We’re all familiar with the expression ‘survival of the fittest’, the meaning of which is that only the most fit survive. The problem is that the most fit often don’t survive and the least fit often do. Clams are not very fit, but they have the best survival track-record of practically any species. Cows are not very bright otherwise fit, and they are doing extremely well in terms of their survival and reproduction rates.
By contrast, Cro-Magnon man was the most intelligent and adaptive being ever to exist, and he is no more. Neanderthals were also extremely fit, and they too are gone.
Of course, if we define ‘fit’ to mean ‘survival-prone’, then, of course, ‘survival of the fittest’ is true, but also vacuous.
At the same time, we obviously don’t want to just give up on the whole survival of the fittest concept.
What’s the story?
The story is that survival is about efficiency. Clams are not very ‘fit’, whatever that means, but they are extremely efficient. Same with cows, at least when considered with respect to their circumstances. Cro-Magnon man, on the other hand, was not very efficient. Paradoxically, what made him inefficient was the very thing that made him so fit, namely, his over-sized brain. The same is true of Neanderthals. Big brains require a lot of energy, and they saddle their owners with a lot of needs, physical and psychological; and they dispose their owners to take risks, which don’t always pay off.
Cows are stupid, but, relative to their current circumstances, highly efficient. Clams are even more stupid, but even more efficient.
So there it is. The right saying is not ‘survival of the fittest’, which is either false or trivial, depending on how it’s take, but ‘survival of the most efficient.’