“Survival of the Fittest”: Herbert Spencer (and Friends) Got It Wrong

The term “survival of the fittest” was coined by the famed 19th century British social theorist Herbert Spencer as a way of characterizing Darwin’s natural selection theory.  Darwin himself soon started using the expression, but it was also embraced by what came to be known as the “Social Darwinists” – various apologists for the free-wheeling, laissez-faire capitalism of that era that featured ruthless economic competition, the brutal exploitation of workers, and extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty.   

Fairly typical was this pronouncement by the American social theorist E.B. Tylor: “The institutions which can best hold their own in the world gradually supersede the less fit ones, and... this incessant conflict determines the general resultant course of culture.”  Likewise, the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, in a Sunday school address, assured his audience that “The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest.... This is not an evil tendency in business.  It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

However, it was the steel baron Andrew Carnegie, never a man to mince words, who penned the most inflammatory expression of the Social Darwinist credo in an 1889 essay known as “The Gospel of Wealth.”   “While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.  We accept and welcome, therefore...great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.”

A less strident version of this creed – but with very similar implications -- is still with us today.  It is generally referred to as the “trickle down” theory of economic progress, and it supposedly justifies “free-market” capitalism and the ever-growing extremes of wealth and poverty in our society.  The problem is that relatively little of the economic gains in recent decades have trickled down.  Instead, most of them have bubbled up.

Even more gratuitous is the “objectivist” philosophy (popular in conservative circles) of the twentieth century novelist Ayn Rand, who shamelessly asserted that our heroic job “creators” –  entrepreneurs and the captains of industry -- deserve whatever they can get, while the rest of us are undeserving “parasites”, “spongers”, “second raters”, and “moochers” (her terms).  She made a virtue of selfishness, to paraphrase the title of one of her essays. 

Even in the Laissez-faire era, there were voices that were opposed the competitive, “nature, red in tooth and claw” model of evolution, and progress.  Perhaps the most eloquent of these was the Russian émigré anarchist and naturalist, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin.  In his famous polemic, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (in 1902), Kropotkin argued that there was abundant evidence of cooperation in nature that falsified a one-sided Social Darwinist interpretation of Darwin’s theory.  “During the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria....I failed to find -- although I was eagerly looking for it -- that bitter struggle for the means of subsistence, among animals belonging to the same species [his emphasis], which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life...”(p. vi).  Kropotkin claimed that cooperation is more important than competition in nature and is the key to “progressive” evolution.  Kropotkin also insisted that social groups were important units of evolution.

It turns out that Kropotkin was much closer to the truth.  Nevertheless, during much of the twentieth century, the science of evolutionary biology was dominated by what has often been referred to as “the selfish gene” model, after the biologist/popularizer Richard Dawkins’s best-selling book with that title.  Competition among individual genes, or organisms, was assumed to be the principle driver of evolutionary change.   Cooperation, meanwhile, was viewed as a major problem in evolutionary biology because it presumably required altruistic self-sacrifices (a wrong-headed assumption) and was not in any case considered to be a very important phenomenon.  This competitive, gene-focused paradigm came to be known as neo-Darwinism.

Over the past two decades, however, there has been a major sea change in evolutionary biology.  Cooperation, and mutualistic “symbiosis” between different species are no longer viewed as problematic and are now recognized as major aspects of evolution.   Indeed, it is now widely accepted that the rise of complexity in evolution, including especially complex social systems – from leaf cutter ants to humankind – has depended on cooperation.  However, it is not cooperation per se that has been responsible for the rise of complexity.  Rather, it is the unique combined effects (the benefits) produced by cooperation – the functional Synergies – that are the key.  Cooperation may have been the vehicle, but synergy was the driver.  Nothing about the evolution of complexity makes sense except in the light of synergy.     

As I show in my new book, Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind, humankind most likely evolved, over perhaps 5-7 million years, in small, closely cooperating, egalitarian groups.  Every human society is, in essence, a “collective survival enterprise” – a joint venture for the purpose of providing for our basic, ongoing survival and reproductive needs.  Contrary to the Social Darwinist and “selfish gene’ models, moreover, we now know that socially organized groups can be a distinct “unit” of natural selection and evolutionary change.  I call it the cooperative gene model.

However, this does not mean that competition is no longer an important factor.  On the contrary, competition and cooperation are both major shaping influences.  Indeed, natural selection can occur at multiple levels.  When there is differential survival and success among competing social groups – which was clearly the case in human evolution -- it could be called “competition via cooperation.” In other words, the cooperators may be the fittest.    

Accordingly, the Spencerian, Social Darwinist model was partly right but also deeply wrong.  What I mean by this is that competition is very obviously an important aspect of our economic, social, and political life, and has some positive aspects.  But any complex human society is quintessentially an integrated, interdependent, and intensely cooperative organization with a collective purpose – to provide for our basic survival needs.  It is a “superorganism”, in the terminology of the biologists.  This is the core of what political scientists refer to as the “common good” or the “public interest.”  

In the superorganism model, competition -- and free-market capitalism in particular -- cannot ever be “free”.  It must be contained and subordinated to the common good.  It is a betrayal of our ancient heritage and our common purpose, and it undermines the well-being of the “whole”, if any of the “parts” is allowed to be exploitative and cause harm to the rest.  Social Darwinism and its modern refinements are therefore inherently subversive to the common good.  And the proof of it can be found in our dismal economic and social welfare statistics, and in our deep political divisions.  Our superorganism is in serious peril.   








Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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