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We’ve Completely Misunderstood ‘Survival of the Fittest,’ Evolutionary Biologists Say

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Oct 6, 2020

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Image Credit: Getty

British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection often gets broken down into one simple phrase: ‘Survival of the fittest,’ which we’ve come to understand as the survival of the strongest, meanest, most aggressive, and selfish. It’s a concept that thrives even today, as invoked in the Covid19 pandemic to shrug our shoulders at the plight of the elderly or to bolster anti-science politicians talking about their strength as a tool to fight off the virus. But evolutionary biologists say we’ve grossly misunderstood the concept of ‘fittest,’ and it’s hurting our lives and livelihoods.

“Fitness is just your ability to reproduce. So this idea that you had to be the biggest and the strongest and the meanest in order to succeed, it’s not what Darwin meant at all,” co-author of Survival of the Friendliest, Vanessa Woods, tells the BBC. Woods says constant competition and desire to come out on top, essentially wanting to be an alpha male, doesn’t automatically mean success. “It’s actually very costly to be the alpha male. It can be incredibly stressful. You’re always looking over your shoulder.”

Darwin didn’t even coin the term ‘survival of the fittest,’ which was actually thought up by social Darwinist and philosopher Herbert Spencer. Darwin also criticized the ‘survival of the fittest’ argument often, presenting instead a hypothesis for human evolution that centered sympathy. “Communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish the best, and rear the greatest number of offspring,” he wrote. Over the years, evolutionary biologists and psychologists have added cooperation, kindness, friendliness, and niceness to their interpretation of Darwinism, asserting that it’s humans’ ability to live with each other, feel each other’s pain, care for their young and loved ones that make Homo sapiens the species that won out over all the others. 

It was definitely not brute strength or bigger brains, evolutionary anthropology expert and co-author of Survival of the Friendliest, Brian Hare, tells the BBC. The Neanderthals, for example, had similarly sized brains as Homo sapiens, they were stronger, had their own culture and technology. Yet, they died out. One theory for Homo sapiens’ evolutionary victory suggests nothing to do with how smart or strong humans were, but how friendly their faces looked — short, narrow, without imposing brow ridges that signaled aggression or brute strength.


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Competition is also not the natural order of the world, the authors say, invoking their research into bonobos. Bonobos don’t kill each other; bonobo females make lasting friendships and don’t tolerate aggressive males; the friendliest bonobos are always the ones with the most offspring. Friendliness and cooperation are found in most natural occurrences from how single cells cooperate to make larger organisms to how human beings find affection and commonality with out-groups. 

Our interpretation of ‘survival of the fittest,’ then, is actually hurting how we order social institutions, including schools and workplaces. We value cut-throat competition as an essential tool, often the only tool, for success. This has led to the instilling of a masculinity contest culture in science and other fields. Devaluing traits such as cooperation and friendliness, in favor of a competition that is often alienating, affects non-males particularly intensely, widening the gender gap in terms of opportunity and independence in society. At the end of the day, it is humans’ ability to work together that got us this far, and it is continuous friendliness and consideration, even to out-groups, that will see us even farther.

“Sympathy is the strongest instinct that humans have,” University of California, Berkeley psychologist, Dacher Keltner, tells Aeon. Let’s use it. 

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Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.

  1. Ethelred Hardrede

    Where did they get that ‘we’ nonsense? It is not something that anyone that knows the actual science thinks.

  2. Nidhi Maurya

    Never thought from this point of view about this eternal phrase of Darwin. Being a scientist we seldomly consider philosophical reasons and rely on experimentation. But this article has indeed broadened perspective of “what life on the Earth means”!

  3. Smita

    Fantastic article, I always look forward on your work @Swaddle and I wish to continue seeing more from y’all. One specific thing to point out and learn from the article is that this theory should be made widespread and taught in schools instead of teaching and obviously then preaching the wrong information, which should be noticed n practiced maybe if y’all make a video of it, it’d help.

    Love

  4. Kevin

    Yeah That’s our species alright, nothing but kindness and sympathy throughout human history LOL

  5. Stephen

    This is nearing revisionary evolution. Alpha males in chimps sire the most offspring period. Either way it has no relationship to how we should behave in today’s society.

  6. Terry

    I knew this article would most likely be a bunch of toxic masculinity, anti Trump bullshit. Most of this article is filled with over generalized, stereotypical symbols, and cherry picked data. I will applaud you for being semi stealthy, by avoiding buzzwords, but the context is still strong. It sounds like you want everybody to speak softly to each other, and sing kumbaya. Soft personalities are just as needed as hardcore ones, there is balance to everything. When I see articles like this, I understand that the person in question probably underwent hurt or trauma, and are just trying to find a way to cope, and blaming confident people is easier than building your own confidence.

  7. PJ

    It seems, then, that man has been wrong all along. Virtually every ancient society and civilization that are generally considered the great milestones in human history grew to prominence by systematically attacking and either destroying or controlling those others they deemed to be competition or a threat. Sex may have come into play, but I doubt it was the main impetus for success.

  8. King Petty

    I do have to say I liked and saw value in this article. Yet, the problem I do see is simple. The competitive nature of a”Survival of the fittest” society has led specifically to the technological innovation and advances we see and use today. Competition pushes us harder and gives us, a collective Societal initiative to use. I get it we should all be nice and respect one another and learn to actual do just that. Plus your neglecting the very simple fact that any advancement of science and technology we have ever achieved is through cooperating with other Nations and societies. Our basic day to day routines are based around one another and mutual cooperation to achieve goals. So before you write another article with a faintly scientific anecdote do some actual research please!

  9. Johannes Kolsky

    Uhhh, do people think this is a thing? Scientists haven’t ever thought that brute strength and aggression were the key. Just look at ants. Your article is reaching and the title is clickbait. Unsubscribing

  10. John R Thomas

    While yes people mistake the meaning to survival of the fittest, I think you have too. Fitness is the ability to adapt to change. Friendly or fierce have nothing to do with it. Just

  11. RICHARDHANSSEGEL@GMAIL.COM.

    Yes that is. A. Really. Good re. Interpretation of. The. Definition of. Fitness

  12. Eugene

    I absolutely loved this article. I never understood how the world generally interprets survival of the fittest. Just look at the animal kingdom. Most animals are not solitary. This alone to me shows that ability to interact and take care of others is all apart of survival of the fittest.

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