The fact of natural selection
First published 16 November 2014; updated 5 February 2019
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.
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 a couple of years ago. Since that discussion, another ICR scientist, geneticist Dr Nathaniel Jeanson, has written a powerful critique of Dr Guliuzza’s idea.1
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.
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.2
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.3
Actually, this is what informed creationists point out: 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.4
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:
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.5
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.6
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.7
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 ‘natural selection’ to ‘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. Also, 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.
Hope this helps.
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. More recently, there was a very detailed critique by Dr Jason Lisle, 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].” 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.