Survival of the Fittest Charles Darwin

Darwin observing evolution
The phrase "Survival of the Fittest" has become so attached to revolutionary Biologist Charles Darwin that it may come as a shock to many to hear that he never actually said such a phrase. In fact it is so attached to him (we'll get to it) that it may seem foolish to even write a post claiming he never said such a thing. However, as futile as it may be, we will nonetheless take a stab at it in this post.

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Charles Darwin accomplished a major milestone not just in biology, but in all of science with his publication of “On The Origin of Species.” However many claims that Darwin, himself, claimed that his theory could be summarized by simply stating “Survival of the Fittest.” A phrase that he himself never used and was in fact an attempt to slander his theory. We’ll get to the who, when, and why of such a claim but in short: no, Charles Darwin never said that evolution is “survival of the fittest.” 

Simply stating the year and the location of the claimed utterance would do little to shed light on how this phrase first came to be used. First, no Darwin never said it. Second, to fully explain why the quote came about one needs to understand both a little about evolution and the existing moral authorities that regulated truth in the times of Darwin. 

With ample money, unknown in today’s academia, Charles Darwin had the luxury and time to do good descriptive research: observe nature and take notes. 

He noticed the variations of species, differences in the fossil record, and how ecological changes (such as the environment) might have had an impact. Emotionally and intellectually stifled, he goes back and forth about how much a difference in species population might have arisen. However, something happened prior to Darwin in the field of Geology, not biology, which changed everything. 

A Scottish farmer, physician, and agriculturalist named James Hutton noticed a very specific pattern. He noticed that sediments had “been uplifted, tilted, eroded away, and then covered by an ocean, from which the red sandstone was then deposited.” Erosion, in other words. He discovered erosion. More specifically as the AMNH points out, “washed into the sea, compacted into bedrock, forced up to the surface by volcanic processes, and eventually worn away into sediment once again.” 

Why was this so important to Charles Darwin and evolution? 

When he combined his observations with the observable fact of erosion, he was given a timescale for different geological ages. Darwin realized that the fossil record revealed that he was seeing species slowly change (adapt) at different points in time and then slowly become separate species entirely. 

Though the Catholic Church now strongly recognizes the reality of Evolution, this was not always the case. Similar to the discovery of the number zero, the Church feared at the time that the belief in evolution might undermine one’s belief in the divine nature of man’s existence. Though the jury is still out on that fact, we nevertheless see incentive from one side of the aisle (at the time) to cast skepticism about the theory of Evolution. However if one were to suggest that it was in fact the Catholic Church, or any church for that matter, that was responsible for this misattribution you would be wrong.

Where Does The Fake Darwin Quote Come From?

Finally returning to the etymology of the fake quote, a wonderful synopsis was done by the Darwin Project.  A project that, among other things, tracks down fake quotes misattributed (or entirely fabricated by the legendary evolutionary biologist. The quote began as a paraphrase of the original text by Leon C. Megginson who argued that Darwin’s theory was not about intelligence or strength but “the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt.” The quote started off as a casual interpretaiton of Evoloution and then took on a life of its own from there.

However, it can be argued that the Darwin project may be too generous here. While the church may not have been directly or indirectly responsible for the creation of the quote, it doesn’t mean that they did not play a role in promulgating the quote as a summation of evolutionary theory.

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