From Past to Present

Variation, a precious lesson. Why we need to keep in mind the origin and meaning of to vet, to fit and “survival of the fittest”

  • L. Devriese


The expression survival of the fittest most often has a misleading connotation in contemporary ears and minds not familiar with genetics and the scientific basis of breeding. Among live organisms, heritable variation is a prerequisite for survival of a species in changing conditions of life. Variants fitting best into new conditions survive and will have the greatest chances to reproduce themselves. This is the meaning of fit in the well-known expression ‘survival of the fittest’, coined by Herbert Spencer on Darwin’s idea of ‘natural selection’. In order to understand this, a short linguistic description is given, starting with to vet, meaning ‘to examine thoroughly’, a relatively recent expression (19th century), which at first sight seems to originate from the examinations done by veterinarians (vets) on racing horses, before they are allotted to certain categories in the races. Nowadays the term is especially used in the context of checking persons applying for jobs, business takeover bids and similar situations involving a certain degree of trustworthiness. To fit has a much older pedigree. The earliest attestations are found in mediaeval texts relating military or fighting episodes in which the adversaries are considered to be of equal power. This survived later on in horse racing competitions and gradually acquired the sense of fitting one thing into another, or to fit into a category. For living organisms, to fit into prevailing conditions of life is of utmost importance. It was only in the previous century that the meaning of fit changed into healthy and strong, possibly also influenced by the use of this term in racing competitions.

How to Cite:

Devriese, L., (2018) “Variation, a precious lesson. Why we need to keep in mind the origin and meaning of to vet, to fit and “survival of the fittest””, Vlaams Diergeneeskundig Tijdschrift 87(5), 297-299. doi:

Download PDF
View PDF



Published on
30 Oct 2018
Peer Reviewed