It Is Not the Strongest of the Species that Survives But the Most Adaptable

Charles Darwin? Leon C. Megginson? Clarence Darrow? Apocryphal?

darwin08Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is often attributed to the famous scientist Charles Darwin:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Shortened versions of the same basic expression have also been ascribed to Darwin. Here are three examples:

It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but rather, that which is most adaptable to change.

Sometimes this remark is said to appear in “On the Origin of Species” which was Darwin’s epochal tome about evolution, but my searches have found no matches in that book. Are these really the words of Darwin?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Charles Darwin said or wrote this statement.

The scholars working on the “Darwin Correspondence Project” based at Cambridge University have considerable expertise concerning the words of Darwin. They have constructed an important database of 7,500 letters written or received by Charles Darwin. An article on the project website places the statement under investigation into a set of “Six things Darwin never said”. 1

The earliest relevant evidence known to QI appeared in a speech delivered in 1963 by a Louisiana State University business professor named Leon C. Megginson at the convention of the Southwestern Social Science Association. The text of his address was published in the quarterly journal of the association. Megginson presented his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the central idea outlined in Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. Megginson did not use quotation marks, and the phrasing was somewhat repetitive. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Yes, change is the basic law of nature. But the changes wrought by the passage of time affects individuals and institutions in different ways. According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Applying this theoretical concept to us as individuals, we can state that the civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself.

QI believes that over time Megginson’s remarks were streamlined and reassigned directly to Charles Darwin. This is a known mechanism for the generation of misattributions. Person A summarizes, condenses, or restates the opinion of person B. At a later time the restatement is directly ascribed to person B.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1964 Megginson published an article in the journal “Petroleum Management”, and the beginning sentences of the piece were very similar to the passage about Darwin in the 1963 speech. Megginson did not use quotation marks, but he did use the phrase “so says Charles Darwin”. The ellipsis was present in the original text: 3

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself……so says Charles Darwin in his “Origin of Species.”

In 1968 the book “Oil and Arab Regional Development” by Kamal S. Sayegh was published, and the epigraph of the first chapter was a slightly shorter streamlined version of the text in “Petroleum Management”. Interestingly, the passage was presented as a direct quotation from Darwin: 4

It is not the most intellectual or the strongest of species that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
Charles Darwin

In 1982 a textbook about the challenges of international management titled “Managing Cultural Synergy” included a version of the quote credited to Darwin in a section about negotiation. The phrasing was identical to the instance in 1968 except for two small changes: the word “of” was deleted, and the word “and” was replaced by “or”. 5

It is not the most intellectual or the strongest species that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to or adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
Charles Darwin

In 1983 a monograph was published by Harvard University’s Asia Center titled “China and Charles Darwin”. The author discussed the interpretation and misinterpretation of Darwin’s ideas by reformers and revolutionaries in China in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A concise adage emphasizing adaptability was presented, but quotation marks were not used, and the words were not directly attributed to Darwin: 6

I Nai’s argument for complete Westernization was actually a Taoist-Darwinian program for survival. The fittest was not the strongest, but the most adaptable.

In 1985 the magazine “Bankers Monthly” published a quotation ascribed to Darwin. The statement was a simplified and shortened version of the 1982 instance with the phrase “most intellectual” deleted: 7

Whether we speak of lenders or developers, it is helpful to recall a statement by Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but rather, that which is most adaptable to change.”

In 1987 an individual providing testimony at a committee hearing of the U.S. Congress employed an instance of the saying and oddly credited the words to the prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow. The expression was a simplified and shortened restatement of the 1982 instance with the phrase “most intellectual” replaced by “most intelligent”: 8

To be the first of anything simply means you are a symbol of something greater to follow. Clarence Darrow once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”

In 1999 the newspaper “USA TODAY” printed an instance of the quotation attributed to Darwin that was similar to the version above from 1987: 9

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
— Charles Darwin, British naturalist.

In 2008 John van Wyhe, a science historian at the University of Cambridge, wrote an article in “The Guardian” newspaper that included a discussion of statements misattributed to Darwin: 10

False quotations

There are many attributed to Darwin. Probably the most common is: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Versions of this catchy phrase adorn many a book and website. But it was never written by Darwin. There is no longer any excuse for taking someone else’s word about or misquoting Darwin, because all of his publications are available for free at darwin-online.org.uk.

In 2009 Nick Matzke, a graduate student in biology, investigated the source of this saying, and he located the key citations dated 1963, 1964, and 1982 which were detailed previously in this article. The “Darwin Correspondence Project” presented Matzke with an award for helping to explicate the provenance of this expression. 11

In conclusion, in 1963 Leon C. Megginson delivered a speech that contained a passage presenting his interpretation of Charles Darwin’s ideas. Megginson did not claim that he was quoting the words of Darwin. Nevertheless, over time, in a multistep process this passage has been simplified, shortened, altered, and reassigned directly to Darwin.

(Special thanks to Edward Carilli and Lauren Foster whose inquires led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to the kind librarian at the John C. Hitt Library of the University of Central Florida.)

Notes:

  1. Website: Darwin Correspondence Project, Article title: Six things Darwin never said – and one he did, Date of article on website: No date is specified, Internet Archive Wayback Machine date: December 18, 2009, Website description: Website includes basic descriptions of more than 15,000 letters known to have been written by or to Charles Darwin, and the complete texts of around half of those. (Accessed darwinproject.ac.uk on May, 2014) link
  2. 1963 June, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 1, Lessons from Europe for American Business by Leon C. Megginson, (Presidential address delivered at the Southwestern Social Science Association convention in San Antonio, Texas, April 12, 1963), Start Page 3, Quote Page 4, Published jointly by The Southwestern Social Science Association and the University of Texas Press. (Verified with scans; thanks to a helpful librarian at the University of Central Florida)
  3. 1964, Petroleum Management, Volume 36, Number 1, Key to Competition is Management by Leon C. Megginson, Start Page 91, Quote Page 91, Petroleum Engineer Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas. (This citation has not yet been verified on paper by QI. This data is based on the citation given by Nick Matzke and by text visible in snippets in the Google Books database)
  4. 1968, Oil and Arab Regional Development by Kamal S. Sayegh, Series: Praeger Special Studies in International Economics and Development, (Epigraph of Chapter 1: Introduction), Quote Page 1, Published by Frederick A. Praeger, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1982, Managing Cultural Synergy, by Robert T Moran and Philip R Harris, The International Management Productivity Series, Quote Page 94, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1983, China and Charles Darwin by James Reeve Pusey, Series: Harvard East Asian Monographs, Quote Page 145, Published by Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Distributed by Harvard University Press. (Google Books Preview)
  7. 1985 September 15, Bankers Monthly: The Nation’s Oldest Continuously Published Magazine for Bankers, Volume 102, Number 9, Back to Cash Equity in Real Estate Finance by Terry Glasscock, Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, (Author description in magazine: “Terry Glasscock is chairman of the board of American Portfolio Financial Group, Inc., an international financial intermediary headquartered in Dallas.”), Published by Hanover Publishers, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1988, Congressional Hearing before the Select Committee on Aging, House of Representatives, One Hundredth Congress, First Session, Hearing title: Improving the Quality of Life for the Black Elderly: Challenges and Opportunities, Hearing date: September 25, 1987, Statement of John E. Stallworth, Start Page 27, Quote Page 28, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  9. 1999 November 1, USA TODAY, GNS Millennium Special, Page: ARC, Newspaper Location: Arlington, Virginia, Publisher: Gannett News Service, Gannett Company. (NewsBank Access World News)
  10. 2008 February 8, The Guardian, “It ain’t necessarily so …” by John van Wyhe, Guardian News and Media Limited, London. (Accessed theguardian.com on May 4, 2014) link
  11. Website: Panda’s Thumb, Article title: Survival of the Pithiest, Article author: Nick Matzke, Date on website: September 3, 2009, Website description: Articles and forum on the topic of evolution. (Accessed pandasthumb.org on May 4, 2014) link