Charles Darwin described the change of living organisms over time through a process of natural selection as “survival of the fittest”. In everyday language, “survival of the fittest” has taken on a new meaning for many people. That line is often taken to mean that nature favors the strongest and most ruthless of creatures. The weak and mild die out, and only the fierce survive. But if that were true, wouldn’t everything on earth have evolved into ferocious monsters trying to devour one another?
Our world is full of living things that tell a different story. Consider the Antarctic “midge.” It’s the only insect and the largest land animal on the frozen continent of Antarctica, where even a cockroach wouldn’t survive for a whole minute.
This midge isn’t big or fierce or even very complicated. It’s less than a quarter of an inch long. It spends two winters of its larval life frozen solid, and it lives for only ten days as an adult. Scientists studying the midge recently found that it has the simplest and smallest genome of any insect on earth. But it’s as “fit” as an Antarctic bug could ever hope to be. Fitness in Antarctica isn’t the same as fitness in your kitchen, where the more complex cockroach can be hard to kill. So biological fitness is what works best in a particular time and place.
Actually, “Survival of the Fittest” can be a misleading phrase. Charles Darwin used those words to describe evolution, but he had picked them up from the philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Spencer thought that the laws of nature applied to society as well. The idea became known as “Social Darwinism.” Among other things, it held that brutal competition for wealth and property improved the human species. Scientists have rejected Social Darwinism as pseudoscience. But some people still cling to the belief that evolution favors strength, aggression, and complexity. Sometimes it does. But it also favors creatures as small, harmless, and simple as the midge.
So what’s the fittest creature in a modern city? Or on a ship at sea? What does “Survival of the Fittest” mean where you live? Do you need to be strong, fast, and mean, or smart, gentle, and cooperative to thrive in your environment?
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