Saturday, October 13, 2018
Myth-perception #2 - Survival Of The Fittest
written 6 October 2018
published 13 October 2018
The second myth-perception discussed in "Spontaneous Evolution", by Lipton and Bhaerman, is "survival of the fittest".
Unlike religious dogma, scientific dogma changes as new experiments and observations bring greater understanding, but cultural limits and individual egos, slow that process. There is a joke that the eminence of a scientist is measured by how long they hold up progress in their field.
Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species" in 1859, a theory of biological evolution through slow, random mutation and natural selection. This became known as "survival of the fittest". Charles Lyell, a distinguished geologist of the time, whose book "Principles of Geology" established the entire field, was an influential supporter of Darwin. "Uniformitarianism" was one of Lyell's assumptions, positing that all geologic changes are gradual: tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. Influenced by the prestige of the older scientist, Darwin included this linear assumption in his theory of biological evolution, assuming slow, gradual changes.
Alfred Russel Wallace was another scientist studying biological evolution at the same time as Darwin. The two shared ideas and information, but Wallace's theory differed slightly. First, he didn't insist that changes were entirely random, but suggested they were guided by an intention toward survival. Second, while Darwin focused on the survival of the fittest, Wallace focused on the failure of the least fit.
Imagine a herd of gazelles running from a cheetah. While the fastest one does survive, so do most of the rest. Wallace pointed out that it is the slowest that gets eaten. Instead of looking at just the quality of the best, Wallace looked at the qualities and strengths of the entire herd. In Darwin's world, we struggle to become the "best", while in Wallace's world, we cooperate to improve the entire species.
Darwin is well known, but most people have never heard of Wallace. Darwin was upper-class with rich supporters, as science was a rich man's game at the time. Wallace was lower class with no important advocates. "The Origin of Species" was rushed into print after decades of procrastination, just before Wallace could fund publication of his own research, thus insuring Darwin's place in history.
The subtitle of Darwin's book was "The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life". Capitalists of the time embraced this idea to justify their belief the rich should rule, and Darwin's "survival of the fittest" was recast as "survival of the strongest", in eternal lethal competition. Herbert Springer created the concept of social Darwinism, emphasizing the harsher implications of Darwin's theory, and encouraged the notion the elite must purifying the race through purge of inferiors. The extreme of this became the social program of Nazi Germany.
As time moved on, biologists learned that "survival of the fittest" was more complicated than just running the fastest. "Fittest" became understood as the best relationship with the larger environment, where each species has a niche, within which they thrive. Rather than fight within themselves, they adapt and evolve, sometimes abruptly, to modify and better fit their particular environment, thus surviving the changes of life. At first, the fittest was seen as the species that captured the most energy and resources from the environment, relative to other species. That turns out to describe an immature ecosystem, or a very young species. We now know that in a mature, or climax ecosystem, those species that cooperate with the most other species to gather and share energy and resources survive the best. Cooperation is a sign of maturity and superior "fittingness" within the larger environment.
These two visions, one of lethal competition, and the other of shared cooperation, are now playing out within humanity. Trump's narrow vision of America First, and his withdrawal and disdain for global organizations, plays well with his base, but is bankrupt economically, sociologically, and environmentally. The non-dual perspective recognizes the world is massively connected, and only cooperation will have a chance of addressing the global issues confronting us today. We are now experiencing an evolutionary challenge to evolve, similar to the jump from competitive one celled to cooperative multi-celled organisms. As Lipton and Bhaerman conclude, we are being called to mature from humans to humanity.