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Evolution Does Not Equal Progress

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A common misunderstanding of evolutionary theory founders on misunderstanding of the word ‘fittest,’ as in ‘survival of the fittest.’ Whole philosophies, like social Darwinism, are founded on this misunderstanding.

This does not mean that the fittest as in the biggest, fastest, most intelligent etc. It merely means those most suited to their environment. So evolution is not a ladder that creatures climb, getting fitter and fitter (like they’ve been working out) until they become some Arnie-like uber-critter with great pecs, big hair, a good smile, and natural camera skills.

Nope. The ones that survive are those most well suited to their environment – and that environment changes constantly (which you’ll have noticed if you’ve been paying attention lately).

The best ‘fit’ for one period will not be best for another period and therefore, by definition, creatures don’t just get bigger/better/faster/smarter on some kind of endless developmental ladder. Sometimes they get smaller (dinosaur to bird). Sometimes all the big boys die (e.g. mass extinctions), and smaller/weaker animals take over.

A few things flow from this, mainly that we are not the evolutionary crown of creation sitting at the top of this developmental ladder, just the creature best suited to the way things are now.

One side-effect of the way our intelligence works is that we’re changing the way things are now, and are therefore making the world less supportive of creatures like us and furry mammals in general. In an extreme case, we may trigger catastrophic climate change and render the world uninhabitable for ourselves–at which point some other creature will be better suited to the new environment; cockroaches have long been a popular candidate. But if it happens, it doesn’t mean the cockroach is better than us, just as our current ascendance doesn’t mean we’re better than the cockroach.

So much for the introduction; now to my point. I was watching Attenborough’s spectacular new Planet Earth on the Beeb last night, the Fresh Water episode.

As I watched the caiman waiting underwater for roseate spoonbills to fall out of their trees and the dolphin fish night-hunting cichlids, the same idea struck me. Generations of dolphin fish must have learnt every hiding place used by the cichlids. Generations of roseate spoonbills have lived in that tree, learning to fly, and generations of caiman have waited underneath for them to fall.

You can see how this works in terms of survival of the fittest, in the simplistic sense of learning to fly quickly and not being unlucky enough to fall when the caimans are below, but progress it’s not.

Generation after generation making the same dumb mistakes in the same way, in the same place; generation after generation of predators exploiting the fact.

Kind of like us and our rulers.

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About Chromatius

"You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent." Thomas Merton. The Unspeakable.
  • David

    A very facinating point you make there.

    This has in fact been what creationists have been trying to point out for ages – that the train is traveling in the wrong direction.

    In fact, from a creationist’s point of view – natural selection, mutation, adaptation and survival of the fittest all fit prefectly well into their theories. The difference is, is that there is no known or obeserved mechanism which allows for progress (i.e. addition of dynamic and unique genetic information/code).

    Thanks for the interesting points :)


  • Bliffle

    “Survival of the fittest” is a statement often ascribed to Darwin, but I have never been able to find it in his works. Can someone cite it, or is this apochrypha?

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Bliffle–“Survival of the fittest” is not Darwin’s expression. Look up English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who used it more in his promulgation of Social Darwinism.

  • chromatius

    #3 – I’m no expert on Darwin, and was more disussing popular understanding, but a quick search turns up this chapter heading:

    Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). Origin of Species. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
    IV. Natural Selection; or the Survival of the Fittest. Illustrations of the Action of Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. link

    But, supporting your point:

    Darwin did write that: “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”

    “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection”…

    The actual term survival of the fittest however was actually attributed by Darwin himself to another source: “The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient” link

    So perhaps it was added to a later edition, because he found it useful and explanatory.

    I think we can say Darwin knew, approved of and used the term.