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At nine years old, I took an interest in Carles Darwin.

I was often in trouble with my teachers since I often questioned their methods and their knowledge. Most of my teachers, for some reason, were openly Christian, something I had to discuss. They didn’t appreciate this, however.

At nine, I read a biography of Charles Darwin since I had figured out that he ought to have some good arguments that I could use in my defence. Which he, safe to say, did. But what fascinated me more about Charles Darwin was the elegance of his theory on natural selection. In a way, I found it mind-boggling that no-one had seen such clear connections before him. Or, probably some did, but decided not to go up against the church.

These days, the phrase “survival of the fittest” is thrown around in public discourse right and left. But most people who use that phrase, or others that relate to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, is just plain wrong. Especially when used in conjunction with competitive markets, justifying dominance hierarchies, or weeding out the weakest.

Now, I don’t imagine that this blog post will make much of a difference, but I sort of feel that I have to jot a few things down for posterity.

Here goes:

  • The theory of evolution is a scientific theory, not a hypothesis. People who don’t know the difference should refrain from making any public claims about either.
  • The survival of the fittest doesn’t necessary refer to the strongest, the fastest, or the cruelest. It refers to the probabilistic mechanics of the genome in allowing a species to adapt and evolve1. It shouldn’t be applied on individuals, only species at large and over time.
  • Natural selection refers to the unintentional nature of nature. Nature will unintentionally select for those who manage to pass their genes on. We must therefore be careful when we make analogous assumptions about how various human systems works. Capitalism, as a prominent example, is a human-made system based on intentional mechanisms. If we create a system to intentionally weed out percieved individual weakness, the system will become less resilient to sudden changes.
  • The struggle for life doesn’t imply a cruel “law of the jungle” where we all battle each other for survival. Some apex predators rely heavily on individual dominance hierarchies to breed, but this is not the case for all of nature. Most species, including humans, have been able to capitalise way more on cooperation and communication than they ever have been able to do based on individual survival capabilities. If we want to survive as a species, our best bet is to get better at cooperating and communicating.
  • Natural variation is a probabilistic description of genetic outcome. Breeding, as it works differently than cloning, makes the outcome somewhat unpredictable. Two giraffes with exceptionally long necks are likely to have offspring with above average length of their necks, too. But, it’s not a certainty. Sure, this means that some individuals will get lucky or unlucky relative to their genetic chances for survival, but the function is absolutely essential for the evolutionary mechanisms. People who are born extremely different from others can, and really should, be considered as precious gifts to humanity.
  • Sexual selection is rarely talked about or discussed. The way nature works, is that many living things aren’t always choosing a breeding mate based on their potential offspring’s chances for survival as the only criteria. They might instead go for the best and most elaborate dancer, the most charismatic singer, or the most colourful appearance to name a few examples. Over time, this behaviour will be reinforced genetically across the species and result in evolutionary outcomes that has more to do with sex than anything else. Those of us who produce offspring should select on basis of how we want to contribute to the future humanity.

So, there you have it.

No, evolution isn’t analogous to capitalism. And yes, individual weakness might very well benefit the species long-term. Collaboration and communication are potent evolutionary strategies and are often selected for above physical prowess and the ability to dominate on the individual level.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. The peppered moth is a specific shade of brown which allows it to sit on tree trunks without being easily detected. However, a small percentage of these moths are born light grey. Obviously, these poor individuals get eaten instantly. But due to a climactic cycle in the forest, the bark of the trees turn a light shade of grey once in a few decades or so. The moths takes a huge hit these years, but they manage to live on as a species due to their light gray brothers and sisters. Most years, it doesn’t seem like the light grey butterflies themselves are especially “fit”, but they are still crucial to the survival of the species.