Last week I was on vacation with my family, and, as usual, we got into politics. At some point one of my sisters said, “It’s too bad that Darwinism and survival of the fittest is the maxim that modern society lives by.”
Her point was that competition and individualism drive people apart, leading to violence, fear, hatred and war. She’s not alone in believing this. The interpretation of evolution that focuses on competition and the premise that only the strongest and best adapted species survive has been used to justify everything from capitalism and racism to genocide, war and colonialism.
Underlying that doctrine is the premise that the species that rise to the top are somehow better and more deserving than the ones they trample on their way up. But is that really what Darwin meant? His idea of survival of the fittest helps explain evolution, but are the fittest ever just one individual acting alone?
Scientific research has shown that mutual assistance or cooperation is and has always been critical to the success of any given species. The examples of this in nature are abundant. Think of the bacterial flora in your gut that ensure your health and well-being. Think of the yucca moths whose life cycle is inextricably linked to their host for the survival of both species. The list of such examples goes on and on. The truth is, if competition were truly the only means of survival, wouldn’t we live in a world with only one species? Isn’t the endgame of any competition a winner and a loser?
Competition for resources is real, but the species that survive are not individuals whose success comes at the expense of others. Rather success is achieved by cooperation and teamwork among individuals and communities. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore that fact in our culture, instead focusing on the person who garners the most attention — the person who wins rather than the team that supported his or her victory. We glorify the rugged individual, the self-made man and the American myth that anyone who works hard enough can become a millionaire.
Sports are not immune to this idea. From an early age kids are trained that winning is everything. The result is that athletes often define themselves by the outcome of a sporting event. And, of course, when one side or person wins, everyone else loses. Unfortunately, this isn’t true only of athletics. Academic or career competition is equally cutthroat, and people who fail to rise to the top — or win — are often left feeling inadequate and unsatisfied.
The Washington Post just ran an article about Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin, who died by suicide in 2018. Catlin, by all measures, was an outstanding athlete, a remarkable intellect (she was in graduate school at Stanford at the time of her death), and a talented violinist. She also suffered from self-doubt, depression and the belief that she could never be good enough. Her story is devastating and obviously extreme, but it points to a real challenge for our society. How do we encourage excellence without also encouraging destructive competition? How do we recognize that survival of the fittest is not a lone journey to the top but one a situation in which cooperation, teamwork and camaraderie are critical to success, longevity and happiness?
New research supports the idea that cooperation among species in response to environmental threats is more effective than one species going it alone. In forests, underground mycorrhizal communities provide critical nutrients to trees, allowing them to flourish. The destruction of these communities through logging jeopardizes the continued health of the forest. Similarly, many insect species flourish through elaborate communal strategies. Look at ants and bees for example. In these communities the individual has little impact on the success of the species while together they flourish.
Likewise, teamwork in sports has always been critical to overall success. Cyclists draft each other to conserve energy; climbers work in teams to scale mountains; teams succeed by using the skills and talents of the group rather than relying on the individual star, and yet, we as a society all too often focus on the one person who scores the goal or crosses the finish line first in our accolades. In doing this we overemphasize the individual at the expense of his or her team, and that, in my mind, has lasting repercussions for society.
I feel this tension in my own life, although it is diminishing as I age and my ability to compete fades. Still, I feel pressure to be the best, to win awards, to not be last, for my daughter to go to a good school, to make money, to have a nice house and fancy toys — the list goes on and on, but under it all is the feeling that you can never be good enough. That’s apparently what drove Kelly Catlin to be what she was, which was amazing. But underneath her success was the sense that she couldn’t ever do enough. Do enough for what? Where did that message come from?
I remember years ago when I led the hardest climbing route I’d ever led (and it turned out to be the hardest route I would ever lead). I’d worked hard on the route, practicing the moves on a top rope and visualizing my body flowing up the rock for weeks before I succeeded. I was thrilled when I topped out of the climb. But that elation did not last long. It did not make my life demonstrably better. It did not make people love me more. It didn’t change my day-to-day existence. I was not what I achieved — I was just me. The point? We hurt ourselves when we place too much emphasis on our accomplishments. We lose something when we focus on winning at the expanse of the other things that bring meaning to our lives. Yes, working toward goals and succeeding at athletic endeavors is exhilarating and helps us be healthy, but if our society is too caught up in that individual survival of the fittest mentality, we lose in the end.
In a 2012 Scientific American article, evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris is quoted as saying, “Darwin was right about species competing for resources, but he never saw beyond it as just one stage in the maturation cycle. Evolution proceeded when crises created by species forced them to go beyond ‘survival of the fittest’ and find cooperative strategies for survival.”
Cutthroat competition results in ephemeral moments of glory, but in the end, long-term happiness and survival depend on cooperation and community whether that be in nature, in sports, in the workplace or in our communities.