“Survival of the fittest”: a phrase ripe for abuse and misinterpretation. And it’s cropped up recently in two ways that were so contradictory as to give me intellectual whiplash.
- An NFL quarterback claimed he’d trust in ‘survival of the fittest’ if he caught COVID-19, but, appropriately, backpedaled to make it clear he respects safety precautions such as wearing a mask, out of consideration for others and so he doesn’t miss a game this fall. The sort of brash fatalism that hasn’t done our response to the pandemic any good.
- But just when I was feeling self-righteous about that, Douglas Rushkoff argued that those of us embracing a digital culture to navigate the pandemic are engaging in a ‘survival of the fittest’ construct by building ‘privileged escape pods’. People like me are escaping reality because we can, ignoring the real problems inflicting society despite a ‘passing’ pandemic. I was immediately outraged and scornful, so he must be at least partially right. But if you can create a privileged escape pod, why wouldn’t you? Who doesn’t want to survive, especially when you have kids?
So what exactly does survival of the fittest mean and how do we deal with the implications for the common good?
What Does It Mean To Be “Fittest”?
I get it. “Survival of the fittest” is a comforting phrase. It makes you think there is order. Life is mysterious and largely unsolvable. Nature is intimidatingly vast, as anyone who has built a cairn of stones on a rocky Pacific Ocean beach will tell you. But is it a valid source of comfort?
Let’s first eliminate the misbegotten notion of a “moral” definition of the “fittest” – that notion of the Übermensch that’s so easily twisted.
And then let’s acknowledged that the ‘fittest’ don’t always survive. In ways, the phrase is a purely theoretical one, a notion of evolution as it would be with no extraneous or alien circumstances, an almost mathematical formula that doesn’t hold up in practice. There are too many uncontrollable circumstances floating around like underwater mines waiting to disrupt the process of survival: the marathon runner who suffers a heart attack with no genetic history; the wandering asteroid that drops in to say ‘hi’ to the dinosaurs. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong … something.
A more accurate phrase? “Survival of the fitter” — the people who tend, on average, to be a better ‘fit’ for the environment they inhabit will be more likely to survive.
So it’s not a moral phrase; it’s a measure of adaptability and preparation.
But let’s start from the beginning. Kirk Cousins saying he’ll trust his body, and whatever happens, happens. There’s a laissez-faire confidence in his words, basically assuming he’ll be fine, so he’s willing to take his chances. I’m not surprised an athlete might feel he/she has a good chance. He said, “If I die, I die.”
But it’s a slippery slope from that sort of mentality to the sort of “resisting oppression” motif that infected former volleyball superstar Kerri Walsh Jennings’s weird Instagram rant about how she was brave in going shopping without a mask, as if wearing masks was an oppression to which we were needlessly consenting (and while she doesn’t outright say she’s ‘fittest’, she does acknowledge how many people have died, which acknowledges the pandemic is real; and if you’re ignoring science and the recommendations of experts as to what is needed to keep your community safe, there’s an implicit arrogance that suggests you think you’re ‘fitter’ than other people.
If you start thinking it doesn’t matter what you do, that the fittest/er will survive, it’s a short step to being too lazy to take precautions, which you justify by saying ‘precautions don’t help,’ and from there it’s a short step to feeling heroic and strong for NOT wearing a mask. And that’s dangerous.
“Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”
Just when you think you’re broad-minded and compassionate, though, you read an article like the one about escape pods. Even for those of us who would react like a scalded cat if anyone thought we considered ourselves the ‘fittest’ in a moral sense, are we relying on financial ‘fitter-ness’ to cope with the pandemic, while others aren’t nearly so fortunate?
Douglas Rushkoff talks about people who usually pride themselves on shopping locally resorting to the convenient-yet-ethically-not-unmurky world of Amazon and food delivery. People who can afford to ride out the pandemic at St. Moritz. To quote Rushkoff:
…[W]we’re engaging in so many self-interested, survivalist activities in the light of day — leveraging whatever privilege we may enjoy to stock and equip our homes so they can serve as makeshift bunkers, workplaces, private schools, and hermetically sealed entertainment centers.
Now, ignore some of his rhetoric (‘self-interested’ and ‘survivalist’ are kind of redundant, aren’t they?). And this might seem like a harsh assessment of people stocking up on Mac ‘n Cheese and bottles of water and school supplies so they can help their kids learn at home while they themselves work full time and moonlight as tutors.
Rushkoff does have a point; a lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to have jobs that let them shelter at home and in relative comfort with ALL the streaming channels and Internet-provided conveniences. And that sort of financial ‘fitness’ isn’t the same as being objectively ‘fitter’ because of the ‘thumbs on the scales’ that cause socio-economic inequalities. It probably isn’t fair.
And yes, this lifestyle of digital insulation does rely on delivery drivers and others who don’t have the same opportunity to work in the shelter of home. They’re at risk while some of us are able to create a cocoon of insularity.
But. The tired middle-class families who need two incomes whether or not they are lucky enough to work from home aren’t trying to be cocooned, except in the sense they are trying to take care of their family.
Rushkoff’s examples? A family who can afford an “Luxury Eco Lodge” in Zurich, and a horde of millionaires developing their own disaster-utopias to whom he served as a consultant. For all his indignant philosophy, he seems to be in a bit of a bubble himself. And his attempt to invoke “progressive parents’ sense of shame about escaping” is overwrought; there’s no shame in wanting to keep your child safe and with as normal a life as is possible during a pandemic.
So, no, for most of us, digital sheltering isn’t a fanciful escape pod that lets us ignore the suffering of others. But it is true that context is important and those of us who can need to be aware of privilege and continue to do what we can to help the community as a whole. Donate to the Red Cross when there are disasters. Support your local library and vote for the greater good and not your self-interest only. Do your research to see how you can help locally (and if you have ideas on this, share them in the comments!).
And always tip well for deliveries.