of the fittest
U 16.1598-1602: […] he was only too conscious of the
casualties invariably resulting from propaganda and displays of mutual
animosity and the misery and suffering it entailed as a foregone conclusion on
fine young fellows, chiefly, destruction of the fittest, in a word.
It is perhaps
surprising to find that the expression “survival of the fittest” was coined by
the English philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), and not by
Darwin himself. Sources cite Spencer’s discussion of Darwinian natural
selection in The Principles of Biology (1864):
It cannot but happen that those individuals whose functions are most out
modified aggregate of external forces, will be those to die; and that those
will survive whose functions happen to be most nearly in equilibrium with the
modified aggregate of external forces.
this survival of the fittest
, implies multiplication of the
fittest. Out of the fittest thus multiplied, there will, as before, be an
overthrowing of the moving equilibrium wherever it presents the least opposing
force to the new incident force.
It is sometimes
implied that Spencer only used “this survival of the fittest” in this text. But
in fact later in the same chapter he used the expression as it is now commonly
used, with the definite article (“the survival of the fittest”):
Where the life is comparatively simple, or where surrounding
circumstances render some one function supremely important,
the survival of the fittest
bring about the appropriate structural change.
Was Joyce responsible for the reversal of the
phrase “destruction of the fittest”? It seems that once again he was picking an
expression from the stream of language current in his day.
At first “destruction of the fittest” occurs
in the context – as one might expect – of natural selection. Clark Braden was
an American Christian author who in 1877 sought to discredit the concept of evolution
and the survival of the fittest:
Then take the case of
the queen bee destroying her fertile daughters, and of the working bees
destroying the males or drones. Here we have a
destruction of the fittest
. In every case it is the unfittest
destroying the fittest. Evolution utterly fails to account for these phenomena.
As the century reached its close, the phrase
became more widely known. A review of Count Leo Tolstoi’s Kreutzer Sonata in 1890 regards the work as leading to “a new rendering of
the central law of evolution”:
is simply the unbending application of this idea [i.e. the soul’s rightful
supremacy over the body] to every-day life, wrought out under the leadings of
his own peculiar genius, and landing us, in the
, upon a plane where the conditions of physical life
will end in
the destruction of the
, - a new rendering of the central law of evolution.
But as we approach the horrors of the First
World War, “the destruction of the fittest” is enlisted in eugenic arguments
against “those who deem war a helpful factor in biological evolution”:5
It is well
ascertained that eugenic or racial decline, which may occur in any region, is
due to one or all of three causes: -
Destruction of the
through war or other cause producing contra-selection or reversal of selection.
by which the most energetic or enterprising pass on to other regions or in
search of larger opportunities.
by which the vacancies are filled by weaker stock, "the beaten men of the
And in due course it becomes a simple cliché
for the waste of life brought about by war, as these examples from 1915 and 1920 illustrate:
Nations have died of
wars. The fall of Rome was due to the decline in the quality of the population.
destruction of the
may spell wholesale ruin in Europe. For a long war under Krupp
conditions spells suicide for a modern nation.
Behind this new code [= Bolshevism] there
seems to be an instinct of self-preservation. The destruction of the fittest
implies the safety of the degenerate [citing the
Spencer The Principles of Biology (1864), vol. 1, part 3 “The Evolution of Life”, ch.
7, p. 444.
2 Herbert Spencer The
Principles of Biology (1864),
vol. 1, part 3 “The Evolution of Life”, ch. 7, p. 453. On p. 474 he uses it
simply as “survival of the fittest”.
Clark Braden The Problem of Problems
(1877), ch. 5 “Failures of Evolution” p. 177.
Review (1890), July p. 79.
William H. Burnham in George Ellis Jones
Hygiene and War (1917), p. 12.
6 David Starr Jordan and Harvey Ernest Jordan War’s Aftermath: a preliminary study of the
Eugenics of War (1914), ch. 1 p. 1.
7 Day book (Chicago, Illinois) (1915), 27 July.
8 Evening Post (New Zealand) (1920), 8
January p. 6.