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Problems of the Age: 17: Survival of the Fittest

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 19, 2011

For links to other parts of this series, see this chart.

For a statement on the unofficial nature (i.e., personal interpretation for discussion purposes, not necessarily representative of church doctrine) of these lessons, see this notice.

PROBLEMS OF THE AGE

Dealing with Religious, Social and Economic Questions and Their Solution.
A Study for the Quorums and Classes of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1917-1918.

By Dr. Joseph M. Tanner

XVII. – Survival of the Fittest

A Fallacy. – Much has been written and said about the survival of the fittest, as though men were an exact counterpart of nature, even in the exercise of his free agency. It is doubtful, even in the animal and the vegetable world, whether it is true that the fittest always survive, because life is subject to such a variety of conditions that what is the fittest depends after all upon a multitude of conditions so complex that we cannot say really that anything living will survive. In the case of man it is really less true, because man has his locomotion and agency, so that he may change his conditions and place himself from time to time in such environments as make for his advantage or disadvantage in the world.

A Simple Example. – Some time ago the writer, who has been occupied in the sheep industry for some time, during a severe storm at the lambing season, undertook so to place his sheep as to suffer the smallest possible loss. The older and larger ones were placed where they were compelled to take the brunt of the storm, in the hope that they had vitality enough to withstand it. The weaker and younger ones were given a securer place within the sheds, and thus the lambs were prepared at night within for the storm that was raging without. In the morning the oldest and strongest had suffered the greatest loss. Among the4 weakest only one or two died. The survival here was not a question of the fittest. It was a question of environment, of human protection. The survival of the fittest presupposes equalities of opportunities, of environments, of conditions that do not exist in either animal or human life. And so, if we speak of the survival of the fittest, we are bound to make so many explanations, so many exceptions, that the rule becomes practically worthless as a working principle.

Survival of the Fittest in War. – There is just now going on in the world a war of unparalleled human destruction. It is pointed to as an illustration, as a pitiful evidence that the best in our national life is sacrificed, and that the world, after the war, will be made up of those less fitted to assume family, social, and national responsibilities. It is doubtful, even in the case of war, that the fittest are killed off because the best of our physical manhood is called into the conflict.

A Definition of the Fittest. – Who can really say what the fittest in life is? Usually the statement is made from the standpoint of our physical being. Let us take an example: Two young men entering manhood possess different physical qualifications at the same age of life. One is powerful, has known no sickness from his infancy, and in his body the functions of life are healthy and strong. The other has been somewhat frail; he has started life handicapped by pain, suffering, and imperfect conditions of his body. He has, however, been compelled to take care of himself. He has been cautious in his diet, in his habits, and strong in his moral attitude to life. There is no question about which of the two the world would consider the fitter. The former may plunge into excesses, may feel contempt for human weakness, and be indifferent to moral rectitude. But he starts out with great physical powers. In time they are sure to be undermined. His life becomes sinful and his “children’s teeth are on edge because the father hath eaten sour grapes.” How shall human wisdom determine which is the fitter of the two when the one that was handicapped at the beginning leads an exemplary life and makes good what he lacked at the beginning, and his children perhaps inherit the blessings of a correct living that has made him in the long race of life the more successful of the two?

Inheritance under the Rule. – We take the ground that our birth is not our beginning. We come into the world with certain inheritances, and though we come into the world often poorly equipped, yet we come with a moral inheritance that puts us on the upward grade, and we may ascend by force of correct living in the physical scale of well-being. The whole matter, however, is so complex that it is difficult to say whoa re and who are not the fittest.

But the theory is bad from the fact that the word is taken to apply to our physical well-being, coupled with our intellectual attainments. These two parts of our natures are held up as the most important things in life. As a matter of fact, they are both highly dependent upon our moral natures. It may be that our intellectuality will persist for two or three generations in spite of weakened moral natures, but in the end morality must win over both the intellectual and the physical side of man.

Bad Effect of the Theory. – The theory of the survival of the fittest is an effect as well as a cause. It is the effect of swollen pride, of the belief of certain classes of people in the world that the superior advantages which they enjoy are the result of their superior natures and greater abilities, whereas they may have been the result largely of environment. The theory is bad because it is applied chiefly to our physical lives, as though our physical well-being were the most momentous question of a man’s conduct in the world. It is so easy to undermine our physical lives, to make them abortive and ruinous not only to ourselves, but to our posterity, that physical values are after all not so important as we too often imagine. A man may be physically fit today and physically ruined tomorrow, because behind him and about him there was no moral rectitude to support the physical advantages which he enjoyed.

The theory is also bad because it permits men to drift; it robs them of that effort which men in their weakness feel that they must put forward.

The Battle of Life. – “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to him that endureth to the end.” Such is the teaching of our religion, which is striving constantly so to fortify man’s moral nature as to make man a self-improved being. Such doctrine presupposes human weakness and the inclination of human beings to sinful lives. Such a religion aims to establish character in mind, something that will endure from one generation to another, something upon which posterity may build an enduring structure.

The followers of Christ were frequently the blind, the lame, and the halt. He sarcastically reminds his critics that those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who had survived, as the fittest, might die in their own conceit. And what became of those pharisaical people in Christ’s time who boasted of their superiority? They passed away, while the followers of Christ survived and brought down through their generations to us something of the character and quality of a Christian life. Which were the fittest? That is a question of divine judgment. Let us ask our descendants, our children and our children’s children, and their children after them. We do not stand for ourselves so much as we stand for future generations.

The Calling of the Saints. – The calling of the Latter-day Saints is that of a chosen people. Their important mission is not simply the physical advantages of a single generation; their mission is partly procreation, the duty to give to the world the best in physical manhood and womanhood, not simply something that shall survive,. We are not trusting to our survival: we are planning for the triumph of that right living that shall give to our descendants a higher and better life than that which we possess. Survival is a bad conception of our place in the world. It is growth, progress, all in the direction of the fulfilment of a mission to be God’s chosen people.



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