Darwin but not alas IE

Nicholas Widdows nicholas.widdows at traceplc.co.uk
Tue Jan 26 16:43:45 UTC 1999

[ moderator re-formatted ]

> I don't make any mistakes about it; it is vague. IN fact, its critics
> complain that it is tautological, and I am not saying that it is only me.
> "The survival of the fittest" has no predictive value; it certainly isn't
> even close to Saussure's or Maxwell's work. The only thing we have now alive
> are those who survived and therefore they must have been the fittest. That
> sounds like two words meaning the same thing because they are equivalent.

Lest any linguist who happens not to be a scientist is reading this, and
still imagines that Mr Hubey deserves credence on science in general,
can I point out that he has just convicted himself of gross ignorance of
elementary biology. "Survival of the fittest" (a term neither coined nor
liked by Darwin) is not a tautology. When first coined it meant
straightforwardly that the strongest, the sharpest-clawed, or the
fleetest-footed survive; which is hard to argue with. Much later,
biologists wanted to quantify how much survival things did, so they
coined a brand-new concept, which they might have called "intrinsic
survival potential" or "W-zero" or a dozen other things, but as often
happens, they exapted a common term and called it "fitness". That was
the tautology. This concept proved unworkable in the 1960s and was
abandoned. It was replaced by various technical concepts called things
like "inclusive fitness", still tautologous by definition but no longer
clashing with the familiar emotive English term, which is indeed now
independent of the biologists' technical terms, and the two can be
correlated objectively. One of the clearest refutations of this nonsense
about tautology is in Richard Dawkins's _The Extended Phenotype_, which
devotes *an entire chapter* to the different meanings of "fitness".

Naked mole rats, mammals that are eusocial colonies like bees, were
successfully predicted from evolutionary theory, to name just one
example as impressive as laryngeals.

To relate this however tenuously to language, not to understand fitness
is the equivalent of, perhaps, not understanding that phrase structure
grammars now use transformations. I'm sorry to be off-topic, and I don't
think this line should be pursued, but a mistake this blatant was an
opportunity too good to pass up.

Nicholas Widdows
[The opinions in this are mine and those of all biologists, but not
necessarily those of Trace PLC.]
"The Lord hath delivered him into my hands!" -- Thomas Huxley

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