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Thread: 'survival of the fittest' is a bad phrase

  1. #1 'survival of the fittest' is a bad phrase 
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    In my opinion, and leads non-experts to misinterpret what evolution is.

    Firstly 'fittest' has NOTHING to do with being fit, nor was that its intention. It means 'best fit for its environment'. So a weaker individual's genes will prevail if it is a better match for the availability of food, level of competition etc. In fact being stronger/higher stamina is not a key factor at all, otherwise humans, and all animals would be far far stronger/fitter than they are now.
    People who despair at the fattening populations, or conclude that evolution has halted on humans might have this misunderstanding.

    Secondly, 'survival of the fittest' suggests that a few individuals are better than the rest of the crowd, and they alone proliferate with many offspring. This is misleading, a better phrase would be 'non-survival of the least fittest', which is more accurate in describing evolution.
    i.e. it is the worst adapted, or the problematic cases which tend to not reproduce which drives evolution; it is driven from the back more than driven from the front.

    This may not sound right, e.g. only 1 sperm of millions makes it to the egg, or only a few frog spawn make it to frogs. But this doesn't mean the few that make it are the 'best', more accurately you would say that the frog spawn that make it to frogs without being eaten are fairly random lucky ones, regardless of their fitness. The only ones which *definitely* won't make it to frogs are the least fittest, which can't swim, same with sperm.


    So wouldn't it be better if the phrase we used was "discontinuation of the worst fitting"?


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    No, that sounds horrible. "Survival of the fittest" has a nice ring to it at least. And it's accurate if you understand fitness to mean what it actually means.


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    Forum Masters Degree Twit of wit's Avatar
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    U suggest "extinction of the unfit".
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  5. #4 Re: 'survival of the fittest' is a bad phrase 
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    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    In my opinion, and leads non-experts to misinterpret what evolution is.

    Firstly 'fittest' has NOTHING to do with being fit, nor was that its intention. It means 'best fit for its environment'. So a weaker individual's genes will prevail if it is a better match for the availability of food, level of competition etc. In fact being stronger/higher stamina is not a key factor at all, otherwise humans, and all animals would be far far stronger/fitter than they are now.
    Good evidence would be the fact that some domestic dog breeds bred for athletic performance are absolutely incredible.
    Many dogs used for hunting and subduing wild animals have incredible success rates when compared with wild predators.
    However, feral dogs almost always (very quickly) evolve into the same general type of dog-there is much more to survival than merely athleticism. Accumulation of injuries, high metabolisms, over specialization (deer hounds are very different from dogs used to subdue boar, for example), etc.

    Greyhounds have however not been able to match the cheetah in speed.

    There are evolutionary arms races that proceed slowly (taking millions of years)-based off of indexes modern predators are more cursorial than ones from older environments (the distribution within the spectrum has remained similar-although it had shifted to increased running ability with the modern carnivores, according to "Locomotor diversity within past and present guilds of large predatory mammals" by Blaire van Valkenburgh).
    Indexes of prey subduiing ability, particularly deltopectoral crest/humerus length on the other hand have remained fairly constant (with the modern brown bear having the highest value of the wide range of carnivorans I've seen, including felids, borhyaenids, oxyaenids, sabertooths such as Smilodon, and amphicyonids).
    Essentially, there seems to have been a general increase in athleticism (at the expense of reproductive potential due to increased metabolic costs). Average brain size of species has also been increasing.
    As the red queen hypothesis (please note that it generally is meant to refer to parasite/host arms races) suggests the evolving animals don't gain any advantage over one another.
    However, when the species of different land masses where evolution has been going at somewhat separate paces (larger land masses have greater total competition) the result is that the animals from the larger land masses are far more successful in competition; South American animals prior to the Great American Interchange and Australian animals today tended to fair poorly when matched against the species further along these arms races.
    -As a note, bite forces however have been decreasing with time.

    This would suggest that there is something "better" about the animals further along the arms races, due to being able to out compete other animals in similar niches, although within species it is very likely that individuals closer to these "better" animals would do relatively poorly-healthy individuals typically can escape predators well enough, and escaping further ahead wouldn't confer any real advantage, while having more energy to produce more offspring would (and be able to provide more energy towards the offspring to help them grow up).

    [EDIT: got lost here, the point is that animals aren't as athletic as possible, and that while it can be beneficial to be more athletic in interspecific competition, there are not overly strong pressures for increased athleticism and there are relevant pressures pushing to the contrary]

    I agree with you about how some people can be misled by the term "fit" because I have talked to a few creationists who seemed to have a totally wrong idea (not understanding what the word means).

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    People who despair at the fattening populations, or conclude that evolution has halted on humans might have this misunderstanding.
    Well, it is true that natural selection has greatly decreased.

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    Secondly, 'survival of the fittest' suggests that a few individuals are better than the rest of the crowd, and they alone proliferate with many offspring. This is misleading, a better phrase would be 'non-survival of the least fittest', which is more accurate in describing evolution.
    i.e. it is the worst adapted, or the problematic cases which tend to not reproduce which drives evolution; it is driven from the back more than driven from the front.
    Actually, this is in correct in quite a few species.
    A study on American black bears (Determinants of male reproductive success in American black bears) found that of all the prime aged male black bears only 33% were known to sire offspring during the study period of 1994-2000. While this number was biased low as stated within the article, one must also consider that bear populations are controlled through the killing of unrelated sub-adult bears by adult males (unrelated meaning these are not entirely 'random', luck-caused, deaths), meaning that this number is much higher than the percentage of male cubs born that actually manage to reproduce. If the age range was expanded to include all sexually mature adults rather than merely the prime aged ones the percentage would again have been lower.

    This is much more extreme in some species of animals, such as sea lions, where beach masters can dominate huge harems of females which have only relatively limited breeding with other, sneaky, males.

    While it makes some sense how just a few males can dominate reproduction, surely there is only very limited variation in female success, right?
    No:
    A northern Minnesota black bear has survived for an amazing 36 years, making her one of the oldest on record.
    The bear is simply called No. 56, but "Lucky" might be a better name.

    The northern Minnesota black bear has beaten long odds, living to a ripe old age of 36 -- one of the oldest -- if not the oldest, wild black bears on record.

    She was first caught and outfitted with a radio collar in 1981, when she was 7. Since then, she's survived 29 hunting seasons and avoided cars on highways and clashes with rural residents.

    How rare is she?

    The average age of a bear killed by a hunter in Minnesota is 3.7 years old. About 80 percent of her 26 cubs died by age 6. And the oldest bear ever killed here by a hunter was 31, based on 35 years of data using teeth to determine the age of harvested bears.

    "Obviously she's really a special bear," said Department of Natural Resources research biologist Karen Noyce of Grand Rapids, who has been monitoring No. 56 since she first tranquilized and attached a radio collar to the bear back in 1981.

    Of the hundreds of bears that have been radio collared since then, the longest that any survived was 23 years, Noyce said.

    "Very few bears live past 25," said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear research scientist. "This is really old for a wild bear. She has found a way to beat the odds."

    Cautious by nature

    But Noyce and Garshelis say there's probably a reason, beyond chance or luck, for her longevity.

    "It has to be something behavioral," Garshelis said. "She has avoided going to hunters' baits, though there are hunters where she lives. Whether she learned early in life from her mother ... we just don't know."

    Said Noyce: "Some of that might be her personality; she might have a somewhat more cautious nature than other bears."

    People assume a bear is a bear, but Noyce said studies of many animals are showing that they can be quite different. Bears don't all act the same. A bold or reckless one might not last long.

    No. 56 -- called that because of the numbered tag she was given -- lives in a remote area without a lot of permanent human residences. But there are roads, trails and access by hunters, who typically place bait in the woods to attract bears each fall.

    But for whatever reason, she has ignored them.

    And she's apparently passed on that sense of caution to her offspring.

    Noyce said No. 56 had at least 26 cubs. All but three survived the first year and one-third survived to age 4.

    "That's a little better than average," Noyce said.

    One of her cubs lived 16 years, another is still alive at 15. At least five of her cubs bore another 47 "grandchildren," and one of those lived 22 years and bore 28 great-grandchildren. Researchers only tracked the female cubs, so that doesn't account for reproduction from male descendents. The bear was 26 years old when she had her last litter of cubs.

    She also could have encountered trouble during her summer wanderings. It's not uncommon for bears to leave their home range and travel in mid-summer in search of food, and No. 56 did quite a bit of traveling in the 10 years her movement was closely monitored. Her home range covers about 15 square miles, but one year she traveled 45 miles away and another year she covered 20 miles.

    Researchers have visited No. 56 in person every three years, when Noyce replaces the radio collar with a new one. Noyce, Garshelis and Ken Soring, a former DNR researcher and now DNR enforcement manager who helped collar the bear in 1981, recently went into the woods to find the old gal.

    Wanted: A natural death

    They tranquilized her while she was hibernating in her den, checked her health and attached a new radio collar.

    "She's healthy," said Noyce. She weighs about 190 pounds. Her face and paws are gray with age. And her teeth are worn, chipped or missing. And that could affect her chances of survival.

    "If she has trouble eating natural foods, she may be more attracted to some other food source," Garshelis said. Like a bait pile.

    Somehow I lost the link since posting this for the first time, but doing a google search with some of the words from the article brings up others on the same individual, such as here.
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  6. #5  
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    That is a really interesting reply C.Elrod, I'll have to read it several more times.

    For now I still think evolution is driven by the losers, this is the logic:
    Animals are highly evolved for their environment. The environment doesn't change much for the average animal, e.g. the world for a dragonfly isn't much different to what it was 100 generations ago.
    Therefore of the variations in a new generation of dragonflies, the very very best super dragonfly might only be a 1% better fit for its environment. However, the worst dragonflies born could easily be unable to fly or just fly in circles, i.e. up to 100% worse at living and reproducing.
    So this constant weeding out of the poor genes is surely the very biggest driver.

    The examples of elite 'winners' having many offspring do not mean that it is these that drive evolution, I'll take one of your examples:
    "This is much more extreme in some species of animals, such as sea lions, where beach masters can dominate huge harems of females which have only relatively limited breeding with other, sneaky, males."

    The few beach masters are very unlikely to be genetically better overall than the rest of the crowd... they have been doing this for ten thousand years and if they are genetically superior it would only be maybe 1% superior. I.e. the difference is so small that luck has a much greater influence. Maybe one sea lion receives a larger meal one day and wins his first fight which gives him access to more food, and so he grows bigger and is able to win more fights. In other words, even if they were all genetically identical, there would still be a few beach master which dominate, due to positive feedback.
    Since these males are more or less random in the crowd, the winners change each generation, so overall there is little in the way of strong selection of genes.

    However, if one sea lion is born deficient (e.g. a metabolism problem) then it is not only unlikely to win fights, but it is always unlikely to win fights, every generation, because there is less randomness if it is a large percentage less fit than the crowd.

    Another reason why the 'losers' must surely be the drivers of evolution is just down to frequency... Since animals are very highly evolved already, there are many more mutations which make an animal less fit, and very few which make an animal more fit. So the area where selection plays out is surely where this variation occurs, i.e. on the side of the losers in the population, not the winners.


    Apologies if I'm sounding stubborn, I just wanted to explain that idea better.
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  7. #6 Re: 'survival of the fittest' is a bad phrase 
    Moderator Moderator John Galt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by C.Elrod
    Well, it is true that natural selection has greatly decreased.
    No it hasn't. It is just selecting for a different environment.
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  8. #7 Re: 'survival of the fittest' is a bad phrase 
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    Quote Originally Posted by C.Elrod
    Well, it is true that natural selection has greatly decreased.
    No it hasn't. It is just selecting for a different environment.
    A greater percentage of us humans are reproducing than in the past, as the percentage of us prevented from doing so due to disease and starvation (etc) has decreased. The gene pool no longer has nearly as strong forces directing it and trimming edges in variation.
    I guess my statement could be wrong, because there are now new pressures for things that may influence the amount of children one has.
    Due to the strong influence of culture in these things (I don't think we have to worry much about "Idiocracy"), I would think that the relative importance of genetic drift (compared to natural selection) to our evolution has increased.

    Could you perhaps explain?

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    That is a really interesting reply C.Elrod, I'll have to read it several more times.
    Thanks

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    For now I still think evolution is driven by the losers, this is the logic:
    Animals are highly evolved for their environment. The environment doesn't change much for the average animal, e.g. the world for a dragonfly isn't much different to what it was 100 generations ago.
    Therefore of the variations in a new generation of dragonflies, the very very best super dragonfly might only be a 1% better fit for its environment. However, the worst dragonflies born could easily be unable to fly or just fly in circles, i.e. up to 100% worse at living and reproducing.
    In species with heavy competition, that 1% may be enough to make the lion's share of genetic contribution to the next generation, and make most of the other individuals end up not doing much better than the dragon flies merely flying in circles.

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    So this constant weeding out of the poor genes is surely the very biggest driver.
    After a beneficial mutation takes place, wouldn't the spread of this new mutation through the population be the most significant change in the population?

    Without new beneficial mutations I do agree with you however.

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    The examples of elite 'winners' having many offspring do not mean that it is these that drive evolution, I'll take one of your examples:
    "This is much more extreme in some species of animals, such as sea lions, where beach masters can dominate huge harems of females which have only relatively limited breeding with other, sneaky, males."

    The few beach masters are very unlikely to be genetically better overall than the rest of the crowd... they have been doing this for ten thousand years and if they are genetically superior it would only be maybe 1% superior. I.e. the difference is so small that luck has a much greater influence. Maybe one sea lion receives a larger meal one day and wins his first fight which gives him access to more food, and so he grows bigger and is able to win more fights. In other words, even if they were all genetically identical, there would still be a few beach master which dominate, due to positive feedback.
    During the breeding season males don't eat (I'm fairly certain), so it wont get a bigger meal for winning. Most of the weight gaining takes place in the off season.
    Factors such as how much the mother was able to feed the sea lion as a pup (which is likely not directly related to genetics) are likely to be strong influences.
    Luck in getting diverse genes for the immune system is probably a major part. Having a slightly better immune system would mean losing less time away from eating, and having to spend less calories when fighting infections. There aren't really "better" genes-one just has to be lucky and get a diverse amount.


    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    Since these males are more or less random in the crowd, the winners change each generation, so overall there is little in the way of strong selection of genes.
    I agree, unless some new beneficial mutation arises.

    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    However, if one sea lion is born deficient (e.g. a metabolism problem) then it is not only unlikely to win fights, but it is always unlikely to win fights, every generation, because there is less randomness if it is a large percentage less fit than the crowd.

    Another reason why the 'losers' must surely be the drivers of evolution is just down to frequency... Since animals are very highly evolved already, there are many more mutations which make an animal less fit, and very few which make an animal more fit. So the area where selection plays out is surely where this variation occurs, i.e. on the side of the losers in the population, not the winners.
    New mutations that have a negative impact on fitness (meaning how well adapted the individual is to its environment) that are then immediately eliminated don't really drive evolution, do they? If the end result is maintenance of the status quo, I wouldn't really say anything was driven.
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    "New mutations that have a negative impact on fitness (meaning how well adapted the individual is to its environment) that are then immediately eliminated don't really drive evolution, do they? If the end result is maintenance of the status quo, I wouldn't really say anything was driven."

    I'll use artificial selection to demonstrate my point:
    If you grow daisies and every generation you remove only the ones with the biggest flowers, then after 100 generations the daisies will all have smaller flowers. Here we used 'big flowers' as the deficiency.
    Or take a population of 100 numbers, duplicate 5 of them, add a random small number to each, then remove the lowest 5 and repeat. The numbers will evolve upwards with no selection of the fittest.
    It is easy enough to demonstrate that artificial evolution CAN be driven from the back, with no advantage given to the 'leaders'. My previous post argued why natural selection would do.

    This different interpretation is significant. It suggests that the strength is in the variety of the population as a whole, not in a fight for first place. It changes the picture from the rather scary sounding 'survival of the fittest' or 'struggle for survival' to one where the gene pool as a whole will continue just fine, just dropping off the stray genes that turn out to be deficient. Rather than a battle for first place, it is a slow adaption of the gene pool to the changing landscape shape by gradual dispersion followed by removing the fail cases.

    Yes there are beneficial mutations but these are small or infrequent compared to deficient mutations.
    Maybe 'entropic adaption' would be a better phrase

    p.s. ok I'm starting to sound really stubborn now, think I'll finish with this post.
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    "Survival of the fittest" is indeed a bad phrase, which is why you have to be careful with its usage. It's really just a catchy little phrase that tends not to be used in the primary literature - it's generally accepted to be an unhelpful way to understand evolution. It's also very important to realise that here, "fitness" is referring to reproductive success and that it is a statistical property. With this in mind it becomes clear that "non-survival of the unfit" is the same thing as saying "survival of fittest". Indeed, Enrst Mayr often used the phrase "elimination of unfit alleles". That they seem different is largely due to the fact that you appear to have mischaracterised one viewpoint.

    For the example of the daises, you are removing the least fit (large flowered daises), which is of course the exact same thing as saying only the fittest (small-flowered daises) survive. The bloody battle for first place, as you put it, is what is causing the problem I think, since that is not what survival of the fittest actually means.

    If we were to say "heritable variation that leads to differential reproductive success" (as Darwin did) would you say the perceived problem goes away?
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    Yes I would

    "you are removing the least fit, which is of course the exact same thing as saying only the fittest survive"
    Well yes, logically you are right, I admit.
    I guess I'm interpreting 'the fittest' as 'the fittest few', since the word is being used as something that is different/special/not the crowd.
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    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    I guess I'm interpreting 'the fittest' as 'the fittest few', since the word is being used as something that is different/special/not the crowd.
    It can happen that way, too, can't it? An example would be some catastrophic event that wipes out all but a few hardy survivors, or when an alpha male gets exclusive breeding rights to a harem of females.
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    The phrase "Survival of the Fittest" actually has a dark ominous origin. It was not orginally coined by Darwin but rather came about from Herbert Spencer, a rather racist and elitist sociologist.

    The concept of "surivival of the fittest" was also used by Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton.

    If Darwin is the "Father of Evolution," Galton is the "Father of Eugenics." Eugenics warped the idea of natural selection and evolution as a way to remove unwanted genes from human societies. Eugeneics was one of the main driving forces behind the Nazis in World War 2.

    So maybe we should all think twice about using this phrase.
    After walking through the streets of this world, I swear I will never eat off my shoes again. A quirky scientist like us all www.uncomplicatedscientist.com
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  14. #13 Re: 'survival of the fittest' is a bad phrase 
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    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    In my opinion, and leads non-experts to misinterpret what evolution is.
    In addition most (almost all) people interpret everything from an anthropocentric point of view. In this case they automatically give the term "fittest" what most see as the "ideal" state for a human (strong, handsome/beautiful, fighter, etc)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Harold14370
    Quote Originally Posted by TGlad
    I guess I'm interpreting 'the fittest' as 'the fittest few', since the word is being used as something that is different/special/not the crowd.
    It can happen that way, too, can't it? An example would be some catastrophic event that wipes out all but a few hardy survivors, or when an alpha male gets exclusive breeding rights to a harem of females.
    I'm afraid you have natural selection working on the wrong side of the standard deviation curve. If you wipe out all but a few hardy, you have doomed the species to extinction. Natural selection removes the least fit from the gene pool. They are either too weak, can't compete or are forced to separate. Sudden catastrophic events are changes too fast for species to adapt. This is called habitat tracking and can only work if the changes are gradual, within many generations, like climate change over millennia.
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