Natural Selection? No – Sheer Dumb Luck
Cornell University agrees: Darwin’s theory reduces to the Stuff Happens Law.
How long has natural selection been presented as a directional process that leads inevitably upward to greater fitness? Charles Darwin himself started that meme, personifying natural selection as some kind of goddess that ensured upward progress:
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, 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 in organic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were. (Origin of Species, 1866, p. 84).
It “may be said” thus, but it would be wrong! According to the Cornell Chronicle of Cornell University (a hotbed of evolution and materialism), “It’s mostly luck, not pluck, that determines lifetime reproductive success.” Stephen Ellner and Robin Snyder are about to upset a lot of neo-Darwinian colleagues with their depressing view of natural selection:
Ecologists have shown that populations contain a variety of subtypes within a species, with some individuals having superior traits that increase their likelihood of growing tallest or reproducing the most. But using mathematical modeling, along with the two empirical studies, Ellner and Snyder propose that although individuals can differ in ways that affect their expected reproductive success or growth potential, actual outcomes are wide-ranging enough that luck has to be the main driver.
Luck – randomness – if that is the “main driver” of reproductive success (the “measure” of fitness, in the usual tautological form of natural selection that equates fitness with survival), then Darwin had no theory better than Sheer Dumb Luck. And in science, sheer dumb luck is no explanation at all. It’s like throwing up your hands and saying, “Stuff happens” or “Que sera, sera.” It doesn’t take a scientist to come up with that “law” of nature; any uneducated person can figure that out. That’s why we often equate natural selection to the Stuff Happens Law (see “Time to ditch natural selection? 3 October 2015). Actually, Stuff Happens is an anti-law. It is the antithesis of scientific explanation. D
So do the fittest survive and reproduce best, as Darwin taught? No, quips Ellner with a wry grin: “It’s mostly a matter of not dying.”
In short, lifetime reproductive success is in great measure a product of luck and not superior traits.
And yet the opposite view is often presented to the public. For instance, at the FAQ page of “Understanding Evolution” presented by PBS, the following big lie about natural selection is presented forcefully and dogmatically:
Evolution is not a random process. The genetic variation on which natural selection acts may occur randomly, but natural selection itself is not random at all. The survival and reproductive success of an individual is directly related to the ways its inherited traits function in the context of its local environment. Whether or not an individual survives and reproduces depends on whether it has genes that produce traits that are well adapted to its environment.
Not true, say Snyder and Ellner. They give details of their view of natural selection in The American Naturalist: “Pluck or Luck: Does Trait Variation or Chance Drive Variation in Lifetime Reproductive Success?” Their answer is: primarily, luck. This would shock all the Victorian and 20th-century scientists who expected Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection to drive progress from bacteria to man.
“Not dying” sounds pretty simplistic, but it gets to the heart of the pair’s research. In short, lifetime reproductive success (LRS) is in great measure a product of luck and not superior traits.
All the warfare and criminal activity that occurred since Darwinism took hold, including genocide and eugenics, was based on the notion that evolutionary progress is a law of nature. Evolution weeds out the unfit and supports the strong. Since human beings have evolved conscious minds, they now had the ability to control their own evolution. The most radical of the Darwinians even redefined morality in terms of fitness, which they assumed was strength, virility, whiteness, intelligence or other phony measures of evolutionary superiority. The horrors that resulted are incalculable.
Now, if Ellner and Snyder are correct about their view of natural selection, all that carnage was for nought. Nature does not support the strong. It supports the lucky. Their 2016 essay in The American Naturalist, “We Happy Few: Using Structured Population Models to Identify the Decisive Events in the Lives of Exceptional Individuals,” won “best paper” for 2016 by the Society of American Naturalists.
Their 2016 work tried to explain what made the difference in the “happy few” from the plant and animal world who grew tallest or had the most reproductive success. One of their key findings: “We find that good fortune (e.g., rapid growth) when small and young matters much more than good fortune when older and larger,” they wrote. “Becoming lucky is primarily a matter of surviving while others die.”
Ellner and Snyder expanded on that notion – of having the good fortune to not die – in this latest work. They used theoretical modeling, along with two published case studies… to make the case that while trait variation can influence the fate of a population, the fates of individuals are often determined by “dumb luck.”
The authors still believe that being “above average” is helpful, but the main driver of reproductive success is dumb luck. But can a distinction be made between individuals and populations? The fate of a population is the aggregate fate of its individuals. If individual fate is determined by dumb luck, then so is the fate of the population. Stuff happens.
Update 3/26/18: Another study from Lund University concurs that survival is primarily a matter of luck, not fitness. When they say “Chance is a factor in the survival of species,” they compare it to conservation efforts. They say nothing about “survival of the fittest.” Conservation efforts sometimes help, but species often go extinct anyway. Their paper in The American Naturalist offers no hope to Darwin’s theory, which presumed that those with the highest fitness (whatever that is) would survive. But in their case study of damselflies in competition, “Stochastic and deterministic processes therefore jointly shape coexistence,” they say—not fitness. The only “deterministic” process they mention is “negative frequency dependence” by which they mean the “rare species advantage” explained in the press release as, “the few remaining individuals in the rare species gain some minority advantages, such as reduced competition or aggression from other individuals.” That’s not about fitness either, but luck. Would the Darwin-loving warriors of World War II had gone confidently out to battle if they had been told that survival was not a matter of superior intelligence or might, but only about dumb luck?
So natural selection is not about superiority, but chance. My, what would Hitler think! He should have listened to Solomon: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). That verse might have stopped him from his vain quest to create a master race, but unless he read to the end of the book, he would still be an evil man. The only way to start on a right path is to first “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1), and take Solomon’s last words to heart:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
If Stuff Happens were the only law of the universe, we would all become fatalists. But there is a higher law—the law of God—that promises ultimate success to those who obey Him, even if bad stuff happens to good people in this life.