I am not ... asserting that humans are either genial or aggressive by inborn biological necessity. Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetrate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time ... The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. — Stephen Jay Gould
Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist. He coined the term “survival of the fittest” as a way of characterizing Darwin’s natural selection theory. But the term is avoided by modern biologists, because the phrase can be misleading. The problem is that the word "fit" is frequently confused with a state of physical fitness. In the evolutionary meaning, "fitness" is the rate of reproductive output among a class of genetic variants.
Darwin introduced the phrase as an alternative to "natural selection" only in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869. He intended it to mean "better designed for an immediate, local environment". Darwin’s “struggle for existence” is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary struggle in On the Origin of Species:
I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live.
But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought.... As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.
Nevertheless, during much of the twentieth century, the science of evolutionary biology was dominated by the idea of ruthless competition. Competition among individual genes, or organisms, was assumed to be the principal driver of evolutionary change. Cooperation, meanwhile, was viewed as a major problem in evolutionary biology because it presumably required altruistic self-sacrifices (which was considered a wrong-headed assumption) and was not in any case considered to be a very important phenomenon.
Darwin’s own chief disciple, Thomas Henry Huxley, advanced this “gladiatorial” view of natural selection (his word). Huxley maintained that the predominance of bloody battle defined nature’s way as non-moral (not explicitly immoral, but unsuited as offering any guide to moral behavior). He said that any human society set up along these lines of nature will devolve into anarchy and misery. Therefore, the chief purpose of society must lie in mitigation of this struggle. Study natural selection and do the opposite in human society, was his advice.
This apparent discordance between nature’s way and any hope for human social decency has defined the major subject for debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. For Darwin and other leading British evolutionists, the expression "struggle for existence" posed no problem. Huxley’s solution has won many supporters – nature is nasty and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in human society. A contrary view contended that Darwinism undermines morality by claiming that success in nature can only be measured by victory in bloody battle.
Russian intellectuals reacted negatively to what they perceived as injecting British enthusiasm for competition into evolutionary theory. They concluded that Darwin had greatly exaggerated the role of Malthusian overpopulation giving rise to competition as the main force behind evolution. The name most closely associated with this line of thinking was Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, zoologist and political scientist.
In 1902, Kropotkin published his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which gave an alternative view of animal and human survival. He argues that the struggle for existence usually leads to mutual aid rather than combat as the chief criterion of evolutionary success. Human society must therefore build upon our natural inclinations (not reverse them, as Huxley held) in making a moral order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our species.
Kropotkin did not deny the presence of competitive urges in humans, but did not consider them the driving force of history. He argued that "it was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human'. '...the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.' It was not ‘survival of the fittest’ but ‘survival of the friendliest’. In the last chapter, he wrote:
The animal species [...] in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits [...] and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development [...] are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress.
The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.