Darwin and fitness.  The advocates of Darwinian evolution have always taken the rather naïve approach that anything that increases offspring is good and will be favored by evolution.  We can now see that things are not so simple.  If a species were spectacularly successful, “fit” in evolutionary terms, then it would become a huge population, and as we have seen, would probably go extinct.  We are facing that problem ourselves.  So one is tempted to revise “survival of the fittest” and say there is “extinction of the fittest.  Of course what is needed is a new understanding of “fit.”  It is not just a matter of more of the same gene line.  There has to be structuring of the population so that the gene line does not become too large. 

Darwin reckoned selection applied to the individual.  But an individual cannot reproduce alone.  Currently the thought is that selection applies to a species.  But a species is a theoretical concept of potentially interbreeding members.  Selection applies to actual interbreeding members. 

The phrase “selection of the fittest” is not going to go away.  I hold the concept now in discredit.  Something like “selection of the fittest mating pool” would work.  But so much emotional energy has gone into “selection of the fittest” that people are not going to give it up.

I once took an interest in the pre-Celtic Britons.  The Celts were an identifiable group of tribes.  They had a known language.  They had known gods.  They had great artwork.  Their military accomplishments were respectable.  There was an area of Gaul, now France, that Julius Caesar called “Celtica,” but they were very like other areas of what he calls Gaul or “Gaullia.”  They were very like people he found in Britain.  It makes good sense to call them all Celts.  But before the identifiable people crossed into Britain there were people already there.  These people, probably related to people the Romans alter called “Picts” were very different.  Their language has probably been lost.  They worshiped no identifiable gods.  Their artwork was non-representational.  Little is known of their military except that they built massive stone defense works quite unlike the mobile cavalry strategy of Celts.  It seems logical to say they were not Celts.

Yet for many years the people of Ireland considered themselves to be Celts.  They spoke Celtic languages and had a Celtic style tribal structure.  They considered themselves to be very different from the English, who speak a Teutonic language.  Then people looked at the surviving DNA traces and, to a first approximation, everybody in the British Isles before recent migrations were of pre-Celtic descent.  Do not expect the Irish to say oops we are not Celts after all.  If you look at such things you will notice they are beginning to call the pre-Celtic Britons Celts.  There has simply been too much invested in the concept of Celticness to give up the word.

And too much is invested in “survival of the fittest.”  It has a nice thundering tone to it.  It seems self evident.  The truth is not self evident.  It took years for me to find, even looking for it, evidence that things are not so simple. 

I don’t think the term should be abandoned.  It means something.  The problem is that what it means is not true.  We ought to keep the term and confine it strictly to meaning what it now means: fitness is the ability of the individual to have numerous successful offspring, and successful means also able to have offspring. 

We just need a new term to apply to the new understanding.  Nothing survives forever, fit or not.  “Relative reproductive advantage of the mating pool” does not roll off the tongue.  There is no thunder there.  But it is far closer to the truth. 

Darwin must be forgiven for this one.  He never suspected. 

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