Competition and Our View of Success – Exploring the Effects of Social Darwinism

I studied earth system science in my undergraduate. It’s a small program in which we learn about how the earth behaves as one single system. Learning about the earth has many perks, such as traveling to different places around the world with the excuse of studying diverse landscapes and ecosystems.

I remember my first geology field school in May 2015. We camped in the Mojave Desert for two weeks, learning about the local geology, climbing mountains, and mapping rock formations. It must have been the pressure of exams just before the trip or a fever I had just recovered from, but I lost my voice during the plane ride. During the first week, my lovely professor answered my questions in the same barely audible voice that I had. It was slightly painful to speak, so I observed much more and spoke only when necessary.

I remember looking at a desert flower with a long stem and tiny leaves. As I observed, I realized that this flower’s traits are favorable and fitting for its environment. In other words, the flower’s anatomy gave insight into the environmental factors in which it grew. I then applied the same thinking to human society, of how understanding a person can provide insight into the environmental conditions that formed his or her beliefs and consequent behaviors. Following this stream of thought, I wondered what aspects of modern western society makes it favorable for people to compare and compete with one another, although we are social beings that crave for connection. I wondered what motivates people to resort to violence and aggression to meet their needs. I wondered why so many people want to be successful in the eyes of others while neglecting their own interests. I cannot possibly touch on all the reasons or pretend to know them all, but one influence that sticks out at me is Social Darwinism.

Darwin’s contributions to our understanding of evolution through natural selection introduced a new narrative of how the human species came into being and our place in the web of life. It had a huge influence on the Western thought. Later in the 19th century, Social Darwinism emerged in North America and Western Europe in efforts to reconcile the natural phenomena of natural selection with human society. It suggests that competition is the main driving force behind evolution, governed by ‘the survival of the fittest.’ Though there were disputes over which group was the ‘fittest,’ there was a consensus that the strong should be rewarded, and the weak should be punished. Subtly, a misinterpretation of natural laws became explanations for many social inequalities and injustices.

Even now, the echoes Social Darwinism are heard and felt.

But let’s imagine what could happen if the evolutionary factors of cooperation and symbiosis were emphasized instead of competition, scarcity, and survival. Social Darwinism would look completely different. We would celebrate diversity, as high variation equips a population to strive in uncertain times, and – in nature – is indicative of a healthy population. Accordingly, we would find the freedom and permission to pursue work that we found meaningful and break away from the ever-narrowing definition of success. Likewise, we would cooperate more with each other, as we would understand that iron sharpens iron and ecosystems evolve together. Maybe we would view our environmental surroundings as something integral to our health, rather than something isolated and other – something we conquer and use.

Our cultural narrative of competition and survival is overdue for an update. The power of one belief to affect change is limitless, and Social Darwinism is one unexamined belief that has been unexamined for too long. Life on earth has found many ways of being, all of which are equally significant in supporting the network of life. Similarly, perhaps we can celebrate the diversity of skills and interests among us and challenge our long-held ideas of what success looks like.

As I leave the structures of McGill and am met with a new chance to direct and structure my life, I often find myself questioning my conditioned thoughts of what success looks like and what kind of life is worthy of my pursuit. I fall back on my memories of the Mojave desert. I remember one brightly-lit full moon night, I sat in the silence, still with a sore throat and unable to speak. I felt so small as I looked into the sky, but I also felt a deep sense of belonging. I felt small, but not insignificant. At that moment, with the desert flowers and the rocks, I felt like I had a place in this mess of a world, just as the flowers and the rocks did. I felt no need to compete, but only to find my place and become more like myself.

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I’m very happy to have this opportunity to share my experiences on a larger platform than through my personal blog. Sharing is a way to extend and preserve my experience, and I want this sharing to be as helpful as possible for readers! If there is anything I touched upon that you would like to read more on, please leave a note in the comments and I will try to make it happen.   

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