Darwin's Sacred Imposter: Natural Selection's Idolatrous Trap
by Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. *
A major university promoted an annual Diversity Day that featured almost any organization willing to set up a booth. At one booth, a student was given a small carved statue that, he was told, had the power to select his best soulmate from all the girls he’d ever met. He asked how a statue could truly select, but was provided an unsatisfying, unquantifiable, mystical answer.
He then visited the Humanist Club exhibit, where an evolutionist from Princeton University quoted a colleague who said:
Biological change is always driven by random mutation and selection, but at certain pivotal junctures in evolutionary history, such random processes can create structures capable of steering subsequent evolution toward greater sophistication and complexity.1
Thinking the evolutionist’s words also had a mystical flavor, the student asked what actually does the “selecting.” The evolutionist replied, “Environmental stresses.” The student pointed out that, by definition, “selecting” something implied volition and was presumptive evidence of intelligence. So how could selection by environmental stresses be any more tangible than selection by the statue in his pocket? The professor fired back that “selection” in this case was obviously just a figure of speech.
By coincidence, a scientific creationist speaking at the adjacent booth said, “Beneficial mutations in bacteria are more likely to have phenotypic impacts, or changes to observable characteristics, and undergo stronger positive selection.” The student asked of him the same follow-up questions and was surprised to get the identical answers given by the evolutionist. After the student expressed his skepticism that no real “selection” was involved in adaptation, the creationist probed him: “So you’re saying that you don’t believe in natural selection and it isn’t even real?”
The student responded, “I’m saying that those who think they see positive selection, negative selection, or just plain natural selection, never seem to point to any tangible exogenous selector or selecting force to justify using the word ‘selection’—and evolutionists definitely cannot appeal to it as a real force capable of explaining design.” He added further, “All that purveyors of ‘selection’ do is attribute choice-making abilities to Nature and give it credit for an organism’s endogenous capabilities to produce traits that solve environmental problems, enabling them to fit environments and fill them.”
Later, at home, the student pondered these interactions. Despite it being Diversity Day, when it came to the key issue of ascribing selective powers to inanimate objects, he did not see much diversity between the statue merchant, the evolutionist, and the creationist.
“Selective” Attributes Bestowed on Nature Ascribe Great Creative Power
Living organisms fit into their environments extremely well because they have suitable intricately arranged parts that look as though they were chosen for specific purposes. Darwin knew people thought the cause of the obvious design in nature was God. He needed a mechanism, an inanimate substitute god with that one essential attribute—the perceived ability to “think.” Nature did not need to really think. It only needed to seem like it could think in order to plant in people’s minds the thought that nature’s design only looked like it was real—though it wasn’t. He struck on a clever solution: Take something within nature, living organisms, and when certain heritable traits appear in their offspring that solve environmental stresses (yet another part of nature), depict them as being “selected for” by those same environmental stresses—voilà, Nature selects.
Darwin’s application of mystical powers to natural selection was immediately spotted and severely criticized.2 Darwin and his followers have all been forced to concede that selection is a false term when applied to interactions at the organism-environment interface—but they always justify metaphorical usages. Selection was resisted for decades precisely because there was no empirical evidence for a selector—evidence that still remains non-existent.
Thus, creationists have been encouraged to re-evaluate all evolutionary ideas—even those presumed to be well-established like “natural selection”—to assess their biblical accuracy and scientific reality, and replace them with better explanations. Toward that end, a series of previous Acts & Facts articles2 documented at length the following observations:
- Indispensable: “Nature Selects” Is the Heart of Evolution. Natural selection is meant to explain the design of life and assure people see that what looks like real design is all an illusion of design—not merely something explaining biological diversity. Thus, biblical claims that people can know there is a God by the things He has made is contradicted.
- Intelligence: Falsely Credited to “Nature.” The word “select” is an absolute to Darwinism. Prior to natural selection’s acceptance in the 1930s, the ability to deliberate alternative outcomes and make choices was restricted to conscious agents. Literature by evolutionists and creationists utilize “selection” in ways that imply it has volition, thus ascribing intelligence to the environment where none truly exists.
- Illegitimate: “Selection” Literally Applied Apart From a Real “Selector.” Selection’s mental power resides in metaphorical usages that replace empirical evidence. In literature, environments are personified as intelligent “selectors” intentionally “working on” organisms. Advocates ease acceptance by applying the powerful analogy of artificial selection to natural selection. When they are challenged about the selector’s nonexistence, they concede that selection is a false term and their personifications are “just a figure of speech.” Since selection is not really an agent or force, it has always been mysteriously defined. Supporters continue to sharply debate whether it is a process, concept, principle, cause, effect, or something else.
- Imposter: “Selection” Given Credit for Organism’s Capabilities. A distinctive of living things is their goal-directed operation—one of which is filling ecological niches. Via information in their DNA, organisms are the active element at the organism-environment interface in producing traits that either succeed or fail at solving environmental problems. This reality is distorted when supporters of selection claim environmental stresses “select” or “pressure.” “Selection” is a clever label applied to the normal outworking of an organism’s innate programming that enables it to fill environments. Thus, it steals credit from the organism and ultimately from the Lord.
- Illusion: “Selection” Only Exists as a Mental Construct. When organisms possess traits enabling them to move from one environmental condition to another, minds steeped in selection actually “see” the organisms as “selected for” by some environmental stress—reflecting how people readily project human cognition onto other things. Since there is no tangible force to quantify in any way, the actual “selection” only happens in someone’s mind. The illusion is facilitated by advocates’ use of selection as, say, an external “pressure,” but then defining it as a “process” whose interrelated elements are the actual outworking of the organism’s own innate capacities to reproduce variable heritable traits.
When fully developed, these reasons detail why it is scientifically and theologically inappropriate to describe in any way what transpires at the organism-environment interface as “selection.” Two other important reasons are considered below.
Irrelevant: Meager Measurements of Selection Suggest It’s Not Real
It is true that some genuinely real things may be functionally irrelevant, but non-real things are always irrelevant. Relevance is one objective indicator of reality, which explains why evolution itself must be promoted by its purveyors as the unifying fact of biology and, therefore, vital to the economic status of future generations. Conversely, critics of evolution advance the fact that usefully relevant creations cannot be tied directly to the application of evolution, but, rather, that evolutionary thinking hinders research—especially in medicine.3
Certainly, thousands of scientific papers do invoke selection as a convenient anecdote capable of leaping over any biological or probabilistic hurdle. But if natural selection were both real and as important as evolutionists claim, then it would be reasonable to predict that there would be numerous studies actually measuring its significant influence. But, this is not the case. One initial challenge is that anything being measured must first be defined. The slippery definition of “natural selection” itself is a huge problem, but so is the definition of its sister concept, “fitness” or “the fittest.”
“Fitness” may have nothing to do strictly with survival. It has variably been defined as relating to number of mates, fertility, gross number of offspring, number of offspring living to reproductive age, offspring in specific environments, or any combination of these. The eminent evolutionist Leigh Van Valen summed up a conundrum akin to that of natural selection:
Yes, fitness is the central concept of evolutionary biology, but it is an elusive concept. Almost everyone who looks at it seriously comes out in a different place. There are literally dozens of genuinely different definitions, which I won’t review here. At least two people have called fitness indefinable, a biological primitive.…Or is it that we can’t define it because we do not fully understand it.4
This fact may decrease the surprise of why traits that are already believed to be bearing on fitness (i.e., the focus of study) show little correlation to being naturally selected.
The American Naturalist published in 2001 the largest analysis of the degree to which selection of changes of specific physical traits in an animal group affects their fitness—as measured by survival, mating success, and offspring.5 It tabulated 63 prior field studies covering 62 species and over 2,500 estimates of selection. Significance was obtained using statistical analysis and not opinions. The highest median correlation of trait selection to fitness was a low 16 percent. This means 84 percent of changes were not explained by selection. So-called directional and stabilizing selection were no more likely to happen than non-directional and disruptive selection. In studies with species sample sizes greater than 1,000, the correlation of selection to survival was essentially negligible.
Evolutionary geneticist Eugene Koonin compiled an exhaustive review of Darwinian evolution in light of recent genetics. He found the accepted proposition was false that “fixation of (rare) beneficial changes by natural selection is the main driving force of evolution that, generally, produces increasingly complex adaptive features of organisms; hence progress as a general trend in evolution.” In his view, the concept of some traits as “selected for” was essentially irrelevant and neutral processes combined with elimination primarily drove evolution.6
Consistent with these findings were additional observations by paleontologist Kurt Wise that expectations of the relevance of natural selection theory were at odds with several observations from genetics. Highly notable was “the low frequency of NS [natural selection] examples and the statistics of proposed examples of NS.” While he does not conclude that the reason for the lack of examples was suggestive that selection exists only as a mental construct, he did indicate that “this suggests that NS is not an important factor in either the development or sustenance of modern biology, so should not play a major role in creation biology theory.”7
The relevance of selection is not in actual field studies. So where do researchers find selection relevant? In laboratory studies where intelligent humans with a real volition actually make choices.
The University of Chicago’s expert on evolutionary biology, Jerry Coyne, recounts that while early researchers were reluctant to accept selection due to the “paucity of evidence,” contemporary thinkers understand that the artificial selection used by breeders is the best way to know that selection happens by environments. He says:
In contrast, artificial selection has been stunningly successful. Virtually everything that we eat, grow or pet has involved transforming a wild species, through selective breeding, into something radically different. (Bear in mind that the ancestor of the Chihuahua is the wolf.) And of the thousands of selection experiments performed on species in the laboratory, I know of fewer than a dozen that have failed to elicit a response. Why is this relevant to natural selection? As [Richard] Dawkins observes, “Artificial selection is not just an analogy for natural selection. Artificial selection constitutes a true experimental—as opposed to observational—test of the hypothesis that selection causes evolutionary change.” That’s because both processes inexorably result from genetic variation that is adaptive in the current environment, with the “environment” in one case dominated by humans who decide which individuals get to live and breed.8
So, the evidence to “see selection” actually happen has returned to metaphor…just as it started with Darwin. But this analogy cannot carry the evolutionists’ assertions. First, artificial selectors have always observed limits to variability (after millennia of breeding for speed, there are no 100-mile-per-hour horses). Second, scientists have never created two fundamentally different kinds of organisms from a common ancestor. If intelligent selectors cannot obtain fundamentally different kinds due to innate limits to change, what evidence exists that environments can, despite Coyne’s exuberant expectations (Chihuahuas from wolves)?
A leading science philosopher and evolutionist, Arthur Caplan, accurately capsulizes the relevance of selection: “Natural selection is simply a covering term or place-holder for describing the various processes involved in producing evolutionary change, or the products of such change.”9
Supporters of selection should consider that the reason for selection’s irrelevance is not that it is weak beyond belief, but that there is, in fact, nothing tangible to measure.
Idolatry: Ascribing Selective Ability to Inanimate Environmental Stresses
It is annoying when atheists are ahead of creationists in exposing false atheistic thinking. Such is the case with natural selection. Why? Because selection is not atheistic enough for thoughtful atheists. These take their faith seriously and can see that Darwin just replaced God as a supernatural cause for origins with a mystical agent, natural selection—a criticism applicable to creationist articles purporting to show “Natural Selection in Operation.”
God-like capabilities accorded to selection pour from both peer-reviewed and popular evolutionary literature. For example: “The remarkable diversity of life on Earth stands as grand testimony to the creativity of evolution. Over the course of 500 million years, natural selection has fashioned wings for flight, fins for swimming and legs for walking, and that’s just among the vertebrates.”10 The pervasiveness of this mindset was distilled by accomplished geneticist John Sanford:
“It is obvious that the omnipotent power of natural selection can do all things, explain all things….” The above statement came from an early Darwinist, but I have lost the source. The ubiquitous nature of the philosophy underlying this statement makes its source irrelevant. It could have come from just about any Darwinist. In fact, just a few years ago I might have said it myself.11
Remarkably, it is more than these gushing attributions that irritate some atheists…as they do creationists. When websites show a subterranean water table “selecting” trees with longer roots (rather than recognizing that trees have an innate capacity to produce longer roots enabling them to live in areas with deeper water tables), astute atheists can see that intelligence-based power has been ascribed to the inanimate water table—so why not attribute it to some god?
If someone held up a statue and ascribed to it powers to select, naturalists would see this as mysticism and Christians would see this as idolatry. But, in a mental disconnect, identical but more subtle attributions toward a water table instead of a statue are labeled by evolutionists and creationists alike as an “operative force” that can “favor,” “act on,” “pressure,” or “punish” organisms.
Natural selection’s intrinsic spiritual problem was derided by non-theist observers from the outset. In 1861, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences described Darwin’s Origin of Species as “metaphysical jargon thrown amiss in the natural history,” “pretentious and empty language!,” “puerile [silly] and supernatural personifications!,” and stated that Darwin “imagines afterwards that this power of selecting which he gives to Nature is similar to the power of man.”12
Selection’s essential paranormal weakness was central in Norman MacBeth’s 1971 critique of Darwinism: “Natural selection is supposed to be an impersonal force that replaces all Watchmakers of other guiding powers so that evolution can be explained without calling in external agency.” He identified that selection was always used as “an impersonal process that is continually given personal qualities.” Thus, “if the reader is surprised to find natural selection disintegrating under scrutiny, I was no less so. But when we reflect upon the matter is it so surprising?”13
The innate mystical problem of selection was addressed yet again by two distinguished atheists in 2010 in a book urging fellow evolutionists to end appeals to selection’s omnipotent power and to consider new mechanisms:
Familiar claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Darwin didn’t manage to get mental causes out of his account of how evolution works. He just hid them in the unexamined analogy between selection by breeding and natural selection...we can claim something Darwinists cannot. There is no ghost in our machine; neither God, nor Mother Nature…and there are no phantom breeders either. What breeds the ghosts in Darwinism is its covert appeal to intensional biological explanations....Darwin pointed the direction to a thoroughly naturalistic—indeed a thoroughly atheistic—theory of phenotype [trait] formation; but he didn’t see how to get the whole way there. He killed off God, if you like, but Mother Nature and other pseudoagents got away scot-free. We think it’s now time to get rid of them too.14
Creationists should also seriously consider what is really explained scientifically by merely saying that a trait was “selected for” or “selected against.” Those magical phrases cannot truly be expected to reveal why certain traits originate and exist in populations.
Evolutionists are currently bound to selection. But read creationist literature. Consider if there is not a single printed explanation invoking a mysterious power that “positively selects,” “operates on,” “punishes,” or “favors” that could not have had a more precise scientific description referencing the internal capacities of the organism—and skipped attributing imaginary intelligent actions to any exogenous inanimate object. Creationist literature can function exceedingly well without those words; but try to imagine what evolutionary literature could explain without using them—it would be starved of its mechanism and life. Selection-based accounts will have mystical forces granting “favor,” but organism-based descriptions will stay on the facts—and honor the Lord.15
If some atheists see how natural selection is an inherently idolatrous explanation for the design of life and desire to “get rid” of it, creationists ought to as well. Consider the Lord’s declaration in Isaiah 42:8: “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.”
Selection is idolatrous in the basest of ways. Not only does it ascribe intelligence-like powers to unconscious environmental features, like any other idol, but it induces people not to give the Lord credit for the incredible intelligence and machinery He has built into His creatures that enable them to adapt to environmental features.
- MacPherson, K. Evolution’s new wrinkle: Proteins with ‘cruise control’ provide new perspective. Princeton University news release, November 10, 2008, reporting on research published in Chakrabarti, R. et al. 2008. Mutagenic Evidence for the Optimal Control of Evolutionary Dynamics. Physical Review Letters. 100: 258103.
- See Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: Recognizing Missed Warning Signs. Acts & Facts. 40 (5): 12-15; Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: How Natural Selection Is Given Credit for Design in Nature. Acts & Facts. 40 (7): 12-15; Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: The Illusion That Natural Selection Operates on Organisms. Acts & Facts. 40 (9): 12-15.
- Guliuzza, R. 2009. Darwinian Medicine: A Prescription for Failure. Acts & Facts. 38 (2): 32.
- Van Valen, L. 1989. Three Paradigms of Evolution. Evolutionary Theory. 9: 2.
- Kingsolver, J. et al. 2001. The Strength of Phenotypic Selection in Natural Populations. The American Naturalist. 157 (3): 245-61.
- Koonin, E. V. 2009. Darwinian evolution in the light of genomics. Nucleic Acids Research. 37 (4): 1011-34.
- Wise, K. 2009. Creation biology suggestions from evolutionary genetics. Occasional Papers of the BSG. 13: 6.
- Coyne, J. The Improbability Pump: Why has natural selection always been the most contested part of evolutionary theory? The Nation, May 10, 2010.
- Caplan, A. 1982. Say It Just Ain’t So: Adaptational Stories and Sociobiological Explanations of Social Behavior. Philosophical Forum. 13 (2-3): 149.
- Jones, D. 2010. Evolvability: How to cash in on the genetic lottery. New Scientist. 2766: 46-49.
- Sanford, J. 2008. Genetic Entropy. Waterloo, NY: FMS Publications, 161.
- Huxley, T. H. 1894. Darwiniana. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 65.
- Macbeth, N. 1971. Darwin Retried. Boston, MA: The Harvard Common Press, 45-50.
- Fodor, J. and M. Piattelli-Palmarini. 2010. What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 162-163.
- Thomas, B. Fish Designed to Tolerate Poison. ICR News. Posted on www.icr.org March 3, 2011.
* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.
Cite this article: Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: Natural Selection’s Idolatrous Trap. Acts & Facts. 40 (11): 12-15.