Darwin's Sacred Imposter: How Natural Selection Is Given Credit for Design in Nature | The Institute for Creation Research

Darwin's Sacred Imposter: How Natural Selection Is Given Credit for Design in Nature

In medicine, a patient’s symptoms may be explained by many causes. Experienced doctors train new physicians to keep an open mind and an active list of potential diseases until evidence indicates one. Thoroughness for the patient’s sake is crucial, and skilled doctors quickly change their thinking if indicated by new evidence. The good of the patient far surpasses a doctor’s pride.

This willingness to remain open to new assessments based on the evidence is consistent with the self-correcting characteristic of science. Scientists working in creation research maintain an added perspective: Science is used to glorify the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. So, keeping open minds regarding new explanations and reversing wrong thinking come as readily to them as to the finest physicians. The skilled scientists who conduct creation research seek to maintain scientific integrity. Two of ICR’s sister organizations even maintain lists of arguments creationists should avoid.1

It is also not uncommon in evolutionary literature to find statements like “this new finding changes everything we thought we knew about….” Liberated minds endeavor to evaluate all ideas—even those taken as genuine, like “natural selection”—to ensure they are fixed in reality.2

And while the statement “organisms generate traits that successfully fit nature” is accurate, why do knowledgeable scientists, including creation scientists, routinely state, “Nature selects the fittest organisms”? Several scientific and theological reasons show why “selection” inappropriately describes what transpires at the organism-environment interface on every level. I call them the “Seven I’s.” (We’ll deal with four in this article.)

Indispensable: “Nature Selects” Is the Heart of Evolution

Daniel Dennett of Tufts University said:

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.3

Both observations are right on target. First, as he and the following evolutionists avow, evolution has no life apart from natural selection. Second, “selection” is a captivatingly powerful idea—it’s difficult to dislodge things that exist only in someone’s mind. A decade later, Dennett elaborated that “selection” is the natural designer equivalent to God.

With evolution, however, it is different. The fundamental scientific idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling; natural selection, by executing God’s traditional task of designing and creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of the best reasons we have for believing in God….The idea that natural selection has the power to generate such sophisticated designs is deeply counterintuitive.4

Distinguished Harvard theorist Ernst Mayr stresses, “The theory of natural selection as proposed by Darwin and Wallace became the cornerstone of the modern interpretation of evolution. It was truly a revolutionary concept…the exclusive direction-giving factor to evolution.”5

“The theory of natural selection has a big job—the biggest in biology,” affirms University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne. “Its task is to explain how every adaptation evolved, step by step, from traits that preceded it.”6

Richard Dawkins’ preeminent treatment of “selection” in The Greatest Show on Earth was advanced by Coyne:

I think Dawkins is a bit too timid in his defense of natural selection. While biologists agree that natural selection is not the only cause of genetic change in populations, the evidence is strong that it’s the only one that can produce the remarkable adaptations of animals and plants to their environment….Natural selection remains the only explanation for the wondrous adaptive complexity of organisms.7

In verbiage reminiscent of a creed, Coyne sums it up:

There is only one going theory of evolution, and it is this: organisms evolved gradually over time and split into different species, and the main engine of evolutionary change was natural selection. Sure, some details of these processes are unsettled, but there is no argument among biologists about the main claims.8

Other factors like genetic drift, lateral gene transfer, sexual selection, epigenetics, and self-organization are believed to contribute to increased biological design, but these are minor players compared to “selection.” Even the intriguing evolutionary scenario “Facilitated Variation” advocated by Drs. Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, that of “resolving Darwin’s dilemma,” hangs on the ability of “selection” to generate “core processes” (e.g., reproduction) through “waves of innovation” and to selectively “conserve” them through time.9 Stuart Kauffman, a proponent of the idea that complexity arises via selection and self-organization, explained:

Biologists now tend to believe profoundly that natural selection is the invisible hand that crafts well-wrought forms. It may be an overstatement to claim that biologists view selection as the sole source of order in biology, but not by much. If current biology has a central canon, you have now heard it.10

Cast aside any doubt. The heart and soul of evolution is “selection”—because it’s ultimately the controlling “mind” behind the entire hypothetical evolutionary process.

Intelligence: Falsely Credited to “Nature”

Though Darwin did not know exactly how variable traits are inherited, research has shown that DNA segments called genes (and other information) control how traits are expressed. Genetic alterations called mutations can profoundly affect expression. Evolutionists believe a major source of new genetic material is mutation. The vital need, however, is some type of management—a substitute designer that “sees,” “selects,” “saves,” and “builds” with mutations. “Natural selection” is intended to fill this role.

The word “select” is an absolute necessity to Darwinism. Prior to “natural selection” becoming accepted in the 1930s, the ability to deliberate alternative outcomes and make choices was considered to be restricted to conscious agents. Volition was implicit of intelligence. In reality, deliberative capacity is still evidence of information-bearing agents. Choice-making abilities have never been observed by anything other than these agents or by things they have designed.

Life displays features apparently chosen by a designer to solve environmental problems or exploit properties such as gravity and friction. Darwin’s extraordinarily clever account attributes those features to unintelligent natural forces that somehow could “select” in a way very much akin to how animal breeders select.

Analogy to artificial selection allowed Darwin to sweep God’s intelligence out of nature’s design with one hand, and sweep in a natural source of intelligence—a substitute god—with the other. But is there really a natural reservoir of choice-making ability, a natural fount of intelligence equivalent to an animal breeder’s mind? No.

Darwin’s masterful rhetoric subtly reversed the real power source at the organism-environment interface. Framed in modern biology’s context, it’s now clear that credit is taken from the organism’s DNA and reproductive mechanisms and given to the environment. He successfully deflected attention from an organism’s God-given capacity to reproduce offspring with heritable, variable traits that turn out to be suitable to environments, and invalidly terms that as a selection of “nature.” Thus, intelligence is misappropriated from the living world and ascribed to unintelligent—but now “selective”—nature.>

Illegitimate: “Selection” Literally Applied Apart from a Real “Selector”

As a fascinating counter-example, a 2005 article in The Scientist strongly contends that evolutionists feed the beast of theism by incessantly using the word “design” in publications. An example was made of Timothy Bradley’s paper in Nature, which evidently said insect respiration was “designed to function most efficiently.” The Scientist said:

Bradley concedes that in his paper the word design is subject to misinterpretation, and he says that “there is no reason for sloppy language.”…[Brown University’s Ken] Miller, who is also the coauthor of a widely used biology textbook, wouldn’t use the word design with his students. “They are going to take the language too literally, and it will cause a misunderstanding.”11

Basically, their problem is this: Since there is no designer, using the word “design” is fundamentally illegitimate—in spite of qualifiers like “apparent” or “illusion of” preceding it. Just using the word to explain anything is self-defeating. The Scientist makes a good point. Why would any evolutionist persist in incorrectly using “design,” since that word by necessity evokes thoughts of a “designer” and will always be misinterpreted?

Usage of the word “selection” mirrors this dilemma—which has been criticized since 1859. To legitimately use the word “select,” there must be a real “selector.” As previously documented, when pressed on this illegitimate use of the word, Darwin conceded that tying “selection” to a real agent is “false,” and his followers also admit it’s “not really accurate.”2

Advocates, therefore, insist that “selection” is not used in a literal sense. Really? Darwin deliberately used words that literally described natural selection like a real external mechanism.

His strategy—of appealing to precedent in the prestige science of physics and chemistry, and of declaring that his metaphorical phrases were likewise equivalent to expressions with plain, literal meanings—required more consensus than there ever had been in the understanding of theological, metaphysical, and scientific language concerning God, nature, laws, forces, and causes. One source of trouble was that Darwin liked the term “natural selection” because it could be “used as a substantive governing a verb” (F. Darwin, 1887, vol. 3, p. 46). But such uses appeared to reify, even to deify, natural selection as an agent.12

In The Scientist, Bradley, to avoid “sloppy language” and being “misunderstood,” would prefer saying “shaped by selection pressures” instead of “designed.” However, evolutionary purveyors of “selection” themselves indulge in “sloppy language.” For them, “selection” via a “selector” is no more real than “design” by a “designer.”

Since “selection” only happens in someone’s mind, word usage is very important. So when Darwin states, “Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing…every variation…rejecting that which is bad…silently and insensibly working,” or Kauffman says, “Natural selection is the invisible hand that crafts,” or Coyne asserts, “Natural selection builds features that benefit individuals,” or creationists say that selection “works on,” “favors,” or “punishes,” can someone really discern how much convincing is being accomplished through literal or metaphorical use rather than evidence?

A revealing statement should be directed to anyone who makes such literal claims for “selection’s” design abilities: “Show me the selector.” Since there’s no selector, the response to personifying “natural selection” will be, “Well, it’s just a figure of speech” or “shorthand.”

Consider Coyne’s honest, but shrewd, retreat:

Although we evolutionary biologists might describe the polar bear scenario as “natural selection acting on coat color,” that’s only our shorthand for the longer description given above. There is no agency, no external force of nature that “acts” on individuals. There is only differential replication of genes, with the winners behaving as if they were selfish (that’s shorthand, too).7

He continues applying assorted metaphorical powers to “selection” without much concern that people will “take the language too literally,” causing “a misinterpretation.”

Since no tangible force or agent can truly be linked to “selection”—even by analogy or metaphor—using the word puts evolutionists in a dilemma. On one hand, the concept’s mental power resides in metaphorical usages. “Selection” must be personified as the intelligent “selector” intentionally “working on” organisms…but becomes exposed to this valid objection: If the incorrect usage leads, then a misinterpreted deification of Nature follows. On the other hand, if “selection” is merely a figure of speech, or an unhelpful circular observation like “survival of the fittest,” or a label applied to organisms’ innate capacities, then it loses all of its power—since these cannot really explain nature’s design.

Since Darwin, action words like “selection” are applied to unconscious nature, transfiguring it into a literal “power” that “builds” things. However, once critics identify how this omnipotent “Natural Selector” arises from a vacuous analogy, evolutionists claim their word choice is only a figure of speech—a ploy characterized as the “bait-and-switch” logical error.13 Even fellow evolutionists notice:

The newer twentieth-century explications of natural selection that have accompanied the rise of mathematical, experimental, and ecological population genetics have not displaced the older figurative and rhetorical life of the term so evident in Darwin’s own writings. Rather, that life continues to be extended in the novel invocations of the “selfishness” of DNA of the “tinkering” achieved in adaptive evolution (Dawkins, 1986; Jacob, 1989). The conclusion must be that scientific supporters of natural selection have not seen this semantic, and even ideological, promiscuity as a ground for abandoning the term altogether.12

Imposter: “Selection” Given Credit for Organism’s Capabilities

Consider a scenario in which a so-called revolutionary book details how a certain critical muscle-renovating process called “Ecospheric Renovation” can act on anyone. Readers are told that this process will work in their depleted muscle cells if and only if: 1) Sustenance rich in protein is ingested; 2) basic components are split from foodstuffs by digestion; and 3) muscle cells absorb those new molecules. If these conditions are met, “Ecospheric Renovation” will occur. Muscle cells will be pressured toward vitality.

Carefully presenting “Ecospheric Renovation” in this way might garner some believers. But astute people will say, “What renovation? ‘Ecospheric Renovation’ is just a clever label placed on innate metabolic processes already taking place. If this acts on me, who or what is the ‘renovator’? Renovation is simply taking credit for my own processes.” Like “natural selection,” the words “Ecospheric” and “Renovation” effectively divert attention away from where metabolic powers to support muscles really reside—strictly within innate capabilities of organisms.

Darwin’s remarkable feat—which continues nearly unaltered—was to get everyone looking at the organism-environment interface from the environment’s perspective. External forces are illegitimately given credit for the capabilities of the organisms. This fraud is clearly captured in the conclusion of the Origin: “The production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes,” which Darwin claims exist external to inhabitants, so “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being…to progress toward perfection,” therefore, “these elaborately constructed forms…have all been produced by laws acting around us.” Immediately, he describes them as “these laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth and Reproduction; Inheritance…; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the condition of life.”14 The “laws” of reproduction, variability, and inheritance do not act “around us,” they act in us.

If modern descriptions of “selection” are of a process, a study of prerequisites from either evolutionist or creationist advocates unfailingly includes three organism-centered conditions: 1) reproduction of traits, 2) which differ vitally in ability to solve environmental problems, 3) which are heritable. Just like Darwin, conditions specified to be environmental “selection” are really the unfolding of genetic abilities programmed into organisms themselves.

A distinctive of living things is their goal-directed operation—one of which is filling ecological niches. This is in obedience to God telling “them” to be “fruitful,” “multiply,” and “fill” the earth (Genesis 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1, 7.) An organism-based paradigm is biblical. The Lord enables creatures via reproduction of variable, heritable traits to fulfill His purpose. Organisms are programmed with this power. They are the active party at the organism-environment interface to either succeed or fail. Environments are problems or opportunities that organisms are programmed to try to deal with so they can fill them. Organisms generating traits suitable to an environment fill, pioneer, or move into that environment—they are not “selected for.”

Organism-based metrics such as fertility, gene frequencies, or death rates can be quantified as populations generate traits suitable to fill changing environments. What has not been quantified is any “selecting” force or intelligence. Nobody has ever seen a “selection” happen. The words “natural” and “selection” in no verifiable way accurately describe observable interactions between an organism and its environment.

It is challenging to dissect evolutionary language that clouds the fact that the power to solve ecological challenges resides in organisms and not environments. For instance, which statement is true: “Changing environments select the fit, enabling better design in organisms,” or “Organism’s innate design enables a better fit to changing environments”? Might promoters fixate on the apparent self-evident “selection” impacting populations and miss that the explanation for a “selector” is a mental perception that is not grounded on reality?

The power of “natural selection” to imprison minds must always be taken seriously—as it’s only in the mind that “selection” actually occurs. So what happens in a mind that observes organisms (programmed to generate potentially problem-solving variable traits) overcoming environmental problems? What arises in minds immersed in “natural selection” that view interactions from the perspective of “nature’s” inanimate forces and are further clouded by being uninformed that there is no real “selector”?

When such a mind sees offspring possessing traits they generate, enabling them to pioneer into changed environments, paradoxically their mind “sees” the environment “select for” an organism—a conclusion opposite to real external stimuli.2 That mind just ascribed intelligent action, “selection,” to unintelligent natural forces. Even worse, it did not ascribe proper credit to the Lord. Replacing “selection” with the truth that organisms are programmed with powerful potential capabilities—namely, to reproduce with variable, heritable traits, enabling them to fill earth’s environments—can liberate one’s mind.

Provisionally Held or Passionately Believed

A hallmark of practitioners of science is a provisional hold on explanations in order to willingly acknowledge that there may be more than they understand. There should be no doubt that evolution’s heart and soul is “selection” and that serious harm to “selection” undermines evolution. If the evidence points to the fact that “natural selection” is merely a figure of speech, and thus impotent, should not honest scientists put aside their passionately held beliefs and accept reality?

But what exactly is passionately believed? Knowing this might explain why resistance to change comes from people who insist that they know exactly what “natural selection” means.

Four recent and emphatic claims are that natural selection is “just a principle,” “a real process,” “only a figure of speech,” or “survival of the fittest.” These clashing assertions typify why scientific literature is awash in ecological, figurative, and rhetorical uses. Hodge distills the problem:

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.12

“Selection” is cleverly—but illegitimately—used to attribute intelligence to an unthinking environment to explain nature’s design. As a label applied to the normal outworking of organisms’ innate programming that enables them to fill environments, it steals credit from the organism and ultimately from the Lord. Just using the word in any way as an explanation is self-defeating, since it always feeds the beast of some substitute designer. Instead of convincing people that “selection” is real but really weak, it would be wiser to show them that “selection” is not really real. Ascribing glory to the Creator, and not to “natural selection,” should itself be motivation enough.

Click here for other articles in the Darwin's Sacred Imposter series.


  1. See Get Answers, posted on answersingenesis.org, and Sarfati, J. 2002. Moving Forward: Arguments we think creationists shouldn’t use. Creation. 24 (2): 20-24.
  2. Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: Recognizing Missed Warning Signs. Acts & Facts. 40 (5): 12-15.
  3. Dennett, D. C. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Touchstone, 21.
  4. Dennett, D. C. Show Me the Science. New York Times, August 28, 2005.
  5. Mayr, E. 2001. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 115.
  6. Coyne, J. 2009. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 119, emphasis in original.
  7. Coyne, J. The Improbability Pump: Why has natural selection always been the most contested part of evolutionary theory? The Nation, May 10, 2010.
  8. Coyne, J. Don’t Know Much Biology. Edge, June 6, 2007, 212.
  9. Kirschner, M. W. and J. C. Gerhart. 2005. The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma. New Haven: Yale University Press, 255.
  10. Kauffman, S. A. 1995. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. New York: Oxford University Press, 150.
  11. Flores, G. 2005. Journals and intelligent design. The Scientist. 19 (4): 12.
  12. Hodge, M. J. S. 1992. Natural Selection: Historical Perspectives. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 212-219.
  13. Johnson, J. J. S. 2011. Just Say No to Trojan Horses. Acts & Facts. 40 (2): 17-18.
  14. Darwin, C. 1872. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 6th ed. London: Senate, 428-429.

* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.

Cite this article: Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin's Sacred Imposter: How Natural Selection Is Given Credit for Design in Nature. Acts & Facts. 40 (7): 12-15.

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