Natural Selection in Paradise
Why natural selection is part of the creation model
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Yes, there was rain before the Flood. See Arguments we think creationists should not use. Return to text.
- 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.
- Gulliuzza and Gaskill, 2018, pp. 159 and 166, respectively. Return to text.