Survival of the Pithiest

| 42 Comments

Hello from Kearney Nebraska, where I am lucky to be a speaker along with a great number of actually famous people at the University of Nebraska’s Evolution2009 conference. I am mostly offline at the moment, but I have been told that the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge has just announced that I have won the prize for one of their competitions – finding the true source of a famous, but bogus, quote of Darwin. The quote goes as follows (there are many varieties):

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

The quote exists in tens of thousands of copies on the web – mostly in documents related to business and business management, where it is used to emphasize the point that businesses should be adaptable to succeed. In addition, the quote is found in as in foot-high letters on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences:

(to their credit, the Cal Acad recognized the error when it was pointed out some time ago, and removed the Darwin attribution)

The fact that the quote was not found in Darwin’s writing or letters has been known for some time – Darwin historian John van Wyhe pointed it out here and here, for instance. Evidently he gets emails every month by people trying to figure out where Darwin said this, where Darwin never said any such thing. But the actual source (or at least, something very close to the source) was mysterious…until I stumbled on it in July. Here is what I found:

Yes, change is the basic law of nature. But the changes wrought by the passage of time affects [sic] individuals and institutions in different ways. According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Applying this theoretical concept to us as individuals, we can state that the civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself.

(p. 4 of: Megginson, L. C. (1963). “Lessons from Europe for American Business.” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 44(1): 3-13.)

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.….. so says Charles Darwin in his “Origin of Species.” Nothing involving human beings remains static.

(p. 91 of: Megginson, L. C. (1964). “Key to Competition is Management.” Petroleum Management, 36(1): 91-95.)

It is not the most intellectual or the strongest species that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to or adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Charles Darwin

(in a quote collection on p. 94 of: Moran, R. T. and Harris, P. R. (1982). Managing Cultural Synergy. Houston, Gulf Publishing Company.)

As additional evidence we have this comment from a former Megginson student:

This thread is turning into a good education

mlebuf 07-12-2006, 8:32 PM | PostID #2209224

[…]

Leon Megginson, one of my best profs while I was in college once said, “Success is a function of three factors: ability, motivation and luck.”

[…]

I learned a lot of good things from Leon Megginson’s classes. One of the most valuable things I heard him say went something like this: Charles Darwin didn’t say that only the strong survive. What he said was that those who survive are the ones who most accurately perceive their environment and successfully adapt to it.

No matter how much we prepare, there will be large, unanticipated changes over the course of a lifetime Our job is to make intelligent choices that enable us to adapt to and capitalize on them. Like it or not, we are largely the sum of our choices.

Best wishes,

Michael

Several interesting features are apparent: (1) The quote appears to start as a paraphrase; there is no evidence that Megginson initially intended this to be taken as an exact quote; rather, at some later stage, someone copied down the phrase (perhaps in lecture notes, for example), and then later assumed it was an actual quote of Darwin. (2) The quote has apparently evolved over time to become shorter and pithier. I suspect that quotes that are shorter and more pithy have an “adaptive advantage” in collections of inspirational quotes, motivational seminars, and similar venues which seem to be common habitats for the quote in the business world. I hereby dub this process “pithification.” If, as I suspect, this is a common trend in bogus quotes, remember that you first heard the process described and named here first. (3) The untold piece of the story concerns what happened between 1964 and 1982. I have looked carefully in several old Megginson textbooks, thus far without success (although it is apparent that Megginson was very widely read, and liked to start his chapters with pithy quotes from famous people, usually unreferenced, and usually the authors are not indexed in the book index, so just looking at the index doesn’t tell you whether or not Darwin has been cited). If anyone finds anything between those periods, let me know!

Thanks to John van Wyhe and the Darwin Correspondence Project for bringing this issue to the world’s attention. Like them, I hope this discovery contributes to the extinction of this particular bogus quote; but since I doubt business seminars are big on Darwin scholarship, I rather doubt that this is likely. On the upside, though, we have a fantastic case of cultural evolution to study.

42 Comments

See how mutations only take information out of the phrase, not add to it?

Funny, funny wheels. :-)

Congrats, Nick!! I look forward to the day when “pithification” is granted word status by Webster’s.

Though it doesn’t have quite the ring as Floccinaucinihilipilification, alas.

Cheers, Dave

It also made it into the pages of Nature a few years ago: http://tinyurl.com/lr8nvd. It always amazed me that anyone thought that this sounded like Darwin’s writing style.

Nick, what were you reading to stumble upon this source? Shouldn’t you be to busy with grad school to read management books?

Wheels said:

See how mutations only take information out of the phrase, not add to it?

lol - when you have to answer to the Great Copy Editor in the Sky…

Was it Kropotkin who wrote it in “Mutual Aid”? He was a Russian anarchist aristocrat who was exiled to Siberia (Michael Shermer wrote about him in his preface to Donald Prothero’s book on “Evolution, What the Fossils Say”.

But surely it was Darwin who said: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

Hah! A lovely example of both the change of information over time, and the research process documenting that change. If proponents of ID at least attempted similar research, then they might gain a small measure of the approval they claim to seek.

“Pithification”: survival of the pithiest. Lovely; I’ll do my best to spread that around.

wright said: “Pithification”: survival of the pithiest. Lovely; I’ll do my best to spread that around.

When you do, drop the “: survival of the pithiest.” Its redundant :)

Nick, what were you reading to stumble upon this source? Shouldn’t you be to busy with grad school to read management books?

Well, technically, by “stumbled” I meant “googled it on Google Books, and for some reason no one had found the 1963 quote before, either because something new was added to the scan database, or because I searched on just the right fragment of the quote, because searching the full quote doesn’t catch the somewhat different older versions.”

Actually I found the 1982 quote in April when I first read the John van Wyhe piece, then gave up since I couldn’t find any more. Then in July I thought to google a subset of the 1982 quote, and bingo.

Anyway, it will all be Officially Relevant to Grad School when I do a phylogenetic analysis of all the quote variants…

Thanks for that quote instance in Nature, that’s hilarious!

Book Review

Nature 420, 741-742 (19 December 2002) | doi:10.1038/420741b

Immunology tomorrow

Franziska Michor1 & Martin A. Nowak2

It was Charles Darwin who observed: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” In the ever-changing world of the immune system, neither size nor complexity of a parasite counts, but adaptability.

Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it if one said, “It was LSU business professor Leon Megginson who observed…”

eric said:

wright said: “Pithification”: survival of the pithiest. Lovely; I’ll do my best to spread that around.

When you do, drop the “: survival of the pithiest.” Its redundant :)

Eric, you have grokked the essence of Pithification. But you knew that.

eric said:

wright said: “Pithification”: survival of the pithiest. Lovely; I’ll do my best to spread that around.

When you do, drop the “: survival of the pithiest.” Its redundant :)

By all means remove and delete any unneeded, unnecessary duplication and redundancy.

fnxtr said:

Funny, funny wheels. :-)

It’s intentional irony of course, as what better example of “mutation added information” than the word “again” as in “Play it again, Sam.” All that “information” in those “irreducibly complex” cells keeps getting created “again and again,” right before our eyes. Which is why those who like to say that “IC = ID” hate to say when and how those designs were inserted into real living systems. In fairness I should say that FL did spill the beans once.

Nick (Matzke) said:

Well, technically, by “stumbled” I meant “googled it on Google Books

Nick - I spent a little time searching the shorter quote on Google Books, but to no luck. Congrats on winning the contest!

FYI, the quote has been attributed to Clarence Darrow before (I will provide a link to your post under the image).

I’m not a biologist but is that quote correct? Aren’t crocodiles and sharks counter-examples to this?

Yeah, there are versions of the quote where Clarence Darrow is cited (this occurred e.g. in 1987 at a Congressional Hearing, this is “the source” found on wikiquotes etc., and previously was about the earliest known source). But the Darrow attribution itself appears to be a derived mutation.

I have also found cases where the quote is attributed to Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who said profound things about change. Both appear to be late mutations, although I could be corrected by an early source…

Yeah, that image is of the Congressional hearings PDF which is free online somewhere and which comes up in Google Books. I think at some point in one lineage “Clarence Darrow” was confused with “Charles Darwin” – both evo dudes, both C.D., etc.

Michael J said:

I’m not a biologist but is that quote correct? Aren’t crocodiles and sharks counter-examples to this?

A better example might be ID/creationists; not exactly the most intelligent of the species.

But, as much as they hate evolution, their political activities draw almost completely on the ruthless tactics of tooth-and-claw survival: keep spreading those memes, keep lying, keep breeding, swamp all other ideas with a complete overgrowth of ID/creationist pseudo-science.

If anything, these people exemplify the principles of Social Darwinism better than any of the people they perceive as their enemies.

Lee Atwater and Karl Rove very likely absorbed these tactics from the fast-breeding fringe groups they mingled with as political neophytes.

This conference seems like a good opportunity for education. Are any of these talks going to be recorded and made available to the public?

Frank J said:

fnxtr said:

Funny, funny wheels. :-)

It’s intentional irony of course, as what better example of “mutation added information” than the word “again” as in “Play it again, Sam.” (snip)

Which brings us back to apocryphal – or at least wildly inaccurate – quotations. That line never appeared in the film in that way. Just like Bones never said, “He’s dead, Jim.” Or so the story goes…

Just like Bones never said, “He’s dead, Jim.” Or so the story goes…

Oh, he sure did say that. There were other variations, to be sure, but “He’s dead, Jim” is the most common form:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJQwHwP0ojI

1. I think it was “Beam me up, Scotty” that was never actually uttered.

2. They are recording the Nebraska talks, I hope they put them online, not sure what their plan is.

The Curmudgeon said:

But surely it was Darwin who said: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

That’s based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, aside from the last part.

Nick (Matzke) said:

1. I think it was “Beam me up, Scotty” that was never actually uttered.

2. They are recording the Nebraska talks, I hope they put them online, not sure what their plan is.

Off track, but that reminds me of my second favorite bumber sticker of all time: “Beam me up Scotty - there’s no intelligent life down here” Vince

Gary said:

The Curmudgeon said:

But surely it was Darwin who said: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

That’s based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, aside from the last part.

Speaking of misquoting and Ecclesiastes, I once got into an argument with a Christian who apparently forgot to read the last part of Ecclesiastes, when he told me how it said that all things people attempt to accomplish (or succeed in accomplishing) are “useless vanities,” and that we should otherwise spend all of our time preparing for the next life, rather than attempt to live in this one. Of course, the guy neglected to realize that the author of Ecclesiastes was narrating his moping over how empty and useless he felt his life was at the time, but would then come to the conclusion that (human) life is a gift from God, and that people should appreciate it by living their lives to the fullest.

Michael J -

I’m not a biologist but is that quote correct? Aren’t crocodiles and sharks counter-examples to this?

I would say that the quote is highly human-centric but is accurate in many circumstances, if we choose to be generous, and overlook the fact that the word “survive” often signals a misunderstanding of evolution. (Speaking approximately, a phenotype that confers a relative reproductive advantage today is more likely to produce more living descendants than other phenotypes in the population, but that doesn’t mean that that particular phenotype is associated with longevity [longevity may confer multiple reproductive opportunities, of course, but not necessarily], nor that the descendants will bear that phenotype in the future.)

There are many examples of species, or at least genera, with morphology that has been preserved for long periods of time. These are species which became highly adapted to some type of environmental niche that has tended to persist to some degree throughout the many climactic changes the earth has seen.

On the other hand, humans specifically have achieved a large fraction of the biomass precisely because of our adaptable behavior (*that is true right now, and the frenzied and distastefully hopeful predictions of human extinction that may follow this comment will be predictions, whereas I am making a statement about the present*).

We also know that a number of parasites and pathogens that prey on humans have strategies of varying their phenotype in order to evade the human immune system. These include the most successful and persistent human pathogens, like malaria and influenza.

The apocryphal Darwin Megginson quote has appeared just today, on Roger Ebert’s followup post to his Expelled blog.

The pithificated quote appears here.

I set the matter straight here

Cheers, Dave

ID = Intelligent Disperser. Hot theory from Rice Univ.

oops. There you go: research in action. :-)

Sure to lead to even more research inaction.

Ooops, forgot a space! How clumsy of me! ;)

Stanton said:

Gary said:

The Curmudgeon said:

But surely it was Darwin who said: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

That’s based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, aside from the last part.

Speaking of misquoting and Ecclesiastes, I once got into an argument with a Christian who apparently forgot to read the last part of Ecclesiastes, when he told me how it said that all things people attempt to accomplish (or succeed in accomplishing) are “useless vanities,” and that we should otherwise spend all of our time preparing for the next life, rather than attempt to live in this one. Of course, the guy neglected to realize that the author of Ecclesiastes was narrating his moping over how empty and useless he felt his life was at the time, but would then come to the conclusion that (human) life is a gift from God, and that people should appreciate it by living their lives to the fullest.

Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

I like how the “quote” has “evolved”. Note that student Michael learned that it is the individual that perceives the environment and then adapts to it, not the species responding to the environment.

Nick, I should know by the end of next week if I can send you the link to all the streams of all the talks to post on Panda’s Thumb. Thanks again for being part of the symposium! Your talk and all the rest were awesome! I still can’t believe I got to meet Nick “freaking” Matzke in person! Thanks again!

henry said:

Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

Yo, Henry, do you REALLY want to play “find the Bible quote”? You probably already know that there are hundreds that even you wouldn’t want to defend–unless the defense is “You can’t take that literally.”

Are there two ‘henry’s?

Speaking of Ecclesiastes, I use this book whenever creationists disparage evolution as “random”:

Ecclesiastes 9:11:

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

Just Bob said:

henry said:

Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

Yo, Henry, do you REALLY want to play “find the Bible quote”? You probably already know that there are hundreds that even you wouldn’t want to defend–unless the defense is “You can’t take that literally.”

I have read the Bible from cover to cover several times and the New Testament a few additional times.

Frankly, a lot of it is very boring and difficult to understand. But I’m responsible for what I do understand. There’s a lot that is very clear.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

henry said:

Just Bob said:

henry said:

Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

Yo, Henry, do you REALLY want to play “find the Bible quote”? You probably already know that there are hundreds that even you wouldn’t want to defend–unless the defense is “You can’t take that literally.”

I have read the Bible from cover to cover several times and the New Testament a few additional times.

Frankly, a lot of it is very boring and difficult to understand. But I’m responsible for what I do understand. There’s a lot that is very clear.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

Yes, but according to Acts 15:19-20, 28-29 the commandments don’t apply to Christians.

Dan said:

Yes, but according to Acts 15:19-20, 28-29 the commandments don’t apply to Christians.

And there are plenty of very clear ones that DO apply to Christians, such as not charging interest on loans and not suing each other in court. I wonder if Henry endorses the purely COMMUNIST economics adopted by the early followers of Christ in Acts?

Just Bob said:

Dan said:

Yes, but according to Acts 15:19-20, 28-29 the commandments don’t apply to Christians.

And there are plenty of very clear ones that DO apply to Christians, such as not charging interest on loans and not suing each other in court. I wonder if Henry endorses the purely COMMUNIST economics adopted by the early followers of Christ in Acts?

The early followers of Christ in Acts didn’t practice Communism . The Roman authorities and Jewish authorities were not involved. This was not a way to redistribute wealth. The Church was growing rapidly, adding thousands. But since many of the converts were visiting from other countries for the Jewish holiday, they were not prepared for a longer stay. Thus, other believers helped meet their needs.

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