Op-Ed: Time to Ditch Natural Selection?
CEH Editor questions whether 156 years of natural selection theory has produced anything of scientific, philosophical, or cultural value.
Ask any college-educated adult what Darwin was famous for, and it will probably be this: he came up with a mechanism to explain evolutionary change, called natural selection. This theme has been drummed into our heads all through school. Darwin supporters like Richard Dawkins call natural selection the most elegant theory in the history of science. Charles Darwin found a mechanism, supposedly like a machine or natural law, to explain the trendy Victorian ideas of inevitable progress and universal common descent. It appeared that Darwin, unlike predecessors like Robert Chambers, had sanctified evolution as a testable scientific theory. Natural selection, we are taught, automatically sifts through natural variations and produces higher fitness, without any need for intelligent guidance. It’s right in the title of his book, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. The myth of natural selection, we shall see, is a facade hiding emptiness. It’s time to get rid of it.
But wait, some creationists will argue. Natural selection is real; it just doesn’t produce new information. It’s a filter that allows existing information to adapt to new environments. Some will point to early scientists or philosophers like Edward Blyth or even William Paley who articulated a similar conserving principle. We should keep the term, they say; just don’t use it to teach that organisms can develop new genetic information, like an eye or a wing. NS shouldn’t be blamed just because Darwin corrupted it. Having read the defenses of NS by good friends and knowledgeable scientists who want to preserve it as a useful half-truth, I’m still going to urge all us all to junk the term on the grounds that it does more harm than good. Here are a dozen reasons.
Pre-Empting Comeback Arguments
Let’s briefly address the alleged evidence for its operation as a conservative principle. I’ve seen the slides at creation presentations. A common example is the long-haired puppies of medium-haired dogs moving to Alaska that survive over short-haired siblings, because they are naturally selected for the cold. Another is the plant that grows longer roots to reach the water table. At one level, these illustrations are intuitively obvious. I used to use such examples myself. But as you read this catalog of flaws with NS, I hope to show that the problems outweigh any explanatory value these examples seem to provide.
Natural Selection Is Not a Law
If NS were a law of nature, we would see every organism trending along the same trajectory: for instance, bearing more offspring. But NS explains opposite outcomes with equal ease (see Oct 1 entry for examples). It explains why the sloth is slow and the cheetah is fast. It explains why the roundworm is round and the flatworm is flat. It explains why some animals bear lots of young and why some bear few. We are led to believe that NS explains up, down, in, out and sideways by some mysterious, aimless force, and whatever results was caused by NS. For some time now, I have been calling NS the “Stuff Happens Law” because NS is simply a restatement of the phrase, “stuff happens.” The Stuff Happens Law is the polar opposite of scientific explanation. NS, therefore, is a charade, amounting to giving up and saying, “We don’t know; que sera, sera.”
Natural Selection Is a Post-Hoc Rationalization, Not a Cause
Nothing is caused by natural selection. No evolutionist predicts natural selection. They never say (or can say) that “Given these boundary conditions, Gene X will mutate at the 152nd base, and this new adaptive function will result and overtake the competition.” Maybe under extremely well-controlled lab conditions with microbes they come close to this, but never in the wild. It’s always after-the-fact rationalization. The way evolutionists use the term is the same way they accuse creationists of answering everything with “God did it.” Their habit is “natural selection did it.” It’s a catch-all generality of the same sort as the “demon of alcohol” that got ahold of the drunk, or the “demon of forgetfulness” that made the husband forget the anniversary. NS is the evolutionist’s universal demon – a useful placeholder for ignorance on which all credit or blame can be placed.
Natural Selection Is Subjective
Today’s selection theory seems very precise and mathematical. In journal papers, you can find neo-Darwinians measuring coefficients of selection and using them in differential equations. They speak of positive selection, negative selection, balancing selection, purifying selection, and epigenetic selection. In my experience, this is all hand-waving. It is jargon masquerading as science. Evolutionists assume that anything that is conserved has been selected, whether or not they know what it does for the organism. But anything not conserved has also been selected, they say. If everything is selected; nothing is selected; it’s the old Dodo bird verdict from Malice in Blunderland: “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Trying to dress this theory up with numbers is like saying 0.55 whatevers * 1.708 happenstances = progress in an unspecified direction, at least until the wind changes.
NS is also subjective because evolutionists cannot agree on the target of selection. Is it the family, as the kin selectionists argue? Is it the population? Is it the morphology of the whole animal, or just a trait? Is it the gene? Is it a protein fold? a tissue? a cell type? an organ? Is it all of the above, more, or something else? Evolutionists have been debating these issues since Darwin and are still at loggerheads. The bigger the target of selection, the less it’s meaningful. It’s like hitting the broad side of a barn and calling yourself a marksman.
Natural Selection Is Vacuous
Selection implies a choice of this or that, to the exclusion of all else. One might find choices in physics made mindlessly, like osmosis, but natural selection is different; it claims to climb Mt. Improbable against the other well-established laws of physics, especially the Second Law of Thermodynamics, like a mindless Maxwell Demon—only this demon doesn’t know or care about the difference between hot and cold. It also pretends to explain everything in natural history, including opposite outcomes: extinction as well as survival, explosive radiation as well as stasis, convergence as well as divergence, the specialized feeder as well as the omnivore, the loner and the herder. A theory that explains everything explains nothing. One might as well substitute a nonsense word for NS: “On the origin of species by means of gribbleflix.” One can hear Dawkins now, extolling the elegance of such a theory!
Nature Selection Is an Oxymoron
If it’s natural, it’s not selection. If it’s selection, it’s not natural. Selection implies intelligent design, the very thing Darwin tried to get away from. The phrase is self-contradictory. One might as well speak of natural voting.
Natural Selection Is a Personification….
Selection implies a selector. Darwin extended artificial selection into natural selection, drawing faulty analogies between what a farmer does in breeding his animals to what nature does over eons of time. He envisioned NS as an invisible agent (a fairy? a ghost?), as shown in his notorious quote,
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.
This view of the world borders on pantheism or animism. Darwinians cannot be acquitted with quotes about what they “mean” by NS. You have to watch how they actually use it. Pantheism is a frequent subtext in their writings, as if nature is an entrepreneurial spirit, wanting to expand and fill every available niche. NS is their “tinkerer” and their “blind watchmaker” even while they insist they are materialists. When pressed, they may try to sanitize the term as “differential reproduction,” but that term is not helpful to them; it fails to factor in adaptation, because there is no guarantee that the “fittest” organism (whatever that implies) will reproduce more, or suffer some decompensatory epistatic pleiotropy that reduces its fitness in other ways. “Differential reproduction,” therefore, also reduces to “stuff happens.”
Darwin never really liked the phrase natural selection. He was painfully aware of its inherent personification – so much so that he began to favor Spencer’s catchy phrase “survival of the fittest” as more descriptive of what he meant.
….But Survival of the Fittest Is a Tautology
But Spencer’s phrase was worse. How are the fittest determined, except by survival? And how can they survive unless they are the fittest? It reduces NS to a tautology, saying that survivors survive. Some creationists argue the tautology objection is weak, but I am not convinced. Selection theory must be evaluated by how it is used, not how it is supposed to work in theory. Anytime fitness is defined in terms of survival, the tautology objection raises its head. Fitness is not like bodybuilders at the gym; it’s whatever works to produce viable offspring (“stuff happens”). The couch potato is the fittest if he gets the girl. Darwinians imagine fitness in both the blackness of the raven and the shimmering colors of the peacock; this is why it’s misleading to point to some intuitively-obvious scenario of adaptation and wave NS as the “law” that explains it. Watch Darwinians use “fitness” in their journal papers, both theoretical and experimental, and you will catch them repeatedly defining it in terms of numbers of offspring, and then using number of offspring as proof of fitness. “Survival of the fittest” is therefore a tautology, and if Darwin himself equated Survival of the Fittest to Natural Selection, the tautology label sticks for NS, too. No less an influential thinker than Phillip Johnson saw through this (Darwin on Trial, ch. 2, 95-96, 160).
Natural Selection Is Self-Refuting
This objection is not a problem for creationists who might grant a limited role to NS. But for Darwin and modern secular materialists, everything in the living world is ultimately a product of NS. By logical necessity, then, this means their own brains, conscious minds and personal choices are the result of blind, unguided processes over which they have no control: because the moment they let rational choice enter, then NS no longer explains everything. Consequently, NS commits intellectual suicide. They might as well say that blind, unguided, irrational processes caused their brains to write a paper arguing that natural selection is blind and unguided. The late William Provine was an honest evolutionist who realized that Darwinian theory makes it impossible to believe in free will. And you better believe he used his free will to teach that principle to his students, with passion.* (see update below)
No idea can survive self-refutation. This single objection should relegate NS to the dustbin of history. Why on earth would anyone want to pull this already-refuted theory out of the dustbin and say it has some value?
Natural Selection Is a Shell Game with Shifting Definitions
One of the most instructive (and amusing) parts of Walter ReMine’s classic book The Biotic Message was his demonstration that “fitness” (the assumed outcome of NS) is not really a single concept, but rather a collection of four definitions (tautological fitness, special fitness, metaphysical fitness, or lame fitness). As a former magician, ReMine knows how misdirection can fool an audience. He quoted evolutionists, showing how they shift the definition of fitness—sometimes within the same sentence—to create an illusion of understanding. So if you want to defend NS, which one? The tautological one, the special one, the metaphysical one, or the lame one? Whether or not you accept ReMine’s categories, you have to specify which shell has the nut under it. Whoops; the evolutionist just switched it on you.
Natural Selection Is Unguided
Phillip Johnson understood the core idea of NS, and that is this: it is unguided. Whatever one might want to say about NS in its defense, at its core, it offers no direction, no goal, no purpose, no plan, and no ultimate meaning. For this reason, it is indistinguishable from genetic drift. Both are like Brownian motion on a frictionless surface without gridlines. Wright’s “fitness landscape” model cannot help, because the peaks and valleys on the landscape also fluctuate aimlessly in this blind, purposeless view of the world. The upshot is this: the environment is random, variability is random, and NS cannot provide any directionality to the scenario, being blind and aimless itself. So what do you get when run blind processes on random circumstances? Stuff happens!
By contrast, creationists believe in the providence of God. They might have vigorous discussions about primary and secondary causation. They might speak of pre-designed flexibility and robustness for surviving changing environments. They might cogitate on whether genetic drift and genetic entropy represent effects of the curse. But why use darkness when we have light? Let’s feast on the Creator’s smorgasbord rather than snacking on crud from Darwin’s table.
Natural Selection Has Nothing to Offer Science, Philosophy or Theology
At this point, it should be apparent that NS theory is so convoluted, so imprecise, so vacuous, as to easily qualify for the worst theory in the history of science because it duped so many people for so long. Countering that NS is real is no more satisfying than saying “Stuff Happens” is real. What does such an empty concept have to offer anyone of learning? Should a scientist be satisfied with appeals to the Stuff Happens Law? How can it hold up logically to the philosopher? And why on earth would any theologian think it has merit in a created world?
Natural Selection Is Loaded with Unsavory Baggage
Natural selection is not morally neutral. It has been used for the most evil crimes and genocides in world history. Much as Darwinians would wish to distance themselves from “Social Darwinism,” its advocates—and the promoters of eugenics (beginning with Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton)—all understood NS and “survival of the fittest” as providing scientific justification for their views. NS became the “law of the jungle” that rationalized nature red in tooth and claw, the elimination of imbeciles and defectives, and the breeding of a super-race. Why on earth would any moral person, let alone a Christian or Jew, wish to associate with a concept that has been implicated in the deaths of 164 million people?
Natural Selection Plays into the Hands of the Enemy
Letting your opponent frame the terminology in a debate is bad strategy. It would be like defending the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” when arguing against abortion, or “marriage equality” when arguing against homosexual unions. I maintain that granting any validity to the phrase “natural selection” is like that. The phrase is so inextricably linked to Charles Darwin and his world view, it cannot be sanctified by any attempt at redefining it to mean something else. It is what it is, and it means what it means.
It’s time to ditch ‘natural selection’. The phrase has nothing good to offer science, philosophy, or theology. It is a subjective, vacuous, self-refuting concept loaded with unsavory baggage. Creationists should attack it, not defend it. It’s improper to apply it where it was never intended. If one wishes to explain adaptation of long-haired dogs to cold climates, new terms and concepts should be used, not the tainted language of “natural selection.” That’s Darwin’s deadly legacy. Let the dead bury their dead.
David Coppedge, Editor, Creation-Evolution Headlines
*Update 10/04/15: Casey Luskin confirms with two influential ID leaders that natural selection is a tautological non-explanation, and that the late staunch Darwin professor Will Provine (Cornell), 1942-2015, understood the problem to the point of modifying his views about it. Hear Luskin’s interviews with Phillip Johnson (ID the Future) and and Paul Nelson (ID the Future), where Nelson describes how Provine in 1990 believed that the apparent design in nature was explainable by natural selection, but then reversed his view by 2001. Here’s the applicable quote, reprinted by Dr. Arthur Chadwick:
Having natural selection select is nifty because it excuses the necessity of talking about the actual causation of natural selection. Such talk was excusable for Charles Darwin, but inexcusable for evolutionists now. Creationists have discovered our empty “natural selection” language, and the “actions” of natural selection make huge, vulnerable targets.[p.200]” Will Provine. The Origin of Theoretical Population Genetics (University of Chicago Press, 1971), reissued in 2001.
Update 01/03/16: Here are some quotes by scientists and scholars from our quote database and from previous CEH articles to support my contention that natural selection theory is vacuous, tautological, subjective, useless, and evil. Look for anything that is scientifically solid in these confessions, made primarily by true believers in neo-Darwinism.
“Practicing biologists may be surprised that there is still debate about what kind of a force, principle or process ‘natural selection’ actually is, on what sort of entities it might act and the meaning of ‘fitness’. We readily invoke, but often cannot easily explicate, these concepts.” — W. Ford Doolittle, Current Biology, January 2015.
Q. Many biologists define life as anything that undergoes Darwinian evolution.
A. We pretend that makes sense, but if you look it makes no sense at all. What is the unit of Darwinian evolution? Is it the gene? Is it the cell? Is it a multicellular organism? Is a city evolving? How about Gaia? Is that a life form? — Charles Lineweaver, New Scientist May 16, 2012.
“These invocations of evolution also highlight another common misuse of evolutionary ideas: namely, the idea that some trait must have evolved merely because we can imagine a scenario under which possession of that trait would have been advantageous to fitness. Unfortunately, biologists as well as philosophers have all too often been guilty of this sort of invalid inference. Such forays into evolutionary explanation amount ultimately to storytelling rather than to hypothesis-testing in the scientific sense. For a complete evolutionary account of a phenomenon, it is not enough to construct a story about how the trait might have evolved in response to a given selection pressure; rather, one must provide some sort of evidence that it really did so evolve. This is a very tall order, especially when we are dealing with human mental or behavioral traits, the genetic basis of which we are far from understanding.” — Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis, fall 2012.
“We have already seen that distinguished scientists have accepted uncritically the questionable analogy between natural and artificial selection, and that they have often been undisturbed by the fallacies of the “tautology” and “deductive logic” formulations [see Ch. 2]. Such illogic survived and reproduced itself for the same reason that an apparently incompetent species sometimes avoids extinction; there was no effective competition in its ecological niche.” — Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (1991), pp. 28-29.
“The struggle for life and elimination of the weakest is a horrible process, against which our whole modern ethics revolts. An ideal society is a non-selective society, one where the weak is protected; which is exactly the reverse of the so-called natural law. I am surprised that a Christian would defend the idea that this is the process which God, more or less, set up in order to have evolution.” — Jacques Monod, 1976
“Kamberov and colleagues’ study is an exceptional example of experimental genetics, but does it provide, as the authors suggest, a general framework for assessing candidate adaptive mutations? Genetically altered mice are a powerful experimental tool, but the extent to which recent positive selection in humans acts on pathways and amino-acid residues that have been conserved across mammalian evolution is uncertain. More importantly, it is often not clear how to investigate positively selected genomic regions for which the target gene, let alone its action, is unknown. And so a major challenge for population genomics remains the construction of meaningful null hypotheses. As Charles Darwin, the best known evolutionary biologist, once said, ‘It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance’.” — Nature (see 4/09/13 entry)
“Contrary to a widespread impression, natural selection does not leave any unambiguous ‘signature’ on the genome, certainly not one that is still detectable after tens or hundreds of millions of years. To biologists schooled in Neo-Darwinian thought processes, it is virtually axiomatic that any adaptive change must have been fixed as a result of natural selection. But it is important to remember that reality can be more complicated than simplistic textbook scenarios.” — Austin L. Hughes, evolutionary biologist from the University of South Carolina, in PNAS, quoted in our 9/08/08 entry, “How Not To Prove Positive Selection.”
“‘A lot of what we know about selection is very crude,’ Schluter says. ‘When we start to do experiments we are surprised to find stuff happening that we didn’t anticipate.’” — quoted by Elizabeth Pennisi in Science Magazine, from our 7/16/13 entry, “Evolution as Stretchy Glue.” [subjectivity, imprecision, Stuff Happens Law]
“In an era when natural philosophers were consciously coming to rely on idioms of prediction, experiment, demonstration, and discovery, when accredited truths of nature were established by seeing and believing, Darwin’s approach was doubly unusual. He was inviting people to believe in a world run by irregular, unpredictable contingencies, as well as asking them to accept his solution for the simple reason that it seemed to work.” — Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 56.
“The theory that traditionalists use leads them anywhere they want to go,” he complained. “To make [a theory] really stand [up], you have to show that that’s the only result that can come from your theory, and they haven’t done that.” — E. O. Wilson criticizing kin selection theory, which he formerly espoused; from an article “Evolutionary Biology: Agreeing to Disagree” by Elizabeth Pennisi in a special issue of Science Magazine on Darwinism, exploring the standoff between evolutionists over the target of selection. See our 2/09/09 entry, “Is Ignorance Evidence?” See more about this ongoing and nasty fight about the target of selection in our 3/25/11 entry, bullet item #3, where the name-calling gets intense.
“Natural selection commonly drives the origin of species, as Darwin initially claimed…. Tests of parallel evolution of reproductive isolation, trait-based assortative mating, and reproductive isolation by active selection have demonstrated that ecological speciation is a common means by which new species arise. Evidence for mutation-order speciation by natural selection is more limited and has been best documented by instances of reproductive isolation resulting from intragenomic conflict. However, we still have not identified all aspects of selection, and identifying the underlying genes for reproductive isolation remains challenging.” — Dolph Schluter contradicting himself in Science Magazine, as quoted in our 2/09/09 entry. Can you reconcile his bluffing with his evidence? “It took evolutionary biologists nearly 150 years, but at last we can agree with Darwin that the origin of species, ‘that mystery of mysteries’, really does occur by means of natural selection. The main question today is how does selection lead to speciation?” [Isn’t that what Darwin’s “mechanism” was supposed to solve? Isn’t that what Schluter said it does solve?]
“We find that even in enormous populations, natural selection is often very inefficient at distinguishing between mutations that are beneficial and deleterious on average. In addition, substitution rates of all mutations are dramatically increased by variable selection pressures. This can lead to counterintuitive results. For instance, mutations that result in a trade-off but are predominantly deleterious during their lifetime can be much more likely to fix than mutations that are always neutral or even beneficial.” — from Harvard evolutionists in PNAS. Does this not equate natural selection to the Stuff Happens Law? See 8/27/15, “More Flaws in Darwin’s Mechanism.”
“Traditional evolutionary biology began in the 1930s with the ‘modern synthesis,’ which fused Darwin’s theses on phenotypic variation and selection with Mendel’s concepts of genetic inheritance to explain the source of biological diversity. This synthesis predated knowledge that genes were made of DNA and of the structure of DNA and how it replicates. Thus, molecular mechanisms could not be integrated into concepts about how phenotypic variation is generated. Instead, assumptions had to be made about the origins of the variation that drives evolution. Among the cornerstone assumptions were that mutations are the sole drivers of evolution; mutations occur randomly, constantly, and gradually; and the transmission of genetic information is vertical from parent to offspring, rather than horizontal (infectious) between individuals and species (as is now apparent throughout the tree of life). But discoveries of molecular mechanisms are modifying these assumptions.” — Science Magazine (see 3/12/14, “How Useful Is Evolutionary Theory?”). If the cornerstone assumptions were wrong, how can Darwin’s theory of natural selection acting on random mutations ever have been right?
“Precisely what new characteristics will be selected for or against, and spread or be deleted from the population, is very hard to predict, however.” — Cameron Smith in our 12/27/12 entry admitting that natural selection cannot make predictions.
“My studies of natural selection had begun with no forebodings, but by this time I was becoming puzzled and skeptical. A process that operates invisibly, with an intensity that cannot be observed and with no ability to explain specific problems, an impersonal process that is continually given personal qualities—this sets my teeth on edge. Therefore I went back to the definitions to see if the premises were in order. I slowly realized that they were not. The phrase differential reproduction conceals a flaw.” — Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried: An Appeal to Reason (1971), p. 46 in his chapter on natural selection. He proceeds to show that “differential reproduction” (often used as a synonym for natural selection) is tautologous.
Ibid., pp. 46-47: Macbeth is incredulous after citing noted evolutionist C. H. Waddington admitting natural selection is a tautology but then extolling “the enormous power of the principle as a weapon of explanation.” Macbeth responds, “Why do I find this staggering? Because a man who is astute enough to see that differential reproduction is a tautology is unable to see anything improper in a tautology. Because a man who reveres Darwin reduces Darwin’s major contribution to a tautology, yet asserts that this does not reduce the magnitude of Darwin’s achievement. Because a man who must know how weak natural selection is in explaining hard cases, and who still has his finger on the reason for this weakness (the tautology), still speaks of the enormous power of natural selection as a “weapon of explanation.” [Macbeth then finds the same tautology in the writings of George Gaylord Simpson about natural selection. More good quotes can be found in Macbeth’s ch. 6 on “Survival of the Fittest.”]
Darwin “was obsessed with competition,” Cardinale says. “He assumed the whole world was composed of species competing with each other, but we found that one-third of the species of algae we studied actually like each other. They don’t grow as well unless you put them with another species. It may be that nature has a heck of a lot more mutualisms than we ever expected. “Maybe species are co-evolving,” he adds. “Maybe they are evolving together so they are more productive as a team than they are individually. We found that more than one-third of the time, that they like to be together. Maybe Darwin’s presumption that the world may be dominated by competition is wrong.” — Live Science, “Darwin Was Wrong” as quoted in our 4/30/14 entry, “Malthus Misled Darwin Who Misled the World.”
“The narrator declares that “we humans have sinned terribly against [the] laws of natural selection,” by coddling the genetically impaired and, even worse, by allowing them to reproduce, duplicating their defects in a new legion of offspring. “We have not only sustained unworthy life,” he decries, “we have allowed it to multiply.” The title of the 1937 film is Victims of the Past, a reference to the idea in the disgraced genetic field of eugenics that illness, disability and delinquency were passed without deviation, gene by gene, from one generation to the next. The film was a piece of Nazi propaganda, required showing in German theaters in support of the nation’s program for the compulsory sterilization of the “genetically unfit” to choke off undesirable human traits — and undesirable human beings.” — from a Holocaust Museum exhibit review in The Baltimore Sun, quoted in our 4/22/04 entry.
Clearly then, natural selection is a word without power, and perhaps a word without meaning. Insofar as evolution is concerned, using “natural selection” to cover our ignorance about process is inexcusable. (Dr. Arthur Chadwick, 2011)
“And so we are to believe that natural selection, which “is not an agent, except metaphorically”, manages to design artifacts; and the organism, without which we would lack even the concept of an agent, is not, after all, a creative or originating agent itself. Its agency has been transferred to an abstraction whose causal agency or “force” is, amid intellectual confusion, both denied and universally implied by biologists. Natural selection becomes rather like an occult Power of the pre-scientific age — all in order to render “illusory”, and indeed to usurp, the visible agency of the organism.” (Stephen L. Talbott, The Nature Institute, 5/17/16)
“What we do have is a god-like power of natural selection whose miracle-working activity in creating ever new organisms is vividly clear to eyes of faith, but frustratingly obscure to mere empirical investigators.” (Talbott, ibid.)
“The thing to hold onto in all this is natural selection. If there seems to be real purpose in organisms, so we’re told, then natural selection explains it, or explains it away, in non-purposive terms. If there is only an illusion of purpose, natural selection is the responsible agent behind the illusion. Just as we trace the machine’s intelligence and intentions to a human designer, we must trace the organism’s intelligence and intentions, such as they may be, to natural selection, the blind, mindless, unintelligent, yet wondrously effective designer whose existence Darwin exposed. But do we have any possible grounds for taking natural selection seriously as a designer of organisms and explainer of their intelligence?” (Talbott, ibid.)
“So natural selection, being simply another name for the outcome of all the purposeful activities of organisms, is not an explanation for them. It assumes what it is supposed to explain. It turns out that the “blind designer” is a cheat; it relies upon the not-so-blind teleological services of the very organisms it is said to be designing.
“All this is a very big deal. The lapses of thought in the supposed explanation of biological purpose testify to a radical misjudgment of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. If natural selection is defined in terms of the activities that originally suggested a wise agency on the organism’s part, then it tells us nothing about how those activities gained their teleological character. (Talbott, ibid.)
“No one can deny that our answers to these questions could be critically important even for the most basic understanding of evolution. But we have no answers. In the current theoretical milieu, we don’t even have the questions. What we do have is a god-like power of natural selection whose miracle-working activity in creating ever new organisms is vividly clear to eyes of faith, but frustratingly obscure to mere empirical investigators.
“This is not a science ready for submission to a larger public along with a demand for acquiescence. Not if this public has yet to dull its sensitivity to fundamental questions in the way that the research community seems to have done.” (Talbott, ibid.)
“Evolution’s main mechanism is random change. You have heard of natural selection but it, as even Alfred Wallace agreed, is not a mechanism as such. It doesn’t cause or coax helpful biological change to occur. It merely kills off the weaker designs. Evolution is a theory of randomness.” (Cornelius Hunter, Evolution News 4/15/17).
“A quite general issue has still received no canonical treatment: what kind of a thing is natural selection anyway? A law, a principle, a force, a cause, an agent, or all or some of these things? The view that natural selection is a law has been countered by the view that it is a principle, while that conclusion has been countered in turn by an insistence that it is neither….” (Hodge, M.J.S. 1992. Natural Selection: Historical Perspectives. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 218.)
“To understand the history of the term ‘natural selection’ both before and after this moment in the Origin, we have, therefore, to look not for a sequence of explicit definitional equations but, rather, for the reasons why people, starting with Darwin himself, have felt themselves able to grasp and wield the concept adequately in the absence of consistent, authoritative definitional analysis of the term.” (Ibid., pp. 212-219).
Stephen Jay Gould, commenting on fellow evolutionist’s confusion over the “unit of selection,” considers a more serious problem: “In short, Emerson’s paper gives us an unintended insight into the confusing lack of definition that natural selection has always suffered, even at the moment of its greatest explicit influence.” (Gould, S. J. 2002, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 544-545.)
“Practicing biologists may be surprised that there is still debate about what kind of a force, principle or process ‘natural selection’ actually is, on what sort of entities it might act and the meaning of ‘fitness’. We readily invoke, but often cannot easily explicate, these concepts. Godfrey-Smith explains why.” (W. F. Doolittle, 2015. “Philosophy, Who Needs It?”, Current Biology. 25 (1): R31–R33.)
“For nearly 100 years biologists have argued about how exactly natural selection can possibly work. If nature selects the individuals with the best genes then why aren’t all organisms the same?” (Uppsala University, 12 December 2018, “Biologists shed new light on an old question,” ScienceDaily.)
“But what natural selection actually is (a force or a statistical outcome, for example) and the levels of the biological hierarchy (genes, organisms, species, or even ecosystems) at which it operates directly are still actively disputed among philosophers and theoretical biologists. …Few consider—as ‘units of selection’ in their own right—the processes implemented by genes, cells, species, or communities. ‘It’s the song not the singer’ (ITSNTS) theory does that, also claiming that evolution by natural selection of processes is more easily understood and explained as differential persistence than as differential reproduction.”
(W. Ford Doolittle and S. Andrew Inkpen. 2018. “Processes and patterns of interaction as units of selection: An introduction to ITSNTS thinking,” PNAS 115(16): 4006–4014. See our analysis from 2 April 2018 and 3 April 2018.)
Editor in Chief for Bioessays complains bitterly about the misleading use of selection and anthropomorphisms used in evolutionary literature, saying “I believe that a large part of our difficulty in avoiding the invocation of agency and direction in evolutionary processes is our persistent inability to define natural selection in terms of physical laws and processes.” He adds “In the meantime, anthropomorphic terminology in evolution might persist just because scientists like using it. But it is one of the worst things we can do, given widespread public misunderstanding of the fundamental principles of evolution. And I bet that it even leads scientists themselves astray sometimes.” “It is about time that we stopped such anthropomorphic terminology and thinking, and confronted the likelihood that – far from being ‘excusable shorthand’ – it is an important contributor to a false impression of evolution among many non-scientists. I feel that much of the ‘excuse’ for using terms that evoke will, direction and strategy in evolutionary processes is a problem of finding the right words…Purpose can only be exercised by a supernatural entity in this situation.” (Moore, Andrew, “We need a new language for evolution,” Bioessays 33: 237, 2011).
“One often reads the following claims: (1) The modern conception of natural selection differs from Darwin’s own conception only with respect to incidental features; (2) Natural selection is a very simple idea with enormous explanatory power. Both claims are problematic…The modern conception of natural selection is not the same as Darwin’s, unless we describe natural selection in the most abstract manner.” (Lewens, T. 2010. “Natural Selection Then and Now,” Biological Reviews, 85(4): 829-835, 2010).
Share your comments on this article! Agree? Disagree?
I can see how one sometimes needs to apply selection theory to defeat it. It might be necessary, for instance, to demonstrate that a neo-Darwinist’s selection coefficients cannot account for a trait at issue. It would be like saying, “Even using so-and-so’s own figures and assumptions, it doesn’t work.” Winning on the opponent’s home field makes for a stronger victory. That’s different from calling NS a real process in nature that should be respected and taught as a fact. (Remember, “stuff happens” is a fact, too.)
Let me also make clear that all my arguments are “against the idea” and not “against the person” who disagrees with me. I respect those who disagree and hope my opinions will be respectfully addressed in turn. I hope my critics, though, will sincerely do some self-reflection on the question, “What am I really gaining by defending ‘natural selection’ and using that term in my toolkit of explanation? Is this dubious concept worth it?” The Darwinians have had 156 years to explain this concept and have left it in a mess. I don’t think we can scrub off those stains and sanitize it to refer to what Blyth or Paley might have meant. The stink spreads the moment you say the phrase.
To me this is not an issue worth parting company over. It’s more a matter of seeking wisdom, rhetorical strategy, and effectiveness. So if you disagree, we’re still friends I hope.