Post No.: 0110
Evolution is just heritable variation plus selection pressure, and that’s it, with no intentional direction or goal. ‘Success’ in this context also just means something ‘passed on (some of) its genes onto its offspring and then raised them up (if required) until they could pass on (some of) their genes onto the next generation’ – not outright popularity, immediate utility or being the ‘strongest’, ‘most intelligent’ or ‘topmost’. Natural selection is not about ‘maximising’ but about ‘sufficiency’ (e.g. humans don’t have wings, gills or eyes that shoot laser beams), which could be interpreted as ‘efficient’ for the current environment on the one hand or ‘fragile’ if the environment suddenly and dramatically changes on the other. (It’s just like a firm can be more efficient by concentrating on only what it does best but it can be in a precarious position to market changes if it doesn’t diversify. Hence a tension, not just for the board but also for investors, who might like a part of what a company is doing but not the rest, yet must buy shares in that company as a whole. But I digress.)
Sufficiency and niche-finding are why so many different fauna and flora designs and behavioural strategies can survive within a single biome – you don’t need to be an ‘ultimate best species’ or ‘ultimate fittest specimen’ (in our everyday vernacular definitions of what ‘best’ or ‘fittest’ means, such as the strongest or the fastest). There is no one, single way to survive hence the huge variety of survival strategies found in nature (e.g. monogamy, polygamy, pack hunting, lone predation, female-domination, male-domination, etc. – depending on the particular species and its environment).
So one doesn’t have to be ‘the best’ to survive – just ‘good enough’ for the given environment, hence in natural selection terms, you are technically in the set of the ‘fittest’ even if you e.g. don’t have the skills to build a shelter, cannot run a mile or have a low working memory capacity – as long as you have children and raise them up to child-bearing age. (This might be because technologies created and sold by others helps compensate for one’s deficiencies? But if that’s the environment then that determines the level of selection pressure.) The rest are the unlucky, the dead (ends) or those who/that simply never existed/were never born in the first place, even if they were e.g. fast marathon runners or creative geniuses, or would’ve been fire-breathing dragons or cute feathery Chocobos (unfortunately!) If their lineage has ceased or they never had a random genetic-mutation-chance of existing or they were simply never born, for whatever reason at all, then they’re technically not in the set of the ‘fittest’.
So luck is a huge fluffy factor in natural selection and the survival of the fittest e.g. if a Nobel prize-winning, Olympic gold medallist dies from a lightning strike at a young age then she/he wouldn’t technically belong in the set of the ‘fittest’. The key part of ‘survival of the fittest’ is the survival in the form of reproductive/replication success across generations, and before that a chance of a specie’s existence in the first place from the result of random mutations. Hence if you think that Homo sapiens are the pinnacle of intentional, non-random, intelligent design then you could be said to be lacking imagination and/or of course biased as a human!
Nature generally doesn’t care much about organisms after they’ve passed on their genes to the next generation and successfully raised them up until they can feed, defend and breed themselves – lots of ailments/diseases like cancer mainly affect people after they’ve already passed on their genes, which means that such disease risks are genetically passed on too, but our ‘selfish genes’ don’t care about that. (And although the age that a person might personally get cancer is variable, people are on average living for longer after having children compared to generations before hence there’s more chance of people getting these diseases in their lifetimes today. But medical science advances too – thus medical science, along with health services, create a ‘problem’ of people living for longer in the first place but then creates or searches for the solutions to the problem of more people getting age-related ailments/diseases. But I digress again!)
‘Perfection’ is also not only subjective but depends on the habitat – a design that is perfect for one environment won’t be perfect for another, and environments can typically change much faster than the evolution of new species can. (Evolution can sometimes be fast but the speed of an environment changing usually precedes and dictates the speed of evolution e.g. an environment of sudden antibiotic overuse and then the rapid evolution of microbial resistance to antibiotics.)
Our instincts evolved only for ‘good enough’ too, hence we intuitively fall for many perceptual, cognitive and reflexive errors, especially when we’re in a very different environment to where and when these instincts primarily evolved (e.g. our ‘fight or flight’ response still kicks in regularly in this modern world even though true life-threatening events are few and far between), but that’s okay as long as it doesn’t kill organisms, particularly as a species overall, off.
Being products of natural selection doesn’t always mean doing what’s maximal for one’s chances of survival or the propagation of one’s genes, otherwise e.g. no one would do or take anything unhealthy or everyone would simply bear as many children as they could in their lifetimes and dedicate all their time, effort and money on raising them and never go on holidays or indulge in personal hobbies or luxuries (successfully raising ten children is probably achievable for many families in ‘developed’ countries if they really individualistically genetically-selfishly focused on it!)
Our ‘selfish genes’ may benefit from a maximisation strategy from a strict propagation perspective, but we as host organisms, for one reason or another, evolved to not always do what’s in the absolute best interests of our ‘selfish genes’, hence it’s erroneous to say that ‘maximisation’ is the normative organism-level behaviour in nature. The interests of a host organism can be different (even at times opposed) to the interests of its genes, hence e.g. selfless, altruistic behaviours at the host organism level exist for a social species such as humans (even up to the point of heroics that risk one’s own life and therefore genetic lineage to save an unrelated/non-kin person – such ‘suicidal’ traits are generally considered sexually attractive too). So even if an organism’s individual genes can be described as akin to being ‘selfish’ – the organism itself doesn’t necessarily always behave that way.
It must be importantly noted that although genes express phenotypes, they individually possess no sentience to be selfish or otherwise – they’re only ‘selfish’ in the sense that having one gene in a chromosomal location normally means not having any other gene sharing that space in the same location, thus the gene present in that location ‘exclusively wins’ over the other alternative genes (alleles) that could’ve been there instead, and that’s it. You could therefore say your house is ‘selfish’ too because it being where it is means no other house can be in that same location at the same time!
Evolution has no ultimate design, no foresight, no end goal it’s trying to reach, and life isn’t necessarily getting ‘better’ as time goes by according to any objective measure e.g. ‘if you don’t use it then you’ll lose it’ means that limbs can be lost and become vestigial or modified into something else, and it’s hard to argue that predators of the likes of Spinosaurus or Tyrannosaurus rex weren’t more badass than any predators alive on land today! Non-avian dinosaurs were simply unlucky that a massive meteor spelled their demise, according to the best current theory. Still, they had a great innings, and hominids have a long way to go before they do as well.
Humans aren’t ‘more evolved’ than other contemporary creatures either e.g. see what animals survive better than humans naturally can in arid deserts or bitter tundras? Everything and everyone that or who is alive today is fit enough to be alive today, otherwise they or we logically wouldn’t be alive today, and so if this is the measure of ‘evolved’ then everything alive today is really as evolved as each other. If it works then it works. If it lives then it lives. One could argue that a mechanically simple microbe is a really efficient design for life – a quality that human product designers often intentionally seek. This is why ‘better’ cannot be objectively determined. Being larger or an apex predator doesn’t necessarily mean being better in natural selection terms – many giant versions of animals that exist today (e.g. sharks, crocodiles, beavers, otters, armadillos) don’t exist anymore, for various reasons, when the smaller versions still do.
Life didn’t and doesn’t ‘evolve to survive’ because evolution does not anticipate future environments and selection pressures – what survives will simply trace a path of evolution over time just by virtue of what survives compared to what didn’t. Evolution works by trial and error based on random mutations, not by goal-setting or intentional design. So it’s more accurate to say that ‘what survives then evolves’ generation by generation. (Note that evolution concerns a species over time and not individual organisms – individual organisms do not evolve. Evolution can only occur from one generation to the next and so on over time. But individual organisms can adapt, such as by inventing useful tools and learning skills that help one’s survival. Yet evolution and adaptation aren’t completely separate processes – ancestral humans evolved to be better at adapting, possibly in response to rapidly changing and challenging environments.)
Humans and other primates that evolved from a common ancestor exist concurrently today because it’s like two companies coexisting despite coming from the same initial corporation. For example, company A is doing fine in territory Y, then a few employees from this company venture off to start their own company B in territory Z. Company A continues on its own path in territory Y but now there’s also company B which now sets off on its own path in territory Z, and they both sell slightly different products because of their slightly different markets too. And this can happen many times, and new companies can even branch off from company B and so forth. Groups of individuals of a species, like groups of employees of a company, don’t have to all move, live and die simultaneously – some groups can start to take their own separate paths and eventually form their own species without needing to kill off any existing species. Or it’s like music genres, as cultural memes, keep evolving and branching off to create new ones (e.g. rock from maybe blues, folk and other influences) yet new genres don’t necessarily require the genres that influenced them to get less popular. Or it’s like you can start your own branch of family tree without your siblings needing to halt theirs.
The upshot is that if you exist and are surviving then you are by definition in the set of the ‘fittest’ (at least currently). You are technically equally as good enough as any other individual who is also equally as alive as you are right this very second, regardless of e.g. your skin, hair or eye colour. You are good enough in every way, however you are, especially when you take into account the potentially infinite number of would-be-species that didn’t or won’t get a random genetic-mutation-chance of existence or all the would-be-individuals who never had a chance to be born at all. We cannot see them but we mustn’t ignore them. And there’s not really much more to read into the ‘survival of the fittest’ than that. Well naturally, how you and others take care of your body and mind, and luck, will affect your survival chances going forwards. But predicting the far future is usually difficult.