The Survival of the Unfit

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To the Editor of The Open Court:

Permit me to point out the contradiction in the phrase "The Survival of the Unfit."

The doctrine of the survival of the fittest, as it is called, is simply the statement that, under given conditions, that which exists does so because it is suited to those conditions. It precludes by the mere statement the very possibility of that which is "unfit" surviving.

Assuming the truth of the general statements that most people are svretchedly poor,—barely able to live,—that idiocy, insanity, intemperance, crimes of violence, and so on, are increasing faster than the whole population increases, what does this mean? Manifestly it means that present conditions are better suited to the survival of the ignorant, the coarse, the sensual, the dishonest, than to the survival of the intelligent, refined, honest, and sensitive. These brute masses whom you deplore need none of your sympathy; they are better fitted than your sensitive self to cope with the savagery around. The poor do not feel their degradation,— the tenement house people prefer dirt! Certainly they do; that is the reason they survive. The development of a preference for dirt is part of the adaptation which is going on.

I do not think that any legislation can reverse a tendency which counts our immense mass of legislation as part of the environment which has produced it: I am of the opinion that it is in the revocation of existing enactments that hope lies. To put it otherwise, I am of the opinion that the particular part of the environment which tends to throw men back into savagery, and to destroy association among them, lies, not in any necessary unsuitability of association to gratify men's desires, but in mistaken attempts to regulate association.

If Mrs. Bodington had seen, as I have seen, shiploads of fruit and vegetables thrown into the sea, because they were, forsooth, too plentiful, she would not take up with Malthusianism just yet awhile.

The trouble is mainly in two things. The first of these is the fact that the as yet unexhausted earth is inaccessible. The unoccupied land is held out of use, instead of being used to produce. It is held by people who do not want to use it, but only want to make others pay for the privilege.

It will not be changed until the intelligence of men, both poor and rich, grasps the fact that the land must be used, that possession must depend upon occupancy, under pain of a premature artificial land-scarcity such as prevails and from which we suffer.

The second cause is that after having produced men are not free to exchange. As all people who know anything know nowadays, to be able to trade off your stuff is perhaps less important as far as bare life goes, but even more important than production, if we are to enjoy life with comfort.

We cannot trade because the mechanism of exchange is antiquated and inefficient, and because mistaken laws prevent experiment and discovery of better methods. Gold and silver long ago were insufficient in quantity for use as a currency: private invention developed a wonderful system of banks. Now, gold and silver are too scarce even as security, yet arbitrary statute prevents the acceptance of other security even though entirely adequate.

Give us freedom of the land, freedom of the currency, and a few other freedoms that will easily come, and further progress in association will be possible. Otherwise, nothing but retrogression need be expected.

John Beverley Robinson.

  • John Beverley Robinson, “The Survival of the Unfit,” The Open Court 6, no. 35 (September 1, 1892): 3373-3374.