Survival of the Pithiest

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,


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.