Saturday, May 27, 2017

Survival of the Fittest Misunderstandings

"Survival of the fittest" is a concept I often see misunderstood and misused. This can range from applications of that concept in real life down to making use of it in games and fiction. While the real world misuses are clearly the most problematic of these, I am going to focus on the use of the phrase in fiction and gaming. This is partially because I am writing this bit of a rant after seeing someone speak of a druid with a "survival of the fittest" philosophy refusing to heal others as part of that philosophy. That said, the misunderstandings as applied to fiction and games aren't any different from those applied to real life. Only the consequences are different.

First of all, the concept of "Survival of the Fittest" was never meant to be taken as a philosophy of how to live one's life but rather was a description of what happens. Who or what is the fittest would vary from situation to situation with the variables determining who is the fittest including such behavioral motivations as philosophies of life or ideals. The ironic truth is that someone who lives by "survival of the fittest" as if it were a philosophical ideal to guide one's choices might find that that very belief causes them to not be the "fittest" individual for a particular situation because it will induce behaviors that are counter to the goal of survival.

As a second point, the idea of survival of the fittest is most correctly used when applied to a group or species rather than an individual. Behaviors which are detrimental to the individual may in fact be beneficial to the group and help insure the survival of the whole. Contrary to this, behaviors that are beneficial to the individual may become detrimental to the group as a whole. This may help insure the survival and long life a particular individual, but may hasten the overall end of a particular society, organization, or species.

The third point is that the word is "fittest" which has a very broad and vague application. Who or what is the fittest in any given situation changes from moment to moment. Great physical strength may be the most advantageous feature in one situation, but be practically useless in another. A lot of people who quote "survival of the fittest" either as an explanation for their own behavior or as an attempt to undermine the concept fail to understand that physical traits are not the only things that determine whether an entity is fit to survive.

Being "fit" to survive also does not mean that one "deserves" to survive. All this means is that that person, group, society, or species has the characteristics that it needs to survive the current situation facing it. Their capabilities fit neatly in with the problems at hand. 

In the terms of the D&D group, most player groups have access to some form of healing while that capability is often lacking in many of their antagonists. This makes the PC group in general more fit to survive a confrontation than the average group of bandits of the same level. When a bandit is injured they generally have no recourse to recover unless there are healing potions on hand or until after the battle ends and they get a chance to rest. By contrast, if a PC is injured and their party includes a paladin, cleric, bard, druid, or other source of healing ability, then that PC can be healed quite rapidly. This means that the overall pool of resources and hit points of the PC party is going to dwindle much slower than that of the bandits. This is also why support casters are often the first targets by a group of tactically minded enemies.

Now, a decision to not use a Cure Wounds spell on a comrade could possibly be a result of a calculated risk. The druid might very well think that the group is about to win the battle and assumes a short rest will soon be possible while a long rest is still far off, then it makes sense to conserve the spell slot and use hit-dice based healing instead of using potions or spells. On the other hand, if a long rest is about to happen, it makes sense to use the spell slots for as much healing as possible in order to conserve the hit-dice. 

On the other hand, if the druid is refusing to heal people on the idea that their character believes in the survival of the fittest and thus individuals should be able to fend for themselves, that shows a flawed thinking which will actually cause the druid and his party to be less fit to survive. The party in D&D survives very much by virtue of cooperation with each other. The classes are designed to be interdependent to a great degree. Fifth edition has made it so that having a main-healer is no longer as necessary as it once was, but like previous editions, the design of challenges assumes that every member of the group is using its resources to apply to obstacles and dangers. If the druid is actively not using their healing ability for no reason than because they believe in survival of the fittest then this means that the party is not acting at peak efficiency and it is more likely to fail. The party failing means the druid is more likely to die. Thus, "survival of the fittest" as a personal ideal causes one to be on the wrong side of the "fittest" description more often than not.

That said, with as often as survival of the fittest is misunderstood in the real world, it is very possible that the druid, in character, is acting under the same misunderstanding. In which case, the player needs to make it clear that his character poorly understands the concept and may become more understanding later. In this case, the players should find a way for the player to roleplay this personality flaw without creating out of character conflict which might result in the gaming group failing to be on the wrong side of the "fittest" equation.

Coming back off games for a bit, this is a frequently bandied about phrase in real life. Most of the time I hear it these days is to undermine the idea of evolution. The argument running that in a world governed by survival of the fittest that it would be completely okay to steal, murder and rape because clearly the strongest person is the most fit person to survive and everyone else must fall by the wayside. I would not be surprised to learn that there are abusive or murderous individuals who use this philosophy to excuse their own actions. This is where the failure to understand the concept enters its most horrible form of misunderstanding.

By this flawed understanding, things like human empathy are outside the purview of evolution and either weaknesses that must be ignored or else signs that there is something more at work than just random evolution. However, empathy is very much an element of the long term survival of the human race. Language and intellect are also evolutionary developments that have contributed to our ability to survive and dominate the planet.

As a species, we take care of our sick and wounded, which reduces the overall death rate of our species and thus enhances its chances for survival. This empathy is further enhanced by our ability to better communicate via language so as to warn others about danger or to better describe how we are injured. Our intellect allows to understand long-term consequences and make preparations for future dangers or obstacles. This includes the idea of studying the anatomy and function of the body so that knowledge of how things work accumulates over thousands of generations resulting in a modern society where average life-spans are now double what they used to be as little as two hundred years ago.

We are not the only creatures in the world that have empathy, language, or the ability to plan. We're not even the only tool-using species in the world. But we do have these traits at a level that is far beyond other creatures. As a result, may people feel that these traits, which have so far insured that our species is the fittest to survive, are outside the idea of natural traits.

"I shouldn't heal that person because they should be able to survive on their own," is a very shallow and flawed understanding of the concept and one which would ultimately cause a society where individuals acted on that idea to fail when it encounters a society that acts to protect and uplift their members. To a small degree you can see this in the course of World War II. 

When the Americans first entered the war, the Japanese and Germans had highly experienced soldiers and generals who had been at war for years, sometimes almost a full decade. However, both Germany and Japan made less effort to recover or rescue fallen and captured soldiers. Germany actively executed some of its most experienced individuals. Meanwhile, the US as a policy made every reasonable effort to recover downed pilots and rescue cut off units. In the long run, US soldiers had better odds of survival and the US army of the whole built up a pool of experience remarkably quickly while the experienced members of the Axis armies died off and their military's competence dwindled swiftly. Even before the US was involved in the fight, this dichotomy could be seen in the confrontation between Britain and Germany, especially as encapsulated within the Battle of Britain.

If survival of the fittest really functioned the way most people seem to assume that it does, then tigers and other such creatures would be the dominate species on this planet. High empathy, high cooperative species like humans would be rare and may have already gone extinct instead of spreading so far and wide.


  1. ...I have seen this used by racist people, as well, claiming that one "Race" is more "Fit" then another to survive, and therefore letting the 'inferior' race survive. In almost all cases, they claim that their race is 'obviously' superior. And, that any evidence the other race is not superior? Is fake.

    Even if the other race is 'winning'...since "Outbreeding" is cheating. Or being stronger is "Cheating".


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