to their ecological niche, Jeff.
      The trend of teamwork in the workplace is one that is certainly growing– a hopeful sign, I think!

  40. Survival of the fittest has been a long time slogan for many, there are even television programs named after this title. As the article points out, it is not necessarily the best in competition, but the ones who learn how to fit into a community, or group that have long-term survival. An example came to mind about competition as I was reading this article. As most everyone is aware, the Olympics are currently taking place. Yesterday I saw an interview with three women snowboarders. They are all very close friends. When asked if competing against one another interferes with their friendship, each one quickly exclaimed “No.” They all cheered for one another, and were happy with whatever honors each one attained. This is the true connection for competition. The women understood how to respect one another, their sport, and the world that allows them to engage in something they all love. Experiencing the elements, competition, training and growth together has allowed them to open their minds to a friendly and engaging competition where they all benefit.

    Living beyond one’s limits is another important subject this article addresses. Our current state of economy is an example of our culture taking more from the system than people should. As the article states, “the historical experience of exploiting other lands and societies sets up the general practice of living beyond one’s limits,” identifies how humans live for today rather than planning for the future. According to Darwinism, natural selection operates through adaptation. In our culture we have conveniently adapted to living beyond our means. However, this does not mean we are not responsible for our choices. Learning how to identify and act upon the appropriate response to our environment, without abusing it or other humans is the responsibility of all of us. As humans we must learn how to adapt to our land, and act with reciprocity if we want our children and future generations to survive in this world.

    Survival of the fittest does not mean we as humans are on the top link of the chain. In contrary, as we consume foods and allow toxins into our food chain, we pay the ultimate price. As this article points out, the top predator is also prey at some point. Humans will fall prey to toxins within our systems if we do not heed the warnings of what we put into our bodies. It is already happening with the high rate of cancer and other diseases in our society.

    Respecting our elders and what lessons have been learned not only through the indigenous people, but also our own elders will help many generations put to work the knowledge that is necessary to protect our health and environment.

    • I appreciate the thoughtfulness in this comment, Marla. You make a number of good points about the ways in adaptation actually places us in the food chain. Reciprocity is an essential value–and perspective– to cultivate, as is the friendly relationships of the female snowboarders you speak about here.

  41. I believe what some cultures believe that “what goes around comes around. I’ve seen it happen on a few occasions. If people do work together towards the same goal, they are more productive and the people involved are much happier. So why are people so greedy? I find comfort in the “comes around ,goes around” saying, mainly because I’ll seen it happen and sooner or later, I will hear about what happen to the greedy person, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience for them.

  42. Over competitiveness can be counter productive to performance, not only because it unnecessarily expends energy thinking about the other competitor, but because it overshoots the goal of good competition in the first place – mutual learning.

    Healthy competition, such as the game “Push Hands” in Taiji (also found in many other martial art forms) is based in cooperation. In Push Hands, the goal is to stay relaxed while trying to uproot, or tip over, the other person. The goal is to assess the quality of your Taiji form while helping the other assess theirs. If one of the Push Hands partners becomes over competitive, they inherently tense their body up, losing their relaxation. When they become stiff, they are easy to uproot and knock over. In a sense, the way to “win” in Push Hands is to forget about “winning.”

  43. It always amazes me at how little we actually change as a society. We still fully believe in social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny however we are no longer spreading Christianity, but now democracy. I’m not sure why some conservationists seem to be the only ones understand the correlation between the need for balance in the ecosystem. If an apex predator is taken out of an ecosystem, then each and every step below that predator is going to overwhelm and destroy those below it. The true problem is we don’t have a predator above us keeping us in balance. How sad is it that the human race has failed to see something that every animal on the planet understands at a fundamental level. If I kill more than I need, I will go hungry another day. It seems to be our arrogance that makes us think that we are better and smarter. We don’t need to obey the laws of nature because we are the supreme beings. When we run out of food, we will resort to eating each other, and eventually extinction as a species. Unfortunately at this pace we will be able to kill all other life on the planet before we finally die. Even viruses, bacteria, and parasites generally try not to kill their host, because without them they cannot survive. Why do we as the “fittest” have such a hard time grasping this concept?

    • I would like it if we really were spreading democracy, but when corporations spread globalization, I don’t think democracy is first on their list of priorities or they would be paying all their workers a living wage and uphold environmental standards. Interesting discussion about predators. Social ecologists Murray Bookchin sees natural systems as the most egalitarian of systems, since the bodies of the “top” predators are ultimately consumed by those at the “bottom” of the scale like bacteria and insects.

  44. The first thing that popped out of this essay was the heroic belief society legitamizing oppression with much internal dissention. Yikes! Is it too late for us? By the time I made it to the end of the piece I wondered how much time it would take to change such deep rooted behaviors to a greater understanding of what longevity as a society and species will require.

  45. Social Darwinism is a fallacy. It is a construct of our philosophy. We should not view the world, master-slave, as Aristotle would have it. It is all too easy to do given the values we are raised with yet it only leads to dissatisfaction and unfulfillment of the highest order by promoting singularity over harmonic unity. Domination is not the way to lead a happy life. Yet Darwinism on a biological level seems to be something I can see being a stout theory. Some deer stamping out the aggressive gene through self-destruct while others avoid fights to make love makes sense.

    On a social or biological level though, it is all about fitting in. We all fit in, that’s why we’re here. We should respect that and take care of our earth because we all belong. If we are not responsible stewards of the earth, however, we should expect to be hanging out with the dinosaurs pretty soon.

    • Domination is indeed not a way to lead a happy life– or a successful one in the natural cycle. Adaptation to our environment to enhance our odds in the natural selection process in very different than attempting to take over all ecological and social niches with a singular culture and species. Great points, Sky.

  46. I feel that the notion of “survival of the fittest” is often taken out of context when applied to social situations. In evolutionary biology the fittest has a high capacity of fitness or the ability to reproduce. The notion of fitness depends on environmental conditions, the fittest may be dominant in some way at a particular time and under one set of conditions while finding it hard to survive under other conditions. Individuals may not need diversity in order to survive but species do. Eugenics is another example of social darwinism gone wrong. It is one way of making humans a mono species by alienating and mutilating those who cannot defend themselves against it. The notion of survival of the fittest seems to be used as a justification for the “strong” to do as they please when it should instead indicate that we all need each other (as a species); no one individual is complete.

    • Great point about the interdependency that is inherent in “fitness”, Brandon. You also bring up a great point about context and time appropriateness: indigenous leadership structures tend to mimic this by being flexible and task specific rather than institutionalized.

  47. I’m glad Alfie Kohn had the brilliance to recognize that experimenters have the ability to set their experiment up for positive results in their claim. (He should work for the FDA. I always read the case study reports in the patient inserts when I get a new prescription. The studies are riddled with question marks and holes. I don’t think they understand Kohn’s concept.)

    In response to mating and competition:
    Growing up, men always told my brother, “The smart guy who sits in the bleachers with the girls on friday night, instead of being on the field playing football with the guys, always has a date on saturday night!” He took their wise advice and was quite cavalier in his adventures! So maybe we as modern humans understand this concept, just never put 2 and 2 together.

  48. Darwinism in my opinion has done as much harm in the world as it has good. Whereas Darwin’s notions of “survival of the fittest” are fittingly appropriate for explaining descent with modification in the natural world, his ideas have very negative impacts when applied to sociological concepts. Proponents of Social Darwinism take this philosophy to unrealistic lengths and use it to explain phenomenon far outside the applications for which it was designed. Eugenics and similar philosophies are what enabled the Nazi party to convince the population of Germany that “useless eaters” should be eliminated and that money could be put into use for more productive members of society. Much of these teachings derive from Darwinist philosophy. I’m sure Charles Darwin would be disturbed to find out his theory would be used to justify the genocide of millions of people all in the name of “survival of the fittest.” While this particular application of the theory is now considered a thing of the past, there are still many aspects to our society that misuse Darwin’s theories in similar ways. Even Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton used some of Darwin’s theories to apply to the hereditary nature of genius. The misuses of this theory are rampant, and the applications for which it was designed are not even wholly provable. When applied to concepts such as the self assembly of inorganic molecules into the complexity of living cells and the supposed random self assembly of amino acids into DNA, Darwinism has several serious leaps of faith, that call its explanations into question. While the theory is applicable on the macro level at explaining the modification of organisms in nature, in my opinion it should not be considered a “one size fits all” theory for everything in nature. In the past, many theories that were generally taken for granted were later proven inaccurate. I suspect that in the future, the over-application of Darwinist theory will be looked at in much the same way.

    • Thank you for a well-considered response. The Nazi example is a reminder of the tragic consequences of taking Darwin to extremes in the social arena. One place the “leap of faith” is in the newly burgeoning science of epigenetics: which looks to the environmental context that creates or suppresses particular gene expression, whose tendencies can also be inherited.

  49. I hesitated responding to this post because my knowledge base for every subject discussed above comes from pop culture with a smattering of more informed, thoughtful sources. But I figured pop culture has its own intelligence and value, so here I am.
    First, I don’t actually think we live in true social Darwinism; we live in a time where a wide range of social welfare programs exist to benefit the weakest and least able of our population. These programs don’t necessarily go out of their way to lift the poor, drug-addled, unemployed, sick, elderly, etc. out of their condition, but great effort is spent on keeping people at least within the status quo.
    We expend a great deal of resources on social welfare, and we also defy Darwinism on another front: medical advances. How many of us are alive not because nature intended it, but because modern medicine has stepped in and made it so? The “fit” portion of our society is shouldering some responsibility for its herd; we do keep the weak, the vulnerable, the old, and pretty much anybody that can’t take care of themselves.
    I was also very interested in the observation regarding our ignorance of natural limits. “Survival of the fittest” is a concept that is based on adaption- an organism adapting and surviving within a given environment. Humans bring something interesting to this concept: we don’t have to adapt to the environment, we can make the environment adapt to us. (I by no means think that just because we can, that we should.) This reversal is more and more doable, and it makes humans very different from other species. As the article points out, we do these changes by oftentimes using resources that have taken years upon years to create and increasingly spending resources we haven’t really accrued. Like all spending sprees that end in monstrous debt, it will eventually fail spectacularly and the debt collectors will come calling. I have a hard time imagining the specifics of what this moment of reckoning will look like, but I don’t doubt that it will come. In my childhood I imagined this nebulous creature know as Mother Earth exacting some terrible revenge on us for abusing our planet… becoming “fitter,” so to speak.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Silia.
      It is fortunate that not everyone in our culture subscribes to the creed of social Darwinism. It is my sense that deep in our hearts many of us would like to care for one another. But I have heard far too many politicians and others complaining about “welfare bums”. We have the poorest social welfare system in the industrialized world in terms of care for the poor, hungry, and workers. With Obama’s health care plan that might change a little– but look at the public reaction against that.
      One in four US children will be on food stamps in their lifetime; the distance between the rich and poor draws apart as one per cent of our population controls the majority of the national wealth. Whereas minimum wage once brought a family of four out of poverty, it will not now give one worker an above-poverty salary. Therefore we have a vast number of full-time working poor in this country. It was Richard Nixon whose administration found that it would cost the taxpayers less to give everyone in the US a “negative income tax” of 10,000 and scratch the welfare system because of the costs of bureaucracy. But this never happened; I can only believe that it is because of some measure of shame and guilt assigned to the poor–that they aren’t owed a living unless they are tracked and “managed”. But who are the homeless nationwide? The most numerous category is children; the second is veterans.
      In fact, the founding Puritan fathers of the US wrote emphatically that God rewarded the just and hard working with material well being. And I think this filters into our society today, so that we don;t see the poor as quite equal to ourselves– as the “herd” compared to the “fit” to use your words.
      I appreciate your thoughtful response. I certainly agree with your perception of the reckoning of the natural “budget” we are drawing on when we use resources millions of years in the making in a handful of decades.

  50. “The ignorance of our dependency on natural systems allows us to blithely undermine our means of survival”

    “I am not saying this always happens– but I am saying the formula physical-dominance- equals-breeding is far too simplistic to explain what happens within a species, much less in whole ecological systems.”

    This is another excellent article and the quotes above are really profound to me. I will save it. I watched a PBS programs about human evolution not long ago and it suggested that as humans evolved, many scientists believe that it was the ability to cooperate with others that made our ancestors “the fittest.” So, perhaps it is not competition that drives the evolution of the human race, but altruism and empathy that could explain why homosapiens remained and other homo species like neanderthal did not survive. Perhaps we have had it wrong all this time, maybe atural selection favored those who had the capability for empathy and that disposition toward empathy grew over time and is the root of our moral codes. There is so much thought provoking information in this article! I read another article a few years ago called The Moral Instinct and am including the link below because it can be seen as related to this post.


    • Hi Molly, I also find it hopeful that there is so much science coming out in favor of the importance of cooperation these days; I think it bodes well as an indication that the value system in our culture may be maturing (at last). You might also be interested in a book called, The Tending Instinct by Shelley Taylor (if you haven’t seen it already).
      Thanks for the link. I like to see thinking young women such as yourself go into the sciences!

  51. Murray Bookchin’s statement about reverse evolution was enlightening. The fact that we do homogenize culture and place seems more recognizable unfortunately after-the-fact than when the decision is being made and the development has removed what once made that particular area so special and recognizable.

    • Sadly so, Mary. In the throes of assimilation of native peoples by way of the idea of Manifest Destiny in developing 19th century US Indian policy, the government had the idea it was moving on “progress”– but had it precisely backwards– and we are still trying to untangle ourselves from the results.

  52. We as a species should work toward creating a mindset for all people in which we work together instead of against each other. By dividing people and resources, we are competing with one another for the best things.

    Survival of the Fittest has been abused for long enough. The Survival of those who fit in idea is where we need to move to. We need to treat hoarders and abusers as such. Only those who can adapt themselves to our current situation and the world that we have created will survive, and it will not be those who have decided to make the Earth their personal disposal area.

    Through a careful change to a society that understands our position as a part of a larger whole, we can put ourselves and the Earth off of the destructive path we currently ride on.

    The aggressive, overwhelming survival of the fittest of the last 200 years needs to be pushed to the side in exchange for an ideal that upholds the species and allows us to flourish for millenniums to come.

  53. I totally agree with the concepts of this article. By taking the view of ‘survival of the fittest’ you don’t take into account the idea of natural selection as described by Val Plumwood and the dominator societies. As described in this article it isn’t always the strongest, loudest or toughest that gets to procreate. A good example is my husband. I was raised by a dominate male. A my way or the highway sort of person. I dated most guys like my dad. Arrogant, dominating, jerks till I met my husband. He was always cool in stressed situations, he had the patience of a saint with me and he never raised his voice (except when we argue).

    I can’t believe that the person so many choose as their definition of non-religious belief actually said males are more evolutionarily advanced than females. What kind of hookey is that? Go to any school yard, dance studio or other places of social interaction and you will find that women are more comfortable, and successful than the majority of their male counterparts. I don’t mean that as a generalization, it is just my observation.

    The concept of Overshoot concerns me greatly. I have to ask myself if we have already reached the level where we cannot support the lives that already exist much less the continuing population explosion. I am not into government regulated reproductive systems but maybe China isn’t all wrong in allowing couples only one child. There has to be a better way to achieve negative population growth than having to have the government step in though.

    I can easily understand how those who believe in conquest and oppression are those fraught with the greatest social violence and unrest. It also explains why they are the shortest lived societies. When there is no peace internally or externally and violence is seen not as abhorrent rather than a daily occurrence to be accepted people leave that place or die off.

    I can totally understand how modern global development and mono-technology is a reverse of the natural evolution of increased diversity. I can see where modern development replaces millions of other species with humans but that doesn’t have to be the case. In one of my courses we studied how they are using soy as a primary plant for cultivation in the arid areas of Africa as well as the semi-frozen areas of tundra since soy is the one plant that can grow almost anywhere. But just because it can grow anywhere doesn’t mean it should. There are other, non-genetically engineered, plants that grown in a multitude of climates as one example hemp and I don’t mean the marijuana variety. And hemp has an almost unlimited variety of uses as well as being natural. There are other plants with those qualities too we just need to take more care the put what fits into the given eco system.

    I also agree that humans need to be more adaptive to the land rather than man-handling the land to suit them. With so many species now extinct and so many more close to it, man has to realize that if he doesn’t change he will cease to exist too. Especially in the arena of chemicals and man-made toxins. If toxins move up the food chain and we are close to the top of the food chain where does that leave us?

    I think the example of children needing so long to learn and the elders being the best of instructors, excellent. Even with a good part of my generation the lessons learned from our elders are the deepest seated and most cherished. Too bad that with the increase in speed of technology as well as the devil may care attitude the generations after mine seem to have decided that nothing older than 6months has any educational value, including elders. That is one of the major crises of our culture – a general lack of culture. The young no longer live by parents or grandparents because of jobs so the youngest rarely get the day-to-day involvement with their elders or anyone else’s.

    I can see another analogy in the red deer that reminds me of my husband, as well as the bulls. If you have self-control you have the advantage over the bullies and aggressive ones.

    All in all this article was very informative and I felt I could relate to almost all of it. If we don’t change then we will perish.

  54. So the fit survive. This only means leaving the unfit behind. It’s no wonder Darwin’s theory is flawed if we were to follow it incorrectly. If we have a species that is the “Superior Fit” everything else is doomed because of the egotism that comes with it. Our country can acts like this at times. I like the greater concept of “fitting in” instead. Less egotism, less fighting, less uncooperation, more cooperation…..there are lots more benefits.

  55. Survival of the fittest works in some ways, but is majorly flawed in others. Just like discussed in the essay there are many dependancies that the more “fit” animal or predator has on the less fit animals, they need them to eat and without food no animal is a survivor. Basically it comes down to, with out the survival of the less “fit” the fittest will not survive either.

  56. This essay put a different spin on the classic quote “Survival of the Fittest” and I can now see how this idea has become so misrepresented. Instead of this being a model found within the living non-human world used to describe population statistics it has become a way to support the idea of Manifest Destiny. This resulted in control an overpowering of most of the natural world. And I agree that this type of thinking and living is not sustainable at all. I feel awful every time I think about how people are using up resources that cannot be replaced without giving second thought to their actions. This essay should be a shocking warning to most readers. We are basically setting ourselves up for failure and are hardly considering alternatives to this way of life. We are no longer adapting to the environment but taking whatever we can from it.

    • You do a good job of pointing out the difference between the domination/ Manifest Destiny and actual sustainable adaptation to ecosystems, Ashely. It is time indeed that we shifted this back to a wiser course. Thanks for your comment.

  57. This essay has a lot of good, solid information. I can recognize many of these points but the concepts that particularly stood out were the ignoring of natural limits (“overshooting”) and the homogenization of culture and technology. To me, these are some of the most visible effects of globalization. While cheap goods and raw materials are being funneled toward Europe and America, we are exporting our culture to all parts of the world. The standard of living in Western countries is far above that of the majority of the world’s population because of this global imbalance in trade and finance. There is no land left for Western countries to colonize, so they legally appropriate weath through Western multi-national corporations.
    One of the best examples of cultural homogenaity, like the article mentions, are American fast-food chains overseas. I think part of the cachet of these restaurants is that they do come from America. However, I can’t think of many large companies based in other nations operating in the US. There are a few recognizable ones, like German automakers, but none from the developing world where our own companies are so active. I remember the public outcry a few years ago when a Chinese (I think) company was going to take over the running of an international port, and I can’t help but think that our system of global trade is pretty hypocritical. We take advantage of the cheap labor and materials these countries offer, then deride anything “made in China” as sub-standard when it is to our benefit to do so. As an example, the lead found in children’s toys and jewelry recently. Is the problem here just the production process of one particular item, or is there a larger problem with the system of production itself?

    • I think you have well expressed the problems with the current globalization dynamics, Tivey. Even as the first world has built itself from the historical legacy of colonialism, globalization continues this extractive approach. I think this is problem not only with the processes of production, but with our sense of values– which prioritize profit over community well being. As in the case of toys, the US lags behind European standards of safety so that some US toy manufacturers actually have set up two production lines: one for the toys that must meet European safety standards and one for the toys that don’t need to do this, since they will sold in the US. This certainly negates the argument that industry cannot follow any new US safety standards.

  58. I think many people do not take into account “survival of the fittest” could easily mean the fittest to adapt, not overwhelm. I like the points you made about the most aggressive creatures do not necessarily mean the most likely to breed. Taking unnecessary risks is not a very good strategy for the evolution and advancement of a species. In some cases, it has to be done, but taking every opportunity to lock horns will lead to disaster, as you rightly point out.

    Darwin’s study on birds, and how their beaks were more or less suited for cracking certain nuts has nothing to do with raw strength or power, it just happened that certain ecological events favored one type of beak or another. This is where your point about small, diverse farms are more resilient than large, mono-crop farms is very relevant. Look at the Potato Famine in Ireland, due to the English control of the island, and converting most of the Irish farmland into grazing lands, they took away most of the native Irish agricultural habits. This forced the Irish to only grow potatoes, as they could get the most yield out of a small plot with potatoes. But when an infection of the plants occurred, they had no back-up plan, and millions starved.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kamran. I brought up the Irish potato famine in the essay on biodiversity here: the potatoes grown in this situation (with sad parallels to contemporary globalization which pressures small formerly diverse farms to take up single crops– or replaces such farms with large industrial agricultural enterprises) is that they not only single crops, but single varieties of a single crop. Unlike, for instance, the hundreds of kinds of potatoes grown in Peru. In order for nature to exercise choice in natural selection, there needs to be choices available.
      Thoughtful points here!

  59. I enjoyed this article alot. Survival of the fittest? It should really be survival of the fittest cooperation. If we acknowledge that at the very least a living organism is dependent on a food source, we have to then acknowledge that that food source is dependent on its food source. It just keeps going and going like that, until eventually, we need to realize that nobody would survive if it was about domination. The more a “fitter” species tries to dominate, the more it actually ends up hurting their survival chances in the long run.

    • I think you are hit the nail on the head in terms of what I called the “dominator paradox”, Jessika– the more we try to assert ourselves with a dominator approach, the more we hurt our chances for survival in the long run. Thanks for your comment.

  60. It is appropriate to use the metaphor of the predator who soon finds his self without the means to survive after his prey has been depleted with the prospects that seem to soon be facing the world. While we continue to effect the world on a truly global level, extracting resources wherever we can find them, we shall find ourselves without the means to persist when our resources are gone. The fittest in these terms does indicate that the overrun and deplete strategy is not an adaptation for survival but rather a an appetite for destruction. Adapting and overcoming comes only when our evolution teaches us that we need to live within our global means.

    • It is certainly time that we realized that our actions indeed express an “appetite for destruction”. I am not sure that overcoming and adapting are ever the same: it seems to me that the attempt at overcoming signs a lack of adaptive strategies– unless you are speaking of overcoming our own predilections for what Chinua Achebe has call the “instincts of self-destruction”, such as arrogance and greed.
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  61. I never thought of looking at Darwinian survival as having so many possible methods and components to it. Of course when you think about it, it makes plenty of sense. Nature has a way of making due. Domination as a means of survival is almost crude in comparison so some of these other techniques. Embracing the fact that we as humans don’t always need to dominate and control the world around us to survive, we might be able to do better in our future.

  62. This article, Misusing Darwin is a reminder that we are in a symbiotic relationship with all living things. Throughout history the dominator type systems have taken over and those in the hierachal positions refusing to admit their dependency on those in lower status. You can see this type of dynamic in coorporation today. You see the CEOs and administrators of coorporations, cutting the pay, increasing the workload, and laying off the workers in the lower end of the tier while the CEO and administration get pay raises.

    We also saw this dynamic in history with the way we treated women, slaves and the Native Americans. There was total disregard on the part of those in power in terms of their dependency on these groups of people whom were less than privileged.

    • I obviously agree with you, Elizabeth. Thanks for your additional examples and elaboration of the point here. Domination is a strategy ignorant of our interdependence– and ultimately a losing strategy in any interdependent system.

    • Even when CEOs try to act under the guise of equality, it is anything but that. Last year the company I work for had a wage freeze that even the head CEO was subject to. However, I couldn’t help but think of how a wage freeze on a $1million a year salary was in any way similar to that of all the lower-wage workers (particularly those who earn minimum wage). We have seen many examples of how the inequality gap between CEOs and their workers simply continues to multiply.

  63. “Colonialism and certain dynamics of modern globalization encourage such “overshooting”, when some nations exploit the resources of others in order to survive, rather than living on their own natural budgets.”
    The US has certainly fallen victim to this. In “Confessions of Economic Hitman”, John Perkins documents his experience as an economist with encouraging low-income countries to take out loans that they will never be able to repay in order to promote development; or so the countries thought. Perkins admits that the purpose of this was in fact to bring these countries under the domination of the US.

    Using the animal examples described above, it’s definitely likely that the US is failing to achieve in their fight to dominate other countries through globalization.

    • Thanks for the comment, Breannon. I remember hearing about Perkins’ book a few years back. I can only repeat Shiva’s idea that true development would globalize things like peace instead of creating this kind of overshooting.

  64. I know it’s a bit late to respond but I had a lot of fun reading this. Nicely written article you have here that points out that wielding power over others isn’t a sure guarantee for survival, in fact just the opposite. Thanks Madronna.

  65. I thought that the observations of deer, bison, and wolves was very interesting. It’s very telling that this sort of behavior has not made as deep an impression on our cultural consciousness as much as things like only the strong or fittest survive. These ideas can be very true as along as the strongest or fittest is involved in some sort of battle or fight, which is very rare. I take care of sheep who fight over the few grains I give them every other day, and then spend the rest of their time eating grass peacefully side by side. Though there is competition it is fairly meaningless in terms of the bigger picture. It seems that it is the drama of such battles that can make them so alluring and cause us to blow them out of proportion to everything else that is happening, drawing our attention away from the more sustained quietness which surrounds them.

    • Thanks for adding your thoughtful observations of the sheep and their “sustained quietness” surrounding a brief flurry of competition for grain to the other observations in this essay, Andy.
      I think there are a number of reasons that we emphasize the “fight” in such observations– part of it may be drama, as you indicate. I think this is likely true of nature shows. I also think that our worldview focuses on this aspect of the natural world in order to license some of our own competitive and dominating behavior– behavior which I for one don’t think we can afford anymore.

    • I agree. I found it interesting how the quiet bison was the one able to breed the most. Many videos and classes have told me that these alpha male fights attract the females attention more allowing the winner to mate with them. However, I do find it that the drama, like in our lives, help them get the attention they need for the mating process. Without drama, life would be such a drag for these animals. I think that drama is normal in all competition is it is intriguing that not only humans are surrounded by drama.

      • Thoughtful response, Will. We might also consider that there are different types of drama than killing off our rivals. In the indigenous Northwest (Lower Columbia area), disputes were settled with ritual “battles”– very dramatic, but if someone got seriously injured, they called the whole thing off. Such ritual displays and “battles” were very common among indigenous peoples. Interestingly, men (these were predominantly male) put on their best display, making themselves dramatic and attractive as possible during such mock battles.

  66. This was a very interesting article to read considering I have taken many Bio classes with go over Darwin and evolution. It was a great read since it was coming from a different perspective.
    What I found most interesting and had to give myself a moment to stop and think was all the dead bodies that were being embalmed and then bury them underground where they are left there for years. There are deaths everyday, and many of the families choose to preserve the body. All the toxic that goes into a body and then left there for years is alarming. Imagine how much time it allows for the toxic to radiate out of the body into the ground and then make its path into other organisms and other areas of the land. Just devastating to think that homes with children are being built on these lands near cemeteries and are living there.

    • This is a point many of us never think about, Will. In fact, many current graveyards are comparable to toxic waste dumps. I would not think that this is the legacy we want for our loved ones. There is now a movement toward “natural” or “green” burial–and though some cemeteries require embalming, there are some who do not.
      Thanks for your comment– I wasn’t really going into Darwin’s theory so much as how it has been misused in line with a particular definition of “fittest”.

    • After reading your and Madronna comments, I find this point very disturbing. After careful thought, a graveyard is similar to a toxic waste dump and that is just sick. Do either of you feel that there should be some sort of policy on how a body can be buried? Would that be fair, and if it was your loved one do you think you would be okay with that?

      Personally, if a policy were in place that called for a certain type of burial, I probably wouldn’t even think twice about it and would just assume it to be like any other law. Interesting subject.

  67. Personally, I’ve always thought that Manifest Destiny was just another way for the “ruling class” to support their actions. Modern globalization seems to have encouraged social Darwinism as a way to justify the exploitation of other people and the environment. Indigenous people have adapted to their environments because they don’t consider themselves to be separated from it. These peoples holistic approach illustrates that they themselves are an adaptation of their environment and they understand the reciprocal characteristic of the natural cycle. Social Darwinism seems to promote a unilateral concept of nature which endorses the “survival of the fittest” mentality and supports those individuals with the greatest authority or influence. I also find it difficult to believe that human behavior is essentially motivated by a course of action to advance “one’s” gene pool. Maybe the first Homo sapiens could support this notion, but I believe that the majority of people today have a greater inclination towards self-fulfillment, and this is why we see so many people deciding not to have children. I also find it very interesting, and in support of my current view, that there are societies were social fathering is of a greater consequence than that of a biological parent. Any modern couple that adopts a child, even if they were unable to bear their own, would not support the “gene passing” philosophy because it supports sustaining a non-related genetic pool. Even other animals have been known to adopt outside their gene pool and species (i.e. cats, dogs, etc.).

    • Thoughtful points, Ryan. Obviously Manifest Destiny is not a story that much of the world would tell…and what is perhaps most interesting about “gene” is that a number of scientists and science historians have taken issue with the term itself: it is a construct, not a “thing” in spite of the popularized notion of it. One geneticist has said it is closest to an organ that works in conjunction with other body functions and the environment and more than one has proposed that we do away with the term altogether– this has caused an uproar in the field of genetic engineering. See some of the interviews (summaries are all there to peruse) on the CBC’s “how to think about science series”.

  68. The idea of cooperation over competition is an important one. Darwin’s theory “survival of the fittest” is often quoted by those who are avoiding compassion and empathy. This is ironic because compassion and empathy are traits of those that would be considered the fittest. Humans are social animals for a reason. In fact, social stress, put on us from social competition is part of what kills us and ages us. By being more cooperative,we can all live longer, fuller lives.

    • Great perspective, Michele. Those who may think they are helping themselves over others– who “avoid compassion and empathy are doing themselves no favors.

    • I really like your point about compassion and empathy being a trait of a fit person. It is healthy to compete with eachother as it is natural, but we must work together in order to preserve our planet and our lives. It is a collective effort, and no one person can claim they are part of the “fittest” people.

  69. This article discusses the survival of those who fit in, and talks about aboriginal cultures who have been around for thousands and thousands of years. I myself have believed in the survival of the fittest, and never taken time to look at this perspective. “The survival of those who fit in” was in interesting concept to me. Is it the survival of those who fit in? OR are the aboriginal the fittest? Maybe these aboriginal cultures are the fittest, and that is why they survive. They knew how to use the land for what they wanted, they were able to get food, they were the best fit for the areas that they remained. So in my opinion, that makes them both the fittest, and fit in.

    • Maybe is it both that those who “fit in” ecological systems are the “fittest” to survive, Sarah. Thoughtful point about the criteria for determining this.

    • I think you raise some interesting points, and I found myself second guessing the phrase as well. There is no denying that aboriginal cultures have been around for thousands of years and there is a reason for it. They preserved their land, and worked together as equals, rather than fight with eachother.

  70. I find myself saying the phrase, “survival of the fittest” as a joke when I am around my friends a lot. I normally am talking about a game in which I have just won, saying only the best survive. But when you apply that phrase to the real world it gets a lot more complicated. Who are the fittest? One society? One race? We all co-exist on earth, so if there were a “fittest” person then wouldn’t they be in charge. I think the author makes a ton of really good points. The one that stood out to me was that heroic conquests of a more powerful or fitter empire were not long lasting. They were eventually replaced by a different regime. I think that makes the authors argument very strong, and I enjoyed the article a lot.

  71. I thought this was a very educational piece.
    It’s interesting to know that the thrust of natural selection was to increase diversity, yet humans through their notions of “progress” associated with world views of social darwinism, Manifest Destiny, and now globalization are doing the polar opposite of increasing diversity.

    I don’t fully understand how social darwinism, manifest destiny, colonialism, and globalization (that are closely associated with the western society’s world views) can disregard and oppose a scientific “fact” so easily. Since science and technology has been the driving force of these societies for so long it seems absurd that they any scientific theory/ verifiable “truth” can so easily be pushed aside.

    In retrospect, if you are looking for an example of how human technological advances and modern scientific achievements has led to our detachment from the natural world, look no further.

    • Excellent perspective, James. I think this decrease in diversity, which runs counter to nature’s evolution is a key point in critiquing what “progress” has wrought. Thanks for your comment!

    • Great points, James. You have summed up the essence of the argument here–and the irony of the denial of actual observations in a science that supposedly is based on them.
      What passes for science is too often intertwined, so it seems, with a dominating culture and worldview with blinds us to a few vital realities– such as our real place in the natural world, and the ways in which we might develop cooperative methods to allow ourselves and other to better survive there together. Thanks for your comment.

  72. Our culture has sent the message that more is better, that if you are not number one you are last, a message that puts competition and outdoing each other as the main purpose for living. We have grown to be very discontent people. Nothing is ever good enough for us anymore and we keep improving systems and upgrading technology that is going to end up taking over our world. The simple life, when human beings treated their environment as a gift, and only took what they needed, creating homes and communities in a humble manner, trying not to disturb the natural cycles and ways of our earth is a foreign concept to today’s generations. Now our perspective is that we are stronger, we are smarter and we are the most powerful species that exists, therefore, we can have our way with the earth. While reading all of these articles and researching these ideas, unfortunately I have to admit it seems the mentality of western science and a majority of the population believes natural resources are objects to our disposal. I don’t think that the phrase survival of the fittest should be something we try to live by in our day to day life. I don’t truly believe we were put on this earth just to outdo each other and remain the most powerful species. We were given feelings for a reason, sensitivity, compassion etc. Therefore, I don’t think we can be compared to animals and other species in the wild. My ending thought from this article is that we are not as smart as we think we are. Nature is a very powerful system and I don’t think human beings have the right to take advantage of it.

    • I like your reminder that we are given feelings like compassion “for a reason”, Courtney–and that by implication we should use them to implement our wisdom (changes it thereby from mere information).
      I agree that it is foolhardy to believe we are on earth simply to outdo one another– this too often forgets that we cannot, in fact, exist without one another. As Thomas Berry reminds us, “Nothing on earth nourishes itself”.
      Thanks for your comment, Courtney.

  73. After reading this it makes me think of our current climate in the US. I wonder if the way we have been treating,feeding and education people is the reason we are having so many problems, I hope the peradime shift that this generation is working on helps us I hope its not to late.

    • I hope with you on this, Arnulfo. Keeping speaking the truth as you see it!

    • Good point Arnulfo. Being on top has seemed to dominate our way of life in the US or at least for republicans such as myself. Maybe that is why republican scandals seem to be about power while democratic scandals seem to be about women. I think the second scandal would be the safer and least damaging to the world.

    • Arnulfo, I agree with you on this, perhaps it is poor education or lack there of. Perhaps the young just don’t care about all of this and we need to figure out a way to instill this into them.

  74. I believe in survival of the fittest. All you need to do is spend time watching animals in nature. I would love to go some place where animals were not afraid of humans and just watch, like Africa. Usually animals in nature the weaker or the slower will be taken by predators. I always laugh when people say “all I have to do is run faster than you”. I think most humans have gone past survival of the fittest. I would call it survival of the smartest. I nature you can see that too but not as much.

    • How do you feel about different ways of looking at “survival of the fittest” given new data about the ways in which prey actually entice particular predators, Bob? What about the other incidents documented in this essay? I am part of “anyone” who has spent time watching animals in the wild, but I seem to have seen very different things– we can’t assume we all see or focus on the same things.
      Can you see that “just watching” can yield what we think we will see or expect to see– as in the case of missionaries in the Northwest who wrote about native “huts” that actually covered an acre of ground?
      The point of this essay is that watching needs to be done with considerable care–and without bringing our social stereotypes into the picture.
      We might well be “smarter” than some as a species (we do have culture), but I would hope that our human egos don’t make assumptions about superiority that work against long term survival–as in the failure to see natural limits pointed out in this essay.
      And “fittest” is not defined in the same way by everyone– or by history. In fact, nature may not define it the same way as human do.
      History has not shown the human “dominator” to be very enduring.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • I’m not so sure that you really understand the real original concept called, “survival of the fittest”, instead I think that you are mainly making comment on the contorted concept that has appeared in our modern society.

      Take for example the synergistic experience between humans and their environment.

      Although we severely manipulate the Earths physical landscape, we only can do so at her mercy. It is a symbiotic relationship. Ultimately the Sun will turn in to a Super Giant and implode the entire universe and suck everything up with it.

      Saying you believe in “survival of the fittest” does not take into account any of the main reasons that this essay was written.

      It was written as a critique to the morphing this idea into some sort of patriotic duty, rather than as a scientific theory that should be accurately supported in most examples.

      Remember to the theory that shows that investigators always find what they expect because they influence the factors at play so much so that it becomes a “self fulfilled prophecy”.

      Anyhow, I am sure that you mean well, but I would urge you to take a second look at this essay and realize that your own defensive reaction only proves the theories in this essay all the more.

      • Thoughtful points here, Shana. I appreciate your response–and the very important distinction between what survival of the fittest might really mean–and its contorted (as you aptly put it) view in the context of this culture.
        You have some points to consider in terms of the self-fulfilling prophecy of our observations.
        Thanks to both you and Bob for carrying on this conversation.

  75. This was a very insightful article for me. The first time I ever heard any examples like the ones given of the Casanova wolf or bison. I guess I have always been a competitive person a trait that we seem to develop with sports and testosterone. While I do see certain advantages in being competitive I now see the disadvantages of it and of the need to be on top. As mentioned in this text many civilizations have lived and died on this principal while a good many more that don’t seem to be taught in our grade schools flourished for much longer. This is a very good lesson that I would like to see in practice more often.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful considerations here, Phillip. As related to the point you bring up about liking a scary ride, I think that a sense of adventure that pushes our personal limits is something most of us (with or without testosterone) share.
      In fact, many initiation ceremonies from indigenous societies indicate that the escalation of testosterone in male adolescence is simply energy that can be used any number of ways–thus initiation ceremonies show young men how to channel this energy. It does not, that is, necessarily lead to the competition that means besting others.
      There is certainly nothing wrong with exercising ourselves in games with others (gambling games did this among indigenous Northwesterners) and testing our limits to the fullest.
      I think the problem exists when we equate “winning” with destroying others–and then justify class and warfare as a result. Not, as you echo here, a historically sound approach to survival– or the nuances of the natural world. It does not do humans and our potential very much justice if we we think that our energy is only good for smashing something or someone else.

  76. I particularly enjoyed the example of the Red Deer that mated while the more competitive and aggressive members of their group, fought.

    It is funny to think that “survival of the fittest” may not mean what it has been contorted to propose.

    Indeed as this essay proves, there are many example where the term is either misrepresentative or in other cases completely inaccurate in telling the tale of longevity and survival.

    The Irony in the fact that there is little to know diversity in McDonalds, and the foundational paradigm that supports the same theoretical knowledge that creates our “industrialized food system”, it is funny to apply this analysis to the corporations of our modern world, because of course they would be all the same, but how ironic is it that the same ideology that supports sameness in capitalism also dooms species in their respective natural environments.

    We are not absent from these same processes that effect the natural environment, and furthered we need to reconnect to the stories of our survival so that we can more accurately view the portrayal of our existence.

    This essay mentions two firm points that plant us in the argument that: first, their is a disassociation with natural processes in modern society and how humans relate to them; and second, that competition does not necessarily mean “survival of the fittest”

    • Thoughtful perspective, Shana– or at least, we need to re-define what we mean by fittest. If we REALLY means the survival of the species, besting other species and members of our own is not quite the way to go.
      Indeed, as you intimate here, that story is more about justifying the domination of others–and we need a broader and more complex story that will allow both ourselves and other lives to thrive within it.
      Thanks for your comment.

  77. I took an anthropology class lass term where I learned some basics about evolution and Darwins theory. After learning about it and reading this essay, I find it unsettling that we have basically eliminated the “survival of the fittest” theory. I think Darwins ideas have been misinterpreted throughout history and that is why it seems like we’ve reached the point of dismissing them all together. We need to keep in mind that when Darwin says “survival of the ‘fittest’ ” he is speaking biologically, not socially. He isnt saying ‘the strong will survive’ as in muscle… he means the genetically strong. Now, looking at it from that point of view, its true.

    • Words like “strength” and “progress” need careful definition, as you indicate, Courtney. And so do sweeping generalizations about the natural world.
      Thanks for your comment.

  78. This was a very informative essay. I never really understood why everyone is so power hungry. I never understood why people always want to fight to be at the top. What good does it do? It simply just harms others in the process. If we cooperate with each other and work together, so much more can be done! Why is there so much hatred in the world? Why so much violence? Its interesting how Darwinism was eventually interpreted to mean that we can dominate by doing whatever we please to get there. Whether it be killing people through war, or by taking advantage of our resources, that if not kept, will eventually run out.
    Indigenous peoples seem to understand that we are given this earth, and if we take from it, we need to replenish it. Whatever happen to that view? We can’t just keeping ignoring our natural limits like this.

    • In my sense, you had some critical perspective on cultural norms of domination, Michelle. Essential question you ask: what good does it do to “get to the top” since it simply harms others in the process.
      In the longer course of evolution, humans really didn’t have much going for them except cooperation. Why so much violence, indeed. Once again, in the longer span of things, violent cultures are the deviants.

  79. I agree that the survival of the fittest is an outdated and irrelevant term. It has been proved that the strongest is not necessarily the best. Look at Stephen Hawking for instance, he is not strong, nor is he able to stand or move very easily. However he is one of the greatest minds that we have in terms of science and space. There have been countless other times when brain beats brawn, or when the underdog comes out to be the victor. As a wildlife rehab worker, I save every little creature that I can- from baby birds to little bunnies. Some might say that we should let nature take it’s course and let the weak die, but I can’t sit idly by without helping something in need. I hope humanity starts to think in these terms soon.

    • Thank you for sharing your compassion toward all small creatures– and for sharing what they seem to have shown you about other kinds of strength than the sheer physical ability to overcome another, Samantha.
      Since I agree that intelligence outweighs “brawn”, I hope that humans get around to using theirs to treat the natural world that sustains us properly.

  80. Regardless of who is more “evolutionary advanced” than the other (which I think is a ridiculous notion) the bigger picture is that humans can not continue without both.
    The point that survival of the fittest had to do with adaptation and a complete circle is a great point. It didn’t have to do with which animal could physically dominate and rule other animals. The animals tht survive don’t usually kill without theintent to eat and do not desimate the land.
    Thereare also several animal species that are monogamous and the father is also a daddy, not just an animal that passed its genes on. A lot of men could learn from that example, along with some women.

    • Thoughtful points on both the careful definition of “fittest” as related to adaptation and the models of social fathering among more than human animals, Loni.

  81. This web essay makes you realize how off balance our world truly is. The human race has modernized so quickly that we are wiping out the others around us. In order to move forward fluidly and adapt with the world around us, there has to be some balance and equality. When it was onlyindigenous society’s they lived equally with the land and with the other creatures that lived on the land. That all quickly changed, and natural selection goes out the window when one species dominates all of the others. “Diverse systems are thehealthiest ones”, and as time goes on, the less diverse we are making this earth. Animals are going extinct as well as natural landscapes because we have tipped the scale too far in our own direction. If we continue this pattern we are not only damaging the lives of so manycreatures, but we are damaging the lives of everything that sustains the human race.

    • You bring up something important to remember indeed, Melinda: when we jeopardize the lives of so many other creatures, “we are damaging the lives” of all that humans need for survival as well.
      As you indicate, it is time to adapt to the world around us, rather than expecting to remake it for our convenience. This is the opposite of evolution, which is all about flexibility and true adaptation–as well as creating more diversity. Thanks for your comment.

  82. I agree strongly with the point made here about adaptation and power. We now have the technology and wisdom to change our world to suit our needs, which is not adaptation of out planet, but power over it.

    The issues we face today, seem to be a direct result of this masking of our own power as a society. Even naming things like “climate change”, seem like there is a natural occurrence related to them. Yes, of course there is such thing as natural climate changes, but the issue is not natural climate change, but what we do to our atmosphere and how we can control this. And unless the difference is understood, it is easy for people to say things like, “entering a new ice age” or whatever to disguise what the real issues are.

    • Good point, John– about the ways in which we fail to assume responsibility for our own power–and of course, and tragically, disempower ourselves as we do this, since we thereby usher in such dangerous choices.

  83. Like many, I have grown up conditioned to think that survival of the fittest meant the strongest survive, and that this idea was completely logical. While I sometimes did associate the strongest with other “strong” attributes like brain power, or knowledge, I never really took the time to break apart the idea and look at survival of the fittest as survival of the most evolved. I liked how this essay showed ways that survival of the fittest has been generalized and misinterpreted because I have definitely done that in the past, it definitely helped me give Darwin’s ideas new and better meaning.

  84. Throughout history there are examples of the “mighty falling.” The survival of the fittest notion I think works better on an evolutionary basis then a social basis. The person in charge, be it politically, socially, religiously, etc, always has a person who covets and longs for their position. Thinking back to all my history classes those who were deemed “strong” and “fit” that had great power, were all targets for someone who wanted to replace them.

    Overconsumption often happens because of humankind’s self-centeredness and superiority complex. As I read this paper, I could not help but think of the events that occurred on Easter Island. The people thought the resources would continue to be plentiful forever, but they were sorely mistaken. I think a version of this is going on now. It is just taking longer because there is more land and resources that need to be consumed. Without changes in our behaviors nature might just show us that it is the “fittest.”

    • Thoughtful response: and my point is that “survival of the fittest” as the mightiest does not work in an evolutionary sense either– instead we need to analyze exactly what being the “fittest” entails. There are many historical examples such as Easter Island. Let us hope that modern industrial society does not replicate this failure on a global scale.

  85. I think because we are such a fit species that we take for garnet the species that help us survive. Because we see lower species as unintelligent, we step over them as if they mean nothing, but really they are our stepping stones on being the top species. We need to cherish all life on out planet because if we didn’t have them then we wouldn’t be here today.

    • What does being a “fit” species mean to you?

    • It seems that throughout human history we tend to ignore or take for granted lower species until there is a problem. Once the species becomes endangered or scarce then it tends to be a focal point. I agree in the need to cherish all life on the planet……….not just when there is a problem.

      • Indeed, Amanda. I think this is a good reason for the precautionary principle– since it is so much easier not to create a problem in the first place than to try to fix it once it happens.

  86. Throughout history there are examples of the “mighty falling.” The survival of the fittest notion I think works better on an evolutionary basis then a social basis. The person in charge, be it politically, socially, religiously, etc, always has a person who covets and longs for their position. Thinking back to all my history classes those who were deemed “strong” and “fit” that had great power, were all targets for someone who wanted to replace them.

    Overconsumption often happens because of humankind’s self-centeredness and superiority complex. As I read this paper, I could not help but think of the events that occurred on Easter Island. The people thought the resources would continue to be plentiful forever, but they were sorely mistaken. I think a version of this is going on now. It is just taking longer because there is more land and resources that need to be consumed. Without changes in our behaviors nature might just show us that it is the “fittest.”

    • Good perspective, Amanda. There is no easy leap from long term evolutionary “fittest” to social “fittest”– but then again , there is that perspective of the Chehalis who saw the “eyes of the earth” as determining human survival– thus echoing the sentiment of your last sentence.
      If we think we are “mighty” enough to overuse resources and get away with this, nature, as you point out, “might just show us” what fitness is all about.

  87. I think this re-interpretation of ‘survival of the fittest’ is important to state. So often it is used by the dominate culture to justify poor behavior. Like ‘manifest destiny’. It reminds me of reality competition shows, like Survivor, where ‘surviving’ is ‘every man for themselves’ and lying, cheating, backstabbing, etc. give people a winning advantage. I don’t really watch those shows to know if that is still the norm, but I saw enough in the beginning to see the values they supported. Learning about the mating experiences of species previously thought to be about dominance was interesting and made sense. Classic ‘make love not war’ in action.

    • Hi Amy, your comment points out the difference between “surviving” and quality of life. Looking at the richness of the diverse natural world, it looks like nature goes for richness and– certainly, it does not go for homogenizing cultures and species (and human food sources) until there is only one super-one left.

  88. There were many ideas in this essay that caught my attention, but I don’t want to make a novel out of this post. One of the foremost was the presentation of “living beyond one’s limits”. I’ve wondered about what will happen when people run out of places to flee to. We see it frequently; droves of people ‘escaping’ the big city to a smaller town where they can have more space and live less expensively with better access to more resources. My parents moved our family from the small town I grew up in, because its population exploded after people from more southerly states discovered how gorgeous and pristine the area was. At about six times the number of people who lived there when my family was growing up, and with a huge influx of moneyed individuals with a less than positive attitude towards the locals (most of whom were not particularly wealthy), it was nothing like it had been in about thirty years’ time.

    Now, people are moving out of that town, and looking for the next small and charming place with affordable real estate and surplus resources. It seems logical to postulate that we will eventually run out of places to go and resources to utilize if world populations continue to increase. There may be plenty of ‘empty’ land available, but not all regions are equipped to handle large human populations (Los Angeles rings a loud bell). I think that there are solutions, but not everyone will like them or be willing to participate, especially if they involve lessening of material acquisitions and moderation of reproduction. The former seems most applicable to ‘wealthier’ countries (although it turns out most of them aren’t all that wealthy), while the latter pertains more to countries with very high birth rates; both factors are already stressing the limits of natural resources. I think that we as a species keep looking for another way out and another resource to replace those that are spent, but eventually we’ll have to face the factors causing the problems.

    • Thanks for your comment, Adreinne. The idea of “empty land” to develop is of course contingent on the fact that the land is not providing essential ecosystem services such as water and air filtration or carbon sequestration or habitat for non-human species –or human services such as food growing or meeting our need for aesthetics and places to connect with the natural world. I hope we do indeed, as you mention, face the factors causing the problems that cause us to flee to a better place (or in the case of industry, where there are cheaper labor pools or more resources to extract) very soon.

  89. After reading this essay I have come to realize that the term “survival of the fittest” is based on each individual’s perception of what they think the fittest represents. Just because modern society has all this technology doesn’t mean we are the fittest. We have all these projects that are supposed to bring “progress” to third world nations, but nobody has stopped to think about whether “progress” truly equals “survival of the fittest”. The native people of third world nations have been surviving on this earth a lot longer then modern society has, we should be taking notes on their sustainable practices rather then trying to modernize their society.

    • Good perspective, Chris. We have done a good deal of damage by not examining the actual results of our “progress” (and making related choices) or assuming the “fittest” are those who use the kind of technology we use with so many attached problems.

    • I quite agree. It is an exercise in ethnocentrism to assume that we, who are the economically dominant society, have nothing to learn from others, despite the fact that many of these societies have lasted far longer than our own. This is an example of dualism as well: the “first world” vs. the “third world”. To assume that we cannot learn anything from native practices and that we are instead the teachers would be a terrible mistake.

  90. The cultural idea that comes to mind when the phrase “survival of the fittest” is mentioned, that we must destroy others (other humans, other species, the planet, etc.) to survive is a value that contributes to our own self-destruction. Because this idea, at the heart of social Darwinism, is anathema to natural selection itself. In order for adaptation and thus natural selection to occur there must be a diversity. Nature is based on balance. Diversity, both within a species and between species ensures this balance is maintained through infinitely intertwined and complex interrelationships. A cultural philosophy of “survival of the fittest”, which engenders domination, is the enemy to natural diversity, and thus survival, both of humans and of the rest of the natural world. Instead we should learn to live as a part of nature, because, far from her master, we ARE nature.

  91. The statement “If a predator wipes out all its prey, it wipes out its own mean of survival” was really powerful me. To me it represents us and everything around us. Not just the food we eat but the environment the natural systems, the objects we interact with everyday. To me all of these things represents the prey from the food we eat to the air we breathe. If we wipe out these things we are wiping out ourselves, and at this point we are doing a fine job of wiping out everything natural. This statement made me think about the rivers, the oceans, the air, the trees, the creatures, and other humans. Everything that we need to survive we are slowly making it useless. This will bring about the end of us. It also reminds me of the Malthusian Theory of in that overpopulation and overuse will lead us into death, famine, and war or a combination of all or some of these. To me it all speaks true, maybe not for overpopulation (though I do agree it’s a huge problem) but for everything else that we take for granted. Just as you said dominating societies don’t seem to think they owe any gratitude to nature that keeps them sustained.

    As you also stated in that these types of societies that think they have the right to take as much as they need a live outside of there own resources, are also short lived people of societies. This has been seen in so many cases where over use and consumption has led to the downfall of many great civilizations. Usually not from outside either, but rather they crumbled from the inside out. One that has especially interested me was the Easter Island civilization. From the statues and what historians and archeologists have gathered is that it was a pretty “developed” society. Though they eventually used up all of there resources and succumbed to famine and war with each other. So a once diverse covered island was void of all existence except a few statues that told the tale.

    • Good points and examples to contemplate, Laura. I like the analogy of the predator wiping out its prey to the dominator destroying the natural system upon which his life depends.
      It is about time we learned both from human historical mistakes and the dynamics of natural systems built up over the long time periods that make human generations seem a bit paltry by comparison.

    • Laura,
      I think that you’re right on that dominating societies don’t show any gratitude to the nature that sustains them. Dominating societies are so far removed from where it is that they actually get their food and resources that they can’t appreciate them as much as someone that is actually working out in the land and harvesting the food and materials they need to live. In the long run these dominating societies maybe the ones to fall since they are so far removed from nature. It’s harder for them to get back to the basics. This is an example of where one society may seem the most evolved may actually be heading in the wrong direction.

  92. Survival of the fittest in our society is powered by competition and dominance over others including nature. It is a constant state of chaos where the competition for acquiring never ends and what starts as trying to survive the nature by dominance turns out to be greed.
    Managing natural resources wisely is a constructive and positive way of thinking of how we can live in a balanced ecologically sustainable society.

  93. Darwin’s theory of evolution looks at evolution over the long period of time, not in the sense that this article talks about at points. Because one country takes over another does not mean that they won their evolutionary battle. We are actually all humans and you can look at different traits within us to see what traits are becoming dominate in the world that we are changing. Traits that were strong two, three hundred years ago may not be the same as the traits that are strong now. We (people in the US) use to depend more on our physical ability, now we depend more on our mental ability. I don’t believe that Darwin meant for his theory on survival of the fittest to be applied to the social actions of human societies.
    We can imagine in evolutionary long term, it is a long time for us to grasp, we are actually still evolving, and there is evidence of things getting worse for us before hopefully they will get better. We have poisoned ourselves with toxic chemicals and are giving ourselves diseases by the way we eat. China is a good example of what can happen when we have little to no environmental regulations. Sure their economy has boomed, but now they are getting to the point where their environment is so degraded that they can’t continue to go on the same and generate as much economic income.
    I also think that survival of the fittest was taken in the wrong context in this article. The fittest does not necessarily mean the strongest and loudest. Fittest means physical traits that prevail in the given environment. I have recently been watching the Everest series on the Discovery channel. Sherpa’s are a prime example of this. They are the fittest to climb at high elevations, but are generally smaller and not bulky with mussel. Fittest does not equal strongest, and I know there are examples out there where the dominate traits don’t prevail, but that doesn’t mean that they theory doesn’t stand.

    • Thoughtful, why do you think this essay’s theme is “misusing” Darwin rather than putting forth an implication that the theory itself does not stand?
      How do you understand this distinction?

      • I think that this essay is taking the meaning “fittest” as meaning litteraly fit, strong, and dominating, when that is not necessary what Darwin is implying in “survival of the fittest”. The fittest person can be the being who is most compassionate if that is what helps them to survive. I think that this essay addresses some good points, but I feel like sometimes it’s taking punches at Darwin when his theory of evolution means more than being able to physically dominate it’s competition.

        • There is a difference between social Darwinism and Darwinism and the main point of critiquing the former is that it defines the idea of “fittest” precisely as you indicate: “as fittest as being strong”, etc. Important not to confuse the essay with the points it is critiquing. I don’t think you want to miss this point. So do look again at the whole essay.
          The idea of fitness as compassion, etc., is precisely the point of the essay.
          Thanks for the follow up– always good to clarify these points. The essay critiques MISusing Darwin rather than using Darwin, which misuse and narrow interpretation of “fit” as dominant has caused such problems as you outline– and the essay outlines in more depth.

  94. I agree that Darwin’s theory of evolution has been manipulated and used to justify bullying of the “less fit” by those who have generated the standard of what it means to be the fittest. Survival of the fittest isn’t a theory based on humans having the authority to determine what nature selects to survive. Natural selection is exactly that: selection by the environment. But prevailing patriarchal ideology attempts to convince us that it is humans who can persuade nature’s decisions. We think that because it appears that nature has conceded to our wills, we are therefore in charge. She has been warning us for some time now that she is out of balance. Nature is forgiving to a fault, but when she is pushed to her limits, she will do what it takes for her own survival. And her regulatory processes are more powerful than all the strength we think we can muster up.

    Humans who have come to believe that progress and technology can outsmart natural selection will soon find themselves in a quandary. Progress is not the deciding factor that determines our continued existence on this planet. And when you are running a linear race like progress, you want to get to the finish line first. But the inherent properties of the natural world aren’t linear. And a race to the finish line only works in a world that’s flat. While we are running this linear race, we may find that we’ve run ourselves right off the edge of this round planet.

  95. How do you manage human nature with mother nature? In contemplating Darwin’s theory of natural selection and its implication in social settings a couple of things pop out to me. First, is that we have done some serious damage to the Earth in the past two hundred years and we have justified it with Darwinism– more in the past two hundred years than in the past two thousand years. Take the concept of ‘manifest destiny.’ The idea to displace indigenous people was developed in a political laboratory tasked with profitable growth. Then, to legitimize the political propaganda of the time they bastardized science to collaborate the “master narrative” being sold to the public. We continue to do it today from cigarettes to fracking. The most lucrative enterprises are justified with the survival of the fittest ‘dominator’ mentality where winner takes all and all suffer as a result.

    The second thing that hit me is that there is a growing shift in human consciousness, like the ecofeminist movement, which neutralizes some of this damage. As we hurl ourselves towards that critical mass moment when we realize we have damaged our environment to the point of no return we evolve to make more ecoconscious decisions. I observe that humanity is making quantum leaps in human rights, sustainable energy, low impact living, etc– things that were impossible or unthinkable 50 years ago are daily realities. The question I have is if human evolution will accelerate to one of social and ecoresponsibility before it is too late. In the meantime, if we can stop justifying our destruction with commercialized interpretations of Darwin’s observations that would be most helpful.

    • Justifying the most lucrative practices (whatever their ill effects) with the “dominator as legitimate” theory has indeed played havoc with the natural environment– not to mention, with our relationships to other humans!
      Your last sentence made me smile with its pointed sense of ironic understatement, Justin. It would indeed be most helpful, as we try to move as quickly as we need to to heal so much, that “we stop justifying our commercialized interpretations of Darwin’s observations (that is, social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny).
      Thanks for your comment.

  96. This essay enlightened me on the ignorance and unawareness we have regarding Darwin’s theory. I remember learning about Darwin in a variety of courses throughout my schooling and I was always taught that the “survival of the fittest” theory was correct and still lives on today. This is a refreshing perspective on that idea. It makes sense that the survival of the fittest concept only tears people and nations apart. Naturally, this concept has led to competition and issues of that nature. We need to remind ourselves that working together as a unit is key and we will receive many more benefits if we do so. This goes hand in hand with co-existing with our natural world. We must strive to meet the needs and keep up with the natural world in order to live in complete harmony with each other.
    The idea of domination mentioned in the essay really caught my eye. I totally agree with the statement “those at the top deny their dependency on the ones at the bottom”. If we can’t fix this out look than there will be consequences to not only ourselves but the natural world as well.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I do want to clarify that “survival of the fittest” is not the problem– defining “fittest” as dominating mono-culture is.
      And good reminder that if we aren’t conscious of those lives that sustain ours, we certainly are not placing ourselves among the “fittest” for survival.
      How would YOU define fittest in the phrase “survival of the fittest”?

    • I guess this theory can live on today but we must realize that we are not like other species on Earth. Now we will have to adapt to new technology and whoever can be inventive or discover new technology will survive. No longer will it be based on actually surviving since we have come so far in civilization that you don’t have to do anything to survive. The natural world is suffering because a small area can now provide survival for a large population. We are dependent on a lot of people around us that we don’t even know. Most people in this country have no food security at all and rely heavily on the work or ideas of others.

      • No species is exactly like any other (that is what makes it a species =).
        Food security is certainly an issue– can you see how it results (if possibly indirectly) from a misuse of Darwin’s theories?

  97. Well that term survival of the fittest is useless. We have advanced to a point where everyone can survive because they can become dependent on their family or the government. We never have to get our own food or water, it is all easily accessible. Nobody is judged based on their survival skills any more, it is all a money based ideal. We are tested through competition even though it does not affect our ability to survive or live our lives. We have become a community that makes it more difficult to fit in then it was in the past. We are all supposed to have the same social skills and although there are many different job fields, they usually require us do to similar job duties. This does affect the environment because of the diversity of methods out there. Also since everyone born can survive off of the system, the environment must be manipulated to allow this to happen.

    • You have a thought to consider–I think our system does favor certain persons in terms of survival– the rich, by your analysis? Access to health care is very unequal. So while it may look like all can survive, it does not exactly work out that way.

  98. Come to think of it all the great societies that we studied in school, The Greeks, Romans, Persians, the Warlike societies of the French, Russians and Germans have all gone to history. Nothing but bad memories and ruins that represent their dominance over the lands remain. Just as vegetation needs a communal growth in order to symbiotically share the nutrients that each plant produces independently this is also true of humans and civilizations. I agree that the Darwin’s survival of the fittest has been abused and overused to explain horrible acts to both humanity and the Earth. There is a large difference between adapting to an environment and letting its needs shape your being and trying to control that environment. The best arrangement would be to go against the few thousand years of dominant civilization teachings and try something else.

    • Considering that we know our history of conquest, I can’t believe that people continue to believe that a life of domination is acceptable. We have many examples of civilizations that fell due to uprisings and poor treatment of the conquered. Indigenous cultures lived longer, less stressed lives and they were considered the inferior society. Between religious persecution and the view of domination, most native societies are shadows of what they once were. Many were lost just because of diseases introduced into their society by conquerers.

    • The leavings of dominator history as “bad memories and ruins” is well said, Kayli. And one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results– I would agree that it is time to try something else.
      You are very right that there is a profound difference between adapting to an environment and trying to control it– how did we ever get to the point of trying to conflate the two of thse?
      Thanks for your comment.

    • I agree this domination over the land and nature is not doing us any favors and as we have seen in history it did not help there societies either. You would think we would learn from history and realize that we need to change our ways to ensure our species survives for many generations. You would also think we would value and learn from the elders of the indigenous people who have been here for many generations and have adapted with the land.

      • I hope with you that we learn from history sooner rather than later–and from the elders (including the land itself, with its own enduring history) that can illustrate such lessons for us.

  99. The more essays I read on this website, the more I believe that our society needs to change. All rulers or empires that have been based in domination have failed eventually. Native societies that learn to adapt to their environment have survived for thousands of years longer than more “advanced” societies.

    Ever since I was young, the idea of survival of the fittest has always come along with the idea that those most fit are the ones most agressive. Humans should be adapting to the environment, not adapting the environment to us. Indigenous cultures already know this because they have lived and learned about their land through thousands of years of experience. I’ve always had a wish to be able to see what the land was like before colonialism. Our society has had hundreds of years of teaching that promotes domination and objectification. Hopefully new teachings can start to change the worldview that is prevalent today.

  100. I love the phrase “reverse evolution.” This is exactly what is happening to our earth! I was watching a show called Gold Rush where families are literally tearing up the earth, chopping down and throwing away trees, all in the name of gold. One kid literally cut hundreds of acres of vegetation down and dug 20 feet into the earth only to find a few ounces of gold. All of that destruction for the slim possibility of …gold? A substance that I feel is actually less valuable in our society today than it ever has been. Maybe this is how we start over with our earth, by realizing what is valuable to us and the earthly spirits (plants/animals) around us. We need to reevaluate our values and priorities not just for our lifetime, but for the generations after us. Obviously a lot of what we grew up believing has been changed over time, just like Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” notion. It is definitely time to assess our damage and form a new action plan for reviving nature.

  101. It is sad that we rely on natural life but we treat it as lower than humanity. We have an ignorance that we depend on natural systems for our means of survival. We are shaping and changing the land to fit our needs when in fact we are destroying the natural systems that give us life and ensure our survival. It’s like we are self destructing our means for survival and the survival or our species. With mutual adaption from nature and humans we can insure our survival. We need to listen to the elders of the indigenous people and take their advice to save the biodiversity of this world to insure our species will survive for many generations as they have. We need to change our ways and start taking care of our world.

  102. While this is not the first time I have heard that “survival of the fittest” is a misrepresentation and simplification of Darwin’s ideas- there were some compelling examples here that I did not know about. I really appreciated the stories about the red deer and bison and wolves where the more aggressive males- often assumed to be the most fit- are not actually mating as much. While they are off fighting to the death, other males are taking advantage of the situation and mating with the females and thus, passing their genes on. Even though these may be the exception, rather than the rule- it still shakes up some assumptions we take for granted- such as bigger and stronger is better. I heard Dacher Keltner speak at the U of O last year from Greater Good at UC Berkeley and he also spoke about how cooperation, not competition, leads to survival. I am glad people are questioning some of these paradigms, because they can do a lot of harm and frame how people look at the world, which affects what they see happening. If we start looking for more examples of how cooperation is a survival strategy, I am sure they will be found!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. It seems to me the problem is not with the phrase “survival of the fittest”– but how we define “fit” within it. In modern culture, “fit” too often means the ones who can best and replace others through aggression.
      And as for the “exceptions” of the non-aggressive breeding– perhaps they may be in some cases. But DNA studies among baboons, for instance, confirm that it is the peaceable males with the most female “friends” who are the ones who are passing on the most genes within a troop.
      Certainly gives us something to think about in musing on the competitive ethic in industrial society.

  103. I really like the “adaptation” theory or idea that it takes both the person and the environment to create a balanced healthy change. The survival of differing cultures depending on their ability to work well together, support each other and protect and preserve their environment makes perfect sense. The example of societies who battle for power, food, resources, etc do not exist as long as the society that is able to happily co-exist, nurture, and care for each other. After reading this article, it seems the fittest survivor is not always the strongest, largest and most dominating, as we are often taught. The more adaptive and people or animals are, the more it ensures their survival. It makes me think of the term, “it takes a village to raise a child”, because of the strength we have in a community working together.

    • I like your points about adaptation, Janae. There is also something for the links between the development of human intelligence and the benefits of adaptation (that is, the smarter animals are also the most adaptable).
      Can you see why there would be a misunderstanding concerning what it takes to be “fit” in nature, given our worldview?

  104. Recently, for another class, I came across similar concepts that seem to fit in with the ideas in this essay so well. In that class, I learned about how man-made changes to the environment have led to an increase in population of sea lions and terns, beyond what the land had ever naturally known, and is thus decimating the salmon population. This is indicative of what is seen all over the world: humans altering the environment, which alters ecosystems and ultimately changes the face of the land and its ability to support the human population. Not only by this, but through the use of unsustainable agriculture practices, the use of pesticides and herbicides, GMOs, all these things will ultimately reduce biodiversity and (I think) bring an end to our society. As the human population continues to grow and we continue to put stress on our natural resources, food and water eventually our population will crash. We are possibly already beyond the natural carrying capacity, using artificial means to support our population. As the population continues to grow, this will only become worse. Of course, having a smaller population would be beneficial for the land, but we also need to return to sustainable, land-based practices and listen to the land and what it can support.

    • Important points to consider in the ways that our choices are contrary to our own survival as well as that of other lives on the planet, Jillian.
      Such actions certainly don’t nominate our species as the “fittest” in terms of survival choices.
      Is there a way in which we might tie in such unwise choices to a misuse of the idea of “survival of the fittest” and assumptions regarding ourselves as the dominant species. How might this idea be tied in which both human population increase and unsustainable practices in garnering our subsistence?

  105. This is an interesting article that I took a lot from. It certainly seems that in some ways Darwin utilized science to substantiate his worldview, thus perpetuating it. The ironic part of human evolution might be that if we were truly evolving we might gain the sense that “overshooting” our resource use is not a sustainable act and like the essay states, the societies that engage in this behavior are prone to collapse. I found the contradiction of natural evolution and Social Darwinism interesting. While one supposedly increases diversity the other tragically tends towards assimilation, homogenization and the creation of “nowhere,” where true cultural elements have been lost to industrial standards. For this reason it seems that the tendency of social Darwinism, in the end, will not be a means to perpetuate the human race, or the dominant cultures of the human race, but instead it will be a means of quick, universally speaking, eradication. But, it certainly brings up the point that if humans are part of the natural order of things, an animal amongst other animals in the biosphere, then our creative and destructive forces could certainly be viewed as natural. If we pulled the microscope back further and further, we might see the earth in terms of a cell or an organism. In this way, perhaps the current earthly destruction is analogous to a viral infection (humans) that seeks survival even if it kills the host organism (earth).

    • Let us hope that humans rise to the challenge to become more than a “viral infection” on the planet the hosts and sustains us, Josh. Though it is an all too apt analogy for some of the unwise choices we are making. Perhaps as we pull the microscope back, we might pause for a moment at the perspective that we are all part of the same living system and decide to change our actions before we reach the viral stage?
      At the very least, we might realize that a creature that chooses its actions as we do ought to cultivate self-knowledge along with power?
      It is in the latter way that social Darwinism fails us, giving us a view of our superiority in a way that brokers no critical assessment even as it given us fewer and fewer alternatives, as monocultures of all types do.
      Viruses at least can adapt by changes their own codes! But of course, even if we cleverly change/adapt but do this only for the purpose of finding new ways to exploit our host, this is a short term survival strategy at best when our host is the whole of the living planet.
      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment in emphasizing the distinction between natural evolution and social Darwinism.

    • I really enjoyed the vision you told. I too have often wondered just how big we (earth) are under the universal microscope. Though it does not help us to ponder on our insignificance to the bigger picture. We might be microscopic in some relations but in others we are not and we must correct our damaging behavior within our parameters.

      • Perspective is an important thing. In this context, our smallness as isolated individuals might teach how large we might become in our connections to all of life–

  106. This article was an interesting read, especially the bit at the end about the alternative to survival of the fittest being survival of those who fit in. I like the last line of Deborah Rose’s quote which pretty much summed up her entire argument; participants in a country are superior to winners because they will seek balance in the world as opposed to dominance. When you think about the history of human existence I have to wonder why more people haven’t recognized this concept. Indigenous societies often prosper hundreds of years longer than the more competitive ones.
    The concept of denied vulnerability and bonding is not one that I had considered before when thinking about the fallacies of social Darwinism. The subject of adoption can be easily correlated to argument of genetic fathering versus social fathering. People are often times more concerned with perpetuating their own genetics or simply find the thought of fathering a child that does not share their genes unfathomable. This mentality suggests that those who are born without parents, whether they are incapable or deceased, do not stand a chance in this world. Blood relation is only as important as we perceive it to be.

    • Hi Peter, thanks for your comment.
      Indeed, you would think that smart folks might notice which societies have survived the longest and follow their techniques. Blood relation is indeed, “only as important as we perceive it to be”– thanks for reminding us of the importance of adoption in the human context.

  107. For us to ever survive we must soon learn to adapt interdependent ideals of living with the land and not removed from it. For a couple of centuries we have been the predators and hopefully that is beginning to change. It has too. For as this article states, we will wipe out our own means of survival. We have to learn that plants are at the top for our very existence, for they are the creators of food from the raw resources of the earth, sun and water. The plants provide clean water, clean air and food and yet we treat them as if they have no intelligence. It typically is true that those at the bottom, slaves, household labor and plants have no value in western worldview systems, yet they do the most work.
    I have to say I love Deborah Rose’s quote: “those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in…

    • I agree with you about Deborah Rose’s quote (she has many excellent writings).
      As for our being predators: in the natural cycle, predators have an important place, but humans who prey on other cultures or exploit resources that sustain all human systems have taken this human trait, as you note, beyond survival necessity and into destruction. The saddest thing is the way these “predators” take other lives down with them.

  108. I really liked the quotation from Deborah Rose that said that “the indigenous concept of survival of the fittest denotes … [that] those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in.” It must be pointed out that it was the social Darwinists who stressed “the survival of the fittest.” Darwin himself wrote about competition and cooperation and it was his followers who emphasized competition. Wallace was a researcher who independently developed his own theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin, and he wrote about competition and cooperation, but emphasized cooperation.

    I read “Are Humans Innately Aggressive?” by Alfie Kohn in the June 1988 issue of Psychology Today, and I thought that I would share with you some highlights from the article. Kohn wrote that a group of behavioral scientists met in Seville, Spain to discuss the roots of human aggression and found that “there is no scientific basis for the belief that humans are naturally aggressive and warlike.” Kohn also stated that organized group aggression is rare in other species. Eric Fromm said that “The most primitive men are the least warlike and … warlikeness grows in proportion to civilization. If destructiveness were innate in man, the trend would have to be the opposite.” Jean Jacques Rousseau stated that “War is not a relation between man and man, but between State and State, and individuals are enemies accidentally.” Kohn also wrote that the United States ‘intervened militarily around the world more than 150 times since 1850.”

    • And we have to consider just what kind of “followers” of Darwin they were that twisted his concepts around so completely as to substitute competition for Darwin’s original observations of cooperation and mutual adaptation in ecosystems.
      Thanks for the follow up on the Kohn article. He has also written several books on this issue. Perhaps our culture is getting more tolerant of this view– as indicated in the publication of the Tending Instinct by Shelley Taylor– professor of psychology at UCLA.

    • If humans were born innately aggressive, there would have been no way we would have survived for thousands of years like we have. Whether people like to admit it or not, we are all dependent upon each for our survival. I liked the last section of the essay which describes the alternative to survival of the fittest as fitting in and cooperating with one another.

    • Lenore – I was intrigued by your post regarding aggression in humans. I’ve always wanted to believe that we are innately kind. I found a NY Times article from November 2009 that states biologists are finding that children are “innately sociable and helpful to others…a natural willingness to help.” Based on this and your post, it appears to me that aggression is learned and that particular behavior is being taught more and more through each generation, and, as Prof. Holden says, we’re becoming more tolerant of it. I find this very sad.


  109. Darwin believed in survival of the fittest. I believe that he hoped t only those who were “fit” ( which meant wealthy and with power) would then create a new generation of the same. From the beginning, he was messing with all things natural. He was using all of these “scientific” facts to justify slavery and racism. But what I really took from this essay what the idea of living beyond our limits. We can only ask so much from the land before it has nothing left to give. We also do this in our every day lives. I know many who live beyond their limits financially or go beyond materialistically. I see how we treat ourselves as a direct reflection of how we treat nature.

    • I am glad you put “fit” in quotes here, Melissa– since the “fittest” in ecological systems– at least as argued in this essay– does not mean those who can overcome and replace others, but those who can work with others in interdependent systems.
      Sadly, as you point out, such readings of the natural world have been used to justify slavery and racism–as well as a consumerism that propels us into “living beyond our limits”. Perhaps we can stave off creditors in our financial system– but the natural world has a solid bottom line that we cannot go beyond without self-destructing.

    • I think humans, who are allegedly so “fit” will ultimately become unfit for survival when the resources we need to survive will have been depleted by our own “fitness.”

    • I completely agree with you. The world only has so much to offer us before we break it, our relationship with the world should be a win/win relationship. If we take something from the earth we should be giving something back in return. The more abuse we deal it the less life it has left in it.

  110. The vast complexity of nature cannot be summed up into one, cutesy slogan such as “survival of the fittest.” There is also survival of the cooperative, the resourceful, the patient, the intelligent, the docile, the beautiful…

    Unfortunately, I think “survival of the fittest” has become a euphemism for survival of the corrupt. An excellent example of this is the case of African forest elephants which are being poached to extinction. This story was recently aired on NPR and was a follow up on a National Geographic article called “Blood Ivory.” The NPR story can be viewed at:


    The rich benefactors of this destructive trade may be the “fittest” in this situation and will survive longer than the elephants. The poor poachers hired to kill them, they are survivors only because they are desperate (for work).

    The elephants understand they are suffering a genocide. Their reactions of mourning are described in the article. Soon after hearing that radio show, another NPR show was aired about the social structure of elephants. It discussed an elderly matriarch as a leader of the group, an alternative format mentioned above. The scientist interviewed talked about elephants have high intelligence, cultural evolution, and communicating on a pitch inaudible to human ears. This last point, she discovered by serenely tuning in to elephant behaviors at a zoo. I would like to note this amazing discover did not come from dissecting an elephants vocal chords, but by merely being aware of them in their environment- and the scientist is female. This NPR article can be viewed here:


    Corruption, more than fitness, has jeopardized elephant survival.

    • “Survival of the corrupt” is not a bad term for the misuse of “survival of the fittest”. I was also horrified at this National Geographic story– as you indicate, the survival of these elephants is no longer a matter of their fitting into a particular ecological system– but of greed. Once more, I think we need to assess the destructive consequences on systems which reward those whose results most of us don’t want with profit. The rich may wind up as the fittest in the capitalist system- -since they are able to garner the most profit, but they actually depend for that profit on others, and any plan that does not take the interdependence of our world into account will only succeed in the short term. (Although I know there is substantial destruction that can be caused in the interim).
      I was not aware of this moving NRP interview– thanks for the connection. I understand that trees in old growth forests react to clear cut logging miles from them- whether or not we can call that reaction sentient, it is something to consider, since it once more underscores the interdependence of our world.
      Our fellow creatures such as these elephants have something to teach humans about compassion and sensitivity to the whole.
      Thanks for your comment.

  111. Reading this article I hit upon one section where it talks about the hierarchal world views that many in society share. We see ourselves as the higher beings, and we go after or ignore and demean those things in life that we see as lower than ourselves. Nature is one of those things, many people just throw trash around without giving it a second thought. This has infuriated me for years, ever since I could understand the concept. Many people have tried to right this wrong and fix our past mistakes with the environment and yet here we are, still with polluted air and garbage littering the ground. I wonder, will we ever be able to fix what we have broken?

    • This is a sad point to ponder, Kelsey. The challenges facing us are daunting. Sometimes it seems we need courage to hope– but I think that is our only viable course. Hold to your personal vision for alternatives!

  112. A point I find myself often overlooking or miss-applying is the concept of balance. Your paragraph that discusses physical power vs adaptation gave me a perfect opportunity to wrap my head around this very concept. I had to read and re-read that one paragraph multiple times to move past my initial ‘educated’ response, that given the opportunity a predator would eradicate a prey species, and ask why don’t they? The conclusion of course is that nature is balanced in way that discourages total eradication of species (loss of biodiversity) as you conveniently go on to explain in the following paragraph. Still, I found it useful to ponder this point and examine the often sinusoidal patterns populations take under natural conditions: lots of food -> big population, big of population -> depletes food source -> population decline -> resurgence of food source with reduced pressure. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to assume the human population will do the same. The exception for humanity is that we are able to postpone the downturn of our sign wave by extracting “past resources” as you mention. Also, our dependence on non-natural processes (mono culture farming etc.) will likely make our decline a drastic one as we ‘re-learn’ how to live sustenance based lives. The optimist in me hopes we can create a collective vision of sustenance living or at least reciprocity with nature and follow that vision into reality before we see a devastating population decline. I challenge myself to try and visualize such a reality because I strongly believe we need to see it in our collective mind’s eye before we can truly work towards such a reality.

    I also found your discussion of humanities attempt at turning a blind eye to the cycle of life, the eventual death, consumption, decomposition, and recycling, of all living things back into the system of Mother earth, fascinating. What a difference it would likely make if western cultures simply changed the death ceremonies to respect the return of our “borrowed” energy to nature! I personally can’t stand even the idea of embalming bodies and placing them inside of boxes to be buried, useless, in the ground. Gross! What a waste! The process seems to represent all that is wrong with western societies relationship with nature. The false assumption that we are separate and immune to the ‘dirtiness’ of the uncivilized wild. Give me my wild and my dirt! Keep your poison and perfumes I say!

    • Thanks for a lively and well thought out comment–and for sharing hope with us in this vision of a human society that might live in partnership with the natural world.
      Why don’t predators wipe out their prey species– perhaps they might, but IF they do, they do themselves in as well. In well balanced natural systems, whose lives have adapted to one another over time, the outliers that gobbled up their resources in the past are gone– many human civilizations among them.
      Too many humans today seem to think we can “invent” more food rather than caring for its sources– and thus somehow lift ourselves from this cycle of life and death.
      Ironic (and certainly sad) that in attempting to keep ourselves separate from the natural world and natural processes, we undercut our own legacy– our contribution even at the barest physical level to other lives.
      Certain indigenous elders echo your view that we “borrow” our life-energy from other lives and need at some stage to give it back so that life itself can continue.
      One issue here is how much we really love our children in our consideration of what we leave them.
      Thanks again for your comment.

      • I have to agree with Erin on the death conception. The entire idea of preserving a dead body makes absolutely no sense. There are other options though. Green Funerals are becoming more popular as time goes on and its something worth looking into for those who are appalled at the idea of giving the Earth toxins through our remains.

  113. Darwinism is a polluted theory that sets man against species, man against the environment, white men against other races, and man against women. He supported ideas like biological racism and sexism. He believed that black men and the female gender were both inferior to white men—but most disturbingly, he thought science proved this idea. He supported arguments that placed men on top of a ranking system in terms of intelligence, over women and people of any other race. He drew separating lines through most of his findings. He believed the difference between the intellectual capabilities of white men compared to women was so significant that each gender should have been different species. His beliefs in natural selection pinned women as an inferior subspecies that was merely selected for sexual purposes by men. Natural selection of the human species happened because of war—(patriarchal conquests) which only allowed the strongest to survive. His ideas of biological inferiority have been enough for me to never favor any of his teachings with my time. But, many of our “scientific pioneers” are the same.

    Charles Darwin is hailed as the father of evolutionary thinking but I think his ideologies only show a regression in thought or, as Murray Bookchin says “reverse evolution”. The only thing Charles has fathered with most of his theories is support for patriarchy infused scientific “knowledge”. His ideas of what constitutes progress only reinforce white supremacy and hierarchical ranking systems that place value in terms of monetary gains and/or male dominance. This contrasts indigenous ideologies which place value in their elders and their weaker members of society. In terms of capital gains, Darwin may be right but, in terms of human progress, I argue that women-centered societies have the most to offer our species. Indigenous societies understand the relationships required with other species in order to survive. They recognize the imperative reality of caring for our natural world. If those who are the most fit, are the ones who fit in, as the essay suggests—then women centered societies would be the most evolved.

    I also agree that adaptation is not about strength and control of land and life systems. The idea of an egalitarian predatory/prey relationship is important because this is essential to the natural cycles of the Earth. The predator does not exist without its prey. Therefore the two are interconnected. Ideas of species superiority do not take into account the intimate relationship which all species have with one another. One does not survive without the help and benefit of others. It is through understanding the delicate balances that exist to sustain each and every species that we should find our answer to evolutionary questions: It’s not truly about species’ evolution as much as it is about Earth’s evolution. The processes through which our environment progresses are interlinked through every species’ ability to survive.

    • In fairness to Darwin, some of his work emphasized cooperation over competition–and note that note in his notebooks in which he reminds himself never to refer to “higher and lower”. In other writings, he contradicts himself in the points above by subscribing to the idea that certain societies and social groups are evolutionarily more “advanced”.
      Can you see the distinction between Darwinism and the social Darwinism that made use of his theory to support social hierarchy and oppression?
      One question we might consider is whether Darwin’s or Darwin’s idea of “fittest” might be created in a different kind of culture– here is where we get differing ideas of fitness or “fitting in” (to ecosystems).
      I am thinking of the traditional Chehalis idea shared with me by elder Henry Cultee, that the “eyes of the world” (all its lives, of whatever species) are viewing our actions and will eventually be the judge of whether our actions bring us as individuals or groups longevity or its opposite.
      The idea that adaptation is about partnership– and this leads to survival– is very different from the idea that one species– or society– overcomes and replaces another.
      Thanks for your comment.

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