The “fittest” can be the most loving and selfless, not the most aggressive and violent. In any case, what happens in nature does not justify people behaving in the same way
The phrase “survival of the fittest“, which was coined not by Darwin but by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, is widely misunderstood.
For starters, there is a lot more to evolution by natural selection than just the survival of the fittest. There must also be a population of replicating entities and variations between them that affect fitness – variation that must be heritable. By itself, survival of the fittest is a dead end. Business people are especially guilty of confusing survival of the fittest with evolution.
What’s more, although the phrase conjures up an image of a violent struggle for survival, in reality the word “fittest” seldom means the strongest or the most aggressive. On the contrary, it can mean anything from the best camouflaged or the most fecund to the cleverest or the most cooperative. Forget Rambo, think Einstein or Gandhi.
What we see in the wild is not every animal for itself. Cooperation is anincredibly successful survival strategy. Indeed it has been the basis of all the most dramatic steps in the history of life. Complex cells evolved from cooperating simple cells. Multicellular organisms are made up of cooperating complex cells. Superorganisms such as bee or ant colonies consist of cooperating individuals.
When cooperation breaks down, the results can be disastrous. When cells in our bodies turn rogue, for instance, the result is cancer. So elaborate mechanisms have evolved to maintain cooperation and suppress selfishness, such as cellular “surveillance” programmes that trigger cell suicide if they start to turn cancerous.
Looked at from this point of view, the concept of the survival of the fittest could be used to justify socialism rather than laissez-faire capitalism. Then again, the success of social insects could be used to argue for totalitarianism. Which illustrates another point: it is nonsense to appeal to the “survival of the fittest” to justify any economic or political ideology, especially on the basis that it is “natural”.
Is cannibalism fine because polar bears do it? Is killing your brother or sisterfine because nestlings of many bird species do it? Is murdering your childrenfine because mice sometimes eat their own pups? Is paedophilia fine becausebonobo adults have sex with juveniles?
Just about every kind of behaviour that most of us regard as “unnatural” turns out to be perfectly natural in some nook or cranny of the animal kingdom. No one can plausibly argue that this justifies humans behaving in the same way.
Yet even though such examples expose the utter absurdity of appealing to what is “natural” to judge right from wrong – the naturalistic fallacy – we seem to have a strange blind spot when it comes to evolution. Survival of the fittest has been claimed to justify all kinds of things, from free markets to eugenics. Such notions still have a powerful grip in some circles.
However, natural selection is simply a description of what happens in the living world. It does not tell us how we should behave.