January 11, 2018 | Sal Cordova

Father of Neo-Darwinism Condemned with Faint Praise

NAS Member’s Comedic Eulogy of Fisher’s Theorem of Natural Selection

by Sal Cordova

The father of neo-Darwinism, R.A. Fisher, put forward what he called “The Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection” (FTNS) in 1930. This mathematically-impressive theorem, of which Fisher was very proud, was long considered to be one of the main pillars of neo-Darwinian theory. Almost comically, it is now referred to in some evolutionary circles as Fisher’s “Not-So-Fundamental Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection.” We might give it a corrected abbreviation: FNSF-FTNS.

Bill Basener and John Sanford recently provided a correction to Fisher’s equations in the FNSF-FTNS (12/22/17) that demonstrated real evolution proceeds toward destruction rather than construction of biological function. It basically flips Fisher’s theorem upside down.

Drawing by Brett Miller. Used with permission.

Concurrently, and equally comedic, something odd happened at the 37th memorial  lecture on January 4, 2018 meant to honor the memory of the late R. A. Fisher. Joe Felsenstein (a National Academy of Science member) condemned Fisher’s work with faint praise. Basically, he criticized Fisher’s famous theorem but tried to do it in a nice way. (After all, this was a memorial lecture intended to honor Fisher’s accomplishments.) As with many eulogies, Felsenstein tried to put as much whitewash on the failures of the deceased individual as possible. He said:

In spite of Fisher’s assertion that the theorem “hold[s] the supreme position among the biological sciences”, the Fundamental Theorem is, alas, not-so-fundamental. ….

So there was the criticism. Now, the whitewash. How would Felsenstein manage to elevate Fisher’s work and make it look like a stellar accomplishment, given that he’s on the spot to eulogize the deceased father of neo-Darwinian theory? Well, Felsenstein may not have intended to do so, but he made Fisher’s work look better than his own by comparison. He did this by pointing out how much more widely cited Fisher’s work has been than one of his own absurd models which, in turn, he claimed is better than all the other absurd evolutionary models out there! Watch:

I will not attempt to revive the FTNS [Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection which turned out not to be so fundamental after all], but instead am trying to extend a 1978 model of mine, put forth in what may be my least-cited paper. This attempts to make a “toy” model of an evolving population….

Translation:  I’m trying to draw attention to my clever idea about how evolution works, but which everyone else seems to be ignoring, and hasn’t gotten as much citation as Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem which wasn’t ever really fundamental anyway.  I have to make a ‘toy model’ of evolving populations, because real models are mathematically intractable, and it’s better to have a model that gives inaccurate answers than no model at all.

The comedy continues:

The models are somewhat absurdly oversimple, but I argue that models like this at least can give us some results, which decades of more handwavy papers on the general connection between evolution, entropy, and information have not.

Translation:  My model is absurd, but it’s better than the other absurd handwavy models out there. This lecture is in honor of RA Fisher. He made a model of evolution that is also oversimplified, was wrong, and now it’s my turn to do the same. In relation to all the bad evolutionary models out there, Fisher’s model doesn’t look so bad. If we had a really good model, I’d be talking about that, but instead let me highlight my model that’s been around for 40 years and which no one seems to pay any attention to. At least Fisher’s model gets more citations than mine. [See Best-in-Field Fallacy in the Baloney Detector —Ed.]

Sanford and Basener’s paper critiquing Fisher’s theorem, first announced here, was noticed by Evolution News and by World Magazine with very favorable reviews.

Felsenstein’s solution to the dilemma of criticizing Fisher yet keeping his status as the patron saint of neo-Darwinism reminds me of this joke about a preacher who was offered a lot of money to do something similar:

In a small town, there were two brothers who, over the course of many years, cheated, swindled, robbed and generally stole from everyone that they ever did business with.

The entire town and surrounding community reviled and despised these two brothers as everyone was aware of just how disreputable and dishonest they were.

One day, one of the brothers mysteriously died.

Although they had never attended church, the one remaining brother went to the local pastor and offered vast sums of money if he would come to the funeral and say the appropriate words, AND, a large bonus, but ONLY if he would – during the course of the eulogy -refer to his brother as “a Saint.”

The pastor was troubled by the request, however, it was a very poor church and the church desperately needed repairs.

The parishioners had heard about the pastor’s dilemma and were curious as to what he would do.

The funeral began, the church was packed, and the pastor started with the usual prayers and followed the rites and traditions as required by the churches teachings. In closing, after referring to the man in the box, he paused and turned to face the remaining brother.

He began, “As you all know, the departed was an awful individual who robbed, cheated, swindled and stole from everyone he ever did business with.

However, compared to his Brother, he was – a Saint!”


Salvador Cordova has appeared on National TV, radio shows, newspapers, books and magazines for his work in promoting Intelligent Design and Creation Science. He is a former scientist and engineer in the aerospace and defense industry and presently serves as a professor and researcher in the area of Christian apologetics at small Bible College. He has four science degrees and is working on a PhD. For his previous entries on CEH, see his Author Profile.

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