Not the Strongest… or Even the Brightest

More than 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin, most people, even some very intelligent individuals, don’t fully understand “natural selection” or evolution. Now… I’m not about to try to explain all the fallacies inherent in most popularized misconceptions, but there’s one that’s so blatantly misunderstood that I just can’t help myself.

Most people equate the term “survival of the fittest” to survival of the strongest individuals, or occasionally, the survival of the most intelligent. The problem with this equation is that individual survival and success don’t necessarily translate into species survival. One of the most fearsome predators of our time is the tiger, and it’s endangered and may not survive. The equally well-equipped polar bear faces similar problems. Recent studies indicate that Neanderthals had every bit as much brain power as homo sapiens, perhaps more, and they were physically stronger to boot. The most muscular and intelligent human being, stripped down to a loin-cloth, wouldn’t last more than a few minutes against most large predators.

But humans have brains and tools, and we no longer have to face predators bare-handed or with crude tools that one person could make. That’s absolutely true, but that also points out a corollary. What makes us deadly as a species is not that we are stronger, which we are not, nor that we are more intelligent, which we generally are, but that we cooperate. No human, no matter how brilliant, has the ability to make the sophisticated tools and weapons we possess by himself or herself. Even an individual placed in a Robinson Crusoe situation who creates tools and survives does not do that by himself or herself, because the knowledge required to create such tools is a product of the human culture that has facilitated cooperative learning.

We tend to pride ourselves on our species’ accomplishments, but we’re newcomers to the world. The world has been around some four billion years, and human beings are lucky to be pushing a million years as a species. Cockroaches aren’t particularly strong on an absolute scale, nor are they particularly bright as individuals, but they’ve been around for over 200 million years. Virtually all other species on the planet have been around longer than humans, and dinosaurs lasted for hundreds of millions of years.

Yet, day after day, in forum after forum, people extol the “survival of the fittest” to justify oppression of those weaker, less intelligent, or less fortunate by individuals who are stronger, brighter, and more fortunate. This overlooks the fact that the fittest aren’t those who are the best predators; they’re the ones who are best at dealing with the predators… and that’s another reason why we developed customs, rules and laws, because not all predators are from other species.

That brings up another corollary. In all times in human history, the most successful cultures have been those who have been most successful in dealing with both external and internal predators. Over time, there’s close to a direct negative correlation between the percentage of a culture that dies violently and its degree of “civilization” and success. That is, the percentage of violent deaths always goes down, again, measured over time, as the culture is more successful. Some anthropologists suggest that prosperity reduces violence. I doubt it strongly. Reducing violence increases prosperity, but only by the application of cooperation and social and sometimes physical force, but with minimal violence. One doesn’t reduce violence by relying strictly on violence to do so.

So… let’s have a little less rhetoric and indirect glorification of the abuse of power disguised as “survival of the fittest.”