Re: Survival of the fittest

Sheldon Klein (sklein@CS.WISC.EDU)
Thu, 14 Sep 1995 01:33:57 -0500

Nick Corduan writes:

>In other words, do the "fittest" cultures, just like the fittest biological
>specimens, tend to survive, thrive, and dominate? I'm not geting into issues
>of atrocities toward indigenous peoples here, if I can at all help it. What
>I mean is not, the "best" cultures," but rather the "fittest" cultures --
>those best able to handle the rigors of life.

If you are interested in seriously following this line of inquiry,
you most certainly should look at Arnold J. Toynbee's A STUDY OF HISTORY,
Oxford University Press. It runs to more than a dozen volumes published
over a lifetime, and was followed by another volume, late in his life,
examining his earlier views in retrospect. [There is a 3 volume abridgement.]

Kroeber mentions Toynbee in his text, ANTHROPOLOGY, New York: Harcourt,
Brace & Co., 1923, 1948, as well as Oswald Spengler, (DECLINE OF THE WEST).
Toynbee does articulate principles determining survival or death of
cultures, although Kroeber discusses the views in terms of comparative
models (Kroeber p.844):

"Of late, there has been a growing interest in what might fairly be called
comparative history, as exemplified most conspicuously at the moment by
Toynbee. An earlier endeavor, vehement and dogmatic, was that of Spengler;
more measured recent ones are by Sorokin and Northrup, as well as approaches
weighted from the side of sciences and the arts, like those by Kroeber and
by Sachs. All these studies, irrespective of how successful or unsuccessful
they may be, do grapple with the problem of recurent forces in human history
as they may be demonstrable from more orless recurrent forms or effects. The
point of view is therefore in ints nature nonethnocentric; the treatment is
comparative. The problem is a laborious and inherently difficult one, for
several reasons; and it is evident that we are still in the formative stages
of handling it: our conclusions should have become far sharper and sure a
generation from now. But it is clear that the problem is not only a large and
fundamental one, but that it is or can be a genuinely scientific one, treated
by the method of the natural sciences, though of course not with the specific
techniques of any one of them.

"Popular interest in the subject has been spurred by its query and implica-
tion (or refutation) of the impending doom of civilization--to with, the doom
of our civilization and of ourselves. This obviously is sensational headline
stuff because of its subjective affect. But from the point of view of nature,
dooms are incidents; and below the fear and froth and hysteria there does
remain a great intellectual problem to be solved by the exercise of objective

The pre WW II Nazi movement in Germany made much of Spengler's
DECLINE OF THE WEST, although Spengler was himself not pro-Nazi; I have
read that he sat out World War II in aristocratic isolation on his estate,
known to be a critic of the State around him, but immune from persecution
because of the hommage paid to his published work in the philosophy of
the Nazi movement.

Toynbee's own ideas are known to have been inspired by Spengler,
and therefore, one should view with a bit more understanding, the recently
expressed view on this list that the idea of 'survival of the fittest'
as applied to cultures is 'Nazi'.

Sheldon Klein