Evolution Denialism: Survival of the Fittest as a Tautology

Evolution Denialism: Survival of the Fittest as a Tautology March 29, 2021

I was recently posting about my book series Survival of the Fittest, with the first book, Metamorphosis [UK], detailing a global pandemic that changes its human victims into viral victims who are competing with established humanity for survival. The second book Adaptation lays out the groundwork for a divergence in some groups of the surviving humans, as well as within the newly developed “walking dead” population.

Survival of the Fittest, in terms of evolution by natural selection, is the fact that organisms qua groups of organisms qua genes will survive if adapted to the environment; the best adapted will survive more effectively.

Enoch Arden, who appears to be a trollish anti-evolutionist, said the following:

The fittest are those who survive. Therefore, it is survival of those who survive. Is it a meaningful theory?


Indeed. And the best adapted are those who survive. Therefore, it is survival of those who survive.

Anything else?


So, the fittest are those who reproduce. And those who reproduce are the fittest. Is it all?


…I would still appreciate your kindly explaining to silly me where exactly do you disagree with my point. Don’t the best adapted survive? And aren’t those who survive best adapted? Yes/no would suffice for the answer to each question.

In the last three, it’s those comment enders that make me want to punch him on the nose less likely to want to engage with him.

This is something that anti-evolutionists come up with as a kind of philosophical gotcha – the tautology. Heck, even Ann Coulter has been at it:

“The second prong of Darwin’s “theory” is generally nothing but a circular statement: Through the process of natural selection, the “fittest” survive.  Who are the “fittest”?  The ones who survive! Why look – it happens every time! The “survival of the fittest” would be a joke if it weren’t part of the belief system of a fanatical cult infesting the Scientific Community.  The beauty of having a scientific theory that’s a tautology is that it can’t be disproved.” [1]

Let me first post an answer given on that thread itself by (((Hornèd Pontilibratificus))):

The fittest are those who survive.

Absolutely, positively and without a doubt wrong. The phrase “survival of the fittest” is ham-handed, making it easy for people with a merely glancing inkling of evolution to completely misunderstand what the phrase was originally coined to mean. If anyone is relying upon this phrase for their understanding of evolutionary theory, then they quite simply do not understand evolution.

Only a layperson’s misunderstanding of “survival of the fittest” can lead to the view that evolution predicts a guarantee of individual survival for those with “better genes”. Evolutionary theory does not claim that. Never has, never will.

“Survivors survive” is sloppy wording, which is probably what is causing your confusion. Evolutionary theory does not establish that “survivors survive”; it establishes that genetic fitness survives. There’s a world of difference between the two:

As long as some singular factor of genetic adaptation survives within a population over multiple generations, then it has — by definition — statistically enhanced survival advantage on average. Otherwise, it never would have been naturally selected.

And yet, in none of this does evolutionary theory claim there’s a guarantee any given individual will survive, even if possessed of the “good genes” in question. Rather, many otherwise “unfit” individuals may live, while other individuals racked with all sorts of good genes may die. No, evolution does not claim “survivors” survive. It simply claims that on average, adaptive traits survive within a population over multiple generations.

Whereas your current misunderstanding of evolutionary theory speciously only speaks in terms of individual lives—which, to anthropomorphize, evolution doesn’t give a rat’s carcass about.

Good stuff.

Before I delve into the reply given by TalkOrigins, let me explain how Enoch Arden’s (EA) claim is silly with regard to my book title and why he just looks like a smug commenter trying to be nitpicky for the sake of thinking he’s clever enough to make a grandiose pro-ID winning argument.

There are interesting areas to consider that perhaps EA hasn’t. For example, over what timeframe are you evaluating fitness? You may have one mutation that develops in an organism and then group A some short-term competitive advantage over B that means that over t1-t5, they out-compete B and are the fittest, but over t6-10, for some reason, this conveys a disadvantage, and B become then the fittest. And so fitness = prima facie survival may need some more nuanced unpicking.

In general, though, EA doesn’t get the relevance of the title. The question is, in terms of the book, which group A, B, C, D or E (since the characters diverge into two groups of humans, with a third being later added, and then there are two differing groups of viral victims) do you, the reader, hypothesise is the fittest, and which will survive? And over what timeframe is that advantage calculated?

Picking at the title of the book is to try and make an equivalence with the reader at the beginning of the story with someone looking at the evolution of an organism in real life at the “end” of their evolutionary journey  (more accurately, at the point of evaluating). In other words, EA is saying: look at this organism in 2021 – it has long fur of this colour, it has teeth like this, it has ears like this. This genotype has evolved and the organisms survive well now because of those characteristics. But this is a tautology because, by definition, those characteristics that exist are by definition the ones that survive and produce that survival, and so on, such that survival = fitness = survival. And my evaluation of said organism is equivalent to the reader at the beginning of the story.

This is a false equivalence and ignores the prediction involved in evolutionary theory – in this case natural selection on account of survival of the fittest.

But, as noted above, this is a generality that ignores the individual characteristics. This is a simplistic generalisation of a hatful of wonder and interest concerning environments, genotypes and phenotypes.

It also ignores other forms of evolution, such as genetic drift. In other words, the survival of the fittest (SoF) summarises evolution by natural selection and not other forms of evolution such as genetic drift, where neutral mutations can spread through a population.

The real issue of EA, though, is he is looking at the “survival of the fittest” maxim and extracting meaning only from one vantage point – the “end” of the journey (which has not ended at any rate). What he is not doing is looking from the beginning of the journey, at the predictive elements and what and why we might hypothesise.

Just to emphasise, EA is looking at SoF from a completed vantage point. Of course, when you know a prevailing characteristic has played a part in the survival of an organism, and it has survived, then your analysis is fait accompli. What you fail to take into account is the predictive nature of it, and how knowing the mechanism, we can start making hypotheses and predictions. Because we know that random mutations are constrained in their ongoing existence by the rest of the genotype and the environment, and that phenotype supervenes on genotype, then knowing the variables, we can make meaningful predictions and hypotheses about the future existence of any given organism (or more likely group), and how this may be driven by those variables.

This is where you are at as a reader of my books: at the beginning of the evolutionary story, without the fait accompli knowledge of who is the fittest and who will survive. And, indeed, you don’t know whether confounding variables like luck might come to play. You have these questions and more:

  • How does luck play out?
  • Who will survive?
  • Was it because they were the fittest?
  • Was it because of adaptability?
  • What part did the environment play?
  • Are we measuring this in the short term or the long term?
  • HOW do the different adaptations play off against each other?
  • What exactly are the characteristics that look like they might convey an advantage, and do they really?

In this way, the title definitely has meaning. In fact, the reason I chose the title was precisely because it is chock full with meaning! The only way it doesn’t have meaning is if you are some kind of evolution denier that wants to be difficult because it makes you feel clever. In reality, it makes you look silly, largely because you are looking at it from the wrong end.

Aside from this, there are many places that deal with the claim of tautology with SoF (e.g.,  Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things deals with this point). TalkOrigins, long a good resource for debunking ID nonsense, includes the following:

In 1879 Samuel Butler charged that natural selection is a “truism”, leading to a focus on the phrase SoF and the assertion that because survival rates define fitness, “‘fittest’ has no force” and thus natural selection and hence the whole of the theory of evolution explains nothing.

Here, note that an attack launched against the phrase SoF immediately incorporates its synonym “Natural Selection”, despite the obvious fact that selection by nature is no more tautological than selection by man.  Thereafter, as usual, the attack is widened to include all of evolution….

Coulter’s argument asks: `Who are the “fittest”?  The ones who survive!’, apparently a variant of “survival of the survivors”, but it is not abstract individuals who survive, but individuals with specific heritable characteristics.  These characteristics cause improved survival in predictable and often testable ways.

Specific heritable characteristics may include:

  • visual sensitivity to yellow
  • densest fur
  • longest tail feathers

There is simply nothing tautological (in the circular sense) about survival of long tail feathers.  That “fitness” is intended to refer to specific characteristics is the core to understanding that SoF is not in any sense a tautology, because by observation we can, for example, establish that those arctic foxes with the densest fur survive to pass on that characteristic.  Similarly in a changing environment we may note that in dry years it is the finches with the strongest beaks that survive, while in wet years those with the longest beaks are retained.  Hence, instances of SoF are clearly responses to changes in the real world, and repeated failures to see the obvious reactions, would disprove SoF.

It then talks about genetic drift and evolution by other methods, undercutting the attack, before continuing:

The tautology argument is an attack against wording, not substance.

The argument against “Survival of the Fittest” as a tautology is directed against the formulation of that phrase, not the theory it describes.  Darwin had previously been attacked for the words “Natural Selection” when used to summarize his central idea.  In reply he wrote:

Others have objected that the term selection implies conscious choice in the animals which become modified; and it has even been urged that, as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable to them! In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a misnomer; but who ever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements? – and yet an acid cannot strictly be said to elect the base with which it will in preference combine.  It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets?  Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity.[7]

So it seems entirely possible that Darwin would have agreed that SoF is, in the literal sense, a “misnomer” or “false phrase”, but he well knew that it is simply a descriptive label or suggestive summary referring to one part of his theory.

Summary points:

  • Survival of the Fittest (SoF) does not include many key aspects of evolution, like common descent, the nested hierarchy, mutations, or speciation.  What SoF does include is accepted by most creationists as part of “microevolution”.  So why are they attacking a part of evolution many of them agree with?

  • In SoF, fitness cannot be equivalent to survival because characteristics generated by drift also survive, thus SoF cannot be a tautology.

  • SoF was intended to be a synonym for Natural Selection (NS), but NS is clearly not a tautology.

  • SoF is a descriptive label referring to part of Darwin’s theory.  Attacking the label does not challenge the theory itself.

  • Fitness refers to specific characteristics, not some abstract and unknown generality, and so can be tested against the real world.  There is nothing tautological about survival of the longest fur, longest tail feathers, or most bark-like coloration.

  • SoF generates results that can often predict future events in the real world, such as the results of further experiments, and is therefore not empty words.

In sum, EA’s argument doesn’t quite do what he thinks and hopes it does, and particularly with regard to my book title and how it should be understood by the reader at the beginning of the journey.

All that remains for me to say is, please buy the first in the series, Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis [UK], with the second being released very soon. It helps me a lot! In fact, it allows me to keep doing what I am doing (i.e., surviving, metaphorically and literally). You are my environment. Or something. I’ll have to think about that…


[1] Coulter, Ann, 2007. “Godless: The Church of Liberalism”. Random House Inc. pp. 212-213, ISBN 978-1-4000-5421-3
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