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

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

Dear 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.

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


  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 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)