In the Struggle for Survival, the Fittest Win Out at the Expense of Their Rivals

Charles Darwin? History Textbook? Anonymous?

conflict09Dear Quote Investigator: While reading a newspaper article I saw the following statement attributed to the famous scientist Charles Darwin:

In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.

The article cited “On the Origin of Species” by Darwin, but I examined several editions of that landmark treatise and have been unable to find the quotation. Would you please trace this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Charles Darwin made the above statement.

The scholars working on the authoritative “Darwin Correspondence Project” based at Cambridge University have placed the statement into a set of “Six things Darwin never said”. 1 The members of the project have constructed an important database of 7,500 letters written or received by Charles Darwin.

The earliest appearance of the statement found by QI was located within a history textbook titled “Civilization Past and Present” by T. Walter Wallbank, Alastair M. Taylor and Nels M. Bailkey.

Many editions of this work were published beginning in 1942. QI has verified the presence of the excerpt below in the 1962 edition; it may have been included in some previous editions.

A chapter titled “Einstein, Darwin, and Freud” presented a summary of the “Darwinian hypothesis”. The statements in the summary were crafted by the textbook authors and not by Darwin. Item three below precisely matched the expression that has been misattributed to Darwin in modern times. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

There are five main points in the Darwinian hypothesis. First, all existing vegetable and animal species are descended from earlier and, generally speaking, more rudimentary forms. Second, the variation in species has come about because the environment and the use or disuse of organs have brought about changes in structure that are inherited.

Third, in the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment. Fourth, differentiation among the species is also brought about by sexual selection, which Darwin declared is “the most powerful means of changing the races of man.” Finally, some variations seem to arise spontaneously, a view of Darwin’s which pointed toward the doctrine of mutation.

In 1971 a science book titled “The Living Clocks” by Ritchie R. Ward included an instance of the quotation. The author did not credit Darwin; instead, a footnote indicated that the text was excerpted from an edition of “Civilization Past and Present”: 3

An especially clear modern summary of the five main points that Darwin made in the two works is available to college students today: “First, all existing vegetable and animal species are descended from earlier and, generally speaking, more rudimentary forms. Second, the variation in species has come about because the environment and the use or disuse of organs have brought about changes in structure that are inherited. Third, in the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.

By 2006 the quotation had been reassigned to Charles Darwin and was circulating. This development was accordant with a known mechanism for the generation of misattributions.

Step 1: The thoughts of a famous person are summarized or restated to yield a short passage in a book or newspaper.

Step 2: Some reader misinterprets the passage and ascribes the words directly to the famous person.

Step 3: The misattribution is widely propagated by unsuspecting individuals.

Here is an example of a Darwin ascription in “The Guardian” newspaper in 2006. Please note that instances on the QI website are meant to be illustrative and not meant to be harshly critical of writers and journalists who may have slipped: 4

‘In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment’.
The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

Having now seen the first part of Extinct (ITV1, Saturday), I think I get what Darwin was on about. But perhaps if he was around now, and just coming up with his theory, he may have worded it slightly differently. “In the struggle for survival, the cutest win out at the expense of the less cute because they appeal more to celebrities and, through them, to a live television audience.”

In 2009 a book titled “Wisdom Well Said” included the following instance: 5

Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the famous English naturalist who first formulated the concept of evolution, wrote in his history-making Origin of the Species: “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”

In conclusion, QI believes that the quotation was constructed by one or more of the authors of the history textbook “Civilization Past and Present”. The statement was part of a description and explication of Darwin’s ideas. The words were not written by Darwin in “On the Origin of Species” or anywhere else.

Image Notes: Dinictis chasing Protoceras by Charles R. Knight circa 1904. Two Laelaps fighting by Charles R. Knight circa 1897. Please note that knowledge of dinosaurs has improved considerably since 1897, and this image is now considered to be inaccurate. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Special thanks to Edward Carilli and Lauren Foster whose inquires about another quotation misattributed to Darwin led QI to the “Darwin Correspondence Project” website. At the website QI saw an inquiry which led him to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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 December 18, 2014) link
  2. 1962, Civilization Past and Present: Single-Volume Edition by T. Walter Wallbank (Professor of History, University of Southern California) Alastair M. Taylor (Visiting Professor, Queens’s University), and Nels M. Bailkey (Professor of History, Tulane University), Section: “Einstein, Darwin, and Freud”, Start Page 575, Quote Page 578, Column 2, Published by Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1971, The Living Clocks by Ritchie R. Ward, Quote Page 74, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2006 December 11, News source: The Guardian, Article title: The Weekends TV: Pop stars, buildings, now endangered species . . . is nothing safe from the phone vote format? Article author: Sam Wollaston, Guardian News and Media Limited, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)(Also online at theguardian.com; accessed December 19, 2014)(Two publication dates are listed: NewsBank specifies December 11, 2006; the Guardian website specifies December 10, 2006) link
  5. 2009, Wisdom Well Said, Edited and compiled by Charles Francis, Quote Page 7, Published by Levine Mesa Press, El Prado, New Mexico. (Google Books Preview)