It’s not easy teaching evolution to evangelicals. The internal inconsistencies are mind-boggling. They enter the classroom secure in the knowledge that God created them, yet they believe in “survival of the fittest.”
I tell them: Darwin’s theory was about biology, specifically reproduction. Simply put, some individuals have genetic traits that give them advantages in a particular environment, while others have disadvantages. This is a matter of luck, not superiority. When sea turtles hatch, all at once by the thousands, the birds are standing there, waiting. Those who hatch first become dinner, while those who hatch later stand a better chance of making their way past the sated birds to the sea. This is about luck, not ingenuity. Individuals who happen to possess the right combination of traits for their moment in time and their place in space will be more successful at passing on those traits; those who don’t, won’t. Over time, as the traits that work best are passed on and the ones that don’t fit are filtered out, the species adapts to fit its environment. If the environment changes, the rules change, and different traits are encouraged — and so much for your “fitness.”
They have no problem with any of this. It doesn’t threaten their belief system in the slightest.
I tell them: “Survival of the fittest” is an incorrect interpretation of Darwin’s theory. First, it’s not about survival; it’s about reproduction. You can live forever but if you fail to reproduce, evolution doesn’t give a damn about you. Second, fitness is relative to the environment, changeable, and largely a matter of luck. It’s not about how smart or strong you are; it’s about whether or not you have an opportunity to pass on your genes. Think about the sea turtles. Third, Darwin may have used the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” but he didn’t coin it; we have the philosopher Herbert Spencer to thank for that. Spencer never intended it as an alternate explanation for the biological facts of Darwin’s theory. He meant, from the very beginning, to apply the phrase to his theory of society — which was a bit of predictably racist, imperialist, 19th-century nonsense. It held that the English were “civilized,” while the Africans were “savages.” “Survival of the fittest” has been handy ever since as a perfect justification for capitalism and colonialism. It normalizes white privilege and economic hegemony while relieving us all of the burden of assisting those less fortunate than ourselves. Let nature take its course. Only the strong survive. Might makes right. Every man for himself.
This, they hate. “I like survival of the fittest,” they protest. “It’s right. You shouldn’t change it.” They never see the irony.