One of the most famous modern metaphors we have for what life is, is: “survival of the fittest.” It is often used to refer to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which different species compete with each other for survival in their particular ecological niches.
Evolutionary theory is perhaps the most influential theory we have today. It permeates every aspect of both science and culture. There is much that it does explain, and much more that we use it to explain. It’s robust in its reach and broad in its explanatory power.
Interestingly, the term “survival of the fittest,” the metaphor that conjures up these vivid images that we imagine life goes through as it perpetuates itself, was a term introduced by the philosopher Herbert Spencer. After reading Darwin’s famous masterpiece On the Origin of Species, he used the phrase to highlight the similarities between his own economic theories and Darwin’s work. When Alfred Russel Wallace, the independent co-creator of the theory, suggested that they instead use that phrase to denote the concept of natural selection, Darwin was happy to agree.
That said, Darwin’s own definition of natural selection was the idea of a species “better designed for an immediate, local environment.” The competitive aspects that the phrase “survival of the fittest” highlights are one part of that, yes, if the resources in an ecological niche are scarce and different species or even populations within a species come into contact with each other for those resources, but otherwise, the idea is that we evolve best when we best harmonize with the conditions of our environment.
If the frame of reference is Herbet’s phrase, then life is a brutal, zero-sum game where something has to lose for me to win, which in nature is indeed often the case. If the frame of reference is shifted to Darwin’s more precise definition, then a zero-sum game might be necessary, but the attempt at harmonizing with the environment means that positive-sum games are also possible. Just because I win doesn’t mean that you lose.
Humans, of course, are slightly more civilized animals in the 21st century. Rather than a scarce world, we live in an abundant world. Rather than problems of day to day survival (outside of obvious cases of extreme poverty and war and so on), we instead deal with day to day problems of meaning (what do I want, how can I get it, what is important and so on).
These two conditions, abundance and problems of meaning, mean that we suddenly have a lot more choice in our lives about what to prioritize. And one of the first things that most of us prioritize is freedom. If the world is abundant, and there is room for us, then we want to live in it on our own terms. But the question is: How do we do that? What is freedom?
There is a wonderful little story about a businessman and a fisherman that gets to the root of this problem of freedom, about what to prioritize, especially as we relate to the concept in the modern Western world.
“An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15–20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions — then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.””
The story makes an important point, and it gives us something to examine, but it is, of course, an oversimplification. It ignores the fact that some people like to build things to challenge themselves. That, perhaps, sometimes, pursuing an opportunity to add value in the world or to make a little more money or to use your time to work harder than you need to is just as much a part of being human is knowing that you have enough.
Nonetheless, the businessman here is a good embodiment of the “survival of the fittest” mentality, whereas the fisherman aims more at being “better designed for an immediate, local environment.”
The latter fits well with what he has, which is enough. If from there, he chooses to go for more, it will come from a place of harmony, of trying to increase the challenge and the complexity of his life. He is already free, and the rest is just whatever he makes of it if he so chooses. His freedom comes from not needing anything else.
The former, by virtue of associating time with money and opportunity, is playing the game that everyone else around him is likely also playing. He probably convinces himself that he wants a nice car because a nice car is nice, but most likely, it’s because the people around him have a nice car. He probably accepts that he is competitive, but he would probably deny that he is competing with someone else. But his mindset tells a different story, and that story is that he still living with a scarcity mindset in an abundant world because everyone around him is, too, and that’s a deep part of our evolutionary programming. His freedom is tied to what he has, which will never be enough because there is always more, so he is never actually free.
Competition is one necessary part of evolution, and we have a deep drive towards it, but evolution itself is fundamentally about growing towards harmony with the environment. Competition can get you the resources you need to be free, but only this harmony can keep you free once the basic necessities have been taken care of. In a world of scarcity, competition will help you become free from harm; in a world of abundance, competition will slowly morph into the opposite of freedom.
The problem at the core is really a problem of needs. You are free when you don’t need anything and can simply pursue what you want without any great attachment other than perhaps aiming for growth in the process. You are not, however, free if you think that there is something else out there, whether that be some position of status or a nicer house, that is necessary to someday make you happy and satisfied in the world.
What life and evolution seem to aim for is greater degrees of complexity, which may sometimes be obtained through competition but can only really be sustained through harmony. The fisherman has the inner harmony, the inner freedom, he needs to increase the complexity of his outer life if he so chooses, and he can then sustain that in the process over time if he wants.
The businessman, in this sense, seems to only see outer complexity, without having the inner harmony to support that complexity over the long-term. That can only inevitably lead to that circle of realizing that he has always had what he was looking for and that he was merely just looking in the wrong direction.
Freedom is an abstract concept built in our minds, and that means it can only truly be felt and experienced if the associations we have with that concept in our minds let us harmonize with the environment that we are in. We are free when we have enough, and enough may want to grow in complexity, to create something in the world, but it doesn’t need to compete.
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