The Meaning of Survival of the Fittest

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Sorry for the late submission, I have been up at Cornell University for the week getting to know some of my colleagues and professors that are housed in Ithaca.  It has been inspiring to see so many people passionate about agriculture and nutrition and to hear their amazing programming ideas. Being up here has also got me back into an academic frame of mind.  The piece below may be a little technical but I feel that it is important to frame our stock and ourselves as animals and to remember that we are all governed by many of the same needs and laws and share a lot of the same genetic material.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is tossed around a lot.  Most often it is used in reference to something or someone doing whatever it takes to get what they want.  More specifically, it implies that the biggest, the strongest, the smartest, or the most cunning will take their natural place at the top of pile because that is what we as animals are programmed to do.   Although popular, this theory is not accurate and anyone who spends a significant amount of time observing or experiencing nature will tell you that this maxim couldn’t be further from the truth.

The concept of fitness has nothing to with the number of reps you can do, the size of your incisors, or the speed at which you can play war.  Fitness is a biological concept that implies an organism’s ability to reproduce.  The ability to successfully reproduce is based on many factors for each individual species depending on when and where they live.  Animals use all kinds of techniques to ensure that their genes are the ones that carry on.  Think of the elaborate dances of the superb bird of paradise https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dx2CUMtZ-0 or the masterful construction of this puffer fish as examples https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaPmYYWsixU.

But the concept that we most often overlook is fitness from a family perspective.  If you are related to something you share some of the same genes.  This means that if you can help a member of your immediate family successfully pass on their genes, then that animal is also passing on some of their genes.  This is important when we observe individual animals that do not reproduce but may help in other ways to ensure the survival of the family line.  Reciprocity is common in some bird species where the brothers and sisters will help to raise their sibling’s offspring.  This style of increased fitness is also seen in many species of mammals such as chimpanzees https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vm9reUjjZQ, or Asian short clawed otters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gRQFafNEuU.

I’ve see this in stock animals as well.  I’m sure many of you have witnessed cattle bunch up and protect calves from wild dogs or foxes, a rooster acting as look out for foraging hens, and horses displaying all sorts of complex familial bonds. So the next time that hear that some situation or scenario is governed by survival of the fittest, remember that this task my actually be accomplished more efficiently with the help and support of others.

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