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The limits of Neo-Darwinism

Published: 24 June 2012 (GMT+10)

Jared from Zimbabwe asks for clarification over just what mutations and natural selection are capable of doing and not capable of doing. CMI’s Dr Don Batten responds.

Wikimedia: H. Zell Mutations and natural selection only effect change within a created kind.
Mutations and natural selection only effect change within a created kind.


I am curious about the few, seemingly at odds, articles that I have read recently. The topic is that of genetic mutations and natural selection. It seems in some ways this is shown to be insignificant and unable to affect any real changes, then in other ways it seems to be very significant.

Many articles have suggested how the great diversity we have in the biological world is from mutations and selections. The suggestion is that this process is pretty solid and consistent giving us many diverse species from just a few. The point has also been made that some of these mutations are actually more severe and occur more rapidly than previously thought. A couple of examples that come to mind is the interbreeding of certain cave dwelling blind fish that regain sight in just a single generation, and tunnel mosquitoes that have developed so independently that they are unable to interbreed with above ground species. This would seem to make sense.

But then I have also read a few other articles that suggest otherwise, mostly summarised by the following points made by John Sanford:

“The bottom line is that Darwinian theory fails on every level. It fails because: 1) mutations arise faster than selection can eliminate them; 2) mutations are overwhelmingly too subtle to be “selectable”; 3) “biological noise” and “survival of the luckiest” overwhelm selection; 4) bad mutations are physically linked to good mutations,2 so that they cannot be separated in inheritance (to get rid of the bad and keep the good). The result is that all higher genomes must clearly degenerate.”

He suggests that mutations get overwhelmed by “noise” and are too subtle to be “selectable”. But does this not work against the very arguments that creationists use to support rapid speciation and variation? He says mutations are too subtle, but surely losing or gaining eyes is not subtle at all and would definitely affect selection? Surely that’s the whole basis for our creation arguments?

So are mutations and natural selection minor and insignificant in the scheme of things, or are they effectual and foundational for biological diversity? Do mutations make a difference or don’t they? It sometimes seems a little confusing.

Genetic entropy should be responsible for dwindling numbers and eventually extinction, but yet there are many examples of massive propagation and survival from just a few, the exact opposite. We would like to believe that both prove creation, but arguing it that way with an evolutionist is very hard. How can the process be used for both upward and downward explanations? Surely that leaves us in a pickle of not adequately explaining anything? It’s not falsifiable? I’m presuming that I am missing something somewhere that will make it all make sense.

Clarification on this would be much appreciated by myself, and I’m sure many others.

Dear Jared,

Thanks for asking. I can see why you could be a bit confused and probably others as well.

We are looking at different things here.

Mutations and natural selection only effect change within a created kind; for example the mosquitoes and blind cave fish you mention (they are still mosquitoes and the same type of fish).1 Mutations only modify existing genes to create different coat colours, for example, in cattle and dogs. Dr Jean Lightner has written about this. Mutations won’t create the genes that allow an animal to produce colour where it could not before, but they can damage an existing gene so that the animal produces less brown pigment, resulting in a light colour (such as fawn or white). On the other hand, a mutation can damage the control system for pigment production causing it to run ‘full speed’ and produce much more of the pigment so the animal is black rather than brown.

These sorts of changes can give us varieties (even ‘species’) of wolves (dogs, arctic wolves, African wolves, dingoes, jackals, foxes, etc.) but they won’t change a reptile into a wolf to give rise to wolves in the first place, which requires the invention of brand new genes. We wrote about the mosquitoes you mentioned as an example of the sorts of changes that can cause rapid speciation within a created kind.

Dr Sanford is talking about the number of mutations that are slightly harmful in organisms with large genomes, like humans (and wolves). There are many slightly harmful mutations and because there are many and they are only slightly harmful, natural selection cannot get rid of them; they are effectively invisible to natural selection. Think about a mutation that resulted in a wolf being born blind. Natural selection would normally eliminate the individual with this mutation (that is, it would not survive; that’s all we mean by natural selection). Such large-effect mutations can be/are eliminated. However, we acquire something like 100 new mutations per person. Many of these are only slightly deleterious (no obvious defect). Because such mutations have only a small effect, with no obvious effect on survival, natural selection is powerless to eliminate them. Also, all offspring are born with more mutations than their parents; none have fewer. That means that these slightly harmful mutations are accumulating, generation by generation, relentlessly causing genetic deterioration because of the summed effect of all of them. It is in this context that Dr Sanford makes his conclusions about Darwinian evolution being ‘dead in the water’. The degeneration he speaks of is happening in all higher organisms. It is a pattern of deterioration that overlays everything and prevents any possibility of upward evolutionary ‘progress’ (“climbing mount improbable”) that is supposed to have changed a microbe into a microbiologist.

Within this general pattern, adaptation (blind cave fish) can occur, but notice that this ‘adaptation’ is still, when it involves mutations, via loss of function (messing up the genes that say how to make eyes).

Another classic example is beetles on a windy island where mutants with defective wings did not get blown into the sea and quickly became the dominant population on that island. Note again that the mutation has been adaptive, causing diversity in the beetles, but it is a downhill change. The Darwinian paradigm needs a mechanism for creating new genes, not modifying and degrading existing genes, which is what we overwhelmingly see.

We have talked of this downhill change also in terms of natural selection eliminating genes in individuals that are not adapted to their environment. This also causes an impoverishment of the genetic information. For example, the beetles with normal wing-making genes are eliminated on the windy island and so the genes for normal wings are lost.

Here is another illustration of this principle. Let’s say that five of the ~20,000 gene pairs of a breeding wolf male and female pair were both AaBbCcDdEe. Because of the way sexual reproduction recombines the genes (variants of a gene are called “alleles”), offspring could be AABBCCDDEE or aabbccddee, or any other combination, thus producing lots of potential varieties of offspring. Now let’s say that ones with the genes aabbccddee were adapted to cold conditions and were the only ones that survived the Ice Age in northern Europe after Noah’s Flood. These wolves have lost the genes A,B,C,D and E. When they breed, they can only produce more wolves with a,b,c,d and e, none with the variety of genes in the original population. From this you can see that if the wolves adapted to hot conditions were AABBCCDDEE, for example, you could never get this wolf from the ones adapted to the cold. The genes for adaptation to hot conditions have been lost.


Artificial breeding/selection is a good analogy. The original mongrel dog/wolf population had more genetic variety than any of the many individual breeds of dog today, but because of continual mixing up of the genes/alleles due to free inter-breeding (out-breeding), the outward appearance of the dogs/wolves would not generally have shown extreme variety. But selecting rare dogs with Chihuahua-like features and breeding them together (inbreeding) for many generations results in the concentration of alleles that give Chihuahua-likeness and the elimination of a lot of the other alleles—ones for ‘large dog’ for example. So you could never breed a Great Dane from a Chihuahua; the genetic information required has been depleted by the very process that has generated the extreme features.

In genetics, variety of alleles is known as heterozygosity (the degree to which pairs of genes differ); lack of variety is homozygosity (the degree to which pairs of genes are the same). So in genetic terms, we believe that God created organisms with a higher degree of heterozygosity than we generally see today. The variety/diversity seen today is largely due to the sorting of the originally created genes into more specialized sets of genes (as in the example of wolves adapting to the cold above). Where mutations have contributed, it is almost always via degradation of an existing gene or gene control. It might be that God even created organisms with ‘hot spots’ for mutation that would enable adaptation.2 Of course such hot spots negate the idea of mutations being random (purely chance) occurrences.

When you breed together several different breeds of dogs, you can end up with a “mongrel” with a more comprehensive set of alleles more like the original dog/wolf. This mongrel dog loses the extreme features of the dog breeds and looks more like a regular dog/wolf. If you took all the descendants of an original created kind, such as the cattle kind, and bred them together, you could end up with an animal closer to what God created in the beginning (except for the deleterious mutations that have accumulated).

The big picture is that God created various kinds of organisms with a wealth of genetic information that has allowed for adaptation/speciation within each kind. But both mutations and natural selection are downhill processes. Even as these natural processes produce greater variety in daughter populations, each of those populations becomes genetically depleted—more specialized, but therefore with less variety within each population, and thus less able to adapt to future environmental challenges. Overarching this we find the relentless accumulation of slightly harmful mutations, which Dr Sanford has highlighted. Extended forwards in time, all these natural processes head towards extinction. Since the Fall (Genesis 3) everything has been wearing out, like a piece of clothing wears out (Hebrews 1:11). Evolution (microbes-to-man) via mutations and natural selection is a bankrupt idea, scientifically and biblically.

Every blessing,

Don Batten


  1. The point about the blind cave fish regaining sight is that this suggests that there are different mechanisms for mutations to destroy the ability of the fish to make normal eyes and that when fish with different defects are bred together, the good genes in each fish can complement to make it possible to make eyes again (that is, ‘nature’ is not inventing anything new). It also suggests that it is not long since the blind fish arose, otherwise the remaining ‘good’ (still functioning) genes would have mutated as well and it would not be possible to restore sight by cross-breeding. See: Wieland, C., Let the blind see … Breeding blind fish with blind fish restores sight, 2008. Return to text.
  2. Lightner, J.K., Gene duplications and nonrandom mutations in the family Cercopithecidae: evidence for designed mechanisms driving adaptive genomic mutations, Creation Research Society Quarterly 46(1): 1–5, 2009. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Kevin P.
You can accept creationism all you want, but it is not science, and cannot be proven.
You are forgetting 1 little tiny but of info, VIRUSES. These little guys CAN introduce new genes into genomes. Also, saying that selection downgrades a species is WRONG!!! as evolution simply selectes for traits in a given situation, not for positive or negative traits. Furthermore, it is estimated by these cool guys called scientists that about HALF (thats 1/2 for those who didn't attend highshool as I am assuming many of you people did not based on the legitimcay of your arguements) of our genome is made up of virus DNA (HINT: that alot of new genes to be added). Your whole arguement is based on a poor concepton of actual scientiifc knowledge (both of your own and your audience) if you even took a Bio 1 course at the age of 14 you would know these arguemnets can all be competently countered by teenager of reasonable intelligence (HINT: ME)
Don Batten
I said to Kevin that I would not publish his comment because evolutionists could well accuse us of making it up to embarrass them and Kevin had not checked creation.com to see if his objections had been dealt with already (a condition agreed to before commenting). Kevin then insisted that his comment be published and that I was protecting our arguments from criticism by not publishing it.
Re: Creation is not scientific, can’t be proven, etc. Please see It's not science!. Philosophers of science call this the ‘demarcation dispute’ and they generally agree that there are no criteria by which evolution can be regarded as scientific and creation not. They are either both in or both out. Both deal with history, which cannot be ‘proven’ with scientific experiment. See also: Is evolution pseudoscience?

Viruses contribute new information? If they did/do, where do they get the genes from? From other organisms! You don’t have a mechanism for inventing new genes, only shifting them around. This is discussed here, along with other relevant stuff: Dawkins and the origin of genetic information.

HALF the genome is virus DNA? I assume you mean the human genome because bacteria generally don’t have any supposed ‘virus DNA’. But this is old science, which came from a combination of evolutionary assumptions and ignorance, not actual research. There is now strong evidence that these transposons are not ‘parasitic DNA’ or ‘endogenous retroviruses’ at all, willy-nilly shifting chunks of DNA around at random, but are involved in the regulation of gene activity during embryo development, for example (see No joy for junkies). This virus idea is part of the whole failed ‘junk DNA’ concept, which is only one of many ways that evolution has harmed scientific progress. See also the ENCODE project (use the search engine on creation.com).

Jared N.
Good question Martyn M. I was just thinking about that as well. After reading Don's reply and giving it a little more thought, I reasoned the following. Perhaps it will make sense to you too. :)
It must be possible for a child to have the bad genes from one parent corrected by the good genes from the other parent. But logically, the probability would be very slim and it would only slow the process down at best because of the following:
1) The odds of having exactly matching genes where the bad genes of one parent are perfectly matched and compensated for by the good genes of the other parent is statistically near impossible. Considering the vast genetic code, the odds of having all the mutations perfectly corrected is totally improbable. There will always be mutations that are missed and slip through. So in the best case scenario, the process may at least be slowed down but never stopped or reversed.
2) On top of all of this, the child also inherits its own genetic problems simply from copying errors, so even more unique errors are inherited compounding those already received from the parents.
So at best it seems like one could slow the genetic decline down a little but never stop it. I guess in an ideal future world, one could imagine that technology is so far advanced that we could repair or replace bad genes, but... (visions from The Island in my mind... :) haha)
Martyn M.
Hi Don, I have wondered about the idea that children always more mutations in their genome than their parents, is this always correct? Couldn't some of the father’s bad genes be supplemented by the mother’s good genes and visa versa, resulting in some children having less mutations than their parents?
Don Batten
If there were only one or two mutations added per person per generation, this would be possible, but not when it is of the order of 100. This was actually at the core of the evolutionists' assumption that the mutation rate was only about 1 per genome per generation. Population genetics showed many years ago that much more than this and 'error catastrophe' was inevitable (extinction), and in an unacceptably short time-frame.
Daniel R.
Evolution is Lie propagated to dispel the very existence of God. Some know of a God and believe in a God which is not at all the same as Knowing God and Believing God as we born again Christians do on a personal level. As such, we find it counter-productive and a waste of time & energy to keep arguing against a lie in defence of The Truth, Who is Jesus Christ! It's like arguing you shall not surely die if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good & evil long after the fact!
Don Batten
It is indeed a lie, perhaps the greatest lie of all, that there is no need for a Creator. It might well be frustrating to argue against the lie, but we are still called to give a reasoned defence of our faith (1 Peter 3:15) as well as to demolish arguments that stand against faith in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ).
Jack C.
The more I listen to the creationists way of thinking of how natural selection and mutations work, the more I'm astounded how an evolutionist can have the nerve to stand in front of a crowd and say evolution is both the origin and cause of the various species. It beggars belief how a so-called intelligent scientist can be so illogical and so wrong, for very simple and scientific reasons. It's as if they have a hatred of the truth, namely that there has to be a Creator for life and the various species to have formed in the first place.
Don Batten
Jesus said, "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil." (John 3:19)
Terence T.
Clear, precise and brilliantly answered. Thank you Jared for the question and thank you Don for your reply.
Michael S.
Hi CMI, just to qualify, what did the person writing to you mean by regaining eyes? I would imagine the only way to regain eyes in a population would not be evolution, but to regain the information through gene flow from a "close" population, close enough to "give back" the information for eyes. Is this correct? It is important to not let evolutionists pretend that morphological structures can re-evolve through the magical fairy tale they call "convergence".
The important, indeed the vital point, as you mentioned in the article, is that there is no possibility, or example of an evolution of new morphological novel or existing structures through evolution.
Evolutionists claim we have no evidence, but it seems that 100% of the induction shows that mutations can't produce any evolution in real time. Shouldn't we see macro-evolution is bacteria? Surely bacteria-years are not the same as human-years? It would be great if yu could extrapolate the difference, given that humans were supposed to have arisen from apes 5 million years ago. It would be of immense interest for me to KNOW what would consistitute 5 million bacteria-years, so that we could see if bacteria have macro-evolved over that period of time.
A good prediction for creation might be: IF we macro-evolve, THEN we should be able to observe bacteria, and other lesser lifeforms to macro-evolve, when we extrapolate a time-frame for their evolution.
(I am aware of the EXCUSE of stasis/normalize selection). Admittedly the prediction lacks power in that it is posteriori in reality, but the facts should still speak volumes IMHO.
Don Batten
Good pick-up, Michael; I did not answer the blind fish regaining eyes and your answer is correct; see Breeding blind fish with blind fish restores sight.
Yes, we should see evolution in bacteria in real time, since their generation times are so short and the populations so large. I made this point in reference to Richard Lenski's lab experiment with E. coli. and also with the nomenclature/classification of bacteria—many bacteria were named in the 1800s and still have the same characteristics today that enable them to be identified as the same (see Stasis).
Robert S.
Hi,love your ministry to the point my kids and I make part of our support letter box dropping your pamphlets. Genetic mutation interests me. Can you steer me to any research where calculations have been done to predict how much longer humanity or other kinds (ie, cattle) have before the accumulations of mutations in our genetic code mean that humanity (or cattle, or other kinds or species)are going to be in serious trouble.
Don Batten
I recall Dr Sanford answering a question about this after his lecture on genetic entropy in 2009: The Mystery of Our Declining Genes DVD. I believe he said that he thought that the life of organisms such as humans until extinction is to be reckoned in thousands of years. Evolutionist geneticist Kondrashev concluded that we should have been extinct "a hundred times over" (in their extended time frame). There are citations along similar lines from other high-profile evolutionary geneticists in Sanford's book. This is a matter for ongoing research by Dr Sanford and others using Mendel's Accountant, a sophisticated computer simulation of mutations and natural selection (Sanford, J., et al., Mendel’s Accountant: A biologically realistic forward-time population genetics program. SCPE 8(2):147-165, 2007).

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