What’s the big idea?

At the recent Shrewsbury Darwin Festival I gave a talk on Darwin and social media. The premise was that the great man would certainly have embraced social media as he was a natural crowdsourcer and produced his ideas in popular, readable formats that were accessible to all. During the discussion, the term ‘survival of the fittest’ came up as it often does in relation to Darwin’s big idea.

The thing is that even people who disagree with Darwin’s theory on the origin of species like to use the hackneyed phrase as it seems to justify the worst that Man can do. But let’s pick the phrase apart a little.

Once upon a time, the world was populated by giant dinosaurs who pretty much had the field to themselves. A tiny mammal like a mouse or vole for instance wouldn’t stand much of a chance in a fist fight. But when the meteor hit the Gulf of Mexico and the climate changed, no amount of bulk and muscle was going to help. That was a bad day to be a dinosaur for sure. It was, of course the humble mammals and insects who inherited the Earth that day.  Because what Darwin actually meant was that it is the survival of that which is most fit, given a set of circumstances and not the fittest.

But that’s not even the point of this blog. Survival of the fittest isn’t the headline of Darwin’s theory anyway. The key point he’s making is that species that collaborate and adapt are most likely to be successful. That’s a lesson as important to institutions and businesses as it is to individuals. It’s no accident that nearly every world religion has compassion and charity at the heart of its teaching because that’s what we all start off with. If that weren’t the case we would have beaten each other to death with clubs thousands of years ago. Oh, and just because compassion is genetically hard-wired doesn’t make it any less remarkable or genuine, particularly when you’re on the receiving end.

All of which is interesting to contemplate when commentators both religious and political bemoan the ‘erosion’ of Christian values. If it’s the erosion of compassion, charity or love for one’s fellow man, they are surely bemoaning the erosion of human values. But unless evolution accelerates at a faster rate than anyone realised, our need to collaborate and care is still intact. It’s as strong a survival mechanism as not putting your hand in the fire. So. maybe it’s something else they are mourning the erosion of. Just what powerful, religious and political institutions have to fear from increasingly enlightened citizens with access to knowledge via the Internet and to each other across social media, one can’t begin to imagine.

In conclusion, if we dropped the emphasis on survival of the fittest and reminded ourselves of Darwin’s real headline about collaboration and adaption, our institutions might be run a little better. Surely it’s the erosion or denial of those core, evolutionary principals in our highest institutions that we should bemoan. And when it comes to sanctimonious pronouncements from stalwarts of those same institutions, though it wasn’t one of Darwin’s phrases, ‘lead by example’ seems a pertinent adage at this time in history.

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