Survival of the fittest

Before our Eyes

There is an understandable excitement that ripples through various segments of the scientific community each time a new link in the evolutionary chain is discovered. I imagine one reason is that evolution is normally such a slow motion process. We look backward over thousands, even millions of years to discover which species and events came before us; to learn about the ages of earth’s history. These revelations help to understand the world as it is today. They explain, in part, who we are and why we developed so differently from other species, as well as why some species are now extinct. But these evolutionary discoveries arise mostly from studying the very distant past. Hence the excitement when new information is detected.

To date it has gone mostly unnoticed and unremarked, but the Covid 19 pandemic has exposed a miracle in our own day. We no longer need to look backward over history. Of course, miracle might be overstating the case. The exact word has yet to be determined. But we can truly observe evolution unfolding this very minute.

In Darwin’s
Origin of the Species, he speaks of natural selection as the method through which certain species are favored for advancement over others. This, in turn, gave rise to the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which is a more apt expression of Darwin’s theory. One of the objections to the term natural selection is that it implies a conscious decision on the part of nature to privilege or prefer one species over another. However, when understood correctly, the term suggests that some species evolve and therefore survive because they are more suited to changes in environment. For example, some were able to adapt and evolve after the ancient cosmic event that brought about the demise of dinosaurs. There was no direct “choice” by nature to end the Jurassic age.

It is important to understand that survival of the fittest has nothing to do with individuals, per se. In our society we pay a great amount of attention to being physically fit (consider that some gyms are open twenty four hours). Our physical conditioning, however, is not what evolutionary “fitness” means. Rather, it refers to the ability of an entire species to survive environmental change. Nor does it require a meteoric event. Today we live in a rapidly changing world; in an environment that is heating faster than anyone could predict. Add the Covid 19 pandemic and we find ourselves witnessing some wonderful ironies.

For one, people who close their eyes to environmental change are being blinded by increasing and more severe natural disasters: floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc.

Secondly, in the United States, those who denied the pandemic and/or refused to wear masks and be vaccinated claiming freedom of choice, are being hospitalized and dying from the very thing they claimed did not exist. Could that be the ultimate freedom? It is certainly the ultimate irony.

There are a combination of factors at play: a sense of invincibility among the young, fatalistic faith among the old, stubbornness, ignorance and politics.

As I said above, survival of the fittest does not apply to individuals. Nonetheless, these particular groups are culling the herd. And as chaff separated from wheat, they are making room for a refined mental acuity among the species, possibly increasing our chances of survival now and in the future.

Indeed these are dramatic times and the scientific community should be stirring with excitement. For along with what we learn from studying the past, we are witnessing evolution in process. Maybe it is not a miracle. Maybe it is just natural selection. Whatever, it is happening before our very eyes.