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Perfection of the Fittest

dshanin's picture

    In the Origin of Species Charles Darwin writes, "as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection". This statement appears to support the view that Darwin was a foundationalist, believing in the existence of an extra-corporeal framework containing a clear idea of “perfection” that evolution could then move towards. The view that Darwin is a foundationalist based upon this one word, “perfection” ignores the non-foundationalist sentiments found throughout the rest of his work; doing him a great injustice. This misappropriation of Darwin’s beliefs is further cemented in the popular consciousness through foundationalist phrases such as “Survival of the fittest”, which Darwin himself never used and would have disagreed with. By using Darwin’s work as a lens through which his idea of perfection can be evaluated it will be shown that Darwin was a non-foundationalist at heart, even as he took pains to respect the religious doctrine of his time.

    Evolution, in Darwin’s view, was the result of many years of differential reproductive success based upon inherent variations in the members of each species. Over time, the differential reproductive success can give rise to new species in a process called speciation. This is not an abrupt shift from one species to another; hominids did not simply become human in one fortunate generation. Instead the process is long and inexact, relying on a combination of behavioral and environmental factors to achieve the reproductive isolation necessary for chain of life to branch and create two species, each able to reproduce successfully only with itself. In this respect Darwin is solidly non-foundationalist. There is no great progression from simple organisms towards complex ones. There is no set of “ideal” characteristics that an organism must possess to replace a previous species other than more effectively utilizing their environment for greater reproductive success. It is important to note that even the drive to better utilize ones environment is not a linear progression as the environment is an incredibly fluid mixture of biological and geological factors.

    “Survival of the fittest” was first coined by the British economic theorist Herbert Spencer several years before Darwin’s work was published but it has been indelibly linked to the theory of evolution through generations of misattribution. Realizing that this quote does not succinctly summarize Darwin’s theory and is actually in conflict with several of its key findings will go a long towards explaining how Darwin’s “perfection” is not the fundamentalist ideology we first assumed it to be. “Survival” and “Fittest” are the two primary words in the statement and both possess undesired connotations for the theory of evolution. “Survival” is a clearly black and white term; some live and some die, there is no middle ground. Darwin’s entire theory however, is based in the middle ground between complete success and total extinction that “survival” does not leave room for. Differential reproductive success does not mean that most members of a species fail to reproduce at all while a select few massively populate the world. If this occurred, it would result in rapid jumps in speciation instead of the gradual process that Darwin envisioned and modern evidence supports. To Darwin, differential reproductive success is measured by small changes over many generations. There are not two groups; the successful and the unfit but rather a whole spectrum as we see in any living species.

    This brings us to the second and even more important term, “fittest”. As with “survival” the term “fittest” suggests a strict dichotomy that is incompatible with Darwin’s actual beliefs. The term evokes the idea of a superior sub-species existing within any species; a small group of genetically gifted members whose progeny will also be the chosen few. This is a clearly foundationalist sentiment; suggesting the existence of a perfect model of fitness toward which evolution is moving. This is certainly not what Darwin meant and discounts the large amounts of cross-breeding and genetic mixing that are actually the requirements for our definition of species. Furthermore the health or physical condition of a particular organism is relevant to evolution only if they directly affect its ability to produce viable offspring. Fitness evokes images of large muscles and chiseled physique leading to our associating it with perfection but in the Darwinian sense it is not something that can even be assessed by simply looking at an organism. Darwinian fitness refers to the propagation of an organism’s particular genetic material; only by looking at several generations can it even truly be determined.

    The “fittest” that Spenser envisions is not based in the biological realm but is instead more closely linked to the ideals of Social Darwinism, though they had obviously not been put forth at the time of its writing. Social Darwinism seeks to apply the Darwin’s ideals to modern society and economics as a way to justify that a select few hold almost all of the wealth. This theory served to rebut calls for radical wealth redistribution, such as communism, and instead views the rich as superior and thus deserving their status. Social Darwinism is a foundationalist rebuttal to the idea of humanism; it views the richest as perfect, placing the burden on the lower classes to achieve greater perfection rather than on the rich to use their wealth to benefit the most people. To Darwin, there was no fittest organism, just a range of reproductive success that would slowly change the nature of a species.

    Viewing Darwin’s use of the term perfection as foundationalist is the same kind of error as is made regarding his use of the term fitness. To Darwin, perfection was not an ultimate goal; it was achieved in every generation. Through evolution, a species is able to perfectly exploit its own particular environment and natural resources for reproductive gain. Each generation is then perfect as it is the result of natural selection for those traits that most perfectly fit their environment. Thus if perfection is the ability to perfectly exploit one’s environment then as the environment changes so too does perfection. Darwin’s perfection is the selection pressure that changes every generation; it gradually led fish to the land and trees to the sky. Just as Darwin’s fitness is not an ideal but rather a broad concept so too is perfection. Darwin saw the perfection in all of the species he studied. It was not a strict model but rather a celebration of all the wondrously varied forms that life takes.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin: foundationalist or no?

I share your sense that in many peoples' minds Darwin has been conflated with Spencer, and that "survival of the fittest" is central to that conflation. Yes, "To Darwin, there was no fittest organism, just a range of reproductive success." But is the problem only that "fitness" isn't discontinuous and continuous and "isn't something that can even be assessed by simply looking at an organism" or is it something deeper? You yourself get awfully close to Spencer with "Each organism is then perfect ... for those traits that most perfectly fit their environment." Don't you need at external standard (a foundationalist one) to describe how well traits fit the environment? What's the difference between an "ideal" and a "broad concept"? And, in any case, Darwin DID say "things progress toward perfection." If there isn''t an ultimate goal, how could things progress towards it?