May. 21, 2020

Survival of the fittest not the same as competition

Cooperation vs Competition

The phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined by Spenser, not Darwin. Spenser applied this concept found in nature to society, culture and economics; it’s called social Darwinism. And this phrase conjures up an image of some violent struggle for survival based on brute strength. On the contrary, the fittest can mean anything from the best camouflaged or the most fecund to the most clever or the most cooperative. Forget Rambo, think Einstein or Gandhi. The most fit to survive is the most adaptable to changing conditions.

Survival of the fittest has been claimed to justify all kinds of things, from free markets to eugenics. Those who utter “survival of the fittest” to rationalize callous, mean-spirited or even racist ends have misunderstood and misapplied this concept of nature to non-natural contexts. It is nonsense to appeal to the “survival of the fittest” to justify any economic or political ideology, especially on the basis that it is “natural.” Societies do not evolve, species do.

The evolution of species occurs as part of a process of drift, and the same would be true of societies if they also evolved. Evolution isn't going anywhere in particular, and all talk of societies evolving towards some common end-point - whether capitalism, communism or anything else - involves a basic misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. Capitalism has more to do with consolidation, efficiency, specialization and monoculture. Being optimally efficient in any given environment might not be optimal in the long run. This is short-term thinking. Monocultures are not resilient; reduction of diversity is never a healthy situation in nature. Look at the plight of the panda bear. It has become so specialized that because it’s only food source is compromised, the animal is endangered.

Capitalism is like a bunch of gladiators fighting it out to the death until there is just one winner. The ‘goal’ of life and evolution is to convert as much energy into life as possible. If evolution were a process in which the ‘goal’ was to destroy other species and then destroy all competitors within the species, life would have burned out long ago. 

What we see in the wild is not every animal for itself. Cooperation is an incredibly successful survival strategy. Indeed it has been the basis of all the most dramatic steps in the history of life. Complex cells evolved from cooperating simple cells. Multicellular organisms are made up of cooperating complex cells. In our own bodies, microbial cells outnumber human cells 10 to 1; those organisms help us digest food, develop our immune system and more. Additionally, nearly 10% of the human genome may be viral DNA. We are not simply individuals who have won some evolutionary competition; we are systems of cooperating species. Superorganisms  such as bee or ant colonies consist of cooperating individuals. Even trees in the forest share resources through the underground mycelium connections. Darwin’s research shows that “survival of the kindest” is more correct for explaining which species climb the evolutionary ladder efficiently and effectively. Cooperation has been more important than competition in humanity’s evolutionary success. Humanity’s success hinges on its level of compassion or sympathy. Compassion is the reason for both the human race’s survival and its ability to continue to thrive as a species.

If humanity does not stop its 'unnatural' competitive spirit in the massive elimination of species, more billions of years could be needed before the diverse set of living beings that we now call biodiversity can be regenerated. As a species, we might think about how human competition has been systematically leading to the extinction of animals and plants. If we were interested in having our species last, we would pursue a different strategy than what is possible in the competitive world. As one of the youngest species (in evolutionary terms), we need to learn to move from competition to cooperation so that our species can continue to co-evolve with the world in which we live.

This evolutionary jump for humanity will mean that we´ll have to question some of the most basic tenets of our economic, political and social livelihoods. Greed will need to be replaced by a willingness to share. Violence will need to be substituted for peaceful coexistence, and our human hubris will need to be transformed into a humble realization that our survival depends on adhering to the principles and ethics that sustain life itself.

Individual self-interest won´t simply disappear. We will forever continue to be individuals. But our own self-interest will need to be negotiated with the greater interest of the communities where we live. In the next step of our evolution, cooperative synergy will replace competitive exploitation.