The destruction 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 of equilibrium with the 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.

But 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.1

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 may readily bring about the appropriate structural change.2

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.3

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”:

Tolstoϊ's philosophy 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 Kreutzer Sonata, upon a plane where the conditions of physical life will end in the destruction of the fittest, - a new rendering of the central law of evolution.4

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: -

(1) Destruction of the fittest, through war or other cause producing contra-selection or reversal of selection.

(2) Emigration, by which the most energetic or enterprising pass on to other regions or in search of larger opportunities.

(3) Immigration, by which the vacancies are filled by weaker stock, "the beaten men of the beaten races".6

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. Today’s wholesale destruction of the fittest may spell wholesale ruin in Europe. For a long war under Krupp conditions spells suicide for a modern nation.7

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 Melbourne Argus].8

John Simpson


1 Herbert 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”.

3 Clark Braden The Problem of Problems (1877), ch. 5 “Failures of Evolution” p. 177.

4 Unitarian Review (1890), July p. 79.

5 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.

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