Survival of the Fittest is not the Way to Happiness

Charles Darwin who began the theory of Evolution

 In 1859 the English naturalist, biologist, and geologist Charles Darwin published a book called the Origin of the Species. This was a significant book because it was the first work to postulate the modern theory of evolution, now recognized as an irrefutable fact by the scientific community of the world. In this work, Darwin theorized that all life on the planet was derived from a single common ancestor, microbes. From that point, the microbes evolved over the course of billions of years, eventually turning into all living plant and animal life. The evolution took many forms and turns over time, with each adaptation taking place for the presumed benefit and increased likelihood of survival of that living beings descendants. Darwin’s theory included the theory of natural selection, noting that evolution took place to ensure the survival of the living beings, and that those most suitable or capable of adaptation would be those that reproduced and successfully evolved. 

You’ve probably heard the phrase “survival of the fittest” associated with this theory. This is often incorrectly attributed to Darwin himself. It was in fact said by a fellow Englishman Herbert Spencer, sociologist and philosopher, who coined the term 7 years prior to Darwin’s publishing of the Origin of the Species. Spencer attempted to apply the theory of evolution to humanity believing that all of human life, emphasizing human in particular, was a struggle for survival and that only the strong would survive, keeping the species of humans strong and fit. After the publishing of Darwin’s work, spencer’s theory became known as Social Darwinism. 

What I want to do in this post is argue against Spencer. First of all, he adopted Darwin’s theory of evolution and tried to apply it to his own beliefs. Darwin never said the word survival of the fittest, he merely said that those who evolve successfully are those who survive. I believe that Spencer’s theory of survival of the fittest towards human society applies only if you remove every fiber of compassion, community, and kindness from the equation. To apply social Darwinism, as it is called is to lower humanity to the status of mere beasts with no trace of empathy or cooperation. To do this is to completely disregard all that, so we believe anyway, makes humanity the most sentient beings on the planet. 

I won’t sit here and presuppose that humankind is not without its grave errors. Without question we are easily the most destructive beings on the planet, polluting the air, soil, water, absorbing all of the natural resources and returning very little if anything back into the environment from which we pillaged. We fight constantly among ourselves, creating strife and suffering the like of which is entirely unmatched in horror and scale by any other species in existence on the planet. Perhaps even those very words I just wrote serve as a counter to Spencer’s argument. If humanity, and life at all for that matter, is to survive, we simply must start evolving into more compassionate, aware, and concerned care-takers of the earth rather than competing greedily for more resources, power, weapons, whatever. We need to learn to use sparingly -taking only what we need; to be more empathetic and nurturing rather than competitive towards one another. I don’t know about you but that is the sort of world I would rather live in. 

To take Spencer’s philosophy literally is to assume that all of life is a competition against nature. Sure, I don’t disagree that maybe at sometime it was. Part of the beauty though of modern society is realizing that ALL life is precious, not just the strong and fit. Isn’t that supposed to be the aim of the culture we have built – to provide Life, Liberty, and the ability to pursue Happiness for ALL? Spencer’s worldview imagines a place where we compete with our neighbors for resources, for breeding rights, for food, shelter and more. If our neighbor is sick we let him die – he is weak, we don’t need those genes being passed. If some is physically slighter, we kill him and take his food, we don’t need those genes. Isn’t this a terrible idea? 

Beyond the absurdity of Spencer’s notions, it could actually be argued that the way that humans evolved was not in competition so that only the strong among us survived, but that we actually evolved to cooperate and live in peace together. Physically speaking humans are among the most unimpressive creatures on earth. We can’t run fast compared to most land animals, we can’t swim particularly well, we aren’t strong, we aren’t big, we can’t jump high. The one thing we can do (besides run at moderate speeds over great distances – in that one field we are superior to all species except horses) is work together. 

Human’s are among the most adaptable species on the planet and one of our primary adaptations has been that we learned the value of community long ago. Without the ability to work together we would have long faded from the face of existence. Instead, we worked together, in harmony, to care for and nurture one another and to work together against anything that might oppose our right to live. That is to say that when you distill it, the only reason we have made it this far is not because we compete against one another, but because we work together, we treat ourselves with kindness, and we create a safe and nurturing environment where we can all thrive and be happy. This is the type of society I want to live in. 

I for one am not willing to live in a world where 
we are willing to sacrifice ANYONE for “survival of the fitest”

Over the past year I have seen and heard some shocking things. The political scene here in my home nation of the United States was chaotic to say the least, and the entire world was ravaged by the deadly Covid19 virus. One of the worst things I heard during this year was a number of people declaring “survival of the fittest” in response to the discussion of re-opening stores, venues, and public places. Most health experts warned of the potential death toll, concerned that re-opening would expose too many, particularly the vulnerable, to the virus. The idea that there was a not insignificant number of people who hailed social Darwinism and survival of the fittest, declaring that those whose lives might be lost were a necessary price to re-open the economy. Shame on those people. I don’t know where they get off thinking that any person’s life is worth the economy. If that is their stance then they are more than welcome to volunteer their own lives but to hell with them if they are willing to sacrifice the lives of others. That isn’t good, that isn’t decent, and that is not what humanity ought to be about. In my beliefs no human has the right to steal the life of another unless that other poses a clear and immediate threat to others. 

As I conclude this post I am looking back and trying to see where and how I discussed happiness. It wasn’t explicitly written about at great length but I believe the happiness is implicit when we talk about a world where humans are more empathetic, nurturing, and compassionate with one another. When we value every life as precious and do all that we can to protect it, then we create a safer and happier world for all. This is the sort of world I aspire to build. 

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