I mentioned in my first article that the ‘Cambrian explosion’ takes second place on my list of evolutionary concepts horrifically misrepresented by creationists. It seems only fair that I dedicate this article to the concept that tops the chart. Sadly, it’s not just creationists responsible for butchering this one – misrepresenting ‘survival of the fittest’ has practically become a national hobby.
What ‘Survival of the Fittest’ Doesn’t Mean
This solitary aspect of evolution may be held up as justification for dreadful behavior more often than all other pitiably poor defenses combined. I’ve personally seen it evoked as justification for bullying to the point of encouraging suicide, all manner of eugenics, rape, and even child abuse. As with so many scientific misrepresentations, the abuse of ‘survival of the fittest’ begins with a faulty definition. ‘Fit’, by evolutionary standards, does not mean the strongest, biggest, most powerful, most aggressive, or even the most physically sound. Evolutionary ‘fitness’ is not always, in fact, determined by physicality at all.
What ‘Survival of the Fittest’ Actually Means
In terms of evolutionary success, ‘fit’ simply means ‘most well adapted’. Furthermore, evolutionary fitness doesn’t routinely apply to adaptations which are advantageous to individuals. Evolution isn’t concerned with your survival, only the survival of your genes. You’re just a convenient carrier. Several species of grazing animals have been observed forming protective rings around their young when besieged by predators. Purposely placing one’s self closer to a predator in order to protect offspring that may not even be your own is not advantageous on an individual level. In fact, this type of behavior increases the chance that an individual acting on this instinct will die. Similarly, some species of ants will create bridges out of their own bodies in order to allow other colony members safe passage over bodies of water. Though this instinct results in the deaths of many individual ants, it contributes to the survival of the population to which those individuals belonged. These, and many other nearly suicidal behaviors, are examples of evolutionary fitness that fly in the face of creationist misrepresentation.
Granted, ‘survival of the most well adapted in terms of reproductive success to a specific environment or circumstance, generally advantageous at the population level’ may not fit quite so nicely on a bumper sticker, but it’s a far more accurate description of the concept. Because evolutionary fitness refers to adaptations that contribute to the reproductive success of a population, there is no single set of qualities that define it. Tigers, for example, are solitary hunters. As such, adequate camouflage in the form of bold stripes, generally aggressive behavior, and physical size contribute to the reproductive success of tiger populations. Contrast these adaptations with those of lions, who hunt alongside other members of their pride, and it quickly becomes apparent that the same set of traits makes for a piss-poor lion. A lion’s reproductive success depends far more heavily on the ability to coordinate their behaviors and maintain close relationships than it does on pure physicality. It’s important to note, however, that even adaptations among social mammals are species specific. An aggressive and physically dominant chimpanzee may rule the roost among other chimpanzees, but it would likely be left to starve to death by a community of bonobos for having poor manners.
Physically presenting as the biggest, strongest, and most powerful is only a measure of fitness for those situations, environments, and populations in which size, strength, and power are particularly beneficial. Certainly, purely physical attributes are most often advantageous to some degree, but they’re rarely advantageous on their own. Complex organisms require complex standards of fitness, and those standards become increasingly demanding when the pressures of challenging environments and populations are thrown in the mix.
This brings us to the crux of the most oft-repeated creationist argument against ‘Darwinism’ – that ‘survival of the fittest’ negates morality. “If only the fittest survive” they whine, “then moral standards are a negative evolutionary trait!” Following this erroneous train of thought through to it’s inevitable derailment, they then go on to detail an imaginative dystopian future in which ‘darwinists’ rape and plunder their way to success. Hitler will, of course, be mentioned somewhere along the way.
The problem with this ridiculous viewpoint is, however, glaringly obvious. Human beings are social mammals. Given our lack of dagger-like claws and bone-crushing jaws, we require some semblance of a society in order to survive. A single human, even armed, left alone amidst the wilds of the Serengeti would soon fulfill their destiny as a Scooby Snack for the local carnivores. Social skills, like the virtues so often touted as the moral gifts of religion, are the primary survival adaptation of human mammals. That Hitler so often stands as the creationist poster boy of evolutionary fitness may well be the greatest evidence for their complete misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. After all, the behaviors exemplified by the Nazi regime resulted in the decimation of their population.
Oddly enough, in sacrificing his life in order to save the rest of the population to which he belonged from foretold destruction, the mythical savior of Christianity makes a pretty good poster boy for the evolutionary theory creationists so often misrepresent.