Thursday, February 12, 2009

Survival of the Fit Enough

[Again this essay is a bit out of date, and sadly, not much has improved since I wrote it. My youngest son is now six and a half, and we just keep trying to do what we can.]

Survival of the Fit Enough
By Larry Brow
Copyright 2002

I used to work at a scholarly press where we printed a lot of scientific journals in a wide variety of fields including biology. Over the years, reading snippets here and there, I came to a conclusion about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Our culture refers to it as “Survival of the Fittest,” with the ferocious conviction that weaklings die and only the brutal will thrive. A more accurate simplification of Darwin’s conclusions would be, “Survival of the Fit Enough.”
The fact is that many environments on our planet are relatively benign. Mild weather, a constant food supply, and few if any predators make it possible for many types of fragile, even ridiculous, creatures to thrive. The parallels in our own society are not hard to see. The skills required to survive on the freeways of Southern California are not the same as those needed on the streets of Boston, or country highways of rural Iowa. Success in one environment can offer no guarantees of success in another. True, the rural Iowan might never make it off the end of the on ramp in LA or San Diego, but the ferocious Californian is just as poorly adapted in the face of roads without shoulders, open ditches, and slow-moving farm equipment. Asking the nation as a whole to mimic the hard-driving psychologies of either coast is similarly simple-minded and inappropriate. We are not a homogeneous culture requiring homogeneous skill sets. We each adapt to our own niches.
Biologically, of course, the survival of any individual is only of minor consideration in the much more crucial survival of the species. At this level it might be thought that having children is sufficient proof of “fitness.” Unfortunately, by this measure, the parents of a mule could count themselves successful and we know that that is not the case. Whatever its practical value, the mule is an evolutionary dead-end.
No, to really prove sufficiently that you have been ‘fit enough’ you must successfully create grandchildren. Childless couples have for centuries endured the constant urgings of their parents to produce grandchildren. We always thought it was a simple desire to spoil little kids and to brag to one’s friends about their virtues. We were wrong.
Consider the basic obituary. Among the deceased’s most important accomplishments are their surviving descendants. In some environments, dying with ten or more grandchildren is quite commonplace. In some parts of our country, having great-grandchildren before the age of sixty is not uncommon. And yet we argue about being “the fittest” and the need to do more and compete harder.
I’m not in favor of teen pregnancy nor am I arguing for a purely reproductive standard of success for the human race. But I think that we are missing the point when we focus on money, luxuries, and market share as the markers of accomplishment. Even just looking at our children is not sufficient focus on the issues of our evolution. Our children’s world is too much like our own to be judged either good or bad, sustainable or doomed.
What will the adulthood of my grandchildren look like? What measures can we take today to present them with a better world in which to enjoy their own grandchildren? Presuming that we as a whole are ‘fit enough’ to survive both the savage and the benign of our individual environments, how hard are we making it for our grandchildren to be ‘fit enough’ for their environments?
In many parts of our country coyotes have made such a resurgence that common housecats are no longer safe outside at night. Whatever the hazards to the coyotes, for the cats the city has become less benign, less easy to survive in. Species travel and adapt and force changes in the lives of other species all the time. Restoring those compromised habitats is both difficult and unlikely. Whether you seek a harsh or benign environment for yourself, whether your particular niche is stable or constantly changing, your future grandchildren will always need you to have been fit enough.
Take your vitamins. Plant a tree. Produce less garbage. Read good books. Have conversations with children. Walk to more destinations. Learn a second language. Resist the urge to become a coyote.
My youngest son is just one month old. I am forty-three. If he waits as long to have his children the world will have changed considerably for both of us. Me, I remember black & white television and cars without seatbelts. I remember a nationwide campaign to stop using our roadsides as trashcans and ashtrays. I remember summer trips without air conditioning. I remember a time when the police just stopped answering calls to a certain part of the city because their cars kept getting flipped over and burned by the angry mobs. I remember nickel candy. Everything changes.
I don’t think it’s important for me, my children, or my future grandchildren, to be the “fittest” we can possibly be. We only need to be fit enough, and we all get to help determine just how difficult that will be. Every day we do things (or fail to do things) that help create the conditions of our future. Yet many of us can’t be bothered to think past, “What’s for dinner?” Let’s see what we can do to keep housecat off the menu.


French Fancy said...

*At this level it might be thought that having children is sufficient proof of “fitness.*

I decided not to have kids when I was in my early twenties and have never (well, occasionally) regretted it. I've left it to all the others to sow their seeds and crowd the planet.

When I see all the worries that parents seem to go through, I'm sure I made the right decision. I take your point though about people needing to think about the 'bigger picture' rather than immediate needs.

Larry M. Brow said...

Even for those of us who don't end up with kids of their own, there is a collective opportunity to informally 'adopt' the children around us. Sadly though, it's getting less and less normal for unrelated persons of different generations to even talk together, much less socialize.