Misquoted Darwin

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”—Charles Darwin

A friend of mine recently posted this quotation on Facebook. I commented that this is one thing that too many people get wrong about Darwin’s theory—too many people assume that survival of the fittest means survival of the strongest. But that’s not necessarily the case.

I was all set to write a blog about all the other commonly held misunderstandings that people have about the Theory of Evolution. First, though, I wanted to verify the quotation my friend had posted.

Turns out, this isn’t a quote from Darwin. It’s a misattributed paraphrase of someone’s summation of Darwin’s theory. Coulda fooled me…

Which begs a fundamental question: Is this quote wrong?

It may not be a quote from Darwin—or, technically, even a quote from anyone—but it’s still an accurate encapsulation of Darwin’s theory. It’s correct in its assessment and critique.

It has value to help combat one of the most commonly held misunderstandings about Darwin’s survival of the fittest doctrine. And it’s very likely something Darwin might have said in response to people’s automatic assumption that “fittest” = “strongest”.

As an information professional, and as someone who values the importance of accurate information, this presents an interesting dilemma: This is not a quote from Darwin, so in that sense it’s incorrect—but it does present an accurate understanding of his theory; further, it has great utility as a tool to communicate that understanding. So while part of me wants to correct everyone who thinks Darwin said this, I can’t bring myself to believe that it’s a bad thing for this misattributed quote to make its way around social media sites.

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6 thoughts on “Misquoted Darwin”

  1. IMO the problem is that the question of the normative significance of natural selection is one that is both disputed and disputable — and one that Darwin himself wisely (mostly) avoided.

    I mean, whether you use “fitness” or “adaptability” or some other term, you can’t get very far without being forced to admit that the term simply ends up meaning “having properties that happen to improve the odds of survival in a particular case.” Adaptability to change is great in principle, but may actually be maladaptive during long epochs of relative stability (i.e. a change in the level of change), when specialization and optimization are more important. And then there’s the problem that “adaptability” isn’t one monolithic thing — a species that can adapt well to a change in temperature might not adapt nearly so well to some other kind of change (e.g. a new kind of predator or disease), and vice versa. So adaptability becomes something that can be defined only in hindsight, and therefore the whole thing collapses into a tautological “survival of the survivors” …. So I would argue it’s significant that Darwin didn’t say this.

    If you reconsider, you may find that this graphic provides a conveniently shareable rebuttal.

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  2. I agree! Adaptability isn’t something easy to define, and it’s intrinsically situationally dependent. And let’s not forget that the major failure of Darwin’s Theory is that – while it provides a mechanism for certain traits to become dominant in a species – it doesn’t really explain how these traits come to exist in members of a species in the first place. He does give credit to random mutation, but random mutation isn’t something you can study scientifically – you can’t set up control groups, etc. So he mentioned it, and left it to the side.

    What I like about this misquote is how effective it is at combating one of the most common misunderstandings of Darwin. It’s the conflation of “fittest” with “strongest” that gave birth to such things as Social Darwinism. It’s how too many people justify taking advantage of others by saying, “because I’m stronger than you,” and believing that makes them worthier.

    If you read the details in the article on Panda’s Thumb, the assessment that gave rise to this misquote is more nuanced than the misquote implies. I didn’t take it to suggest that adaptability or fitness is unchanging or non-situational.

    As a librarian, I think a lot about points of access. As a point of access for someone who is encountering Darwin for the first time, this misquote is useful for sparking a discussion.

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  3. I am so glad you posted this. I was using the exact (mis)quote with attribution in a press release for someone and could have been shamed. I’ll revise and thank you for your thoroughness.

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