Survival Of The Fittest – What Does It Really Mean?

survival of the fittest

Photo via Flickr.

Survival of the fittest is one of those phrases that most people have heard.  It is so familiar because it is an important concept in the natural world.

Survival of the fittest is one of those phrases that I hear people saying all the time for different reasons.  Sometimes a big, strong guy will say it as he beats a weaker person in a game. Or other times, a smart person will say it when they do better than someone else on a test.  I am not sure if that is exactly how the person who first coined the phrase meant for it to be used.

survival of the fittest

Charles Darwin. Photo via Flickr.

Who First Came Up With Phrase, Survival Of The Fittest?

Surprisingly, the man that I always thought came up with the term, Charles Darwin, did not in fact first use it.  Darwin did use it in a later edition of his famous book, On The Origin Of Species.  But, he borrowed the phrase from Herbert Spencer.

Darwin’s first edition of On The Origin Of Species was published in 1859.  Spencer used the term ‘survival of the fittest’ in his own book, Principles of Biology, in 1864.

What Does Survival Of The Fittest Really Mean?

Over time the phrase has come to mean almost the same thing as natural selection, which is the means by which evolution takes place.  Basically, it states that over time a species will adapt and keep those characteristics that make it better suited for its environment and allow it to survive.

This does not necessarily mean that the strongest or the smartest ones will survive and pass on their genes.  In some situations it may in fact be that the smallest individuals in a population are able to outcompete the larger individuals.

survival of the fittest

A mountain cottontail rabbit.

For example, this is not necessarily true, but I just want to make up an example.  Larger rabbits may be more easily seen by hawks, which can then hunt and eat them.  In that case, survival of the fittest would mean that the smaller rabbits are a better fit for their environment and over time the species of rabbits may become smaller.