The fact of natural selection
First published 16 Nov 2014; last updated 9 Mar 2022.
From time to time, we receive requests to reject natural selection, and adopt the alternative theories of Dr Randy Guliuzza of ICR. One sample letter follows (slightly modified), then Dr Jonathan Sarfati explains why creationists should not be afraid of natural selection and thus abandon the concept to evolutionists. We have expanded and updated this article considerably beyond the initial response, to keep up with some of Dr Guliuzza’s claims as well as counter-claims from more conventional creationists.
From B.R., USA:
The term ‘natural selection’ does not make sense either, it is not only circular, worse; it is misleading in that it personifies nature giving the impression nature has the cognitive ability to engage in a selection process. The environment does not nor can it ‘select’ and equating the statement that it ‘can select’ with ‘just as human breeders select’ is to ascribe intelligence to nature that it simply does not possess. In the process, it takes from the Glory of God, who is lovingly sovereign over all His creation.
The creatures themselves by their own God given instincts and with His guidance determine responses to changes in various environments and they do it with the adaptive ability with which the Good Merciful Creator created them. The idea of ‘natural selection’ would have it the other way around. Whether the term was first coined by a creationist is not relevant, when I read such statements from creationist organizations I sense a real danger in adopting the common language of evolutionists.
“If the incorrect usage leads, then a misinterpreted deification of Nature follows.” Randy J. Guliuzza
Thank you for writing to CMI.
To be blunt, we think Dr Guliuzza of ICR is just wrong about natural selection. I discussed this with a couple of his colleagues when he started talking about natural selection in public and was not impressed. Our own Dr Robert Carter attended a weekend-long workshop hosted at ICR to discuss Guliuzza's then-new ideas. That was in 2010. He left entirely unconvinced and has since written articles like Natural Selection in Paradise that not only claim Guliuzza is wrong but that natural selection itself would have been in operation prior to the Fall (in other words, before suffering and death entered the world). Another ICR scientist (now with AiG), geneticist Dr Nathaniel Jeanson, has written a powerful critique of Dr Guliuzza’s idea,1 as has independent creationist scientist Dr Jason Lisle.2
CMI scientists are unanimous that natural selection is a fact, and part of this fallen creation where unfit creatures die and sometimes even become extinct. Creationists proposed it before Darwin, so why should we be fearful of the term, and let Darwinists monopolize this phenomenon? So our major books like The Greatest Hoax on Earth? and Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels each have a whole chapter explaining this.
We also include our natural selection is a tautology [circular] in our important page Arguments we think creationists should NOT use. Note also, critics can logically pick only one of “Natural selection is false” and “Natural selection is a tautology”, because a tautology is an analytically true statement such as A implies A.
What, then, about the criticisms summarized by the above letter?
What evolutionists mean by natural selection
The ‘personification of nature’ claim is simply a hyperliteralistic misunderstanding of a phrase, and a failure to understand that language is defined by usage. The creationists who first proposed NS and Darwinists who followed them never intended it to mean anything cognitive by nature. So we can’t blame the evolutionists for any misunderstandings. This is easy to document.
First, Darwin himself explained that he used the term to mean the preservation of individuals best adapted to their conditions:
But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.3
Actually, Darwin’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, expressed concerns to him that Darwin’s critics hyper-literalized it just the way Dr Guliuzza thinks it was intended. These critics, said Wallace, charged Darwin with “blindness” for not seeing an intelligent “chooser” at work as in artificial selection. Another anti-Darwinian, according to Wallace, claimed that Darwin’s “weak point” was that he didn’t see that “thought & direction are essential to the action of ‘Nat. Selection’.” Wallace laid the blame on Darwin’s term “Natural selection”, but here it was concern that anti-evolutionists have misunderstood a term that should have been clear:
Now I think this arises almost entirely from your choice of the term “Nat. Selection” & so constantly comparing it in its effects, to Man’s selection, and also to your so frequently personifying Nature as “selecting” as “preferring” as “seeking only the good of the species” &c. &c. To the few, this is as clear as daylight, & beautifully suggestive, but to many it is evidently a stumbling block. I wish therefore to suggest to you the possibility of entirely avoiding this source of misconception in your great work, (if not now too late) & also in any future editions of the Origin, and I think it may be done without difficulty & very effectually by adopting Spencer’s term (which he generally uses in preference to Nat. Selection) viz. “Survival of the fittest”.
This term is the plain expression of the facts,—Nat. selection is a metaphorical expression of it—and to a certain degree indirect & incorrect, since, even personifying Nature, she does not so much select special variations, as exterminate the most unfavourable ones.4
Actually, this is what informed creationists point out: in this fallen world, natural selection is a culling force, not a creative force. It is really death of the unfittest more than survival of the fittest, and doesn’t explain the arrival of the fittest. I.e. it removes genetic information whereas evolution needs to add information.
Darwin responded to Wallace basically agreeing with him, and evidently took his advice to heart. Two years later, in another book, Darwin explained in the introduction:
This preservation, during the battle for life, of varieties which possess any advantage in structure, constitution, or instinct, I have called Natural Selection; and Mr. Herbert Spencer has well expressed the same idea by the Survival of the Fittest. The term “natural selection” is in some respects a bad one, as it seems to imply conscious choice; but this will be disregarded after a little familiarity.5
In the 20th century, one of their greatest disciples, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975), made it clear what evolutionists mean, at least as the result of the process—that some organisms have more surviving offspring. That is, natural selection is really not so much survival of the fittest but reproduction of the fittest, or as Dobzhansky put it:
Natural selection is differential reproduction, organism perpetuation. In order to have natural selection, you have to have self-reproduction or self-replication and at least two distinct self-replicating units or entities.6
Thus Dr Robert Carter has even defended the idea that natural selection would have been in existence in Eden, prior to the time when death started.
Then Darwin’s most famous disciple, Richard Dawkins, famously made it clear that natural selection had nothing to do with personifying nature, but rather, it was:
Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.7
Therefore, the leading evolutionists have always made it clear that they had no intention of attributing to nature a literal ability to select. Further, they explicitly contradicted misunderstandings to that effect.
Personification of nature?
This is a major objection by Guliuzza to the term ‘natural selection’. However, as seen, the leading evolutionists didn’t intend this literally, and explicitly disclaimed this type of meaning. So they can’t be blamed for trying to mislead the public by choosing the term, when they actually go out of their way to exclude anthropomorphic meanings.
However, despite the evolutionists’ disclaimers, should we be concerned by a term that even figuratively personifies nature? Actually, scientists do that all the time without any problems. For example, pharmacists might warn about ‘light-sensitive’ medicine that should be stored away from light. Is this really claiming that medicine is literally sentient? According to Guliuzza and some of his colleagues, we must logically say yes. But here I must agree with Darwin, who pointed out
No one objects to chemists speaking of ‘elective affinity’ and certainly an acid has no more choice in combining with a base, than the conditions of life have in determining whether or not a new form be selected or preserved.8
As a final observation, it’s rather strange to claim that personification of nature is anti-biblical, when the Bible contains passages like “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), unless of course the Bible is anti-biblical.
We also think it’s futile to rename phenomena adequately explained by ‘natural selection’ as ‘programmed filling’ as Guliuzza advocates. At best, this renaming is a distinction without a difference, when it comes to matters of practical, operational science. And there are serious disadvantages. From a strategic viewpoint, it would give the impression that creationists have no answer to a known process, and would concede important scientific territory to evolutionists.
It also fails to account for the fact that we live in a fallen world, so creatures not adapted appropriately for some environmental pressure, for instance, will die off.
Where defects can be an advantage
In this fallen world, clear destructions of programming can be beneficial, such as eyeless creatures in caves, wingless creatures on windswept islands, sickle-cell anemia in malarial areas, loss of skin pigmentation in snowy areas, and more. But in most cases, these changes are regarded as harmful. It was no accident that Jesus healed the blind, lame, dumb, and sick. We also expect downhill changes, simply because there are many ways to break something, but not many ways to make something in the first place. So it’s not surprising that it would be relatively easy for a mutation, or copying mistake in the genes, to ruin the eyes, wings, hemoglobin, or melanin production, as in the above examples, but hard to make them right. Genetic entropy is real, and is a powerful argument against evolution!
Case study: blindness in people and cave creatures
E.g. when it comes to blindness in humans, it could be caused by damage to the eyeball, but also a perfectly formed eyeball could be blind because the optic nerve is underdeveloped (optic nerve hypoplasia) or destroyed by when the finely tuned pressure controls fail and allow excess pressure (glaucoma). And all those could be fine, but a mutation in any of the proteins in the visual cycle could block vision as a whole, e.g. Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA) or Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). Also, the eye doesn't really see; the brain sees by interpreting the signals from the eye, and this takes training. Some people who have their eyes fixed after a lifetime of blindness have trouble seeing because their brains are not trained to handle the new information. But whatever the cause of blindness in people who asked Jesus for healing, Jesus healed them, suggesting that blindness really is the result of breaking something, not a programmed filling (see Walking trees … Modern science helps us understand a puzzling miracle).
This must be taken into account for one of Dr Guliuzza¦s examples: supposed programmed filling to explain blind fish in caves. In most cases of blind creatures, the best explanation is what CMI has stated, e.g. in 2008, consistent with the above:
This is easily explainable: there are many ways to break something, but not many ways to make something in the first place. So it’s not surprising that it would be relatively easy for a mutation, or copying mistake in the genes, to ruin the eyes. In the light, natural selection would eliminate such mutations, since blind creatures could see neither prey nor predators.
But in a pitch-black cave, there would be no natural selection against blind creatures, so they could proliferate. They might even have an advantage, because a shrivelled eye is less likely to be damaged.
But this article also noted an explanation in one case with a cave fish, and in my 2010 book The Greatest Hoax on Earth?, written before I had ever heard of Dr Guliuzza or his anti-NS arguments, which shows that we were already well aware of pre-programming:
Dawkins continues:Of course, the story of the cave-dweller’s eye isn’t only a negative one: positive selection comes in too, to favour the growth of protective skin over the vulnerable sockets of the optically deteriorating eyes.” (p. 353)
There is another positive selective effect Dawkins doesn’t mention here, proposed by evolutionists but also compatible with the biblical creation model. As I pointed out:“In one of the best known blind cave fish, Astyanax mexicanus, there is another reason why the blind fish can have an advantage in caves. This is pleiotropy, where a single gene has more than one effect on an organism. It turns out that a control gene, hedgehog, which affects a number of processes including development of the jaws and tastebuds, also inhibits another control gene, pax6, which controls development of the eyes. A fish with bigger jaws and more sensitive tastebuds would have an advantage in finding food, but this must be traded off with the loss of eye development. In the light, loss of eyes is a big disadvantage, so natural selection would eliminate a fish that over-expresses hedgehog, despite its better jaws and taste. But in the dark caves, a fish with highly expressed hedgehog would have a big advantage, since the loss of eyes would be irrelevant.9
Unless Dawkins can show that the growth of skin over the eye sockets of eyeless fish involves the creation of new genes by natural processes, it does not qualify as ‘proving evolution’. It is likely a pre-programmed response to having an unfilled hole in the skeleton of the fish, or a pleiotropic effect resulting from the damaging of the genes for eye formation—the genes for normal eyes some way or other prevent the skin from growing over the eyes, so damaging those genes would likely allow the growth of the skin over the eye sockets.
The conventional biblical creationist model not only includes geniune pre-programming, but also all the cases best explained by deleterious mutations and natural selection. A model that explains more observations is generally more useful. Furthermore, the conventional creationist explanation provides a good young-earth argument that Guliuzza’s theory undermines, as per Greatest Hoax:
Also, to underscore the point that there are many ways to break things, there are actually a number of ways to produce blindness, even in Astyanax. This is shown by breeding different populations of blind fish, and resulting in a number of sighted progeny. This is explained because the sight loss in the different populations is caused by different mutations, so ‘when you cross them, the genetic deficiencies in one lineage are compensated for by strengths in the other, and vice-versa.
But if the sight loss had occurred millions of years ago, then other genes involved with sight would have had time to be “cratered” by mutations, not removed by natural selection. Then crossing such mutated genes would not restore sight. … exactly the same principles apply to blind salamanders and other blind troglobionts.
When it comes to breaking something, it need not take very long either. Breaking is often quicker than making, just as it’s often much quicker to fall off a mountain than to climb it. We can see this in humans, when sighted parents have blind children due to a genetic defect—this can happen in only one generation. …
Indeed, the fact that sight can be regained in one generation shows that there has been little time for mutations to further degenerate the genes—note that natural selection would not preserve genes connected to eyes and the visual parts of the brain if there were no selection for eyesight. [I.e. to use Dawkins’ helpful analogy, these genes would be heavily cratered.]
Epigenetics is another important concept that Guliuzza raises. The term is derived from adding the Greek prefix epi-/ἐπι-, meaning = over, outside of, around to genetics. That is, epigenetic changes are heritable changes of the phenotype (observable features) of an organism that are ‘over’ the genes coded in the DNA. That is, we not only have the genes, but also controls over these genes that turn them on and off, and control the rate of expression. A well known example is why identical twins are not identical even though they have identical DNA. The reason is different epigenetic codes. Some scientists have even said that the genes are like puppets, while the epigenetics is like a genetic puppeteer. Epigenetics is vital for the growth of organisms from a fertlized egg, as explained in Greatest Hoax:
It’s notable that the development of every individual multi-celled creature involves a programmed switching off of genetic information. Each individual begins as a single cell—a zygote or an ovum fertilized by a spermatozoon. This fertilized ovum has all the instructions coded in the DNA to make us what we are physically (given the right environmental conditions).
But as the embryo grows, different cells in different places have to specialize, so that only certain instructions are executed—the cells become differentiated. The instructions are there, but turned off somehow. There are complicated genetic switches involved, and also a process called methylation—attaching methyl groups to the chemical ‘letters’ of DNA that code for instructions that need to be ‘turned off’.
All the on/off switching must occur in the right sequence; the information for this sequencing is partly encoded in the DNA, but there are also controls outside the genes, hence the term epigenetic. This is why it would be impossible to clone dinosaurs and mammoths even if we found intact DNA—we would need the ovum (mother’s egg) too.
The result of these elaborately designed switching sequences is that bone cells execute only instructions pertaining to bone—the instructions for blood, nerves, skin, etc. are still in the cells’ DNA, but turned off. Similarly for blood, skin and other types of cells.
Thus if one can believe that this switching-off information was programmed by a Master Genetic Programmer, it is plausible that this Programmer could also have switched on information at the Fall.
CMI has long pointed out that epigenetics is a problem for neo-Darwinian evolution. For example, our 2008, pre-Guliuzza article The genetic puppeteer explains two types of genetic coding above the well known genetic code
- Methylation code, whereby –CH₃ groups are added to some of the DNA ‘letters’ to switch genes off.
- Histone code: DNA is spooled around ball-shaped proteins called histones, and the code controls how tightly the histones are packed. If they are packed loosely, then the information is easily accessible, while tight histones restrict gene expression on the DNA wrapped around them.
In 2010, Dr Carter wrote about the splicing code. The ‘splicing code’ controls how different parts of DNA are chopped out and spliced together. This editing process enables a single gene to encode multiple proteins. It explains why humans have only about 21,000 genes, yet can make perhaps up to a million proteins—a surprise to those who decoded the human genome.10
For example, thanks to studies of the splicing code, researchers found that “three neurexin genes can generate over 3,000 genetic messages that help control the wiring of the brain,” according to co-discoverer Brendan Frey. This splicing also involves a complex machine called a spliceosome. One paper was tellingly entitled, “Mechanical devices of the spliceosome: motors, clocks, springs, and things.”11
These are all aspects of the epigenetic code, the code above the genes, which is heritable. It is also dynamic, not static like the DNA it controls. It can change throughout development, and can respond to the environment.
Therefore Guliuzza is right to point out epigenetics as an important part of the biblical creation model. CMI agrees, as above, and in the instructive article The four dimensional human genome defies naturalistic explanations. But Guliuzza errs by implying that this is incompatible with the conventional biblical Creation/Fall that includes mutation + selection but is not confined to this! The conventional creation model is superior to both the neo-Darwinian model and the Programmed Filling model:
- It is superior to evolution, because it includes both the epigenetic (and pleiotropy) phenomena out of reach of neoDarwinian evolution.
- It is superior to programmed filling, because it includes clear cases of deleterious mutations and elimination by natural selection.
We live in a fallen world
Much of what Dr Guliuzza says applies in the unfallen world only. There, with no suffering or death, organisms could choose among whatever options they were given. If a bacterium preferred (note: this is not 'personifying' bacteria!) to live in a particular environment, it could easily swim in one direction or another, following whatever chemical cue it was programmed to detect. Alternatively, if a rabbit preferred to live in an area with dense sagebrush, it could easily avoid the less preferable pine forests.
However, once the Curse was applied to the natural world, all bets are off. Mice could not choose to not live in Siberia when the Ice Age ended and that vast landscape suddenly changed from a temperate grassland to a tundra and pine-covered plain. The mice that were there died in droves, along with the caribou, beavers, foxes, and mammoths, to name just a few animals that no longer live in the area. The ability of these animals to choose was overwhelmed by the unforgiving environment.
We also must ask the question why so many organisms have gone extinct. Clearly, creatures that are now extinct, such as dinosaurs, were unable to adapt to the post-Flood world. In one sense, the environment exceeded their design specifications. No amount of ‘programming’ enabled them to survive. The same thing goes for trilobites, elephant birds, the dodo, and thousands of other species. The world is a harsh place and the organisms that don’t make it take their genes with them to the grave. When only some individuals in a species are a good match for the environment, they have a higher likelihood to survive, along with the genes that they carry. This is called natural selection. It is not a big deal.
In fact, suffering and death are intrinsic parts of the biblical model. If death reigns, as the Bible says, life-and-death situations happen constantly. It’s nice to think that organisms choose their own fate, but it just isn’t so.
References and notes
- Jeanson, N.T., Does natural section exist? A critique of Randy Guliuzza’s claims, Answers Research Journal 6:285–292, 2013; answersingenesis.org. Return to text.
- Lisle, J., Answers Research Journal 11:301–340, 5 December 2018, and a follow-up Responding to [Dr Jean] Lightner’s comments on natural selection [that defended Dr Guliuzza]: Points of agreement and disagreement, Answers Research Journal 12:45–51, 30 January 2019. According to Dr Lightner, in some lectures, Dr Guliuzza had partly retracted some of his anti-NS comments, but I agree with Dr Lisle that this retraction needs to be as public and in writing as the original errors were, as per the Latin proverb Verba volant; scripta manent, “Spoken words fly away; written words remain [unless also retracted in writing].” Dr Lisle has also written a three-part series on natural selection on his own website biblicalscienceinstitute.com. Update: Contra Dr Lightner, Dr Guliuzza is still doubling down with his natural-selection denial, and still claiming that natural selection leads to nature worship (Acts and Facts, Feb 2020, pp. 17–19). Return to text.
- Darwin, C.R., On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, p. 127, 1st edition, John Murray, London, 1859. Return to text.
- Wallace, A.R., Letter to Charles Darwin, 2 July 1866. Return to text.
- Darwin, C.R., The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Vol. 1, p. 6, John Murray, London, 1868. Return to text.
- Dobzhansky, T.G., Discussion of Synthesis of Nucleosides and Polynucleotides with Metaphoric Esters, by George Schramm, in Fox, S.W., ed., The Origins of Prebiological Systems and of Their Molecular Matrices, Proc. Conference at Wakulla Springs, Florida, pp. 309–310, 27–30 October 1963, Academic Press, NY, 1965. Return to text.
- Dawkins, C.R., The Blind Watchmaker, p. 5, W.W. Norton and Co, 1986. Return to text.
- Darwin, Ref. 4. Return to text.
- Jeffrey, W.R., Adaptive evolution of eye degeneration in the Mexican blind cavefish, J. Heredity 96(3):185–196, 2005. Return to text.
- Barash, Y. and 7 others, Deciphering the splicing code, Nature 465:53–59, 2010. Return to text.
- Staley, J.P. and Guthrie, C., Cell 92(3):315–326, 1998. Return to text.