The Survival of the Friendliest

by Kate Gerwin

Ahhhhhhh, the Olympics. A test of skill and brawn, speed and agility. A time when the most honed and talented athletes take the world’s stage, ready to compete until only the fittest, most capable is left; standing atop a platform, basking in his or her glory. It’s enough to make Charles Darwin proud.

Or is it?

The term “survival of the fittest” has long existed in our common lexicon and collective memory. We seem to have a primal recognition of the phrase, using it to explain—and defend– all sorts of human behavior, from harmless competition to deadly greed. The idea that competition is at the very core of who we are as a species has gone unchallenged for so long that we have come to view it as gospel, even going so far as to base many of our financial, political, social and even religious institutions on it and its implications. Human beings, we believe, have evolved and survived thanks to competition.

The only trouble is, Darwin doesn’t seem to agree. Darwin is best known for his first book, Origin of Species, from which we derive the phrase the “survival of the fittest”; what is less well-known, however, is Darwin’s second book, entitled The Descent of Man., In this book he explains the process of human evolution as distinct from that of the animal world.  It may then, come as a shock to discover that in this 828 page tome, Darwin only mentions “survival of the fittest” twice. What does he focus on instead? Themes of love and mutual cooperation. Darwin refers to love or pro-social behaviors over 95 times, and moral sensitivity over 92 times. In contrast, the role of selfishness is only mentioned 12 times, while the need for competition is mentioned a mere nine.

What is one to conclude from these surprising statistics? In short, that we as a species owe far more to our ability to come together than our ability to compete.

Ahhhh, the Olympics. An opportunity for nations to cease the business of politics and war-making, and come together to share in our common humanity and desire for a more peaceful planet. Charles Darwin would indeed be proud.

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