Survival of the Fittest

Why is it that even those who claim to agree with Darwin’s grand conception of the process of Evolution must willfully misunderstand it? People who would violently object to being somehow lumped in with Victorian Age Robber-Barons in any other context swallow whole their co-option of a phrase in Darwin taken out of context to fit their twisted view of the world. Darwin, as with any seminal thinker, was groping for language beyond what was available to him to form thoughts that had not been considered before. He took great pains to avoid being unclear, this in part led to why it took him so long to publish.

Today we see or hear, “Survival of the Fittest” and our muttered response comes automatically to our lips, “Red in Tooth and Claw.” All that’s missing is an “Amen.” Darwin never said that. The Victorians took their poet Tennyson’s phrase reflecting their own mania and grafted it onto his breakthrough to twist it to their liking. This projection of their fears and hubristic pride is quite transparent once we begin to see how these things work – watch Fox News for an hour for current examples. Hint: Treat their accusations as confessions of their true feelings and motives, you’ll get the idea.

What did Darwin mean? I’m not asking in some neo-Fundamentalist, Holy Words in The Book sort of way; but what is it clear he intended? What fits our growing understanding of what Evolutionary Fitness might mean? Every organism is part of a larger community, even hosts communities inside it. Every community is part of a larger community and ultimately a part of the entire Living Earth. For an individual to succeed evolutionarily it must survive to reproduce successfully. For a species to endure to evolve into further adaptive forms it must fit in. Fitting in includes finding food and protecting young; but also includes not destroying the fabric of the communities of which it is a part. It does not include controlling its environment – an impossibility, or dominating it, or evading the necessity for its own death. Fitting in is a better fit for the meaning of fitness than some fantasy of super-predators running amok and “winning” the Evolutionary sweepstakes.

In a manic eagerness to misunderstand, the response is, “What about – Insert peak-predator of choice here, or some nasty virulent disease-causing organism or simply an “icky” bug with violent tendencies…?” The answer is, “What about them?” Look past the willfully simplistic view of what they do and how they fit into their environment and you’ll see they’re not exceptions at all.

Is this really such a difficult concept? I don’t think so, it’s just inconvenient. It’s so much more gratifying to claim that all of our culturally induced pathologies are somehow reflections of our “true” natures and therefor “inalienable.” Couple this with the related notion of American, Western, Civilized, even Human Exceptionalism and you have a sure-fire antidote to the intrusion of any reality into our frantic displacement and projections.

Creatures, including human creatures, that are truly fit spend all of their time and energy in reality, not actively attempting to evade it. Their conceptions of reality take into account the webs of life of which they are a part and they do not recognize flights of fantasy. If we can begin to look to their example – examples filled in many cases with play and leisure and joyful fun and exuberance – without falling into traps like “Red in Tooth and Claw!” which appear to justify our death-spiral fantasies; we might just discover ways to fit in and once again join the ranks of “the fittest.”

I was “this close” to posting this yesterday, when I stopped and went back to Derrick Jensen’s What We Leave Behind. The next pages I read brought up this same point. My last post but one, Imbeciles with High IQ’s used Jensen’s phrase to fit a topical example. This note is just to emphasize how important I’ve found, been finding, and expect to continue to find his writing.

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