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Did Charles Darwin coin the phrase 'survival of the fittest'?

What is the meaning of the phrase 'survival of the fittest'? And when was it first used? Justin Pollard explores the phrase and the great misconception that it was created by Charles Darwin…

A picture of Charles Darwin in his later years
Published: January 28, 2022 at 7:28 am
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Although the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ came about as a direct result of the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, it was not a phrase he at first used to describe what he called ‘natural selection’.


In fact the phrase first appears in the 1864 book Principals of Biology by the greatly overlooked polymath Herbert Spencer. Spencer believed that evolution was at work throughout the cosmos and applied to the creation of stars as much as to life on Earth as everything was evolving from simpler forms into more complex ones.

Having read Darwin’s masterpiece he incorporated these ideas into his own works, calling Darwin’s approach ‘survival of the fittest’. Not that Spencer agreed completely with Darwin, applying his ideas far beyond biology into sociology and politics. He thought that all societies evolve from more primitive, simpler forms to sophisticated ones, eventually reaching an evolutionary ‘end-point’ – a final state of perfect equilibrium – at which stage natural selection then stops.

It was not until the fifth edition of Origin of Species, published on 10 February 1869, that Darwin returned the compliment, using the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. He chose this, and credited Spencer with its invention, as he felt that ‘natural selection’ implied a conscious choice whereas evolution in fact had no conscious decision-making process. What he did not mean was what the phrase has come to mean today, that is ‘in the best physical condition’. Rather ironically, because of this, modern evolutionary biologists nearly always use Darwin’s original term ‘natural selection’ instead.


This Q&A first appeared in BBC History Magazine


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