Darwin’s Error

If the Golden Rule could be said to be the encapsulation of the fundamental meaning of both Judaism and Christianity, then perhaps we could say that the fundamental meaning of evolution is summed up in Darwin’s phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Over the years it has been trotted out by the perpetrators to explain/excuse such things as colonialism, slavery, the Holocaust, and the modern tendency of large businesses to cannibalize smaller ones, among countless other evils. Parenthetically it has always seemed curious to me that we are apparently helpless in the face of a law of nature when we wish to excuse behavior that would otherwise be morally repugnant, while we will bend every effort to successfully overcome equally intractable laws such as the law of gravity when it is more profitable to do so.

The problem is that survival of the fittest is a misstatement (or rather an overstatement) which when corrected does not in fact support any of the evils mentioned. It is ironic in our test-obsessed world that it is the removal of a “test” that reveals the true meaning. All of the requirements of the theory of evolution are fulfilled in the expression “the survival of the fit.” What a difference this simple modification makes. Now it is no longer necessary for you to die in order to ensure my survival. As long as we are both “fit” then we can both survive. We must also consider the proper meaning of the word “fit.” We tend to think of the modern dominant meaning, which is roughly equivalent to strong or robust. This gives even greater force to the misunderstanding, as it would seem to rationalize the tyranny of the strong over the weak. In Darwin’s time, however, the dominant meaning of the word fit was “appropriate”, as in “a meal fit for a king.”

So now we have a natural law that promises survival of the appropriate, which in no way conflicts with the theory of evolution. How does this change our outlook? For one thing it puts a very big hole in the idea that unfettered competition is the most desirable business model, on the grounds that it gives natural selection the opportunity to determine which businesses survive. If we remove the requirement that the survivors be the fittest, and only require that they be appropriate, then a strong case can be made for cooperation rather than competition as being the most appropriate behavior.