Natural Selection Is Vacuous, Says Evolutionist; Part II: Hidden Agency
Don’t take our word for it that Natural Selection reduces to the Stuff Happens Law. Listen to an evolutionist say it.
As stated in Part I, an evolutionist in the “Third Way” movement is writing a book-in-progress on evolution, Evolution As It Was Meant to Be. In chapter 19, “Let’s Not Begin With Natural Selection,” Stephen Talbott sets up natural selection (NS) to demolish it. It’s as if he builds a snowman in the dark before turning on the hot lights, watching it melt under the light of philosophical scrutiny. Quoting leading evolutionists gushing over natural selection for decades, he shows that his snowman is not a straw man.
The simplicity of what is being promulgated as “natural selection” can hardly be doubted. In his landmark book on The Nature of Selection, the philosopher of evolutionary theory, Elliot Sober, considered it “remarkable that a hypothesis of such explanatory power could be so utterly simple conceptually: If the organisms in a population differ in their ability to survive and reproduce, and if the characteristics that affect these abilities are transmitted from parents to offspring, then the population will evolve” (“Sober 1984, pp. 21-2).
The idea of natural selection seems so straightforward and conclusive that it forces its way into the receptive mind without much need for evidence. August Weismann, whose importance for nineteenth-century evolutionary theory has been considered second only to Darwin’s, rather famously wrote in 1893 that we must accept natural selection as the explanation for the wondrous adaptation of organisms to their environments “because it is the only possible explanation we can conceive”.
Paragraphs of quotes by the likes of Weismann, Elliot Sober, Ernst Mayr, Niles Eldredge, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Christoph Adami and Richard Dawkins are all provided as Talbott’s set-up for the take-down. Talbott wants to make sure the reader knows how leading evolutionists feel. NS is so simple, so obvious, so intuitive, so explanatorily rich, they think, that one would have to be a fool to not see it. NS is so well established, they feel, that it is no longer in need of evidence. It’s like an algorithm. Input life; output evolution. Blackmore says confidently, “evolution is inevitable.”
But then, Talbott turns on the first heat lamp. Gently, he introduces a little “unease” at the way modern evolutionists make NS capable of explaining everything. They treat NS as some kind of agent who directs organisms toward purposeful ends.
And, indeed, over-estimation of the explanatory power of natural selection may be why Darwin’s contemporary, the geologist Charles Lyell, accused him of “deifying” the theory. A century later, in 1971, Lila Gatlin, a biochemist and mathematical biologist who figured centrally in developing the conception of life as an “information processing system”, could summarize contemporary usage by saying, “the words ‘natural selection’ play a role in the vocabulary of the evolutionary biologist similar to the word ‘God’ in ordinary language” (quoted in Oyama 2000a, p. 31). Such is the power of logical constructions over the human mind.
No doubt the “evolutionary algorithm” truly is simple, and its logic, as far as it goes, is self-evident. But we might want to keep in mind how thin and unstable is the strip of intellectual real estate between “self-evident” and “vacuous” — especially when, as scientists, we prefer abstract logical necessity and simplicity to “little details”, such as the difference between a computer program and the life of a tiger or octopus.
Talbott starts switching on more heat lamps faster and faster: the fossil record; observations that organisms stay true to type and do not show excessive variation; carelessness of language by neo-Darwinians. He lists eight basic questions that NS fails to answer, and leaves them unanswered. Then he says it answers no questions!
I can think of no fundamental question about evolution whose answer is suggested by the advertised formula for natural selection. Everything depends on what the amazingly diverse sorts of organism actually do as they respond to and shape their environments. Contrary to Susan Blackmore’s exultant insight, nothing in the “algorithmic logic” of natural selection tells us that evolution must have happened — and, given that it has happened, the logic by itself tells us little about what we should expect to find in the fossil record. We may ask then, “What, in truth, is being celebrated as the revolutionary principle of natural selection?” [Italics his.]
The very theory readers were comfortable thinking was intuitively obvious now is looking extremely vulnerable. Hollow snowmen melt faster than solid ones.
NS as the Stuff Happens Law
Talbott engages a rhetorical ploy, agreeing that NS is intuitively obvious. Neo-Darwinians reading this may breathe a sigh of relief that he is not renouncing Darwinism. But hidden in his ploy is a knife.
None of this is to deny the trivial validity of the idea of natural selection. Of course organisms that are “fitter” will generally do better in life than “unfit” organisms. That’s how we define “fit”. And of course a record of the winners and losers in the “struggle for survival” will tell us a great deal about evolutionary processes. Or could tell us if we understood all that happened in order to establish this particular record. It is hardly unreasonable to point out that we will gain a profound understanding of evolution only when we know a fair amount about how it has happened among actual organisms and along its broad course down through the ages.
Every organism’s life and death encompasses and, so to speak, “sums up” a vast range of purposive activities, not only on its own part, but also on the part of many other organisms. One might feel, therefore, that the “theory” of the survival of the fittest can explain just about everything. Certainly the overall pattern of births and deaths must yield the observed evolutionary outcome! Actually, it just is that outcome — it is the pattern we need to explain — which doesn’t yet give us much of a theory.
He has just equated NS to the Stuff Happens Law. As our own critique does, Talbott points out that a theory that can explain everything, including opposites, explains nothing. If fitness is defined in terms of survival, then NS becomes a tautology. No wonder it’s intuitively obvious! Boys will be boys. A rose is a rose. Deafness is caused by hearing loss.
A Blind Watchmaker Is Still a Maker
Next, Talbott exposes a logical flaw in natural selection. The very God that Darwin wanted to eliminate from biology has snuck back in as the Almighty Selector. And the error began with Darwin himself, who spoke of NS as an agent “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”. Darwin’s disciples keep up the same fallacy; Talbott calls it a “universal” tendency among biologists.
If what biologists say has any significant bearing on what they mean, then they are telling us, emphatically, that natural selection is an effective, mechanistic agent — an agent of evolutionary change.
In a gentlemanly spirit, Talbott says, “This is a problem.” The snowman is now a puddle on the floor. This is a problem, indeed. Further refutation seems unnecessary, but Talbott keeps the heat on. Neutralizing in advance the expected defenses of Jerry Coyne, who accuses criticisms of NS as hokum, Talbott jumps on the puddle, distributing the last remnants of a coherent theory across the room.
It would be truer to say that the famously simple and compelling logic of natural selection, misconceived as the “foundation” of a powerful theory, has been a primary source of hokum in evolutionary thinking. It is a kind of blank template upon which overly credulous biologists and lay people can project their faith. As for the “genuine force” Gould refers to — a supposed causal power over and above those we find actually at play in biological activity — it is a magical invention borne of the refusal to recognize agency in the only place where we ever observe it, which is in the lives of organisms.
For the coup de grâce, Talbott demonstrates from history that “The inadequacy of the theory of natural selection has long been noticed.” Hugo de Vries was not the only one who quipped that ““Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” Talbott quotes a Who’s Who of biologists from the late 19th century to the current century—Haldane, Cope, Bateson, Margulis and more—who have agreed with de Vries about this fundamental lack of creative power in Darwinism. Even Darwin’s close friend Charles Lyell had problems with how Darwin made it act like Hindu deities! Ouch.
“If we take the three attributes of the deity of the Hindoo Triad, the Creator, Brahma, the preserver or sustainer, Vishnu, and the destroyer, Siva, Natural Selection will be a combination of the two last but without the first, or the creative power, we cannot conceive the others having any function.” (Sir Charles Lyell , Scottish geologist who laid the crucial uniformitarian foundation for Darwin’s theory)
So why haven’t these critiques made a dent in the neo-Darwinist establishment? Why do biologists continue “projecting the repressed knowledge of living agency upon the always available blank slate and god-like power, or ‘mechanism’, known as ‘natural selection'”? (mocking quotes in the original). Talbott has an answer:
The habitual, blindsighted predisposition of the entire discipline of evolutionary biology — including the projection of the repressed awareness of agency — has been too powerful to allow a clean escape to those trained in it.
Neo-Darwinism is a self-perpetuating myth that keeps its followers under a spell. It’s like a straitjacket that reproduces itself from generation to generation. It’s like a bull elk that, having beat off all comers, keeps the harem to itself.
A Third Way? Really?
The “Third Way” introductory page explains what they mean by a third way:
The goal is to focus attention on the molecular and cellular processes which produce novelty without divine interventions or sheer luck.
Talbott is aware that organisms appear designed. They work as if an intelligent agent created them and oversees them. He knows that Darwin’s “magic” mechanism of natural selection, as a scientific explanation, is deeply flawed and unsatisfying.
We are given agency without agency, life without life. Such is our way today. It is my intention in the following discussion of evolution to articulate a different point of view, taking life in its own terms. And I see no reason to exclude what we know most directly — and in a higher key, so to speak — through our own existence as organisms.
The only way forward, he thinks, is to see organisms as they see themselves: experiencing life in all its richness, moving purposefully through their world. But by trying to mind-meld with snails and apes, will he just exchange one form of pantheism for another?
Talbott is an engaging writer, and has much more to say in his growing book. His take-down of natural selection proves our point: NS is a tautologous, vacuous, deceptive ploy masquerading as scientific explanation. It explains everything—even opposites—by a “mechanism” that reduces to the Stuff Happens Law. That’s why it is intuitively obvious: stuff does happen! Darwin’s spellbound adherents, inebriated with Darwine, worship this mechanism as a false god, the agent of all biological change and progress, endowing it with mystical powers. It’s past time to ditch natural selection.
We hope Talbott’s refutation of natural selection, coming from an insider, will reach many who would never read CEH. But it would be a mistake for our readers to think his alternative explanation for the beauty and complexity of life, whatever it is, will be any better. One cannot live consistently as a materialist. Everyone believes in the supernatural and in miracles, even the most ardent materialists. They demonstrate it with every sentence they say or write. We are not just atoms. As image-bearers of the only righteous and omnipotent Creator, we instinctively know that truth and morality exist and are to be preferred over lies and evil. Truth and morality cannot evolve; they must be timeless, universal, and dependably certain.
Having rejected God, Talbott will wander into a different blindsighted error. Most likely the “Third Way of Evolution” that Talbott and his colleagues are seeking will simply displace agency from NS to some other concept that is equally mystical. Don’t let down your guard. Be discerning, because the next evolutionary myth may be even more slippery than Darwin’s.