Monday, March 05, 2007


The concept of survival of the fittest conjures images of individual struggle red tooth and claw. But the popular conception, focused as it is on survival of the individual, misses the point, because the real stuff of life, DNA and other genetic material, does not reside in the individual. And for good reason – the individual is mortal. The real blueprint for life resides in the species.

I’ve turned to this topic after watching the television show “Nature”, which this evening featured a life-and-death struggle between a pack of African wild dogs and a Wildebeest mother and calf.

The pack cut the pair off from the herd and attacked them repeatedly over 30 minutes, several times downing the young calf and mauling it savagely. But each time the frenzied mother drove the dogs off, until, exhausted, the pack lay down in the grass and watched the pair trot to safety back in the herd.

Those who are stuck on the idea that survival of the fittest is about the fittest, strongest individual have no explanation for the behaviour of the Wildebeest mother. Why should an individual put itself in mortal danger to protect its kin? By risking death, doesn’t the Wildebeest’s behaviour prove that it’s not all about survival?

This supposed “tough nut” is sometimes called the altruism problem. Why do soldiers march off to die on the battlefield? Why does a perfect stranger leap into the rapids to save a drowning child? If it’s all about our own survival, why put ourselves at risk for anyone at all?

The answer of course is that the survival that counts is never the survival of the individual, which in any eventuality is doomed in the long term anyway. The real goal is the survival of the species, because the species is what carries and transmits the blueprint for replication and regeneration.

DNA and other genetic materials are the vessel for the learning of the mass of individuals, now dead and gone, whose experience made the species what it is.

When the Wildebeest mother fights off the wild dogs, she gives life to her calf, and whatever courage and fearlessness she possessed that gave her the will to fight the pack now will live on in her offspring. Thus the species learns, because those who don’t fight back don’t pass on their fighting genes.

It is whatever contributes to the survival of the gene pool that defines “fitness”, not necessarily strength or savagery or cunning or camouflage. The soldier who goes off to fight to defend his country is in part defending his gene pool.

But recall that the learning of the species does not only reside in the genetic material. It also resides in the culture. So the soldier is also defending or advancing his culture, if necessary, with his own individual life. This is how the culture survives.

The survival of the fittest is really the survival of the learning of the species. That learning which is most conducive to survival will carry on. Insofar as altruism promotes the survival of the species, it will persist.