‘Only the fittest survive’ – Commonly Misunderstood Part of the Theory of Evolution

I believe that it is scientific fact that life has changed over time from single celled organisms into the plethora of bio diversity we have today. There are people (many people in the US) who believe this is false. When it comes to all claims I give a warning: I am always willing to admit I could be wrong. However, some things I feel much more confident about than others. I am not super confident that I could name all five years the Cowboys won the Superbowl. I know I’d get close, but I wouldn’t feel good naming those dates with absolute certainty. When it comes to the theory of evolution by natural selection I feel very confident that I am correct. I’m not going to enumerate all the reasons for my confidence as that would take an extraordinarily too long blog post. However, I would like to bring light to one common misconception about the mechanism.

A phrase one often hears when talking about this subject is, ‘Only the fittest survive.’ I’d like to explain this oft misunderstood concept because I was very confused about it for a long time and I never heard anyone put it in the words that helped me to understand it for myself. I had to decipher it and learn by the scientific method of making a hypothesis and testing it. So, I would posit potential synonym phrases to see if they really meant the same thing. And I came up short. ‘Only the fastest survive.’ Nope. ‘Only the smartest survive.’ Nope. What is a good synonym for ‘fittest?’ What’s another way of thinking about it to help me understand it deeper?

Fittest implies a known outcome. For example the fittest racer will most likely win the race. It’s not guaranteed, but more often than not the runner who’s in the best running shape will win the race. So, in this particular instance ‘fittest’ most often means ‘fastest.’ But sometimes the winner isn’t the fastest, but more like the mentally toughest. Someone who’s muscles are capable of moving much faster might get psyched out by the pressure of an official competition. In that case ‘fittest’ means something else. Or if the fastest person woke up with the flu that day, they wouldn’t be the fittest. The word ‘fittest’ applies to the situation. If the same race took place the following week after the runner got over the flew then he might be the fittest again. So, the lesson to take away is that ‘Only the fittest survive’ is only correct if you constantly change the meaning of ‘fittest.’ That doesn’t’ mean a lot to me, so I had to look at it at a different way.

I like football. In 2011 the ‘fittest’ football team seemed to be the New England Patriots. They were seen as a powerhouse. The NY Giants were not the fittest team. At least most people believed that. But the Giants won the superbowl. Does that mean the Giants were the fittest and we were wrong or does it mean that they weren’t the fittest and the ‘fittest’ don’t always survive. The cool thing is that they’re both two sides to the same coin. Nothing is known for sure to be the fittest until they’ve proven the test of survival. For example, crocodiles have earned the right to be called ‘fittest’ for the last fifty five million years or so because they’ve survived that whole time. However, if I saw a triceratops I would have said it was the fittest. And it seemed to be that until the circumstance changed. Surviving the aftermath of an asteroid impact turned out to be the ‘fittest’ attribute to have for a few million years. Every living thing on the planet can trace it’s ancestors back to the percentage of species who learned to live and reproduce during that time in history. Had it not been for that unforseen and low percentage chance event then we would most likely not be here as our ancestors depended on the dying off of the dinosaurs to aid in their survival.

What this really means, and I hate to say this because it sounds like I don’t believe in the theory, is that the phrase ‘the fittest survive’ is almost meaningless. What I believe is a more accurate phrase is, ‘The species that survive displayed the best skills needed for their particular situation, but would not have necessarily been the skills one may have guessed. It’s all a numbers game.” But that doesn’t make for a simple test question in seventh grade science or a good t-shirt.

The idea of natural selection is not a random process, but rather a game of roulette with less even odds. Instead of every number having a one in fifty chance, some numbers have a higher chance (sight for example) than others with a lower chance (susceptibility to disease). But even if you have 90% odds for survival, that still leaves a 10% possibility of not surviving. So, for the most part we evolved into abilities that mostly help (like a predator cat’s claws, speed, and ability to jump). But sometimes species made it through with less than favorable abilities (like the sloth for example). But my point is that you should not identify the phrase ‘the fittest survive’ and use it’s lack of clear meaning to argue against the theory of evolution. It very much is a self consistent theory. You can still argue the evidence, but as far as the logic of the mechanism, it does make theoretical sense. It’s just that scientists don’t always do a great job of explaining concepts such as this very well and we are left in some bit of darkness in understanding something controversial.

I’m happy to talk more about it if anyone wants to. Please keep comments respectful. I know this is controversial, but I will delete anything not uplifting in tone.

Thanks, y’all!