Survival of the fittest is an adage that has long been planted in our psyches. The phrase emerged as a terse summary of Charles Darwin’s findings that the strongest and fittest of a species have the best chance of passing their genes on to the next generation. The strong survive, and the weak succumb.
Recent research into the genealogy of dogs suggest a very different evolutionary trajectory: survival of the friendliest. It is well known that dogs evolved from wolves. It turns out that as early humans located their living spaces near packs of wolves, the wolves that sought to coexist with their two-legged neighbors survived longer — and better, than the wolves who remained hostile and distant. As wolves evolved into a canine species, a willingness to cooperate — to the point of friendliness, became an advantage, if not a virtue, for their survival and growth. And so we end up with another adage that is as deeply planted in our psyches: dogs are man’s (human’s) best friend.
These days, it seems that in every direction we look, we see the world as anything but a friendly place. Russia invades Ukraine, crime seems to go up, suicide is increasing, bullying and self-centeredeness appear to pay more dividends than cooperation and compassion. And some dogs are bred and trained to be aggressive and mean. Author and educator Parker Palmer has written that, by definition, community always contains someone you least want to have in community. And the corollary is — when that person leaves, there is always someon to take their place
Palmer’s statement is a helpful description, in that there is no such thing as a perfect community. Community will always have people in it who make life difficult. Who are unfriendly. Accepting that reality goes a long way in learning to coexist and cooperate. But there is a tendency to take Parker’s definition as a judgment, which can result in at least two outcomes: the perception that communities are always corrupt, if not cruel — and in order to survive one should remain hostile, definsive and distant.
A lot of attention is being given these days to the failure of Silicon Valley Bank. It is reported that the guardrails that were put in place after the Great Recession of 2008 were deemed to be too onerous, expensive and unfriendly to the ongoing evolution of the bank. The bank’s leadership pressed for the removal of those guardrails so the bank could maximize its profits. All of which happened. To my mind, the bank was saying, “we don’t belong to the larger community. It is too restrictive, too difficult. We make our own rules and follow our own procedures. We will remain the fittest.” Which worked for them for awhile, but when interest rates rose and the financial landscape changed, Silicon Valley Bank succumbed.
Communities — be they civic, religious, business, or political, need to be mindful and alert to the networks and people who are unfriendly, unfair and unlawful. Regulations and norms need to be established. And followed — for the skae of the larger community.
That all needs to happen, but that’s not where we should start. We can learn from our best friends: friendliness, openness, hospitality and compassion are the characteristics that move us forward, and enable us to survive — and thrive. That friendliness may be hard to hold onto at times, but the flourishing of the world — and our own lives, need us to keep at it.