…selection, popularly known as “survival of the fittest.” Selection comes about through random and naturally occurring variation in the physical features of organisms and through the ongoing competition within and between species for limited supplies of food and space. Variations that tend to benefit an individual (or a species)…Read More
by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), survival of the fittest, in place of natural selection. This substitution, unfortunately, led to countless (and continuing) debates about whether the thesis of natural selection is a substantive claim about the real world or simply a tautology (a statement, such as “All bachelors are unmarried,”…Read More
…thesis of natural selection, or survival of the fittest, really claims, according to Darwinians, is not that the fittest always survive but that, on average, the more fit (or the fittest) are more successful in survival and reproduction than the less fit (or unfit). Another way of putting this is…Read More
…for existence, resulting in the survival of the fittest, so the world of knowledge and culture is directed by a similar process. Taking science as a paradigm of knowledge (now a nearly universal assumption among evolutionary epistemologists), he suggested that ideas and theories struggle against each other for adoption by…Read More
2 The Survival of the Fittest
2.2 Darwinism and Natural Selection
2.3 Social Darwinism
3 The Survival of the Fittest in Call of the Wild
3.2 Adaptation to the Environment
3.3 The Struggle for Existence
3.4 Buck as a Prototype of The Fittest
3.5 Social Darwinist Aspects
5 Works Cited
He must master or be mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness. Mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made for death. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, down out of the depths of Time, he obeyed.
— Jack London, The Call of the Wild
As the above quotation suggests, Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is a classic example of a literary work dealing with life in the wilderness, the struggle for existence, and the survival of the fittest. Indeed, ―the survival of the fittest rules all encounters" (Hiller 181) in the story. This realistic way of describing nature as dictated by Darwinian principles is certainly one of the reasons why the story seems so vivid. Another reason for the novel’s vividness is London’s technique of telling the story from the perspective of a dog named Buck, which gives the reader a deep insight into the harsh realities of nature.
The novel begins with the kidnapping of Buck from Judge Miller’s place in California. He is then sold to Canadian mail carriers by a dog seller and experiences the wilderness for the first time in his life when he travels to the Klondike. In the following months, Buck adjusts to his new life and even becomes the new leader of his team of dogs after having defeated his long-time rival Spitz. After his adventures in the Klondike, Buck is sold to inexperienced people that mistreat their sled dogs. Later, he is saved by a man called John Thornton before he would have drowned along with his masters and the rest of his team. In the following part of the book, Buck develops a deep affection for Thornton and the two of them experience many adventures together. When Thornton is killed by a group of Native Americans at the end of the story, Buck finally decides to follow the call of the wild and joins a pack of wolves.
In my paper, I will first provide a brief overview of Darwin’s theory of evolution and of social Darwinism, the underlying principles of Call of the Wild. Afterwards, I will examine the numerous Darwinist and social Darwinist aspects as they appear in the novel itself. This way, I want to help the reader understand why the survival of the fittest plays a major role in Call of the Wild. Moreover, I want to show what view of human society can be deduced from London’s depiction of life in the novel.
2 The Survival of the Fittest
The term survival of the fittest was coined by British philosopher Herbert Spencer to describe the concept of natural selection (Kershaw vii). Subsequently, Charles Darwin adopted the term as a synonym for natural selection in later editions of his famous work The Origin of Species since he considered it more appropriate (Darwin). To illustrate the meaning of natural selection as well as its consequences, I will first give an overview of the Darwinian definition of natural selection and then continue with a description of social Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s ideas to human society. Social Darwinism is not important to understand the principles of natural selection, but it plays an important role in Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Therefore, I decided to include it after the passage about Darwinism.
2.2 Darwinism and Natural Selection
In order to understand what Darwin refers to as natural selection or the survival of the fittest, it is necessary to describe the so-called struggle for existence1 first. According to Darwin, there is not only a struggle between plants and animals of the same species and of different species, but also a struggle of plants and animals to survive in their specific environment. The struggle between two or more organisms exists in places already inhabited by other plants or animals, while a plant in a very dry climate would experience the struggle for life against the harsh environmental conditions. The struggle for existence, however, is most severe between individuals and varieties of the same species as they are more similar in their constitution and habits. That is why the presence of one species may lead to the decrease or even extinction of another under certain conditions. Although the struggle between individuals of the same species is most severe, Darwin emphasizes the significant influence of climate on the process. Climate can reduce population sizes directly by making weaker individuals freeze to death or indirectly by reducing the amount of food. The most important aspect of the struggle for life, however, is its function to limit population sizes of plants and animals and thus prevent overpopulation (Darwin).
The struggle for existence is crucial to natural selection, but there are further elements that must be considered to fully understand how natural selection works. Since some individuals are more likely to survive in the struggle for life, there must be several variations within a species that are more useful for survival than others. Variations do not necessarily disappear after one generation, but are likely to be passed on to the offspring and thus continue to exist. This preservation of useful variations is the actual survival of the fittest in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturally, this leads to a continuous adjustment of species to their environmental conditions over time. In the course of this development of species, the differences can become great enough to produce new species as well as new genera (Darwin).
Darwin’s ideas of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest are at the heart of his theory of evolution, and are therefore the best known part of it. Nevertheless, Darwin did not invent the concept of evolution himself. Instead, he rather combined ideas that existed before and explained the origin of species in a natural way for the first time, challenging Creation as it was propagated by the church (Wilson 4-5).
2.3 Social Darwinism
After Darwin had published his theory of evolution, thinkers attempted to apply it to other fields outside of biology. The most ambitious among them was Herbert Spencer2, whose ideas soon became popular in the United States (Hofstadter 4-5). In his attempt to postulate a general law of evolution, Spencer applied the principles of evolution to society. This way of thinking, however, was not as revolutionary as it may sound. In fact, connections between social conditions and Darwinian theory had existed before since Darwin had been influenced by Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, an essay relying on the social data from the early industrial revolution (38). Spencer categorically rejected the idea that the state should support the poor, as that would have meant interfering in his theory of the natural progress of society. Instead, he wanted society to rid itself of these seemingly unfit elements in order to make room for better (41). Spencer and other social Darwinists were convinced that there could be no remedy for hardships and thus social reforms would be futile. Hence their way of thinking was essentially conservative, but it lacked the religious component common to conservative thought. Despite their rejection of social reforms, social Darwinists believed that the process of life would ultimately lead to improvement or even perfection (7).
The concept of social Darwinism was later used as a justification for laissez-faire capitalism as well as for imperialism. To economists, the idea of the strongest competitors prevailing over the weaker ones was not a new one. Using social Darwinism, however, this economic law of competition could even be defined as a natural law (6). Imperialists, on the other hand, defended their actions with Darwin’s theory that favored races would be preserved in the struggle for life. Although Darwin had talked about animals in The Origin of Species, they applied his writings to the human race and used it as an explanation for the enslavement of supposedly weaker races (170-171). Viewed from today’s perspective, social Darwinism can be seen as a dangerous misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, for it may even serve as a justification of the Holocaust and other genocides in history.
As I have shown in 2.2, the Darwinian theory of evolution essentially deals with the struggle for existence, a process influenced by factors such as environmental conditions and other organisms living in the same habitat. Secondly, Darwin emphasizes the meaning of variations, i.e. attributes that are passed on to the next generation if the organism is fit enough to reproduce. In 2.3, I have then given a short overview of social Darwinism, which is the application of Darwin’s ideas to human society. In short, this way of thinking led to the misuse of the theory of evolution in order to justify, for instance, social injustices or imperialism.
Both Darwinism and social Darwinism are important to grasp the full meaning of Call of the Wild although the novel is dominated by Darwinist aspects rather than social Darwinist ones. Nevertheless, social Darwinist aspects can be found as well due to Jack London’s fascination for Herbert Spencer’s works. Through Spencer, as London’s biographer Andrew Sinclair put it, ―Jack [London] came to understand that the laws of the universe and of nature must work themselves out, whatever individuals might do" (Sinclair 32). This underlines the great importance of social Darwinism to London’s thinking and writing, and it is the reason why I decided to add a passage about social Darwinism to this paper.
3 The Survival of the Fittest in Call of the Wild
In Jack London’s Call of the Wild, the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest are recurrent motifs. By telling the story of Buck’s development that follows his kidnapping, London shows how the dog gradually adapts to his new living conditions in the wilderness and what obstacles he has to overcome until he eventually joins a pack of wolves. For that reason, I have decided to divide this part of the paper into three sections that correspond to the different aspects of Buck’s adaptation to his entirely new life, namely his adaptation to the environment, the struggle for existence he faces several times, and finally his achievement of the highest degree of fitness in the Darwinian sense. After that, I will also examine the social Darwinist aspects of the novel. Given the fact that London was largely influenced by Herbert Spencer3, these cannot be ignored when analyzing the survival of the fittest in Call of the Wild.
3.2 Adaptation to the Environment
When Buck is kidnapped and sold to Canadian mail carriers as a sled dog, he initially does not know about life in nature because he was born at Judge Miller’s place and has lived ―the life of a sated aristocrat" ever since (London 3-4). This is the reason why he has serious problems when trying to sleep outside in the snow at first:
A chill wind was blowing that nipped him sharply and bit with especial venom into his wounded shoulder. He lay down on the snow and attempted to sleep, but the frost soon drove him shivering to his feet. Miserable and disconsolate, he wandered about among the many tents, only to find that one place was as cold as another (15).
In the above passage, London underlines Buck’s helplessness by making him lie down on the snow as he probably would have done in Judge Miller’s house at night. This is, however, not a good idea in the wilderness as it does not make Buck feel any warmer. Therefore, Buck soon decides to watch his teammates in order to learn from them how to handle the situation. On stumbling over another dog, he realizes that his teammates have dug holes to sleep in and imitates their behavior. Although he is able to keep himself warm in the hole using his body’s heat, he has a sudden feeling of being trapped, another sign for his slowly developing ability to live in nature (15-16). This new life obviously includes painful lessons.
After some days, Buck has already managed to adapt to the life of a sled dog, for he has developed ―muscles […] hard as iron", he can ―eat anything, no matter how loathsome or indigestible", and his senses have improved significantly (20). Considering Buck’s unsuccessful first attempts to cope with life in nature, this is a major improvement and a big step toward the way his ancestors used to live. This adaptation to life in the wilderness, however, does not have an entirely positive impact on Buck:
This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence (19).
As London shows in the excerpt above, Buck has to lose his moral values if he wants to fully adjust to changed environmental conditions. Judged by human standards, this would be an undesirable development. On the other hand, evolution, according to Darwin, is a brutal struggle for existence that can hardly be judged by human standards.4 The question then arises whether this impact on Buck can be considered negative since it is a consequence of the struggle for life and since Buck is not human.
In addition to his description of Buck’s adaptation to life in the wilderness, London shows the consequences of insufficient adaptation to the environment. When Buck is used as a sled dog by inexperienced owners and his owners run short of dog food, the results are dramatic:
It was a saying in the country that an Outside dog starves to death on the ration of the husky, so the six Outside dogs under Buck could do no less than die on half the ration of the husky. The Newfoundland went first, followed by the three short-haired pointers, the two mongrels hanging more grittily on to life, but going in the end (49).
This passage from Call of the Wild is marked by a sharp contrast between well-adjusted and unadjusted dogs struggling to withstand the harsh conditions with which they are confronted. The husky is presented as a prototype of a dog adapted to hard work and small rations of food, whereas the outside dogs seem unable to cope with the shortage of food. Therefore, this contrast can be seen as a metaphor for the contrast between nature and culture since the outside dogs, unlike the husky, were domesticated by man. Furthermore, London uses this example to emphasize that human culture is of little or no use in the Darwinian struggle for life.5 Individuals can only be successful in this struggle if they possess the qualities required for survival in their specific environment like Buck does.
3.3 The Struggle for Existence
The above-mentioned necessity of adaptation to environmental conditions inevitably creates a struggle for existence. Buck frequently encounters this struggle throughout the novel, and the frequency of these encounters increases with his level of adjustment to life in the wilderness.
At the beginning, he experiences the struggle for life solely as a process that punishes the individual for making mistakes:
Once, during a brief halt, when he got tangled in the traces and delayed the start, both Dave and Sol-leks flew at him and administered a sound trouncing. The resulting tangle was even worse, but Buck took good care to keep the traces clear thereafter; and ere the day was done, so well had he mastered his work, his mates about ceased nagging him (London 17-18).
In this scene from the novel, Buck has trouble growing accustomed to the rules of his team of sled dogs. For that reason, he is punished by two other dogs and subsequently works hard to improve. Having learned his lesson, he is not attacked by the other dogs on the team anymore. This is already a first hint as to how nature punishes mistakes in the omnipresent struggle for existence. Since Buck has not committed a serious error here, his punishment is not as severe as the punishment described in other parts of the novel. A good example for a cruel punishment can be found earlier in the story when London mentions Buck’s attack on a dog seller after his kidnapping:
With a snarl that was part bark and more scream he was again on his feet and launched into the air. And again the shock came and he was brought crushingly to the ground. This time he was aware that it was the club, but his madness knew no caution. A dozen times he charged, and as often the club broke the charge and smashed him down (9).
By mentioning Buck’s numerous unsuccessful attempts to hurt the dog seller, London emphasizes the futility of the dog’s behavior in this situation. Normally, Buck would be able to fight a man, but he has never faced a man with a bat before. Therefore, he soon learns that ―a man with a club [is] a lawgiver" (10). This lesson not only clarifies that mistakes or wrong behavior are instantly punished in the struggle for existence, but also that violence alone is insufficient to prevail in a fight.
The struggle for life in nature is even more vividly depicted in the novel when London describes the attack of several huskies on the camp where Buck and his team plan to stay overnight:
They were mere skeletons, draped loosely in draggled hides, with blazing eyes and slavered fangs. But the hunger madness made them terrifying, irresistible. There was no opposing them. The team dogs were swept back against the cliff at the first onset. Buck was beset by three huskies, and in a trice his head and shoulders were ripped and slashed (23).
Here, hunger is described as the driving force behind the huskies’ attack on the camp as well as the source of their madness. In order to survive, the emaciated dogs have no other choice than to steal the food from the camp and this is what makes them even stronger. Like before, London uses the husky as a prototype of a perfectly adapted dog in this scene and contrasts its high efficiency with the powerlessness of the sled dogs. Although these dogs, including Buck, seem well-adjusted to their environmental conditions, the huskies prevail in the fight.
1 Like Darwin, I use the terms struggle for existence and struggle for life synonymously throughout this paper.
2 See 2.1.
3 See 2.4.
4 See 2.2 for more information on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
5 Aspects of this struggle in the novel will be analyzed in 3.3.