Darwinism in a Post-Apocalyptic World

Subject: Science
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2143
Topics: Ecology, Biology, Disease, Health

The responses to an Oxford study exploring how the British public thinks the world will end were intriguing. The respondents indicated that the following events would lead to an apocalypse: nuclear war (37 percent), climate change (13 percent), artificial intelligence (1-10 percent), unspecified cause (8 percent), and worldwide revolution (5 percent) (Drezner). Some of these answers indicate that an overreliance on technology would be the ultimate demise of humanity. What many fail to realize is that human beings have lived for thousands of years without modern technology, and it only recently has they become reliant on it. 

If modern society collapses, technology will cease to be useful, and those remaining must survive the challenges of the natural elements and each other. Thus, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection will come into effect. Howerth defines “fittest,” as “the best adapted to the prevailing conditions.” Thus, people who have certain traits are more capable of surviving than others. This essay will explore the morality of survival in nature, and attempt to answer the following question. In a post-apocalyptic world, should the “fittest” leave the “unfit” to avoid hindering their survival? 

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Human beings are fragile creatures. Nonetheless, what they lack in brute force they compensate in adaptability and resourcefulness. Through cooperation and culture, they have built mass civilizations and have worked their way to the top of the food chain. Experts such as Rick Potts (director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History) believe that human success can be attributed to their cranial capacity (Massey). In an article for Scientific American, Massey quotes Potts who stated that, “our brains are essentially social […] We share information, we create and pass on knowledge. That’s [how] humans can adjust to new situations, and it’s what differentiates humans from our earlier ancestors, and our earlier ancestors from primates” (Massey). In modern society, people have control over most aspects of their lies lives. However, the natural world does not apply to the phenomena of the conscious agency of man in modifying the process of natural selection. 

The world does not wait for those who need to adjust to new environments. This statement means that it does not aid those who are unfit. People have to learn to survive in conditions that they cannot influence. A study by the University of Exeter examined the survival rates of domesticated carnivorous animals that had been released from captivity. The results showed that only thirty-three percent of the animals survived when they were set free. The research also indicates that most of the deaths occurred due to starvation, diseases, and lack of general survival skills compared to their wild-bred counterparts (Owen). 

The most concerning issue for the scientists at Exeter University was the animals’ lack of hunting skills. “Animals in captivity do not usually have the natural behaviors needed for success in the wild,” (Jule). Logically, this statement will hold true for humans as they have become adapted to living indoors where they are sheltered from the elements. How people live now is so far from how their ancestors lived. Thus, their innate survival instincts have been heavily repressed to maintain order and justify communities. When Homo Sapiens built communities and started agriculture, they no longer needed many of the survival skills they gained from thousands of years as nomads.

Humans have become too reliant on technology. People use technology for everything: navigating, communicating, researching, and learning. Contemporary human life is very dependent upon electronics and mass failure of such devices would be catastrophic. Kiger writes that people are unprepared for any event that would result in large-scale electrical outages. A position paper by Bruch et al. states that extended interruptions to the power supply would cause significant damage to economies and societies (3). Recovery would be significantly hampered because making survival tools like computer chips which require specialized tools will be complicated. As computers become more integral in society, the dependence is set to rise. 

Societal advancements can have detrimental effects in post-apocalyptic situations. One difference between nature and human society is that “nature favors the fit while the opposite is true in society.” (Howerth). In modern culture, survivability is judged upon one’s mental strength and resilience to stressors at a “normal,” level (normal is defined as typical, everyday routine). This adaptability is not difficult to attain considering American society has taken significant steps in involving those who do not conform to what is viewed as normal. In nature, if an animal is born with a significant defect, it is usually abandoned by its parent/group because the weak one would hinder the group’s survivability. Human society encourages the accommodation of a wide variety of severe disabilities. However, these accommodations are an extreme hindrance when survivability relies on physical strength and endurance. Thus, forcing the question: what limitations should be acceptable and adaptable? 

How to treat persons with disability in society is sometimes a controversial issue. Some people suggest euthanasia be used on disabled individuals. Such an approach would be designed to enhance the human gene pool. For instance, in 1907, the state of Indiana implemented a forced sterilization program for disabled persons. This policy spread to other states but was eventually condemned and repealed in 1972 due to ethical questions. Others reject the idea of euthanasia for the “unfit” entirely (Stumbo). This is an interesting debate because individuals already judge others based on unfavorable traits, even if they are non-life-threatening. 

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Some disabilities are impossible to accommodate without extensive resources, which will be scarce in post-apocalyptic periods. However, disabled individuals have innate gifts that are hard to attain. Disabilities often give the individual a different outlook on life, one of gratitude for their lives and the people around them. This perception of living can prove an advantage for them. Developmentally disabled individuals may not have the capacity to survive in on their own. Yet, they offer humanity a precious gift of compassion that otherwise would have otherwise been lost in the chaos of the natural world. “People with disabilities contribute by [showing] us what matters in life, what it means to be human [and] loved and accepted, simply for being,” (Stumbo). 

Developmental delays are frequent, but not enough to overshadow non-developmental disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and even Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Blindness does not limit one’s ability to adapt to day to day society. In fact, it has been shown by various blind individuals. For instance, Erik Weihenmayer proved the capacity to change by successfully climbing Mount Everest in 2001. The same outcome with deafness is also possible if the individual can compensate with other senses. 

In many societies outside of the United States, the elderly are some of the most respected groups. Different cultures place more value on their quality of life as well. Further, in many societies, the elderly hold the highest authority due to their wisdom. In traditional cultures, they have many valuable roles such as assisting in food gathering, babysitting young children, and crafting items (Diamond). Lillie addresses the importance of the elderly: 

Some skills increase with age, like understanding of people and human relationships, the ability to help others without ego, and understanding and making connections between large, interdisciplinary data sets. That makes them better at supervising, administrating, advising, [as well as] medicine, religion, and politics. (Lillie). 

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The extensive experience of the elderly often makes them experts at certain skills, such as making tools, weapons, baskets, and clothes. However, some will argue that the elderly are a burden to society because they experience a deterioration in cognitive and physical abilities. Some indigenous cultures report sacrificing their elderly during “unrelenting travels […and…] periods of famine,” (Lin). In modern settings, such suggestions would be met with shock and awe. Diamond poses the important question: “what else could they do?” This is a tough decision to make for societies regardless of culture because the alternative involves carrying the elderly on their backs along with children and necessities. Nonetheless, such measures are used as a last resort for groups that are traveling through extreme environments like the artic or desert, and those circumstances would influence their ultimate decision (Diamond). 

Notably, post-apocalyptic scenarios that would result in the decimation of the human population would affect any future chances of survival by limiting the gene pool. The minimum viable population would need to comprise of at least 500 people. Such a number would limit the potential risks that would arise from genetic defects. 

Among animals, the parents and the group in which a youngling is born, are responsible for teaching their young how to survive. In American culture, parents tend to shield their children from unnecessary hardship and instability. While this philosophy of child-rearing creates a safe and nurturing environment that is suitable for modern society, it contradicts nature. Nature does not consider cooperating with others outside of their group, share resources, or even moral standards. These social constructs are domestic and create docile environments, which is detrimental to survivability. 

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Additionally, in post-apocalyptic situations, there will be a huge demand for health resources such as personnel, medicines, and sanitary conditions. Using third-world nomadic societies as insight into lack of immediate, sanitized, and educated medical staff and materials, experts found the “nomadic communities are generally characterized by poor reproductive health outcomes,” (Van der Kwaak et al.). Such scenarios would make medical personnel precious resources, as well as condemn many to death due to a lack of medical supplies. Notably, research by Campbell et al., on the overdependence of technology by clinicians shows that many of them cannot work efficiently if they do not have access to their computers. Thus, even when medical personnel will be available, they will not be as effective as they are in the modern day. In this instance, natural selection must take its course. As stated in Scientific Monthly: “natural selection is a process, while survival of the fittest is a result,” (Howerth).    

Furthermore, recent dietary trends place human survival at risk. Humans are omnivores and meat is still an essential part of their diet. Nowadays, vegetarianism has become, and food is reared in farms. People no longer have to source for their food in the wild. They go to supermarkets. Hunting and gathering are no longer viable ways of getting energy and nutrition. Hence, in a post-apocalyptic situation, humans will need to re-adapt to the natural world by using methods that their ancestors used to survive.  

Conclusively, if the world as humans know it was to collapse, it would do so in entropy. Without all the resources that are currently available, humanity would have to battle the natural elements and dangers. There will be massive chaos, followed by extensive depopulation. The few who survive will need to consider each option carefully, as it may be their last. “Unfit” individuals would be a hindrance to those who are capable and able to adapt unless humanity is at a stage where they can accommodate persons with disabilities without risking the entire population. Those who will adapt will be able to survive and build a new society, and they will need to learn from history’s mistakes.

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  1. Bruch, Michael et al. Power Blackout Risks- Risk Management Options. CRO Forum, 2011, pp. 2-5. 
  2. Campbell, Emily M. et al. “Overdependence on Technology: An Unintended Adverse Consequence of Computerized Provider Order Entry .” AMIA Annual Symposium Proceedings, vol. 2007, 2007, pp. 94–98.
  3. Diamond, Jared. “Why Do Societies Collapse?: TED Talk 2003” TED, uploaded Feb. 2003. 
  4. Drezner, Daniel. “Do experts and the public think differently about the apocalypse?” The Washington Post, 13 March, 2015.
  5. Harmon, Luke J., and Braude, Stanton. “Conservation of Small Populations: Effective Population Sizes, Inbreeding, and the 50/500 Rule” An Introduction to Methods and Models of Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009, pp. 125-138.
  6. Howerth, I. W. “Natural Selection and the Survival of the Fittest.” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 5, no. 3, 1917, pp. 253–257. 
  7. Kiger, Patrick. “’American Blackout’: Four Major Real-Life Threats to the Electric Grid.” National Geographic, 25 Oct. 2013.
  8. Lillie, Ben. “How Societies Grow Old: Jared Diamond at TED2003.” TED Blog, 1 Mar. 2013. 
  9. Lin, Judy. “Honor or Abandon: Societies’ Treatment of Elderly Intrigues Scholar.” Faculty + Staff. 7 Jan 2010. 
  10. Massey, Nathanael. “Humans May Be the Most Adaptive Species.” Scientific American. 25 Sept. 2013. 
  11. Philo, Jolene. “Can Those with Disabilities Contribute to Society?” Different Dream Living, 29 Apr. 2013. 
  12. Stumbo, Ellen. “Are People with Disabilities Contributing Members of Society?” asks Ellen Stumbo.” Meriah Nichols. 
  13. University of Exeter. “Captive carnivores not up to wild living.” Eurek Alert. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 20 Jan, 2008.
  14. Van de Kwaak, Anke; Baltissen Gerard; Nduba, John; Beek, Woutine; Ferris, Kristina; and Plummer, David. “Sexual and Reproductive Health of Nomadic Peoples of East Africa.” Understanding Nomadic Realities. Klt Publishers, 2012. pp. 11-19.
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