Natural Selection in Paradise

Why natural selection is part of the creation model

by

Published: 14 May 2020 (GMT+10)
elephant

Many Christians struggle with the concept of natural selection. Worse, many evolutionists tout it as direct proof of evolution. What are we to make of it? Can we account for it in a created but fallen universe? Would it have been in operation if Adam had not rebelled against God, hence if there was no struggle and death?

Before we answer those questions, we have to define what natural selection is. It is a simple concept, really, and it does not take long to understand that some organisms thrive in certain environments while others don’t. This leads to some organisms producing more offspring than others. That’s it. There’s nothing more to the concept. We do not believe that this can explain the common ancestry of all species, as Darwin believed, but it can lead to changes within species over time.

But ‘nature’ cannot do anything. It is not selecting. Nature cannot think. The word nature comes to us from the Latin word natura, which refers to some innate character of a person or thing. The Greeks and Romans, as well as many Europeans in the Middle Ages, attempted to personify nature. Hence, we get the phrase “Mother Nature”. So in one sense we might be said to be referencing pagan gods, but in another sense, we are not. We simply don’t have a better phrase in English to denote ‘things that happen all by themselves’. We say that things are ‘natural’ when they comport to the laws of science and probability, but who wants to say all that? The shortcut “natural selection” is easier to understand and easy to use.

Early on, people were not satisfied with Darwin’s turn of phrase. A contemporary, Herbert Spencer, invented a replacement term, ‘survival of the fittest’. But this is also problematic. First, how do you define the ‘most fit’? Is it the biggest, the strongest, the smartest, or maybe the one with the best eyesight or fastest reflexes? No, no, no, no, and no. It is none of these things. You see, natural selection has nothing to do with the struggle for existence. The word ‘fit’ has a specific definition: the organism that produces the most offspring is, by definition, the fittest. True, dead things cannot reproduce, but death is not required here. Reproductive output can be affected without killing things off, without disease and suffering, and without Darwin’s “struggle for existence”. I will give examples below.

In his later writings, Darwin admitted that he put too much emphasis on natural selection as an agent of change and turned to other, more hotly disputed ideas, like sexual selection and kin selection. Most people don’t realize that the patriarch of natural selection actually got cold feet about it before he died.1

Natural selection is all about reproduction.

Natural selection is not about death, nor is it about ‘survival’ of the fittest. In one sense, it should be called ‘differential reproduction’, but that term is not nearly as eloquent as the one Darwin chose.

Darwin used life-and-death examples throughout his writing, but this is wrong, and I believe he knew it. He reasoned that, over long periods, and despite the ever-changing environment, even slightly beneficial variations would slowly grow in frequency.2 The reason for this is not necessarily because some things die and some live. ‘Slight’ differences don’t guarantee life or death. Instead, they affect the probability of successful reproduction and an organism does not have to be dead to have fewer offspring. His use of death as an analogy has coloured the thinking of people ever since. But if we are simply talking about reproducing organisms, suddenly we have a means of creating ‘change’ in the pre-Fall, pre-sin world.

There are two types of life to consider

If you carefully read the creation account, you will notice that there are two categories of living things. One the Bible calls ‘living’ creatures or the nephesh chayyāh. These are the ‘soulish’ things, or things that breathe. This roughly corresponds to ‘land vertebrate’ in modern taxonomy, although I would also include whales, fish, and birds in the definition.

The other group of things are not technically alive, in the Hebrew way of thinking. This includes bacteria, plants, and protists. The Bible does not say that these things did not die. In fact, plants, and not just their fruit, were designated as food for the animals (Genesis 1:29–30), so we know they died. Natural selection was operating on them from the very beginning.

But there is also room for natural selection to operate as the nephesh creatures reproduced to meet God’s command to fill the seas (Genesis 1:22) and the land (Genesis 1:28).

Ways to create change without death and struggle

Consider the example of Jacob, who kept breeding streaked and speckled sheep from an all-white flock (Genesis 30:25–43). He changed the coat colour of his flock, and he did not have to kill the white sheep in order to do it. The white coat colour is dominant in sheep, which means that the dark phenotype can remain hidden within a population. But where do these ‘hidden’ traits come from? Today, mutation plays a strong role, and most mutations are bad, but there are several ways of generating variation without mutation.

  1. First, God would have front-loaded his creation with genetic variation. Most of the variation within humans today is probably ‘created diversity’ that made it through the Flood bottleneck.
  2. Second, during reproduction, chromosomal recombination shuffles genes. This means new gene combinations can come into being that never existed before. God could easily have front-loaded the genomes of His creatures with hidden information that would only be revealed later.
  3. Third, when two organisms that are closely related mate, hidden traits can come to the fore. In Jacob’s example, by breeding a ram and a ewe who both carried the recessive dark-colour gene, he knew that many dark-coloured lambs would be produced.
  4. Fourth, certain DNA changes might be pre-programmed, thus not all changes should be called ‘mutations’. An example of a pre-programmed change includes the so-called ‘jumping genes’, or retrotransposons. These are short sections of DNA that can pop out of the genome and insert themselves somewhere else. They are important. One type jumps around in the human brain during embryonic development, affecting the behaviour of different types of brain cells.3 It is entirely possible that they could contribute to diversification within the created kinds after creation.
  5. Fifth, DNA methylation and histone acetylation are environmentally induced phenomena whereby certain genes are turned on or off, according to the needs of the organism. This is part of a rapidly developing field called epigenetics, and it is a serious challenge to Darwinism. There is even mounting evidence that these methylation patterns can be inherited. Also, when a woman is pregnant with a female baby, that baby’s ovaries and egg cells develop quite early. Thus, the environment of the grandmother could lead to the switching on and off of genes in the mother, the child, and the eggs that will be used to produce grandchildren, who will not be born until many years later.

Once we have a way to generate new variation, and there is every reason to think this would have happened naturally (there’s that word again!) in an unfallen world, we only lack one thing for natural selection to operate: a changing environment.

The pre-fall world and environmental variation

muddy-river

Assume for a second that Adam did not rebel against God and that death and suffering never entered the world. What would things be like? Would they be static and never changing? Would rivers not carry sediment to the sea, producing sandbars and perhaps filling in shallow estuaries or ponds? Would elephants not tear down trees and open up sunlit patches (a new niche) on the forest floor? As humans multiplied and spread out on the earth, would pristine environments maintain their species diversity as we started squishing the moss underfoot, cutting down branches for rain shelters,4 and plucking lots of fruit and flowers to eat?

frog-in-pond

There is every reason to think that there would be some environmental variability in an unfallen world. This might be on a small scale, but new niches will be opening up and the species that can exploit those new niches will fill them. But not necessarily all the individuals of those species. The ones that do the filling will be the ones most suited to the new environment because these individuals will naturally produce more offspring. Thus, new ‘species’ could easily appear as the genes within a large population are segregated among the two new populations.

oak

Even static environments can induce ‘change’

But natural selection also operates when the environment does not change. Consider a single species of oak tree that is spread out on a mountain. Imagine that there is a river and marshy areas at the base of the mountain but that the heights are rather dry. Now imagine that there is a diversity of genes within this species that help the trees tolerate wetter or dryer soils. Let’s say that the average tree lives for 100 years and is immediately replaced by a sapling. What will happen over time?

acorn

The trees on the top of the mountain will be faced with a general lack of water. But some of the trees carry genes that help them cope with this. They will grow large and full and produce many acorns. The other trees will still live, but they will not grow as fast or produce as many acorns. All the trees are relatively healthy. Tree death is not precluded in our model unfallen world. They could be aging out, or maybe they live for 100 years on average before getting eaten by an elephant. But think about the gene pool 1,000 years (ten tree generations) later. It will be chock full of genes that help the trees cope with dry roots, and the other genes might even be eliminated completely. They might even look different from the trees of 1,000 years before. But it’s not about the trees. It’s about the acorns. The trees are replaced by the acorns that are available, and whoever produces the most acorns, wins.

 shady-oak

But different things are happening on the bottom of the mountain. The trees there have a surfeit of water and the trees that like dry roots will not grow as fast or produce as many acorns. Maybe the oaks start to develop buttress roots, as so many trees in swampy areas do. Thus, not only does the gene pool change, so might the morphology of the tree. “Change over time” is part of the creation model.

There are many other theoretical examples that could be used. We could talk about seasonal copepods (a small, shrimp-like thing that lives in the ocean) who live for a season, spawn, and the eggs sink to the bottom of the sea. We could talk about bacteria living in a warm little pond, some reproducing quickly and some reproducing more slowly. We could discuss all sorts of scenarios that involve differential reproduction. Note that these are not life-and-death examples. We don’t need lions to chase gazelles across the African plains to explain natural selection in gazelles. We just need time plus genetic and environmental variation. Living things do everything else as they naturally reproduce.

Variation within humans as they spread out

fig-1b
Figure 1. The genealogy of the 12 Tribes of Israel (at bottom) can be traced along multiple routes from Terah through all four of Terah’s named children. Question marks indicate people of unknown ancestry. Additional descent from Terah can enter at any question mark, although any person in a white box did not contribute to the ancestry of the children of Jacob, meaning that the numbers given in the text for percent similarity to Terah are minimum estimates.

There is another agent of change to consider. This is not natural selection, per se, although it could still be a factor. In our unfallen world, as people spread out according to God’s command, they would have become disconnected from one another. The existence of small, isolated pockets of humans is all we need to generate differences among people. Inbreeding leads to genetic drift, which leads to the loss of diversity, which leads to people in one place looking different from people in other places. I explained this in an article titled Inbreeding and the Origin of Races, using a biblical example—the family tree of the 12 Tribes of Israel (figure 1).

Also, since there are several ways to generate new diversity (see list above), it might be possible that some people are born with the ability to live at very high altitudes, or to tolerate very dry desert conditions, or to live in polar regions (which, with 6 months of darkness every year will be much colder than the equatorial regions), even if these abilities were not in Adam and Eve. It is true that people can migrate away from environments they do not like, so genes could be sorted according to individual preference. It is also true that a couple who really likes cold weather, for example, might migrate far to the north or south. The populations that derive from these people would not be an example of natural selection because there was no ‘selection’. All the people derive from all the people who first arrived in the area.

eyes

However, given that there is natural variability from one human to another, and given that some people might thrive in a certain environment while others only tolerate it, it is quite conceivable that some people would have more children than others in a given environment. This is called differential reproduction. Of course, humans are smart, and we overcome environmental difficulties easily. The person who does not like cold weather can always put on more clothes, for example. Thus, it is hard to envision natural selection operating on humans without death and struggle. Yet, it is easy to imagine change occurring as people spread out on the face of the planet and became isolated from one another, at least initially.

Creationist objections

There has been a lot of debate about natural selection within creationist circles over the past several years. Randy Guliuzza’s continuous environmental tracking (CET) model5 (which focuses greatly on epigenetics) explains how organisms are designed to track their environment and then adapt to those environmental conditions. This engineering approach is brilliant, and I wish more of us could throw off the evolutionary baggage that we were laden with in school and start thinking more from a design perspective. However, he also describes natural selection as “death-driven scenarios where survival and reproduction are highly dependent on ‘luck’,” and “subsequent death-driven fractionation”.6 I disagree strongly with these definitions, as do many others.

hands-2

But if natural selection is properly defined as ‘differential reproduction’, rather than death-driven fractionation, it would still have existed in the world even if sin and suffering had not entered in. Individual choice does not always apply, as in the oak tree example above. There is no tracking of the environment for trees. They cannot move and acorns do not purposefully roll away from environments they do not like. While it is theoretically possible that environmentally-induced epigenetic factors might be included in the acorns, the amount of change is limited to the set of genes those acorns inherited from the parent trees.

Also, things change after the Fall of man. Everything started to decay. Death came roaring in. The environment sometimes changed radically (e.g. pre-Flood vs post-Flood). Organisms could no longer track the environment with any sort of perfection. Think about all those animals living in Siberia near the end of the Ice Age. Siberia was not what most people think. Yes, it was cold, but, no, it was not as cold as today. A thriving ecosystem of plants and animals lived in places where they cannot live today. What happened when the environment suddenly got a lot colder? The field mice, caribou, beavers, and woolly mammoths living in the far north did not have the ability to ‘choose’. They could not walk out of Siberia and would not have known which direction to go if they tried. So they died. From an engineering and design perspective, the environmental challenges exceeded the design specifications of those animals. In these cases, CET breaks down, as happened across a vast swath of terrain as the Ice Age ended.

In the end, there is no conflict between CET and natural selection, when terms are properly defined. Both mechanisms would still operate in an unfallen world and both would still operate in a fallen world. Most cases would not be either/or, but both/and. There are cases where environmental tracking applies directly, but this cannot explain everything, for many species are unable to move (trees), or unable to move faster than the environment moves them (i.e. bacteria or plankton caught in an ocean current). Yet, CET and natural selection both go into overdrive after the Fall. Organismal tracking and response to environmental cues suddenly become very important, because death might be the result of an incorrect response.

Conclusions

Natural selection should be part of any creation model. It is not proof of evolution. It is not even good support for evolution. Natural selection is not a threat to the Bible or to biblical history. It was a factor that would have been in play if struggle had not entered the world, but its importance only increased when it did.

References and notes

  1. See Darwin, C.R., The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex, John Murray (London), 1871; available through darwin-online.org.uk. Return to text.
  2. Darwin wrote, “If then organic beings in a state of nature vary even in a slight degree…; if, in the long course of ages, inheritable variations ever arise in any way advantageous to any being under its excessively complex and changing relations of life; …then the severe and often-recurrent struggle for existence will determine that those variations, however slight, which are favourable shall be preserved or selected, and those which are unfavourable shall be destroyed.” Note his appeal to deep time and his lack of an understanding of signal-to-noise ratios (the “excessively complex and changing relations of life” are the noise, but the “however slight” signal is weak). See Darwin, C.R. The variation of animals and plants under domestication. John Murray (London). First edition, first issue. Volume 1, 1868, pp. 5–6; available through darwin-online.org.uk. Return to text.
  3. Baillie J.K. et al., Somatic retrotransposition alters the genetic landscape of the human brain. Nature 479:534–537, 2011. See also Carter, R., The four dimensional human genome defies naturalistic explanations, 6 October 2016. Return to text.
  4. Yes, there was rain before the Flood. See Arguments we think creationists should not use. Return to text.
  5. Guliuzza, R.J., and Gaskill, P.B., Continuous environmental tracking: an engineering framework to understand adaptation and diversification. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism (Whitmore, J.H., ed.), Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, p. 158–184; see creationicc.org. Return to text.
  6. Gulliuzza and Gaskill, 2018, pp. 159 and 166, respectively. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Andrew M.
Brilliant article. However, Adam and Eve weren’t clothed pre-fall, so I don’t get the comment about putting on more clothes if it’s cold in a pre-fall context because clothes wouldn’t therefore have been invented. Surely then the climate would have stayed warm enough everywhere to support nakedness all day long and all year round.
Robert Carter
True, A&E were not clothed in the Garden. But the entire earth could not have been a tropical paradise. Adiabatic cooling would have created cold mountain tops (depending on the height of the pre-Flood terrain) and high-latitude areas would still receive much less sunlight in the winter months. It takes time for heat to transfer across such a large thing as planet earth. Ocean currents and winds are not instantaneous things and our atmosphere (currently) is partitioned into several major disconnected latitudinal cells. While the earth's climate, in general, could have been more equable, the laws of physics were not suspended. And if they encountered areas that were not too their liking (too hot, cold, dry, or wet), they could easily have developed ways of coping, like making clothes (from plant material or animal hair, not animal skins!).
David J.
"We don’t need lions to chase gazelles across the African plains to explain natural selection in gazelles". How does natural selection work for gazelles without death or struggling pre Fall? "Natural selection is not about death, nor is it about ‘survival’ of the fittest". Better say it does not have to be about that, but it very often is about death or struggling (like fighting for mates) and eliminiting the weak or unfit.
Robert Carter
Fair questions, but I spent an entire article answering the first. As to the second question, you are correct. Struggle and death are strong components today. But my point was to incorporate NS into a pre-Fall model. Your questions deal with the post-Fall world.
Stephen G.
This is a little off topic but I need to get the expertise of Dr Carter especially after the very helpful C-19 videos with Dr Gary Bates. (1) Since we are suffering from genetic entropy (a minimum of 100 mutations per persons/per generation) is it therefore true that the human immune system is necessarily degenerating and getting weaker? (2) Is it the case that at least theoretically any of the viruses in any one mammal could suffer a mutation and go rogue and cause devastation in the human race or are the number of potential viruses limited? In other words is it not very probable that viral pandemics will become increasingly commonplace? God bless
Robert Carter
1) Yes, the human immune system is experiencing genetic entropy like the rest of the genome. I don't know if the weakening can or has been measured, but the theory tells us that negative mutations should be accumulating in the genes that control our immune response. 2) Yes, any virus can theoretically go 'rogue'. Some are more likely than others, which is why coronaviruses have been an area of concern and intense study for the past decade or so. 3) Will pandemics become increasingly commonplace? I shudder at the thought, but I also cannot predict the future.

(Readers, he is referencing two videos Gary and I made called "Pandemic!" and "Coronavirus". They are embedded within my article Coronaviruses in Creation if you want to watch them.)
RONALD M.
Definitely worth reading and informative. It helped my understanding.
Chris W.
Dear Dr Carter, Great article but could you explain to me your statement: ''Thus, the environment of the grandmother could lead to the switching on and off of genes in the mother, the child, and the eggs that will be used to produce grandchildren, who will not be born until many years later.'' If I understand correctly when a baby girl is born she already has her complete set of eggs within her. If that is the case, then I can't see how environmentally induced changes can affect those eggs. How do they enter to make their epigenetic influence and thus change? Logically following that premise (which I've probably got wrong!) it would then follow though that that baby girl's daughter would also have a conservatively produced egg - not changed by anything. Perhaps changes can sneak in later as the embryo is developing with retrotransposons playing their part? I wonder whether the extraordinary height gain (and shoe size!) seen in the Western world over the past 200 years might have occurred through the effects you are talking about in your article? (i.e. in addition to better diet).
Robert Carter
Great question. Epigenetics involves several different mechanisms that, together, regulate gene expression. The effect of some genes can be enhanced, throttled back, or turned off altogether. This can be done by methylating DNA (effectively preventing polymerases from sliding down the DNA strand in that region), modifying histones, retrotransposon jumping, or the manufacturing of any number of enhancers or repressors that act upstream of the gene in question. It is all very complex and fascinating. In the case of the grandma-daughter-grandchild, imagine that grandma is sick, starving, a chain smoker, or highly stressed while she is pregnant with her daughter. The cells and systems in the daughter are going to be reacting to the environmental stimulus. If blood sugar is too low, they will adjust insulin levels. If a nutrient is in short supply, they might activate an alternate but less efficient biochemical pathway. Once switched, some of these pathways are difficult to flip to the other state. But the eggs inside the ovary of the daughter are alive and they will be doing whatever they can to self-regulate as well. Plus, the physiological state of the daughter throughout her life will be affecting gene expression in the eggs because the eggs are metabolically active. In the end, environmental influence in grandma can affect the state of the grandchild even though the grandchild might be born 45 years later. Height gain in the West is definitely related to diet, but I do not know how much of this is epigenetic.
Michael B.
It has always seemed to me that another factor in the establishing of "races" is due to man's tendency to group himself with those who have more in common with him than not; and this is not necessarily limited to physical traits but also patterns of thinking and beliefs. We see this happen in group social gatherings as people talk with one another they start sorting into groups of commonality; a social sorting. Thank you all for your continued faithfulness in presenting the evidence of our world through the light of the Word. Your Brother in Christ, Michael
Robert Carter
Self-sorting has always been true historically, which is one reason evolutionary models of human history struggle to fit reality. See Inbreeding and the Origin of Races for more information.
Gilbert B.
Darwin did not understand genetics, and he could not explain the origin of life. What he actually discovered in his voyage was ecology, not evolution. Evolution was a result of his imagination. He thought rural England was pristine in nature, and not ecologically devastated through human habitation. In the Galapagos Islands he saw nature as it had not yet been influenced by mankind. God is always a God who enjoys variety, and that is why natural selection does not need death and Malthusian competition for natural resources. God supplies things abundantly. Variation within kinds was intended by God, and that is why we can affirm that all of humankind is one race. Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight. We are all sinful, but we can be saved by faith in Jesus Christ Who died for us.
Jeremy B.
If differential reproduction happens but there is no death, then the frequency of advantageous alleles will increase, but fairly rapidly stabilises at a higher frequency to alternative alleles. Advantageous alleles therefore cannot spread and become fixed in the population, so it is difficult to see how directional selection can happen. This would only work if there was reproductive senescence for individuals with lower reproductve success or non-reproductive 'castes' (such as in social hymenoptera) rather than death. Does this need to be incorporate into your model? Also, I think it was Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase 'Survival of the Fittest', not Galton.
Robert Carter
Death would happen among things like bacteria, archaea, fungi, plants, protists, and non-nephesh animals (e.g., insects). See Nephesh Chayyah. Among nephesh animals, you are correct that allele frequency shifting would halt once the maximum population size was reached in a regime with no death. And, yes, it was Spencer, and I'm not sure how I got that wrong, nor why it took so long for someone to notice!
Idema I.
Won't there be overpopulation in the animal kingdom if animals are immortal? They would overgraze and deplete all food sources. Wouldn't they starve to death without food? Animals didn't have the tree of life, so how could they be immortal? Mammals have limited lifespans because their regenerative abilities are very limited. Mortality seems baked in. I've heard arguments like God disabling reproduction once populations reached their desired size. But is there any evidence for that? What I think is more likely is that animals lived longer, didn't die because of diseases, starvation or by predators, but did die natural deaths. Their instincts made them limit their food consumption and reproduction. This ecosystem collapsed when God allowed them to prey on each-other.
Robert Carter
In one sense, the question is moot. God certainly knew what was about to happen and so His command to the ocean creatures to fill the seas and to man to multiply and fill the earth was never applied. The Bible does not tall us what would happen when the spaces were full, and we know mathematically that it would not have taken very long as measured in years. Different theologians over the years have offered that animal 'death' may have been unlike human death, suggesting that in a pre-Fall world an animal could still get old and then lie down and simply pass away. But again, this argument is moot. The world was not very old when death entered in.
Stephen G.
Fascinated by Idema's question. I always assumed that animals would simply stop reproducing and an equilibrium would be reached. Is there a positive reason to discount that in favour of natural death?
Robert Carter
Yes, it is an interesting question. Like you, I always assumed (and still do) that the animals would stop reproducing after they filled the earth. I can see no explicit reason to discount this, but, again, it is a moot point. When God issued the command, he was well aware of what was about to happen so the mathematics are, in that sense, irrelevant.
Jean L.
Great post!!! The biggest problem in how natural selection (NS) is portrayed, in my opinion, is that many will claim that NS is operating without considering/eliminating other possibilities that can cause a population to change. It is even worse when we make up the stories (gazelles being hunted by cheetahs) rather than using observed examples where change has been detected and well-documented. This is presumption, not science; I feel you article begins to address this with a better sense of realism. Yes, Randy's work gives at least one possibility to consider when adaptive changes are observed; the founder effect you allude to is another; pathways of genetic change were mentioned, as well, in your article. So there is plenty to consider. In a post-Fall world NS can hinder or help, which is a point I wish was better emphasized. In the Grants' study, where they did an excellent job of controlling for other variables which might be responsible for changes, I am confident that NS was detected. However, it was not helping the medium ground finches adapt! Instead, it was eliminating healthy variety because of harsh conditions in a single year. The food source returned when the rains returned, but most of the finches best adapted to using the food source were dead. NS may explain a pattern, but it is not always an adaptive pattern. Should NS be considered in our models? Yes. Should NS maintain its "hero" status as a primary mechanism for adaptive changes? No! This position is not well supported scientifically; in fact I am still looking for a well documented case where NS helped adaptation. Keep up the good work!!!!

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