Darwin's Sacred Imposter: The Illusion That Natural Selection Operates on Organisms | The Institute for Creation Research

Darwin's Sacred Imposter: The Illusion That Natural Selection Operates on Organisms

Suppose in July 1969 two men watched the Saturn V rocket launch the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. One marveled at the power of nature’s cosmic siphon acting on the rocket to lift it off the pad and accelerate it upward. The other said that liftoff was actually caused by a natural phenomenon called “natural projection” that was inevitable if compressed combustible fuels were released and ignited in a cone, directing violently expanding gases downward with sufficient thrust to lift the rocket. When conditions that permit “natural projection” occur, he said, liftoff “just happens.”1

But a NASA engineer standing behind them explained that there was no measurable cosmic siphoning force “acting on” the rocket. Nor did the launch “just happen.” The rocket itself possessed designed features facilitating the exact conditions the second man labeled “natural projection.” Liftoff was due to the purposeful outworking of those innate features.

The engineer pointed out how neither of their concepts—or descriptive words—truly reflected reality. Why? They mistakenly ascribed the rocket’s operative power to entirely imaginary and external things that, in effect, took credit for the rocket designer’s built-in functions.

The Crucial Question: Is Adaptive Power External or Internal?

Does functional power reside internally or externally? That is the crucial question in explaining how rockets work or how organisms adapt to environmental conditions. Note that in all cases, function results from the operation of information-based systems. Intelligence is the source of that type of power. For organisms, these are DNA-based systems that enable reproduction of variable traits that are heritable.

Accurately distinguishing the power controlling actions is very different from quibbling over how to describe an action. It may be silly to argue whether a certain action is best described as “a woman walked out her front door” or “a woman walked out of her house.” But accurately identifying the power behind the action is important when another meaning—like “a woman was pulled out of her house”—could be implied.

In the realm of mainstream science, supporters of “natural selection” routinely confuse these differences. They assert that it is just two sides of the same coin to say either an environment “selected for” a creature or a creature “moved into” an environment. But if two opposite sources of power are in view—external versus internal—then correctly distinguishing them is very important.

In terms of the creation-evolution controversy, correctly identifying the source of power comes down to this: Are an organism’s abilities to adapt due to non-natural internal capacities programmed into them by God to enable them to fill His earth, or are adaptive traits due to exogenous ecological variables that select for or against them and, via these pressures, shape an organism’s genetic information as its traits are naturally selected by environments? Is the power truly designed into organisms, or does an external power—natural selection—confer merely the natural appearance of design? Without that external force, the evolutionary process is ended.

All supporters of natural selection assign some external “selecting” agent that “selects for or against,” “operates on,” “pressures,” or “favors” as the power behind an organism’s traits to solve environmental problems. “Nature selects” bears a presumption of inherent intelligence that assigns an operative agency external to the organism—famously popularized by Darwin, who targeted the word “selection” to introduce into organism-environment interactions an intelligence-based power that could “work on” organisms.2 “Natural” indicates that God is not the source of this power.

Shortly after publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin was widely criticized for his “metaphysical jargon” in that he “imagines afterwards that this power of selecting which he gives to Nature is similar to the power of man.”3 Thomas Huxley’s lengthy rebuttal distills a fundamental premise of selection: Traits are owing to the power of inanimate environments to select for or against them just like humans can select.

I have put it in this way, but you see the practical result of the process [struggle for existence] is the same as if some person had nurtured the one and destroyed the other seeds….That is what is meant by NATURAL SELECTION; that is the kind of argument by which it is perfectly demonstrable that the conditions of existence [ecology] may play exactly the same part for natural varieties as man does for domesticated varieties. No one doubts at all that particular circumstances [ecology] may be more favourable for one plant and less so for another, and the moment you admit that, you admit the selective power of nature.4

But, as shown below, no one should admit that an environmental problem is really solved due to personified environment-based powers conferring “favor” vis-à-vis “selection.”

Selection always happens to organisms from the outside. “Selection” is thus nature’s way to “see,” “select,” “save,” and “build” designed features into organisms without a real designer—the foundation of evolutionary thinking.1 As legendary evolutionist Leigh Van Valen stated succinctly, “Evolution is the control of development by ecology.”5 While a contemporary appraisal still champions external forces, “what then about theories of evolution? Adaptationism, as we read it, is also a one-level theory: it purports to explain the fixation of phenotypic properties [traits] as the effects of selection by ecological variables.”6

The disconnect that is almost universally missed is this extraordinarily clever ploy: Use “selection” as an external “pressure,” but define it as a “process” whose interrelated elements are, strangely, the actual outworking of the organism’s own innate capacities to reproduce variable heritable traits.7 In this critical regard, evolutionist and creationist literature advocating “selection” is identical. So, a non-quantifiable and totally imaginary exogenous “selecting agent” gets credit for the success of endogenous systems that bear hallmarks of being designed into organisms.

Those who understand that organisms are “programmed” by God to “fill” environments accurately identify internal forces as the power source. These are the outworking of internal systems that enable reproduction of variable traits that are inheritable—which are always observed to operate in the context of the whole organism. This means that the DNA and operating cellular machinery of an E. coli bacterium are indispensable for producing another E. coli. “Nature selects for…” is the exact opposite of reality. External versus internal sources of power are clearly not two sides of the same coin.

Can nature really “select for” traits like human breeders do? Can human breeders eventually demonstrate unlimited variability in organisms by intentionally selecting for traits? Darwin assumed the obvious answer to both questions was “yes.” Many creationists believe that natural selection is obvious, but unlimited variability is not. Scientifically, neither a natural selecting agent nor unlimited variability has ever been documented.

There are several reasons why it is scientifically and theologically inappropriate to apply “selection” in any way to describe what transpires at the organism-environment interface. In a previous article,2 the first four were summarized as:

  1. Indispensable: “Nature Selects” Is the Heart of Evolution
  2. Intelligence: Falsely Credited to “Nature”
  3. Illegitimate: “Selection” Literally Applied Apart From a Real “Selector”
  4. Imposter: “Selection” Given Credit for Organism’s Capabilities

Another important reason needs to be examined.

Illusion: “Selection” Only Exists as a Mental Construct

Natural selection is used to explain why life looks like it is composed of well-designed parts selected by a designer.1 It carries evolution’s explanation for “apparent design.” By definition, it “selects” and, therefore, fills the bill of substitute intelligence. Selection is a non-random, deliberative, cognitive action indicative of intelligence. People may wonder how “selection” could ever be legitimately applied to inanimate natural forces, seeing, as evolutionist M. Hodge acknowledged, “that no one would easily or inadvertently slip into talking of nature as a realm where anything like selection was located; and, indeed, we find few authors before Darwin making that transition.”8

The answer flows basically from how one explains this scenario: A population of organisms is observed only in environment A. Five years later, some organisms remain in environment A, some offspring and some original organisms are observed in new sub-environment B, and some have died. Ascribing functional power to a real versus imaginary source (i.e., organism vs. environment, or internal vs. external) leads to profoundly different explanations.

Adherents of organism-based programmed filling explain that organisms with innate, developed, or inherited traits suitable to environment B pioneered into it, while organisms with traits still fitting A stayed put, and it is yet uncertain why some died—a fact-restricted explanation. Information-based systems internal to organisms drive the process.

Promoters of environment-centered “selection” claim that any organism’s adaptive traits are owing to pressures from environment B that “selected for” its organisms from environment A, and both environments “selected against” the dead organisms—an explanation interwoven with imaginary external forces and selectors. This account permeates scientific literature.

For example, even in the face of their extraordinarily thorough research documenting elaborate innate molecular mechanisms controlling mouse coat color, Harvard researchers paradoxically say:

To unravel evolutionary mechanisms in the wild, we must estimate the fitness advantage of adaptive alleles [alternate forms of a gene] and infer their source, either as new or preexisting variation. In the Sand Hills of Nebraska, deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) have evolved a dorsal coat that closely matches their local habitat…which is probably due to selection against avian predation.9

The Illusion Can Captivate Minds

Those who support selection actually believe they really see mindless environments “select for” coat colors that now exist because exogenous “selective pressures operate on” mice, building traits and driving “favored” mice toward exquisitely crafted adaptations. “And this is the way, we think, that all organisms acquire that appearance of ‘design’ that, before Darwin, was attributed to God,” says a leading evolutionary authority.10 How can minds “see” things in direct opposition to reality, but not see that it is the mice’s sophisticated endogenous systems with the power to produce traits that may overcome problems of certain ecological niches?

For Darwin, it was easier to see external environments as the causal force acting on organisms since scientists then were ignorant of DNA and internal operating cellular machinery. Creatures do fit their environments very well, environmental elements can be seen, so it was thought likely that some type of environmental force caused these remarkably suited adaptations. But “nature” is unthinking, while most features in organisms seem so perfectly designed. How can a human brain reconcile those incongruent facts?

Darwin’s analogy between artificial selection—guided by human intelligence—and natural selection made the intelligence connection. He then left the rest to imagination:

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results…But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts....11

Cognitive neuroscientist, psychology professor, and evolutionist Michael Shermer elegantly explained how Darwin was able to construct his beliefs and reinforce them as truth. His recent work, summarized in Nature by fellow evolutionist A. C. Grayling, highlights the brain’s “readiness to nominate agency—intentional action—as the cause of natural events.” Grayling describes how “animism [belief that living spirits inhabit inanimate objects]…is fully explained by Shermer’s agenticity concept. It is not religion but proto-science—an attempt to explain natural phenomena by analogy with the one causative power our ancestors knew well: their own agency.”12 This is akin to how “natural selection” attributes power to inanimate environments by analogy to man’s ability to select.

Shermer’s observations of how humans readily project human cognition onto other things—such as why certain dog owners know exactly what their pet is “saying” after a few barks—might explain why Shermer himself believes he really sees nature “select” traits, or that a mouse’s hair color is “due to selection against,” or why some suppose “natural selection works on God’s created gene pool,” and how minds saturated in selection consider factors like competition and predation as true “agents of selection.”13 Remarkably, all these beliefs in external causations via selection by inanimate forces are posited in spite of over 50 years of scientific discoveries involving DNA and how organisms actually produce variable heritable traits.

The Illusion of a “Blind Watchmaker”

For many people, once the fact that natural selection is shown as simply a mental construct that actually “steals” credit for what organisms are programmed to do, the illusion is obvious. Others zealously defend “selection.” Why? It is no accident that knowledgeable evolutionists need power centered in the environment—via natural selection—so an exogenous “force” analogous to human intelligence is available to “work on” organisms. “Selection” is the heart of evolutionary theory since it is the only plausible mechanism external to the organism that can and must explain design as if by the “Blind Watchmaker.”14 However, apply a reality check to their criteria—especially contrasting design mechanisms of a real designer versus natural selection—and the illusion of selection is clear.

In design processes, an engineer’s power flows from his knowledge to see and select specific materials and processes that build a plan suitable to solve a problem. Engineers are active and the problem is passive. If their plan solves a problem, it is a misrepresentation to view the process from the perspective of the problem and claim that the “problem selected” the best plan. Intelligence would be attributed to a non-living thing. No one does this for a human design process. Yet, this is precisely what evolutionists do with natural selection.

Organisms, as evolutionist Jerry Coyne correctly observes, face many environmental problems to solve, “whether that environment be the physical circumstances of life, like temperature and humidity, or the other organisms—competitors, predators, and prey—that every species must deal with.”15 Environments are the problems (or sometimes opportunities) challenging organisms—a challenge magnified by constant change.

Organisms must do what only they can do. DNA’s information corresponds to a real engineer’s thinking and selecting. Environments are the problem—not the solution. In regard to problem solving at the organism-environment interface, living organisms are active, environments are passive. They must reproduce variable heritable traits that “fit” (meaning suitable to solve vital problems in) their environments—or pioneer into a “new” environment. If no members of a group generate suitable traits, the group goes extinct. If some members generate traits that fit, they fill that niche. The ability to generate beneficial variations already resides in living organisms. Dynamic systems powerful enough to overcome environmental problems go hand in hand with life itself. This is the source of design that natural selection fails to explain…and it is important to point this out.

When the problem solving that occurs at organism-environment interfaces is properly viewed as organism-based, it isn’t surprising that organisms do what their internal capabilities enable them to do—solve environmental problems. Bewildered amazement, however, follows hollow explanations based on “selection’s” illusory powers whose advocates see problem solving as something that “is simply a phenomenon…that just happens…simply happens,”1 or is “just a truism that birds are adapted to their airy ecology.”16 It’s normal to be astounded if one’s attention is deflected from where problem-solving capability truly resides by attributing it to the problem itself (i.e., the environment).

Natural selection as a design process is only an illusion—meaning it cannot explain nature’s design. It wrongly views problem solving from the perspective of passive environmental factors that are falsely empowered to “select” the best traits. Some hope to salvage the “act of selection” through environments by arguing that the organism’s solution to environmental problems is a contingency (meaning it is unknown in advance whether it may or may not work). This is irrelevant. An intelligent engineer’s solutions to problems are often contingent as well, which still does not establish that the problem selected its solution.

The Illusion of Selection as a Measurable Force

Some creationists regularly say that organisms “undergo the process of natural selection.” Evolutionist Coyne believes selection “is a powerful molding force.”17 Both statements attribute, for instance, mouse color changes “to selection against avian predation.” Really? Engineers routinely measure external forces in real processes as they exert their influence. If there was a “selection detection” meter in existence and it was placed on any organism “undergoing the process” to actually sense the “molding force” “operating” on it, what would it register? The meter would stay at zero.

Why will nothing tangible be detected “selecting” the organism? Is it because, as advocates assert, when the “conditions are right” it “just happens” or “is inevitable”? No, it’s actually because “selection” only happens in the mind of beholders who attribute results to external powers that are not rooted in reality. An excellent challenge to expose this illusion is to simply say, “Show me the selector.” Lacking that external mechanism, some may say the “molding force” is just another figure of speech—yet its illusory effect is deflecting attention from where the power truly resides.

But what about the owl feasting on non-camouflaged mice? Isn’t the mouse’s coat color due to measurable predatory pressures selecting against some mice? Absent the owl, the variable trait for coat color (in this case due to mutations) would still have been generated by capabilities within the mice and some could still carry those altered genes—independent of any measurable external force. There might simply be a field filled with variably colored mice. Some light brown mice may pioneer onto sand dunes prowled by owls, but this is owing to their ability to reproduce variable heritable traits—a measurable result due to a measurable cause.

Creatures Are Programmed to Fill the Earth

Creatures have intelligence-based systems to reproduce variable heritable traits that comprise their endogenous power to solve environmental problems, enabling them to fill the earth. That the Lord Jesus would design abilities into His creation to do His good pleasure— that is, multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:22; 8:17; 9:1) via designed reproductive abilities (Genesis 1:11)—demonstrates His Lordship and creation’s dependence. To say that “creatures are programmed to fill the earth” is measurable, scientifically accurate, and biblical—it is no wonder, therefore, that “it happens.”

Proverbs 26:4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.”18 Arguing against selection from within its illusory paradigm ignores this wise instruction. Just as starting with belief in the Big Bang and an ancient earth derails a person from true explanations, belief in the idea that “nature selects” cannot be used to accurately describe reality. It exists as a mental construct, a way of looking at organism-environment interactions that attributes selection ability to non-tangible selectors, uses two illegitimate and false descriptors, and furthers evolutionary thinking as a deceptive figure of speech.

As an exogenous power, it is exactly what evolutionary thinking needs to uncouple the Creator-creature connection and, unsurprisingly, is the exact opposite of reality. It, therefore, fails to give the Lord credit by acknowledging the endogenous power He has masterfully programmed into His creatures.

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


  1. See Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: Recognizing Missed Warning Signs. Acts and Facts. 40 (5):12-15 for examples of how evolutionists and creationists insist that natural selection “just happens.”
  2. Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: How Natural Selection Is Given Credit for Design in Nature. Acts and Facts. 40 (7):12-15.
  3. Huxley, T. H. 1894. Darwiniana. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 99.
  4. Ibid, 469.
  5. Van Valen, L. 1989. Three Paradigms of Evolution. Evolutionary Theory. 9: 2.
  6. Fodor, J. 2010. What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 158.
  7. Endler, J. 1992. Natural Selection: Current Usages. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 220.
  8. Hodge, M. J. S. 1992. Natural Selection: Historical Perspectives. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 213.
  9. Linnen, C. et al. 2009. On the Origin and Spread of an Adaptive Allele in Deer Mice. Science. 325 (5944): 1095.
  10. Coyne, J. The Improbability Pump: Why has natural selection always been the most contested part of evolutionary theory? The Nation, May 10, 2010.
  11. Darwin, C. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection. London: John Murray, 61.
  12. Grayling, A. C. 2011. Psychology: How we form beliefs. Nature. 474 (7352): 446-447.
  13. Calsbeek, R. and R. M. Cox. 2010. Experimentally assessing the relative importance of predation and competition as agents of selection. Nature. 465 (7298): 613-616.
  14. Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
  15. Coyne, J. 2009. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 115.
  16. Fodor, 148.
  17. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, 119.
  18. See “Don’t answer—do answer!” on answersingenesis.org for an excellent exposition of this verse related to creation-evolution discussions.

* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.

 Cite this article: Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin's Sacred Imposter: The Illusion That Natural Selection Operates on Organisms. Acts & Facts. 40 (9): 12-15.

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