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Is Survival of the Fittest a Lie?

The way most people explain Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection is by way of a single line. They simply refer to "the survival of the fittest," as though that explains something. The underlying premise is that species which are best "fitted" for survival by some standard will be the ones to survive. Some people even feel that because this is "natural," it is how things "should be". At it's worst, the concept is then applied to human survival to justify not helping (or even actively hurting) those who are "unfit" for survival.

This is a lie, at least in the common conception that people have of what it means to be the "fittest". There is no natural selection of survivors according to ANY preexisting standard of being "fit" or the best specimens, or anything of the sort. You can say after the fact that those species or individuals which survive are the fittest, but then the theory becomes redundant. It becomes "survival of the survivors."

Darwin's theory simply points out that when certain traits cause individuals in a species to survive more often than others, those individuals get to reproduce more often and so pass on those traits. In fact, if weak and sickly individuals find a way to survive and reproduce more, and so supplant other gene-lines, then they become the "fittest" by the definition of natural selection.

Darwin's theory describes a process - one which determines how species change and adapt. It says nothing about the "moral rightness" of the process, or what man should do with the knowledge. Perhaps the confusion starts with his use of the word "selection." It implies a "selector," which in most people's minds would be something along the lines of a "god"," or if not a god, then man.

There Is No Purpose to a Giraffe's Long Neck

This confusion is perpetuated even by the most scientific minds. It is just too easy to say that that a giraffe has a long neck for the purpose of reaching the leaves higher up. The truth is simply that the giraffes with short necks died off, and those with longer necks were able to survive. What is the difference between these two ways of looking at the matter? The latter describes a process, the former ascribes a purpose to that process.

A statement like, "A giraffe has a long neck so he can reach higher when feeding," implies design; purpose. It is like saying that humans have fingers so they can type. It is true that we can type because we have fingers, and true that this enables me to better survive, but this is not "why" I have fingers. It is just something I am able to use my fingers for.

This concept of design or purpose implies a designer, and as such is a religious viewpoint, at least until a higher consciousness can be proven scientifically. Science is ultimately perverted, if only a little, by such a subtle premise. For example, if a scientist is distracted by looking for the "purpose" of traits in species, or the "purpose" of a species in the larger ecosystem, he may miss out on the causes for their existence. The latter could be important if we want to either protect a species or eliminate it for our own purposes.

As a more specific example, one could study "why" (the purpose) some deadly viruses came into existence. One could look at the role the virus plays in the "scheme of things" (again implying purpose). It is true that valuable things might be discovered in this way, since trying other perspectives leads to new ideas and knowledge. But perhaps the more scientific and useful thing to study would be how these viruses survive, so that we can find a way to destroy them.

In a more general sense, it seems that taking a religious perspective in pursuing science is a bad idea. This is what is happening, however subtle it may be, when we describe the process of life as "survival of the fittest," or in any way allude to a "purpose" in the process. We are conscious, and so can talk about our own purposes, but even if you believe in God, can you really claim to know his or her purposes? Neither can science.


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Survival of the Fittest

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