Once upon a time in the 1980’s Indira Rao our biology teacher spoke taught us about Charles Darwin, and the theory of natural evolution. Like all good students I totally deleted it from my memory the after 12.30pm April 8th 1980, as that was the day we finished out biology exam. Somewhere in the later years Dr.Jacob Abraham referred to it in his anatomy class, then of course, my bête noire Pop-Glossop spoke about it in the context of a survival instinct.
Over the years survival of the fittest came to mean, the winner takes it all. the imagery was of a process of elimination. Slowly the understanding came down to competition and elimination of the competition. However recently as I attended a workshop on compassionate wisdom conducted by the Emory Tibet science centre I realized that we could have probably got the stuff wrong. Any way coming back to,
Survival of the fittest, it’s a phrase that has its origin in Darwinian evolutionary theory. This was a way to describing natural selection. The indicator of success here was reproductory success. The Darwinian way of understanding this phrase would “survival of the form that will that will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations.” Though the phrase survival of the fittest was first used by Hubert Spencer it was meant to mean better designed to handle immediate local environment, which included adaptation if necessary.
The essentials of the Darwinian theory is simple
- Off springs look different from parents— sexual reproduction, meiosis’, DNA mutation cause variation within species.
- Organisms produce more offspring than that survive.
- Individuals with characteristics that help them survive will live and reproduce ensuring that their offspring have the same characteristics.
- Individuals that cannot compete don’t reproduce. This causes species as group to change over time.
In his book Mutual Aid A Factor In Evolution the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin presents a set of analysis leading to the conclusion that the fittest need not mean elimination of competition individually but often the community made up of those best at working together. This could probably explain a lot of what is called the Darwinian puzzle—there were phenomenon that occurred that could not really be explained.
Like the peacock, the colourful, large feathers not only rendered the peacock susceptible to predators it also made its flight cumbersome. The explanation for this was its usefulness in attracting the sexual partner. Or the dart frog which is multihued, here a survival altruism was assigned, that the poison of the frog worked as its defence. The poison was so potent that south American hunters coat the tip of their arrows with it. Another example often referred to is the flamboyant monarch butterfly , again altruism is assigned to it, as the monarch butterfly feeds on a poisonous flower secretion, eating it kills the predator, hence keeping other Monarch butterflies safe.
Revisiting the Darwinian theory after reading Peter Kropotkin, allows us an entire different interpretation of survival of the fittest. To me it got further strengthened by the amazing evidence of interdependence in nature, both saprophytic and symbiotic. There is an actual study by Deutsch on the conditions that would generate these type of interdependence, that is cooperation provides more constructive group process and outcome than competition.
This brings about the next logical question, what are conditions that lead the groups to co-operate or compete? What Deutsch study of conflicts provided him a mixed motives that is potential to grow either into co-operation or competition. He realized that cooperation lead to more cooperation in groups, that is more openness, helpfulness and trust. While competition, encouraged more competition with poor communication, coercion and suspicion. Interestingly it is the same set of traits that give rise to either conditions in the first place. however when it came to results, cooperation handed a win-win situation, while competition was more destructive.
Darwin’s theory that organisms will inherently struggle against one another in competition for limited resources that makes life possible. It has given justification to everything, from capitalist, economic theory, to warped ideas of social Darwinism, that propagated the dominance of Caucasian race. But like Elizabeth Sahtouris says, he (Darwin) was right about species competing for resources, but he never saw beyond just one stage in the maturity cycle. Evolution proceeded when crises created by species forced them to beyond the survival of fittest and find cooperative strategies for survival.”
Forgetting about other species if we were to focus on human history competition seems to be the prima-donna. Fyodor Dostoevsky the Russian author calls us the unfinished species, and in the evolutionary sense we are the youngest. We need to move from competition to cooperation, then we can co-evolve.
If we could shift from greed and lack to a willingness to share, we could definitely be more progressive. Again this would mean questioning some of the most tenets of our economic, political, and social values. We could do away with violence and submit to peaceful co-existence. the fundamental truth is our human hubris’s need. To transform into a humble realization, that our survival depends on adhering to the principles and ethics of sustained life.
If you think this is a righteous sermon, then think again, I’m not saying that individual self interest should or will disappear, we are bound to be individuals. But in our own self interest we need to negotiate the greater interest of communities where we live in .
The step to the future is co-operation and not competition. This could be because competition stems from what’s in it for me, while cooperation comes how can we overcome the hurdle, it is more grounding.