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Darwin’s theory of natural selection is widely misunderstood by the general public. Scholars have debated whether the fault lies with creationists, researchers in the Humanities, declining science education in our public schools, or because scientists don’t reach out to people where they are. Science communication takes place through many sources during peoples’ lives and common misunderstandings can be transmitted at any point along their journey.

The reality is that, for most people, exposure to science will take place outside of school. Less than half of people in the United States have attended a university for any period of time.1 Globally, a median of 57% aged 20-29 have finished high school.2 However, an estimated 4.2 billion people around the world are active television viewers with the average U.S. consumer holding the record with more than 3 hours per day.3 This means that the popular understanding of science is much more likely to come from television programs than it is from half-remembered lessons in school.

Researching how science is communicated through popular entertainment has been commonplace among historians. The eminent Darwin scholar Janet Browne has documented multiple examples in her papers “Darwinism in Popular Culture” and “Darwin in Caricature.” Darwin’s ideas as they were communicated through literature have been studied by Virginia Richter in Literature After Darwin and Gowan Dawson in Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability. Darwin’s ideas as they were described in newspapers and magazines have been studied by Edward Caudill in Darwinism in the Press and Alvar Ellegård in Darwin and the General Reader. Scholars have also looked at Darwinism in the cinema such as Barbara Creed’s Darwin’s Screens or in Evolution, Literature, and Film edited by Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall.4 Darwin’s ideas have been less well-documented in popular television programs. This is unfortunate as more people are likely to get exposed to Darwinism from this medium than any other.

The website TV Tropes is a great resource for media scholars and fans in general to learn about common and overused representations. As a publicly-edited resource, it is prone to many of the same problems as Wikipedia. However, it is a valuable place to start seeking examples should you not have seen every television show for the last forty years. It is from this basis that I have built the following synthesis of ways that Darwin’s ideas have been miscommunicated to the general public. The three most common representations of Darwinism on television can be defined as The Nihilist, The Evilutionist, and the Social Darwinist.

  1. The Nihilist is a character that views life to be amoral and meaningless and justifies this belief by referencing natural history. A prime example of this character can be found in Congressman Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards in which he justifies his heinous acts of murder by stating, “A lion does not ask permission before he eats a zebra. Lions cannot talk and zebras will not listen.”
  2. The Evilutionist is a variation on the classic mad scientist, a crazed genius that is willing to commit immoral acts because they must see their scientific vision realized. Examples of this trope can be found in the classic British sci-fi series Doctor Who in which a mad supercomputer named Xoanon carries out a series of eugenic experiments on human subjects, or in the mid-90s sci-fi series Babylon 5, in which the ancient alien species known as the Shadows and the Vorlons attempted to force the evolutionary development of the younger races.
  3. Finally, the Social Darwinist is that character who views natural selection as a justification for personal greed and selfishness. A classic example of this trope can be found in the Star Trek character Khan, a product of genetic engineering designed to be superior to other humans and who feels it is his right to dominate the galaxy as a result.

These established tropes are commonplace in both film and television representations of Darwin’s ideas. However, I would like to submit a fourth trope that may be even more common: Survivalist of the Fittest.

  1. The Survivalist of the Fittest is any character that specifically uses Darwin’s theory to justify their own survival or that of their species over another. It is a trope that relies heavily on a misunderstanding of Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” to assume that Darwin was referring to the strongest individuals. By “fittest” Darwin meant those individuals that were most likely to produce offspring, and this could be through cooperation or competition between other individuals, groups, or even species.

For the video above, I searched multiple publicly available television script archives for the terms “survival of the fittest,” “natural selection,” “Darwin,” and “evolution.” There were far more examples that could have been included that were not for the sake of brevity. What I hope this provides is a concise critique of how Darwin’s theory is represented and as a call for change.

The sad reflection in all of these false tropes is that Darwinism is portrayed almost exclusively in a negative light. For the average viewer, Darwin’s ideas evoke brutal violence, selfishness, and the will to dominate others in a meaningless universe. For most depictions, appeals to community and cooperation are made in spite of Darwin. Is there any wonder that Darwin’s theory would be so widely misunderstood or even rejected out of hand?

There is, however, an entire literature on Prosocial Darwinism that has yet to be thoroughly explored on television. Darwin spent considerable time thinking about how cooperation and morality were products of natural selection. Hundreds of studies and dozens of books have built on this foundation to create a science of prosocial behavior. Think of the new stories that could be told with this interpretation and the enthusiasm that viewers would have for these ideas as a result. It could make for exciting television.

References:

[1] College Enrollment Rates, The Condition of Education 2020, p. 1. URL: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_cpb.pdf

[2] UNESCO, Upper Secondary Completion Rate, URL: https://www.education-inequalities.org/indicators/comp_upsec_v2

[3] Kaia Hubbard, “Outside of Sleeping, Americans Spend Most of Their Time Watching Television,” U.S. News and World Report, July 22, 2021. URL: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2021-07-22/americans-spent-more-time-watching-television-during-covid-19-than-working; Global TV viewership data from Statistica Research Department, July 5, 2021.

[4] Janet Browne, “Darwinism in Popular Culture,” American Philosophical Society; Janet Browne, “Darwin in Caricature: A study in the popularisation and dissemination of evolution,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145(4): 496-509; Virginia Richter, Literature After Darwin: Human Beasts in Western Fiction 1859-1939, Palgrave, 2011; Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability, Cambridge University Press, 2007; Edward Caudill, Darwinism in the Press: The Evolution of an Idea, Routledge, 1989; Alvar Ellegård, Darwin and the General Reader: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-1872, University of Chicago Press, 1990; Barbara Creed, Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema, MUP Academic, 2009; Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottshall (eds.), Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, Columbia University Press, 2010.

Published On: September 26, 2021

Eric Michael Johnson

Eric Michael Johnson

Eric Michael Johnson is Managing Editor for This View of Life. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology focusing on primate behavioral ecology and received his Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of British Columbia. His dissertation, The Struggle for Coexistence (reviewed on TVOL here) focused on the debate between ‘Social’ Darwinism and ‘Socialist’ Darwinism in England, France, Germany, and Russia in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In addition to publishing original research in such places as the Journal of Human EvolutionAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology, and Slavic and East European Review he has written on evolutionary topics for general audiences at SlateTimes Higher EducationDiscoverWiredPsychology Today and many others (see his website for more). He is a longtime advocate of science communication online and has spoken at academic as well as social media conferences on how important it is for scientists to reach out to the public by engaging readers with a compelling narrative. He can be found on Twitter at @ericmjohnson.

One Comment

  • Steve Davis says:

    Nice work Eric, thank you.

    The misrepresentation of Darwin’s work began right from the start.

    It was Thomas Huxley’s sidelining of the vital role played by social influences in survival and hence evolution, that prompted Peter Kropotkin to publish a series of essays that were eventually produced in book form – his wonderful Mutual Aid, A Factor in Evolution.

    But using Darwin’s work in the service of the cult of individualism goes on, most notably in the widespread acceptance of the false assumptions that underpin inclusive fitness studies.

    I hope your dream of a change in the public consciousness becomes reality.

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