A More Fitting Analogy: How Does One Aptly Characterize Natural Selection?

By Allchin, Douglas | The American Biology Teacher, March 2007 | Go to article overview

A More Fitting Analogy: How Does One Aptly Characterize Natural Selection?


Allchin, Douglas, The American Biology Teacher


In our culture no one needs a biology class to learn about "survival of the fittest." Yet one might need instruction to unlearn the misconceptions engendered by the analogy's potent imagery.

Does "survival of the fittest" describe organic evolution or human culture? The ambiguity fosters unwarranted impressions in both contexts. In biology, misleading social metaphors distort understanding of natural selection. Meanwhile, in society, competitive ideology is unduly naturalized (or improperly inscribed in "nature").

Thus, in popular perspectives, humans--however civilized--are brutish organisms vying for jobs, status and power. Maybe they also compete reproductively for prime mates. The language resonates with "survivor" contests on television: "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast." Physical "fitness" and athletic prowess become ideals. A human's fate seems to be life versus death, fit versus unfit, winning versus losing. Cooperation and coexistence give way to warfare, conflict and backstabbing gossip: "culture, red in tooth and claw," to adapt Tennyson's phrase. Mostly, life reduces to competition. Cutthroat competition. Through the survival-of-the-fittest expression, all these interpretations seem to have a biological basis. It is not an idle definition of natural selection.

Remedying these confusions involves, foremost, carefully distinguishing the domains of organic evolution and culture (Sacred Bovines, Jan., 2007). Students also need to be aware of the naturalizing error: how cultural values may illegitimately shape scientific conceptions of nature (last month's essay). Still, problems may persist due to the very language itself. The connotations of the phrase seem inescapable. Here, I consider the misconceptions latent in the very terms themselves: 'survival' and 'fit'-as well as the '-est' suffix. That may help us craft a more fitting analogy or catchphrase.

Surviving

Consider first the import of the word 'survival'. On a population level, differential survival leads to differential reproduction, the essence of organic selection. Darwin talked of "proportional numbers" (1859, p. 81). Yet when one thinks in terms of individuals (as individual students often do), the outcome seems to reduce to survival or death. Fit organisms live, unfit ones die. In the "struggle for existence," one either succeeds or fails. Selection becomes either-or.

In this way biologists perhaps unwittingly help perpetuate a culture that tends to acknowledge only winners and losers, survivors and also-rans. The language of crude "survival" subverts the biological lesson, as well as fostering inappropriate cultural overtones. Shifting from a world of stark black-and-white to a world of nuanced grays is, of course, an important part of maturing intellectually. Teaching natural selection ideally is an occasion to promote that lesson, rather than reinforce simplistic preconceptions. Lab activities or presentations that highlight "black-and-white" predation may thus foster misleading impressions (Allchin, 2001).

Darwin called natural selection a "principle of preservation": the "preservation of favourable variations" (1859, pp. 127, 81). He referred to "the strong principle of inheritance" and how "any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form" (p. 5). Darwin thereby underscored the importance of continuity and propagation as integral to selection.

A focus on survival, by contrast, lessens the significance of reproduction, successive generations, and the long-term. Death seems to merely weed out the unfit. Selection seems to act negatively, as a screen, or filter. Selection becomes eliminative.

This image, too, is echoed in our culture, even in how we elect to entertain ourselves. In television game shows, "survivor" contests, beauty pageants and talent searches, contestants are successively eliminated. They are often pared down one by one. In sports--from softball to drag racing to tennis--one frequently finds double elimination tournaments. …

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