Politicians love to talk about “survival of the fittest.” They don’t know what that means

The GOP espouses the myth of social Darwinism to justify destroying the welfare state — even as they eschew biology

M.T. Anderson
July 22, 2018 11:00pm (UTC)

Predation is in fashion right now. The signs are everywhere, saturating this country’s popular culture. For a couple of decades, nature programs have pegged their success on hymns to the pitiless efficiency of sharks and raptors. Our superhero franchises, our prime-time zombie dramas, and our nightmare sci-fi scenarios now routinely feature situations in which a few hearty, ragged souls, always dressed in brown and needing a shave and a wipe-down, debate the great questions of survival: How ruthless should self-interest be? Is kindness just another name for weakness? Isn’t life’s great law simply “Everybody for themselves”? We are all fascinated by the battle of predator and prey, the survival of the fittest.

Meanwhile, our president gabbles about “winners” and “losers,” terrified that most people don’t see him as one of the winners, and unashamed of his naive admiration for the strength of dictators. The Right is ever more open about endorsing an economic and social Darwinism in which brutal competition determines who shall survive, who shall prosper, and who shall disappear.

The image of the world as an arena of cut-throat competition is seductive. Any trust-fund aristocrat can chuckle about the unpitying law of the jungle and feel like a raw, scrappy survivor. At this point, the richest 1 percent of the American population controls roughly double the wealth in this country that the bottom 90 percent of the population does. If this nation’s staggering economic inequality is just an example of natural selection, then our dysfunctional distribution of wealth is simply proof that all is right with the world. The myth of economic Darwinism justifies the gutting of the American middle class – even as it’s espoused by a GOP that claims not to believe in Darwinism itself.

Of course, the science of economic Darwinism is not actually science. It’s worth repeating that. And when we look closely at the survival of the fittest, it turns out that nature’s sociopathic assholes are, in any case, rarely the most fit.

Biologically, competition is only one of many mechanisms in the survival of the fittest. It’s often not the most efficient or strategically effective one. For most of the twentieth century, competition was the element of natural selection most discussed in the West, precisely because it felt good and hard and real to imagine a world of brutal capitalist individualism. In the last several decades, however, scientists have increasingly drawn attention to all of the ways that the law of the jungle – of evolution and adaptation – also selects for effective cooperation among members of herds, packs, and hives, and even more importantly, between different species, plant and animal, in individual ecospheres. We now know that the forest, for example, is not simply a battlefield; it’s also a community, in which trees of different species benefit from the exchange of nutrients – carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous – through mycorrhyzal fungi, each participant in the exchange benefiting from its association with the others. Older trees donate nutrients to young ones just starting out; trees that are assaulted by beetles or worms “warn” others chemically via the fungal network, even if they aren’t related species. This is done not out of any altruism – we’re talking about wood, here – but due to the slow, mechanical adaptation of strategies for survival on a broader level. Nature has played the game of self-interest, and discovered that communal cooperation is usually more effective in promoting growth and success.

Our own bodies, similarly, are symbiotic and cooperative communities, rich with bacterial hordes that make digestion possible. You might think of yourself as an individual, but you are a teeming metropolis, and if you could cast out all your bacterial stowaways, you’d quickly die, huge in scale but helpless and stricken.

In the first phases of life on Earth, competition between hungry one-celled organisms almost depleted available food sources and ended life’s history on this planet before it even began. This sorry end was only avoided through a bizarre interaction where different bacteria entered into communal arrangements in which they exchanged nutrients and, gradually, became the complex cells that form the building blocks of all higher life forms, including Ayn Rand.

When eccentric biologist Lynn Margulis originally proposed this account of genesis, she was met with near-universal disdain and opposition. In a society that put a premium on stories of competition, this sounded far too cooperative. It took several years for mainstream science, hobbled by ideology, to accept Margulis’s theory as the most likely origin story for the eukaryotic cell. As surely as the Soviets distorted the theory of natural selection to accommodate communism, we in the West found it hard to admit that capitalist predation was not the sole law of nature.

As we look at the birth of nations, we can watch as the same evolutionary steps are played out in social and economic terms: cycles of competition, cooperation, differentiation, and mutualism as individuals and businesses seek their own niches, their own alliances, their own way to survive most efficiently. People come together in communities because it is easier and more efficient to survive if labor and risk are pooled. Communities try to stabilize themselves to minimize disruption from crisis – and that’s a good thing. Organisms, similarly, actually seek ways to avoid direct competition, since by and large, conflict is inefficient. It involves an expenditure of energy – and so the hawk and the owl both hunt the same prey and occupy similar positions in the functioning of the ecosphere, but the hawk hunts by day, and the owl by night.

Societies where competition is too fierce fall apart, just as ecosystems where predation has run rampant quickly collapse in scenes of mute starvation and spasms of violence.

Of course, predation is still part of the system, and sometimes a firm line cannot be drawn between cooperation and destruction. The finely tuned coordination between members of a coyote pack is not particularly comforting to the rabbit running before them. The unexpected collaboration of disparate Mongolian tribes under the banner of Genghis Khan led to one of the fiercest campaigns of destruction in human history. Cooperation is not necessarily a warm spectacle. This simply shows, however, that given the complexity of natural systems and their strategies, we have a choice of models for our society. We might as well choose one that promotes happiness and widespread prosperity. Sure, the human animal may be a predator; but we are also a species adapted to prevail through collaboration.

In any case, it’s completely evident that politicians and power-players on the right don’t really believe in survival of the fittest in all cases; they change their minds quickly when they themselves turn out not to be the fittest. When multinational corporations and their stockholders are threatened in the marketplace by their own dismal failures, their inefficiencies, their bloat and double-dealings, congressional elites demand bail-outs. No more survival of the fittest; no more talk of letting the feckless and reckless die a natural death; no, then it’s time for us all to pull together and yank the lumbering predator out of the tar pit. This might have made some strategic sense after 2008, when we realized that the death of these institutions could bring down the global economy – but note that we have not been allowed to ensure that mega-banks will never again be “too big to fail.” They are, in essence, underwritten at this point by the American taxpayer. They will never have to prove themselves worthy of continued life, capable of standing on their own two ponderous, therapod feet. Contrary to their claims, the wealthy are not masters of competition: instead, they find ways to exempt themselves from any real parity while forcing others to pay the price.

So the next time a politician waxes poetic about the glories of self-sufficiency and the survival of the fittest, their bracing vision of a nation of neighbors red in tooth and claw, don’t listen. It’s a dangerous myth that leads to futile strife and collapse. Let’s look at the other strategies that allow communities – and species – to flourish.

Our survival depends upon it.

M.T. Anderson

National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson’s latest novel is "Landscape with Invisible Hand." His latest nonfiction work is "Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad."