Is natural selection a tautology, and therefore not truly falsifiable?

Is natural selection a tautology, and therefore not truly falsifiable?

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I've heard the argument from a lot of creationists that all the evidence for natural selection (and by extension, evolution) in general is worthless because natural selection is so flexible that it could cover all the data, no matter what we discovered. In essence, that natural selection is a tautology:

Survival of the fittest. What is 'fit'? What survives.

There are other creationists, however, that admit that natural selection could be falsified. These are split into two groups:

  • The ones that say, if you rephrase natural selection as a non-tautology, it becomes obvious that it doesn't work:

Natural selection has been criticized as a tautology. This would be a major problem for evolutionary biology, if true, because tautological statements can't be falsified and, therefore, can't be scientific. There is merit to this critique insofar as the theory of natural selection is indeed generally described in a tautological manner. However, natural selection can be described non-tautologically if we're careful. Natural selection should be defined as the theory that attempts to predict and retrodict evolutionary change through environmental forces acting upon organisms. However, this re-framing comes at a cost: it reveals, based on our current knowledge of evolutionary forces, the lack of ability to make accurate predictions about expected changes except in the most simple of circumstances.

  • And those that say that the falsifying options provided by natural science are impossible to actually use. Here are some of those falsifying options:
  1. Charles Darwin himself proposed a rather strong test of evolution: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." [Darwin1859, pg. 175]. This is the basis of claims by various intelligent design writers that various biological structures, such as the vertebrate immune system or the bacterial flagellum, are "irreducibly complex" -- they consist of multiple components that could not develop in the absence of the others. However, these structures have been exhaustively studied in the scientific literature, and scientists have demonstrated entirely plausible evolutionary pathways. See Complexity.
  2. Famed biologist J. B. S. Haldane, when asked what evidence could disprove evolution, mentioned "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era" [Ridley2004, pg. 66]. This is because mammals, according to current scientific analysis, did not emerge until approximately 40 million years ago, whereas the Precambrian era is prior to approximately 570 million years, when only the most primitive organisms existed on earth.
  3. Biologists had long conjectured that human chromosome number two was the result of a fusion of two corresponding chromosomes in most other primates. If DNA analysis of these chromosomes had shown that this was not the case, then modern evolutionary theory would indeed be drawn into question. This "fusion hypothesis" was indeed confirmed, rather dramatically, in 1993 (and further in 2005), by the identification of the exact point of fusion. For additional details see DNA.
  4. Modern DNA sequencing technology has provided a rigorous test of evolution, far beyond the wildest dreams of Charles Darwin. In particular, comparison of DNA sequences between organisms can be used as a measure of relatedness, and can further be used to actually construct the most likely "family tree" hierarchical relationship between a set of organisms. Such analyses have been done, and the results so far dramatically confirm the family tree that had been earlier constructed solely based on comparisons of body structure and biochemistry. For additional details see DNA.

Is there any way to save natural selection? To do so, we need to:

  • Prove it can be explained non-tautologically
  • Prove that it does make useful predictions
  • Give falsifying experiments that are reproducable and actually possible.

I think @Remi.b's answer is great and really the only way to answer your questions is with a comprehensive introduction to evolution. However, I wanted to address the tautology issue more directly.

First, the "survival of the fittest" seems like a tautology with "natural selection" because it is not a description of how natural selection works, rather, it is a phrase meant as a synonym for natural selection, to help describe the result to someone unfamiliar with the phrase.

Let me use an analogy: it would be like if you were a very new learner of English, and I told you "Joe's truck has more mass than an elephant!"

If you aren't really familiar with the term "mass" in English, this phrase could be confusing. So I explain instead that "Joe's truck is heavier than an elephant." If you know the word "heavy" this is easier to understand.

However, there is a tautology there! the car is actually heavier because it has more mass, but that does not make either phrase untrue or untestable: it's just another way of saying the same thing within a context (i.e., those statements are the same if they are exposed to the same gravity).

The testable hypothesis that natural selection makes is that, given 2 things: 1) a population where individuals have traits that give them different chances of survival, and 2) some way for offspring to inherit traits from their parent(s), then the population over time will consist of individuals who are more likely to possess the traits that gave a high chance of survival.

Following this, should the environment change in some way such that a different trait is now beneficial, that trait will increase in prevalence.

There are way too many experiments to summarize here that show 1), 2), and a combination of 1) and 2), as well as experiments that show that indeed, when you have 1) and 2) you get natural selection.

The tautology argument is an attack on a rare phrasing and not on the nature of the theory of evolution.

First, the theory of evolution is way more than just natural selection but let's ignore that for the moment.

The phrasingSurvival of the Fittestwas first suggested by Herbert Spencer and was later used by Darwin when he changed the title of the fourth chapter from "NATURAL SELECTION" to "NATURAL SELECTION; OR THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" (Thanks @BryanKrause for his comment).

It is before all a labelling. A catchy sentence to refer to the process of Natural Selection. In no way does it mean that Natural Selection is a non-sensical explanation.

Natural Selection is easy enough to understand for a layman that you can make you own opinion

Luckily, the concept of Natural Selection is really easy to understand. It does not take any a priori knowledge in Science to understand it and if you have a look at any intro course to evolutionary biology you will understand it yourself.

There are thousands of good sources of information on the subject online. If you want to learn about it, do not look at straw man and other fake explanations from creationist (and other religious extremist) websites! Consider for example Understanding Evolution or many of our posts on Biology.SE such as this one for example. You can also get any intro text book (see here for recommendations).

How does natural selection work?

Here is a copy paste of my answer here. It explains the very basic concept of natural selection through the so-called Lewontin recipe and gives a somewhat silly, but easy, example with a population of pens!

The Lewontin recipe says that natural selection occurs whenever:

  1. Individuals in a population varies in terms of a given trait
  2. This trait has some (additive) heritability. Here is one of the several posts that explain the concept of heritability. It might be slightly a post that is a bit advanced for you though but shortly speaking it means that offspring are more similar to their parents more than they are to other non-kin individuals in the population.
  3. The fitness varies (not necessarily linearly) as the trait varies.

Simple example:

  1. In a population, there are blue pens and red pens
  2. Reproduction is asexual and blue pens create other blue pens while red pens create other red pens.
  3. blue pens make more offspring than red pens.

Of course, there exist strict mathematical formulations of this process that you can learn in any introduction to evolutionary genetics.

Your questions

Note that your questions are all way too broad for a single post (and your question could be closed as too broad) but I wanted to try to give you a hand anyway.

Prove it can be explained non-tautologically

There is no "proof" in science, only evidence. But let's ignore that for the moment.

Please have a look at any intro course to evolutionary biology (see above).

Prove that it does make useful predictions

Please have a look at any intro course to evolutionary biology (see above). Afterward, you can eventually have a look at Is evolution a predictive theory?.

Give falsifying experiments that are reproducable and actually possible.

Please have a look at Demonstrable and repeatable examples of evolution which lists thousands of evidences explained in layman terms.

There are thousands (tens of thousands maybe?) of papers published every year extending our understanding of evolutionary processes! It is hard to know which one you would be interested in!

Related post

You should have a look at Is evolution a fact?

Natural selection is an observation, not a tautology. We can certainly imagine worlds - call them Disney ecologies (or for the religiously inclined, Gardens of Eden) - in which natural selection simply doesn't happen. E.g. each species is independently created, and each pair of a species has exactly two offspring before dying of old age.

This is easy enough to imagine, just as it's easy to imagine a flat Earth enclosed in a dome of "firmament" but it simply doesn't match what we observe happening in the world we live in.

Surprisingly, there seems to not have been any mention of Karl Popper, who famously argued that Darwinism is tautological and not testable/falsifiable. This answer will just give some quotes from Popper:


There is a difficulty with Darwinism. While Lamarckism appears to be not only refutable but actually refuted (because the kind of acquired adaptations which Lamarck envisaged do not appear to be hereditary), it is far from clear what we should consider a possible refutation of the theory of natural selection. If, more especially, we accept the statistical definition of fitness which defines fitness by actual survival, then the theory of the survival of the fittest becomes tautological, and irrefutable


the trouble about evolutionary theory is its tautological, or almost tautological, character: the difficulty is that Darwinism and natural selection, though extremely important, explain evolution by 'the survival of the fittest' (a term due to Herbert Spencer). Yet there does not seem to be much difference, if any, between the assertion 'those that survive are the fittest' and the tautology 'those that survive are those that survive'. For we have, I am afraid, no other criterion of fitness than actual survival, so that we conclude from the fact that some organisms have survived that they were the fittest, or those best adapted to the conditions of life.

This shows that Darwinism, with all its great virtues, is by no means a perfect theory. It is in need of a restatement which makes it less vague.


Biologists (especially Fisher) felt compelled to define as “more fit” those which more often survive. Thus, what once looked like a promising explanatory theory becomes quite empty. The statement “Evolution tends to produce higher forms because only the fittest survive” may sound like an explanation. But if we substitute here for “the fittest” its defining phrase, we get: “Evolution tends to produce higher forms because those forms which more often survive more often survive.” So our “because” phrase has degenerated into a tautology. But tautology cannot explain anything. All tautologies are equivalent to “All tables are tables” or “Those who live long are those who live long.”


A central problem of evolutionary theory is the following: according to this theory, animals which are not well adapted to their changing environment perish; consequently those which survive (up to a certain moment) must be well adapted. This formula is little short of tautological, because 'for the moment well adapted' means much the same as 'has those qualities which made it survive so far.' In other words, a considerable part of Darwinism is not of the nature of an empirical theory, but it is a logical truism


the theory of natural selection is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme


Adaptation or fitness is defined by modern evolutionists as survival value, and can be measured by actual success in survival: there is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this

For more details & discussion, see "Popper's Shifting Appraisal of Evolutionary Theory" (2017).

The "survival of the fittest" statement which Darwin recommended as the best formulation of his idea of "natural selection" is definitely a tautology because there is no other operational definition of fitness besides survival (or reproduction). So, survive (reproduce) are those who survive(reproduce).

Darwin naively attempted to imitate the process of selection of domesticated species assuming that new species are produced by "natural selection" in the same way as dogs are produced from wolves. The poor guy was probably not familiar with the facts: the species produced by selection are inferior to the original ones. Dogs are inferior to wolves since they lost a lot of vital features. Moreover, this loss of information is irreversible: you cannot produce a wolf from a spaniel by selection.

In an abstract form, it is quite simple. There is a law: the complexity of a result of a selection algorithm cannot exceed the complexity of the algorithm. Therefore, any selection results in the information loss, and no new information can be produced by selection.

What Did Karl Popper Really Say About Evolution?

In a 1981 article in Science Digest , Duane Gish, the master debater among creationists, said:

There were no human witnesses to the origin of the Universe, the origin of life or the origin of a single living thing. These were unique, unrepeatable events of the past that cannot be observed in nature or repeated in the laboratory. Thus neither creation nor evolution qualifies as a scientific theory and each is equally religious. As the scientific philosopher Sir Karl Popper has stated, evolution is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program. [Asimov and Gish, p. 82]

The most direct rebuttal one can give to these charges is that Gish and other creationists really don't believe them! The underlying point of the above quotation is that evolution is unscientific because it is not falsifiable (testable), yet creationists are always producing arguments and "evidences" that they say refute evolution. Gish does it in the article quoted above. In spite of that obvious contradiction, the argument impresses laypeople and legislators. But it completely distorts what Popper calls the logic of scientific discovery.

So what does Popper really say about evolution?

Indeed, the recent vogue of historicism might be regarded as merely part of the vogue of evolutionism&mdasha philosophy that owes its influence largely to the somewhat sensational clash between a brilliant scientific hypothesis concerning the history of the various species of animals and plants on earth, and an older metaphysical theory which, incidentally, happened to be part of an established religious belief.

What we call the evolutionary hypothesis is an explanation of a host of biological and paleontological observations&mdashfor instance, of certain similarities between various species and genera&mdashby the assumption of common ancestry of related forms.

. . . I see in modern Darwinism the most successful explanation of the relevant facts. [Popper, 1957, p. 106 emphasis added]

There exists no law of evolution, only the historical fact that plants and animals change, or more precisely, that they have changed. [Popper, 1963b, p. 340 emphasis added]

I have always been extremely interested in the theory of evolution and very ready to accept evolution as a fact. [Popper, 1976, p. 167 emphasis added]

The Mendelian underpinning of modern Darwinism has been well tested and so has the theory of evolution which says that all terrestrial life has evolved from a few primitive unicellular organisms, possibly even from one single organism. [Popper, 1978, p. 344 emphasis added]

Furthermore, in his book, Objective Knowledge, where he uses the Darwinian paradigm as a basis for his own theory of knowledge, Popper not only discusses Darwinism at length as a scientific explanation but offers as an additional component a scientific hypothesis of his own&mdashgenetic dualism&mdashwhich is intended to strengthen the orthodox neo-Darwinian framework (Popper, 1972, p. 242 ff). Popper's genetic dualism is similar to the ideas of Wilson and Stebbins (Stebbins, 1977, p. 125) and Mayr (1963, p. 604 ff. 1970, p. 363 ff.) concerning the role of behavior in evolution.

But he did make one mistake&mdashfor which we should forgive him some well-known biologists (who should know better) have made the same mistake. Popper takes "survival of the fittest" as the definition of natural selection (Popper, 1972, p. 241). This catchy phrase was an invention of Herbert Spencer, which Darwin, in a rare example of bad judgment, interpolated into later editions of On the Origin of Species : "This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations and the destruction of those which are injurious I have called Natural Selection or the Survival of the Fittest" (p. 64). Clearly it is an alternate name (and not a very apt one) for the process in question but not a definition.

The argument regarding "survival of the fittest" is that the only way one can usually tell who the fittest are is to see who survives. But then survival of the fittest becomes "almost a tautology" and hence untestable (Popper, 1972, p. 69 1963a, p. 964).

I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme&mdasha possible framework for testable scientific theories. [Popper, 1976, p. 168]

It is clear that here Darwinism means natural selection, not evolution. Popper states this explicitly earlier in the same work:

. . . because I intend to argue that the theory of natural selection is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme . . . [Popper, 1976, p. 151]

There are two points to be made here:

First, natural selection being untestable is not the same as evolution being untestable. Evolution, to the creationist, is any hypothesis about origins. Astrophysical theories about stellar evolution or the "Big Bang" cosmology or scientific geology or, for that matter, many facets of biological evolution are not based upon Darwinian natural selection.

Second, Popper later admitted that he was wrong!

The fact that the theory of natural selection is difficult to test has led some people, anti-Darwinists and even some great Darwinists, to claim that it is a tautology. . . . I mention this problem because I too belong among the culprits. Influenced by what these authorities say, I have in the past described the theory as "almost tautological," and I have tried to explain how the theory of natural selection could be untestable (as is a tautology) and yet of great scientific interest. My solution was that the doctrine of natural selection is a most successful metaphysical research programme. . . . [Popper, 1978, p. 344]

I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation. . . . [p. 345]

The theory of natural selection may be so formulated that it is far from tautological. In this case it is not only testable, but it turns out to be not strictly universally true. There seem to be exceptions, as with so many biological theories and considering the random character of the variations on which natural selection operates, the occurrence of exceptions is not surprising. [p. 346]

Thus the creationists were never correct in stating that Popper believed that evolution was not falsifiable (and hence not scientific), nor are they now correct in citing him as an authority for the claim that natural selection is tautological and not falsifiable!

Some might challenge my point that Popper never doubted the testability of evolution by citing the following:

I blush when I have to make this confession for when I was younger, I used to say very contemptuous things about evolutionary philosophies. When twenty-two years ago Canon Charles E. Raven, in his Science, Religion, and the Future , described the Darwinian controversy as "a storm in a Victorian teacup," I agreed, but criticized him for paying too much attention "to the vapors still emerging from the cup," by which I meant the hot air of the evolutionary philosophies (especially those which told us that there were inexorable laws of evolution). But now I have to confess that this cup of tea has become, after all, my cup of tea and with it I have to eat humble pie. [Popper, 1972, p. 241]

But in an earlier work, he explicitly identified these "vapors" as "the Great Systems of Evolutionist philosophy, produced by Bergson, Whitehead, Smuts and others" (Popper, 1957, p. 106). He was not speaking, then, of the scientific theory of evolution but of various metaphysical theories. He made a clear distinction between the two.

And his current support for the Darwinian idea of natural selection is expressed in equally plain language.

What Darwin showed us was that the mechanism of natural selection can, in principle, simulate the actions of the Creator and His purpose and design, and that it can also simulate rational human action directed towards a purpose or aim. [Popper, 1972, p. 267 see also Popper, 1978, pp. 342-343]

As for the notion of design as a useful hypothesis:

His theory of adaptation was the first nontheistic one that was convincing and theism was worse than an open admission of failure, for it created the impression that an ultimate explanation had been reached. [Popper 1976, p. 172]

There are scientists who are unfamiliar with or misinterpret Popper. For example, Colin Patterson holds that, if we accept Popper's distinction between science and nonscience, evolution is not science because it deals with unique historical events. Popper, however, doesn't agree with this.

It does appear that some people think that I denied scientific character to the historical sciences, such as palaeontology, or the history of the evolution of life on Earth. This is a mistake, and I here wish to affirm that these and other historical sciences have in my opinion scientific character their hypotheses can in many cases be tested. [Popper, 1981, p. 611]

In an earlier work, Popper discussed the historical sciences in which the scientific method of theoretical sciences is used:

This view is perfectly compatible with the analysis of scientific method, and especially of causal explanation given in the preceding section. The situation is simply this: while the theoretical sciences are mainly interested in finding and testing universal laws, the historical sciences take all kinds of universal laws for granted and are mainly interested in finding and testing singular statements. [Popper, 1957, p. 143ff]

What Popper calls the historical sciences do not make predictions about long past unique events (postdictions), which obviously would not be testable. (Several recent authors&mdashincluding Stephen Jay Gould in Discover , July 1982&mdashmake this mistake.) These sciences make hypotheses involving past events which must predict (that is, have logical consequences) for the present state of the system in question. Here the testing procedure takes for granted the general laws and theories and is testing the specific conditions (or initial conditions, as Popper usually calls them) that held for the system.

A scientist, on the basis of much comparative anatomy and physiology, might hypothesize that, in the distant past, mammals evolved from reptiles. This would have testable consequences for the present state of the system (earth's surface with the geological strata in it and the animal and plant species living on it) in the form of reptile-mammal transition fossils that should exist, in addition to other necessary features of the DNA, developmental systems, and so forth, of the present-day reptiles and mammals.

What about repeatability? It is the observations that must be repeatable, if only to establish their validity independently of any one person's authority. This does not mean that the hypothetical mechanism or the phenomenon concerned must be repeatable or reproducible. In the experimental laboratory where the phenomena being studied are short-lived and transient, it is usually necessary to reproduce them in order to repeat the observations. But scientists must wait for the recurrence of natural phenomena&mdashsuch as eclipses, earthquakes, seasonally recurring biological phenomena, and so forth. Yet, if a phenomenon is a stable, more or less permanent long-term condition, observations may be repeated anytime. A geologist may return to a geological formation to repeat or make new observations, or an anatomist or paleontologist may reexamine a museum specimen, either corroborating or refuting someone else's previous observations. Clearly, then, a hypothesis postulating a unique past event is scientific&mdashas long as it has observable consequences for the present that can be repeatedly verified by any observer.

Thus we may conclude (as Popper did) that evolutionary theories or historical hypotheses about origins are no different than other scientific theories as far as their logical features are concerned and are just as falsifiable as hypotheses in the form of general laws and theories.

Natural Selection and the Criteria by Which a Theory Is Judged

When recent literature on the falsifiability of natural selection is examined critics and defenders seem to communicate with each other very poorly. An examination of the structure of tautology and that of causal explanation provides criteria by which to examine the claims of both critics and defenders. Natural selection is free of tautology in any formulation that recognizes the causal interaction between the organism and its environment, but most recent critics have already understood this and are actually arguing that the theory is not falsifiable in its operational form. Under examination, the operational forms of the concepts of adaptation and fitness turn out to be too indeterminate to be seriously tested, for they are protected by ad hoc additions drawn from an indeterminate realm. Future knowledge may reduce the organism to a determinate system, but until such time too little is known to investigate organism–environment relations. Researchers should consider whether natural selection is necessary to empiric investigation in their area, and whether it can serve the purpose for which it is applied.

The principle of natural selection has come under increasing attack, in recent years, for any number of assumed faults. In general, the conclusion of the majority of critics has been that the principle is unnecessary and unfruitful. The defenders have, of course, rejected both claims. The critics usually bring an impressive collection of criteria for a “good scientific theory” to bear on the problem, and the defenders reply in kind. The problems are quite difficult — a number of pitfalls lurk for both sides — and an atmosphere of miscommunication seems to pervade the whole discussion. The ground is obviously not familiar terrain for either side.

A discussion of this sort is, I think a sign of health, particularly if it serves to make us more self-conscious of the manner in which our thinking lays hold of empiric evidence. A clarification of this activity could profit any field of science, for there are questions here which simply have not been settled as yet. Much of the argumentation in this paper, therefore, could be applied to other notions of evolutionary theory, or to theories from other sciences. I do not mean to single out natural selection as the only theoretical area which might benefit from scrutiny. But scrutiny is already under way in this area, and, to my understanding, the critics have uncovered a problem worth looking at, if we can get it into focus.

The specific complaints most often put forward with regard to natural selection are that it is tautological, or untestable, or both. I propose to make an examination of these criticisms, and the counter arguments, using the intent of the theorist as a criterion of judgment. This is a standard to which every researcher should readily assent. The fruitfulness of a theory must be, for the man selecting it, the fruitfulness for his intent, for the purpose to which the theory is to be applied. If a theory, or a research activity, can be shown to fall short of its intended purpose, this would be a useful criticism, and one which the researcher could understand. I suspect that matters will be somewhat clarified by approaching them in this manner. If nothing else, the argument of my own discussion should be easier to follow. I shall begin by examining the troublesome concept of tautology with regard to causal explanation in general, since causal explanation is the intent of causal theory. The accusation of tautological reasoning has been repeated by various critics (Manser, 1965 Macbeth, 1971 Grene, 1974 Bethell, 1976 Peters, 1976) and will be a recurring problem for this discussion. It will be necessary, therefore, to formulate the concept in such away that its effect on the theory will become apparent.

Tautology and Causal Explanation

The etymology of the term would suggest that the Greek idea was “to speak the same” — some form of repetition. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that this is the underlying notion in the various usages listed, and it is certainly thematic to the usage made of the term in modern logic. We will not require any more rigorous definition than that provided by the Greek etymology, however, for the argument will be quite clear on this basis. It is obvious, for example, that it makes no sense to criticize Gertrude Stein’s repetition — “a rose is a rose is a rose” — by an accusation of tautology, since in this case, the mere repetition is the whole point, whereas the advertisement for the bingo game that invites “all husbands and married men” has misused the tongue. In the former case the repetition serves the author’s intention in the latter it does not.

Tautology in logic becomes a pejorative term by specifying a useless repetition, and this is indeed what is wrong with the second example above. But we need not build the pejorative sense into the term. The basic notion is one of repetition! Once a repetition is identified, it becomes a simple task to discover whether the repeat is contrary to the speaker’s intention, and therefore useless or unfruitful for his purpose.

The usual purpose, in empirical science, of theoretical propositions is some sort of causal explanation: this because that. Such a proposition is necessarily synthetic, that is, the second half adds something new, something not already contained in the first half. The alternative is the analytic statement — “husbands are married men” — which repeats the first part in the second. Analytic statements are quite useful for purposes of definition — “a deafness is an impairment of the hearing” — but only a synthetic construction can serve as a causal explanation. When the definition strategy is used with causal intent, language breaks down. “Your deafness is caused by an impairment of your hearing” means only that your deafness is caused by your deafness — the intent to add something more than the fact of deafness is not carried through by the formulation. A scientific theory brings distinct elements into a dependent relation: the thunder is caused by the lightning your deafness is caused by a torn eardrum. As cause and effect are not the same, the two sides of a causal proposition cannot be identical.

A theory becomes empirical by reference to observation, and may be said to gain empirical content, or empirical determination, to the degree that this reference determines either what is stated or whether that statement is accepted. That is, to the degree that such empirical information is allowed to affect our position. Beliefs about the world that are not informed by experience remain metaphysical in nature. They may indeed be true, but they are without evidence. Since the purpose of our reference to experience is clearly the addition of new information, something we do not already know, the intention is again synthetic. We want to discover, for example, whether the proposed relations hold for the observed world, and the generation of testable predictions allows our observations to bear upon the question.

Of course, this requirement can be frustrated. It is not difficult to formulate statements about the world which cannot be altered by reference to that world. If our theory had the form, for instance, of the German saying: “If the cock crows from the manure pile it will rain — or it won’t,” empirical test would be precluded. Observation could add no new information to this form of statement, and the synthetic intention of observation would be thereby denied. The form of the statement left no room for a determination through experience.

An experiment, or observational test, is projected from the theorized dependent relation between cause and effect. The causal statement predicts if this then that. In order to test this empirically we require an identification of at least two observations, or two groups of observations, corresponding to the supposed causal parameters and the situation resulting (respectively, the this and that above). Any failure to distinguish the observation or set of observations belonging to the first part from that belonging to the second — any failure, that is, to provide observations which may be compared — precludes the possibility of testing by precluding the possibility of questioning. The point of the satirical folk-saying above is that since any and all empirical conditions conform to it, no empirical result could ever question it. Because the conditions specified under the that clause do not forbid anything, the statement fails to identify a set of observations distinct from other possibilities. It cannot be empirically determined because it was not theoretically determinate.

If either side of the dependent relation fails to identify a distinct set of observations, the statement is not testable. Thus the result above could also arise from an indistinct this clause. The obvious remark that “if the right conditions occur, we will have a very good harvest,” affirms only that there is a dependent relation, but does not specify what the consequent (the harvest) is dependent on. A theory can gain empirical determination only through a formulation that is able to specify the observations to be compared.

The several frustrations of intention covered here all stem from a failure to add, to our starting point, information not already contained within it. The notion of explanation suggests that we must add something to the facts explained, unless we are to suppose that the facts explain themselves. Empirical explanation suggests further that some element of the addition will be derived from experience. Thus, a theory fails its intention if it does not add information to the events explained, and a research program — which arises through our attempt to treat the theory empirically — falls short of its goal if it does not provide an addition that is empirically derived. If my assumptions about scientific intentions are shared by biologists, then I take it that for them, as well as myself, a successful scientific endeavor must meet the requirement of form outlined here, or it cannot carry through its purpose of explanation. Since it is my impression that these intentions are shared by the biological community, I will continue by examining the various formulations of natural selection in order to discover how well they meet these requirements.

The Purpose of the Theory

The following discussion will assume that the principle of natural selection is at least intended to provide a causal explanation of the origins of morphological diversity, adaptation, and, when the principle is extended as far as Darwin proposed, speciation. It can therefore be equated with the Spencerian phrase “the survival of the fittest” as Darwin recognized in his later editions: “I have called this principle . by the term natural selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient” (Darwin,1876). The discussion will be limited to this use of the principle, since I believe it to be the most ubiquitous, and will examine how well or how badly it fulfills this purpose.

Differential Reproduction

When one observes a group of animals over time, it becomes obvious that reproductive differentials exist. From this information alone one may theorize that allele frequencies within a gene pool can shift. But this is not yet an adequate hypothesis for the origin of diversity, since changes in allele frequencies take place within stable populations. If we suppose that, either accidentally or through the agency of some causal power, the changes cumulate in a direction, then we have a hypothesis. Even Darwin did not care to suggest that such a direction could arise without causal control, and so he provided a form of control — i.e., selection. That is, he added the notion of selection to that of differential reproduction in order to generate an explanatory hypothesis. Of course, were selection to be subtracted again, we would be left with the fact of differential reproduction. No explanation of this effect can be derived from the effect itself, and thus no way to explain, much less predict, a direction from the differential.

Since tautology is fatal for any sort of causal explanation, it is somewhat mysterious to find a number of authors advancing an admittedly tautologous formulation of natural selection. Waddington, for example, published the following passage in 1960:

Natural selection, which was at first considered as though it were a hypothesis that was in need of experimental or observational confirmation, turns out on closer inspection to be a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognized relation. It states that the fittest individuals in a population (defined as those which leave the most offspring) will leave the most offspring. Once the statement is made, its truth is apparent. This fact in no way reduces the magnitude of Darwin’s achievement only after it was clearly formulated, could biologists realize the enormous power of the principle as a weapon of explanation.

Macbeth (1971) found this passage “staggering.” It is even more astonishing to reflect that Macbeth’s reaction was not a common one.

The passage above defines fitness as leaving the most offspring. It then states that the fittest individuals will leave the most offspring, and it calls this statement “a weapon of explanation.” It is, to begin with, extremely difficult to believe Waddington’s claim that the idea that individuals who leave the most offspring do in fact leave the most offspring was at any time an “unrecognized relation.” But it is very clear that biologists might be slow in recognizing the explanatory power of this formulation. If the fact of deafness is to be explained, how does it help to suggest an impairment of hearing? If differential reproduction is to be explained, what light is shed by pointing to differential reproduction? We already know that some individuals leave more offspring. What we want to know is why. In particular, we should like to discover some trait or traits, independent of leaving more offspring, that explain why one individual is more “fit,” i.e., more likely than others to leave a greater number of offspring. Since the tautologous formulation does not produce any criterion of fitness other than the fact to be explained (differential reproduction), it amounts to the claim that facts explain themselves — individuals leave more offspring because they leave more offspring. Contrary to Waddington’s claim, the tautologous repetition is utterly useless for explanatory purposes.

All very obvious, or so one would expect. But J. B. S. Haldane did not think so:

the phrase “survival of the fittest” is something of a tautology. So are most mathematical theorems. There is no harm in stating the same truth in two different ways (Haldane,1935).

I single out Waddington and Haldane from the crowd of biologists who say or imply the same thing, only because they put the fallacy in such exemplary terms. Haldane here puts forward the most popular defense of the tautology — after all, mathematics is tautological. Well yes, it is. But mathematical theorems follow from axioms, by definition. Mathematical truths are analytic in nature. Causal explanation is synthetic. How Haldane missed the difference is hard to understand, but he was clearly oblivious of it when he wrote the passage above.

I have been belaboring a simple point because I want to be well rid of it. Differential reproduction, or even differential mortality (which is closer to the original idea), has no explanatory power, but remains a datum to be explained. If natural selection means anything in a causal framework, it means that a causal factor exists, independent of differential reproduction (or mortality), the discovery of which could explain the differential. It is to this formulation, and its research program, that we must now pass.

The Hand of Nature

We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them: indeed, in several cases we know that this has not been their history. The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds.

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection (Darwin, 1859).

Darwin’s original intent was clearly to designate a causal agency that was analogous to the hand of man. The natural environment was a master breeder, far more attentive and meticulous than a human breeder could ever hope to be. We see the results of this process, Darwin claimed, in the close adaptation between modern species and their habitats. Species are fitted to their particular niches as if they were bred to them, as in a sense, they were.

In this formulation, natural selection hypothesizes a determinate relation between specific traits and the environment. Such a hypothesis could give rise to useful research, for obviously these relations remain to be demonstrated. Why then, did anyone think of turning away from the search for such relations to the empty formula of differential reproduction? Because, it would seem, the search for determinate causal relation is fraught with extreme difficulty. Darwin had already hinted at the problem. How can we possibly investigate “infinitely complex relations” (which presumably exist between an organism and its environment)? Darwin repeats the adjective many times in many contexts. The locution cannot be written off as a habit of speech rather than thought, because Darwin clearly sees the concept of infinite steps and complexity as strengthening his argument — the greater the complexity of relationship, the greater the power of natural selection, which acts through all relations at once. But a summing-up of an unknown number of parameters can be very difficult to investigate.

A perusal of the Origin does not raise hopeful prospects of research. Does Darwin suppose that we can perceive the causal connections he hypothesizes? — only with great difficulty:

Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life . Under nature, the slightest difference in structure or constitution may well turn the nicely-balanced scale in the struggle for life, and so be preserved . Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship? (Darwin, 1859).

He supposed, at least, that there were far too many parameters for him to pin anything down in his own text. The research program would follow.

Has it followed? It is obvious that much effort has gone into the task, but that is not what I mean. Darwin succeeded in proposing a theory that had, on logical grounds, the form of a causal theory. It was synthetic it attached cause to effect. It postulated a determinate relation between animal traits and environment, and it initiated a search for these relations. But a successful theory must generate a research program that is possible to carry out. The Darwinian program must somehow unravel a causal nexus of unknown (“infinite”) parameters and re-sum them conceptually. The attempts to perform this task do not always evidence a full awareness of the difficulties involved.

Miscommunications on Testability

Although I have argued that the original form of natural selection was free of tautology, I am well aware that critics have continued to voice the accusation. But most of these criticisms are really concerned with the manner in which the researcher operationalizes the Darwinian concepts. After all, when we attempt to investigate the process by which selective pressures lead to increased fitness, we need some way of identifying, in the organisms, traits that represent fitness. Darwin’s own language indicates some difficulty on this point, and the situation may not have improved with time. Recent statements by prominent biologists, for example, suggest that no clear criterion of fitness has yet been found. Simpson (1953) remarked that “The fallibility of personal judgment as to the adaptive value of particular characters, most especially when these occur in animals quite unlike any now living, is notorious.” Dobzhansky (1975) was willing to go even further, concluding that no biologist “can judge reliably which ‘characters’ are neutral, useful, or harmful in a given species.” With such comments in the literature, it should surprise no one that a few individuals begin to wonder whether the process by which fitness is supposed to be optimalized can be investigated at all.

In his Harper’s article Bethell (1976), a journalist, argued that researchers were compelled to identify fitness with survival since the research program had no way of identifying, in the total animal, what traits conferred what advantages. Darwin, he pointed out, had developed the theory from the analogy of human breeders, who have the “desirable” traits clearly before them because they themselves have defined what is desirable. But as Darwin admitted, we do not readily perceive the relations that confer actual survival on the animal. If fitness could not be detected independently of survival, said Bethell, then any attempt to operationalize the concept with regard to actual observations would wind up equating it with survival, making the argument tautologous (we are really testing the survival of the survivors).

This argument was answered by Gould (1977) who claimed that a criterion of fitness independent of survival was indeed available:

Now, the key point: certain morphological, physiological, and behavioral traits should be superior a priori as designs for living in these environments. These traits confer fitness by an engineer’s criterion of good design, not by the empirical fact of their survival and spread. It got colder before the woolly mammoth evolved its shaggy coat.

Gould is speaking not merely of single traits, but of their integration in a good overall design. He is quite correct in his interpretation of the intent of Darwin’s hypothesis, and his logic is beyond question. If an animal were well designed for the environment, it would do well in that environment, since that is obviously what we mean by “well designed.” And the sum of the right traits would equal such design, which is what the theory says. But of course, the sequence is not definite. Gould supposes that the cold came first and the wool after because that is what his theory postulates. His remark is, therefore, merely a hypothetical example of the proposed relation.

Gould’s answer received accolades from such diverse quarters as Carl Sagan (1977), who thought that viewing natural selection as a tautology was “quaint,” and Peter Medewar (1978), who found Gould’s reply “a pretty accomplished hatchet job on the unlucky Mr. Tom Bethell.” Yet while Gould clearly demonstrates that Darwin did not formulate natural selection as a tautology, he never gets around to discussing what Bethell actually claimed, i.e., that the research program inevitably reduced the principle to tautology in practice. He (Bethell, 1976) made the argument as follows:

A mutation that allows a wolf to run faster than the pack only allows the wolf to survive better if it does, in fact, survive better. But such a mutation could also result in the wolf outrunning the pack a couple of times and getting first crack at the food, then abruptly dropping dead of a heart attack because the extra power in its legs placed an extra strain upon its heart. Fitness must be identified with survival, because it is the overall animal that survives, or does not survive, not the individual parts of it.

The individual trait must be summed in the whole before we know how useful it actually is. Since the summing is beyond the knowledge of the investigator, he does not derive survival from his knowledge of engineering he observes the fact of survival and then attempts to explain this by reference to design. How do we know that an animal is optimally designed for an environment? It survives in that environment. Thus, no matter how we explain good design after the fact, the criterion used for the detection of good design is always survival.

The problem and the response have been adequately described by David Hull (1974) who saw this dynamic very well:

If one only knew enough about the genetic makeup, the embryological development, and the physiology of the organisms concerned, as well as the vagaries of the environment, one could assign a certain degree of fitness to each of these organisms and hence be able to make reasonable predictions about their chances of survival. With this information, one could in turn predict subsequent changes in the population.

We do not have this information, but even without it, Hull concludes, we are compelled to explain:

The evolutionary development of a particular species or population as such cannot be predicted with any reasonable degree of certainty. Predictions are possible only to the extent that a population or species happens to fit one of the patterns of evolution which have currently been discovered.

One is tempted to rush by all such pragmatic consideration. Perhaps biologists do not know all the relevant variables and could not combine them meaningfully if they did, but surely nature does the summing for us. In principle, every organism that dies without leaving issue has a coefficient of fitness of zero. No matter that two individuals are identical twins with the same genotype — one could have an extremely high coefficient of fitness and the other a very low one, depending on how many offspring each leaves. The appeal to this retrospective deterministic bias is difficult to resist. If one individual dies without reproducing itself and another succeeds in leaving numerous offspring, something must have been responsible for the difference.

Something presumably did make the difference and, as Gould suggests, we may theorize that those designs which may be termed “superior a priori” are the answer. But, if we allow nature to do the summing for us and assume that the process has culled out the highest sums, or best designs, we are reduced to concluding that these survivors must be, by definition, the best designs.

It is this twist that catches Bethell’s attention. If the researcher detects fitness by survival, however that individual reasons about which traits confer which advantages after this fact, it is clear that no test will be forthcoming. We may indeed hypothesize that the organism survives because certain traits, capable of selection, confer fitness upon it, but operationally we have allowed survival to stand for fitness — thus identifying the two — and we cannot meet the requirement that two independent observations be compared. Our claim that fitness causes survival seems to be reduced, in our operational procedure, to the claim that survival causes survival, which explains nothing.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Bethell talked of tautology here rather than lack of testability, which is his real point, for the charge of tautology always leads defenders back to the theory itself, which is not tautologous. Even so it led Gould to explain that Darwin presumed a causal relation between the design of the animal and the structure of its environment. But Gould’s response is equally unfortunate, since it seems less than candid. One would suppose that a reader as sophisticated as Gould could have seen that Bethell understood Darwin’s assumption, and was merely questioning whether it could be made operational in actual research, yet Gould does not rise to the argument on the detection of fitness. From Bethell’s point of view Gould’s response must have seemed more playful than serious. Those designs that are “superior a priori” must be superior in some specific way — in this case, they are superior strategies for survival. From this it follows by definition that they will be the survivors, nature having done its sums properly. It also follows that the survivors must be, a priori, the superior designs — i.e., fittest. Best of all, since all this follows by definition, we need no research program to investigate it. It is, of course, necessary to determine empirically that there are survivors, but since this singular fact was among the data we started out to explain, we already know it. Indeed, we also predict it, for since the theory states that the superior designs should survive, we may look about us and find that, by Jove, they have! — understanding, of course, that any survivors are already known to be the superior designs. It is truly marvelous to see what one can determine prior to the inception of actual research. What on earth was bothering that chap Bethell?

The miscommunication between Bethell and Gould is typical. Most of the present critics of natural selection have difficulty with the research program that could operationalize it, but have not clearly distinguished the operational formulation of the concepts from the formulation of the theory per se. Most defenders have risen to the charge of tautology, explaining once more with feeling, that the theory itself is not tautological, but have not gotten around to the problem of operationalizing the concept of fitness. (Of course, the fact that some versions of the theory — i.e., differential reproduction — are tautological adds to the confusion.) But if the critics, particularly outsiders like Bethell and Macbeth, fail to make enough distinctions through lack of familiarity with the material, the same may not be said of the defenders, who are usually experts in the subject. The critic has the easier job, and it shows. Defenders, even the most knowledgeable, will often be forced to delve rather deeply into philosophic considerations to answer a complaint intuitively advanced by the critic.

J. Maynard Smith’s (1969) defense of neo-Darwinism is an interesting example of the complexity of the defending position. Smith gave the paper at a symposium attended by Marjorie Grene and David Bohm, both sometime critics of the neo-Darwinian position (Grene, 1969, 1974 Bohm, 1969). He was responding to a charge of tautology — he does not cite the source — and decided to defend by showing the neo-Darwinian position to be non-tautologous because falsifiable. Obviously, Smith noted, any position that can be refuted by empirical evidence must be more than a mere repetition of the starting point, since it admits a new element — i.e., the factual data. Although Smith is absolutely correct in this claim, his strategy is not well suited to his purpose.

To begin with, by choosing to defend the basic theory against the charge of tautology by reference to empiric test, Smith has failed to distinguish the formulation of theory per se from the problems of its application to observation, the very thing that led to difficulty with regard to the arguments of critics. The theory of natural selection, the heart of Smith’s defense, is simply not a tautology in the formulation that recognizes a causal interaction between the organism and its environment, and this point is easily made. (It would be a great relief to get the whole problem of tautologous formulation behind us once and for all, but I am afraid that neither critics nor defenders have been very efficient in bringing about this goal.) The moment we turn to empiric observation and falsifiability, we must deal with the problem of operationalizing our concepts in a testable way. If one reads the critics carefully, this is obviously the crucial problem, but Smith cannot deal with it directly since he confuses it with proving that the theory, rather than the research program, has the proper form.

Smith’s discussion produces three rather interesting difficulties which are hardly unique to his paper: his definitions are not operational he offers a test of a relatively strong part of the theory as if it corroborated a weaker part as well and he mistakes the canonical value of the theory (the general agreement with known facts) for a basis of testing. Judging from the much greater sophistication of his more recent treatment of this theme (1978), I would suppose that he did not, in the 1969 paper, concern himself with the requirements of a serious program of testing. Yet since he has announced that his subject is falsification, his argument must be judged on this basis, and since the article was recommended by other defenders (Ferguson, 1976), its problems are well worth analysis.

Smith (1969) offers, as an explanation of “fitness,” the following paragraph:

If variation is to lead to evolution, then some variations must alter ‘fitness,’ and at least some of these must increase fitness. By fitness is simply meant the probability of survival and reproduction. A melanistic moth is by definition fitter if it is more likely to survive, and a myopic man may be fitter if his myopia enables him to escape the draft. (Much confusion has arisen because ‘fit’ is not used in this sense in the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ If it were so used, the phrase would indeed be tautological. A more precise though less elegant — and hence less ‘fit’ — phrase would be ‘the survival of the adaptively complex,’ i.e. organisms are adaptively complex or, as Bohm might say, ‘harmonious,’ because such organisms survive better than less harmonious ones.) It follows from this definition that fitness can only be compared in a specific environment or range of environments.

In commenting on this passage, neither Bohm (1969) nor Grene (1969) could find much meaning in “the probability of survival and reproduction,” presumably because both were thinking in terms of how this could be operationalized with regard to actual organisms. What we really want to know, if we are concerned with a test of the theory, is how such probability is calculated — how can we tell which changes are adaptive? Smith does not go into this because he is explaining the intent of the theory rather than its application.

But notice that the long parenthetical clarification above runs into the very problems Smith is supposed to be solving. If we substitute “adaptive complexity” for “fitness” we are indeed in danger of tautology, since the term “adaptive,” by presuming some sort of positive adaptation to the environment, already means “fit,” and thus it has no explanatory value here. And if we look further for clarification, we find that organisms are adaptively complex or “harmonious” because they survive better than less harmonious ones. The “because” here can only explain our reasons for speaking in this fashion — that is, Smith uses the words in this manner because he means them to be synonymous “fit” is “adapted” or “harmonious” — since it cannot contribute to any causal speculation. After all, to tell us that an organism is fit because it survives better than less fit organisms is only to tell us how one will use the words. There is still no hint of what constitutes fitness other than survival.

Smith now moves on to discuss possible falsifications, remarking that the theory has done well in the laboratory, particularly in the prediction of rates of variation. Smith could certainly claim a like success in the industrial melanism experiments, and since I think it may well be on the mind of the reader, I will add the topic here. Successful prediction of rates of variation is a victory for genetic theory, and the shift in allele frequency of the moth population towards the melanistic variant is one for selection theory. Smith mentions that the critics have admitted the strength of the lab work I have not heard anyone deny the industrial melanism experiments. But these things do not deal with the part of the theory most seriously under attack. The very fact that the critics do not attack here should have alerted Smith to the real focus of recent criticisms, namely, how can the concept of fitness be tested as well as these other points have been? (In case further clarification is needed on the distinction, made above, between the part of selection theory tested by industrial melanism and the part that remains to be tested, let me point out that simple selective pressure has never been seriously in question. That certain conditions can cause selective mortality means only that some alleles can be weeded out, not that this action can combine with variation in order to optimalize adaptation. If we did not believe in selective pressure we would not use the metaphor of weeding, which is drawn from the selective predator pressure we place on the dandelions in the front lawn. But one may accept this relation without supposing that everything else must follow, and it is the optimalization of adaptation that the critics usually worry about.)

Finally, Smith moves to the canonical value of the theory. He drops the example of the laboratory and, turning to nature at large, remarks that when one looks at the end-products of natural selection — i.e., the organisms — it becomes obvious that the theory forbids any number of conceivable arrangements. If these counter-arrangements were actually to turn up, the theory would be refuted:

If one invents counter-examples they seem absurd. Thus, if someone discovers a deep-sea fish with varying numbers of luminous dots on its tail, the number at any one time having the property of a prime number, I should regard this as rather strong evidence against neo-Darwinism. And if the dots took up in turn the exact configuration of the heavenly constellations, I should regard it as an adequate disproof. The apparent absurdity of these examples shows that what we know about existing organisms is consistent with neo-Darwinism. It is, of course, true that there are complex organs whose function is not known. But if it were not the case that most organs can readily be understood as contributing to survival and reproduction, Darwinism would never have been accepted by biologists in the first place.

Perhaps the last sentence gives the game away. There is nothing in these expectations with regard to organisms that was not part of pre-Darwinian biology. When Darwin formed his theory, he drew on the same expectations. How, then, could we suspect that contradiction would come from such material? Such evidence was part of the factual condition Darwin set out to explain. He had to make his theory fit this factual condition, to make it canonical for the known facts, and had he not succeeded in this attempt his theory could never have been given serious consideration at all. But what has this got to do with testing the theory?

The “apparent absurdity” of Smith’s examples is twofold: they run counter to everything we know about organisms and thus are fully counter to any expectation, but the suggestion that the theory is tested by such considerations is also absurd. Newton worked out a theory which gave an account of gravity. When he set to work, the propensity of objects to fall downward was part of the known world, to be related by the theory to other parts. Newton implied that the theory could be tested through its predictions of things we did not yet know. But no one suggested that it could be tested by seeing if objects fell up. To be fair to Smith, it is clear that at this point he is not thinking of actual testing, but merely of empiric content — he is trying to show that the theory has empiric content, has incorporated factual observation, and is not a mere tautology. But that was not the problem, and falsification becomes a serious concern only by the grace of a serious test.

At this point, the general pattern of the discussion to date is visible. Critics have worried about the formulation of tests, defenders, about the formulation of the theory. And where the former group found no empiric content, by which they meant no good test, the latter found empiric riches, by which they meant canonical agreement. (This miscommunication is particularly problematic with Peters [1976], who seems to be pointing to the absence of any operational formulation of the concepts that could provide a good test, but insists on couching his complaint in terms of a supposed lack of empiric content. Yet Peters is hardly more extreme, toward his pole, than Smith is toward his. Each will probably find, in the other, just the mistakes they have set out to correct.)

How important is the demand for a test? After all, the theory can be applied without going so far. Must we test? A better question for this paper might be: do we want to test? Let us look at the requirements.

The Problem of Testing

The real import of a demand for a test is a demand for a formulation of the theory determinate enough to be tested. The reasoning of the critics is based on their notion of science. They are of the opinion that a good scientific theory receives direct support from empiric evidence, and they do not count canonical agreement as support. There are certain philosophic considerations behind this attitude.

One may reflect, for example, that what empiric evidence cannot question it cannot support. The notions, for example, of arithmetic are not questioned by our experience of multiplicity. No experience can ever make us believe that two plus two does not equal four. If the actual enumeration of objects contradicts our calculations, we assume an error in counting or in calculation, but not in the principles of arithmetic. And since this is so, it cannot be experience that makes us believe that four is the proper answer. When students point to the successes of experience in support of mathematics, I can only ask them what sort of experience would make them abandon it. I have never heard a reply to that question.

We are led therefore to ask what sort of experience would make biologists abandon natural selection? Well, here we have an empirical theory, the truth of which does not rest on the accuracy of the logical operations by which the theorems are deduced from axioms. One may answer the question with relative ease. All sorts of imaginable occurrences could falsify the principle. But these occurrences fall into two very different categories: we could find that the theory simply does not fit the known facts, or we could generate predictions of new data, on the basis of our theory, and find that the predictions fail. The former possibility is limited, of course, by the growth of factual knowledge after the formulation of the theory. Presumably the person who formulated the theory took into account the known facts at that time. It was this data, in fact, that the theory was meant to explain. The theory fits that part of the world known to the theorist at its inception because it was designed to fit it. Only the accumulation of new data after the theory is formulated could give it much trouble, and then only those facts which do not fit the previously known patterns. This sort of testing, if one may call it that, is a desultory business at best. The predictions generated by a theory, however, represent a very different possibility.

Any interesting hypothesis is probably interesting because, as Goethe once remarked, it “makes us believe in the connection of phenomena.” But once we have a notion of how things are connected, we may project the pattern of connection further in anticipation of observations not yet actual. When such observations are made, they either coincide with the predicted pattern and thus extend it, or they do not, and thereby create a problem for the theory. The activity of making and checking predictions tells us something about how well the theory fits its subject matter, something that its original agreement with the known world — its canonical value — cannot tell us, and does so much more efficiently and directly than is possible through the general growth of knowledge apart from such testing.

It would be naive, however, to suppose that testing by generating and checking predictions could either prove or disprove the theory. When a hypothesis predicts that, given specified conditions, a specified consequent will result, the fact that the prediction holds does indeed extend the congruence between the anticipated pattern and the observed pattern, but it does not tell us whether this congruence is coincidental or necessary. Our predictions may hold true, after all, even if our hypothesis is not true. Even so, if we find that although the conditions specified by the hypothesis were met, the predicted consequent did not result, we have certainly refuted the prediction but we have not falsified the hypothesis, for our prediction may fail even though our hypothesis is correct.

When we go about the business of testing, we cannot assume a simple relation between two poles of observation — i.e., conditions and consequences. If I say that the acceleration of gravity is a constant, I am not refuted by showing that a feather falls slower than a parachutist, or a stone faster. I shall reply that my statement, being a general law, did not take air resistance into account. Upon closer inspection, my statement did not predict, in itself, what would happen if actual objects were dropped from a height. It specified only the contribution of gravity to the event. Were I to make all this explicit, I should say something like: if gravity were the only causal parameter involved, all such objects would exhibit the same constant acceleration. If I use the available jargon for the same point, I will say that the acceleration of gravity is constant, assuming ceteris paribus — assuming that all other things are equal (are without an effect on the consequent). Of course, in this case all other things are not equal and air resistance makes a big difference.

General principles do not predict specific events in themselves, but only specify a contribution to those events. When a particular application of a principle is made, it must always be accompanied by a ceteris paribus assumption, since in any concrete situation other causal parameters could interfere with the result. But when we see that in any particular test the congruence or incongruence of the anticipation with the result may be due to parameters external to our theory, it becomes clear that tests neither prove nor disprove theories. The distance between the general principle and the particular application is too great for that. In the case of a confirmed prediction, we record the result and continue to investigate the implications of the theory, developing further predictions as we go along. If all goes well, the pattern of anticipation becomes the pattern of observations, and we may be said to investigate nature methodically. When things do go awry, however, the response will be more complicated.

Faced with the reality of a false prediction, the researcher must suppose either: (1) that the basic theory has been falsified, or (2) that the ceteris paribus clause attendant to the application has been falsified (that the assumption that other parameters would not interfere with our predicted result was not true). Since it would be precipitous to discard the theory in order to save a local ceteris paribus assumption, it is this assumption that will be challenged by the failure of prediction. The researcher will make an ad hoc addition to his hypothesis, or will reformulate it more radically, attempting to identify the extra parameters and take them into account. Of course, since the ceteris paribus clause of any application is potentially inexhaustible — one could never know how many parameters are actually hiding under its blanket inclusion — if the new prediction also fails we are still not finished with our investigation. We may continue to adjust our hypothesis as long as possible causal parameters occur to us.

Smith (1978) has described the problem as it arises in current practice. Replying to a criticism of ad hoc hypothesizing by Lewontin (1977), Smith defends the use of ad hoc expansions with reference to his own work:

What these examples, and many others, have in common is that a model gives predictions that are in part confirmed by observation but that are contradicted in some important respect. I agree with Lewontin that such discrepancies are inevitable if a simple model is used, particularly a model that assumes each organ or behavior to serve only one function. I also agree that if the investigator adds assumptions to his model to meet each discrepancy, there is no way in which the hypothesis of adaptation can be refuted. But the hypothesis of adaptation is not under test. What is under test is the specific set of hypotheses in the particular model.

It is the specific hypothesis which includes, of course, the ceteris paribus clause, and it is therefore at this level that we make our ad hoc foray into the possibility of other parameters. The theoretical background is left intact by this procedure, but the local application shifts:

Tests of the quantitative predictions of optimalization models in particular populations are beginning to be made. It is commonly found that a model correctly predicts qualitative features of the observations, but is contradicted in detail. In such cases, the Popperian view would be that the original model has been falsified. This is correct, but it does not follow that the model should be abandoned. In the analysis of complex systems it is most unlikely that any simple model, taking into account only a few factors, can give quantitatively exact predictions. Given that a simple model has been falsified by observations, the choice lies between abandoning it or modifying it, usually by adding observations.

The “original model” which is falsified may be considered to be the formulation of the general theoretical background needed to make the specific application. Since that formulation will always consist of the general principle plus a structure of assumptions regarding additional parameters, its falsification necessitates the alteration of only one of these elements.

The result of Smith’s discussion is: “the hypothesis of adaptation is not under test.” His treatment is correct, I think, and he shows a clear grasp of ceteris paribus assumptions. Compared to most defending articles, this one is exemplary. I only wish that Smith had continued his examination. (After all, if the hypothesis of adaptation is not under test in the examples discussed, when is it under test? Most critics, including Lewontin, would probably like to have that question answered.) As it is, Smith admits only one serious concern: “There is a real danger that the search for functional explanations in biology will degenerate into a test of ingenuity.” The meaning of his remark will be clear if the literature is examined.

Consider an example recently discussed by Lewontin (1978). A researcher studies the behavior of foraging birds. Since these birds carry the food back to the nest once they pick it up, were they to take the first item that they came upon, the piece of food might be too small to make up for the energy lost in the round trip back to the nest and out again. Thus the researcher proposes that the choice of food particle, with regard to size, will not be random. Instead, the choice will represent an adaptation, and it will optimize the net energy gain of feeding. By surveying the actual distribution of food particles in the foraging area the researcher calculates the size that represents the optimal solution. It is not, of course, restricted to the largest food items, for these are too poorly distributed to be worth the energy needed to search them out. All this done, the researcher compares his figures with the birds’ behavior, and it turns out that the birds are biased in the direction of large particles, but not to the optimum particle size. The example is not far from Smith’s discussion. We get a general hit — a bias toward the larger particles — and a miss on the details — they do not stick to the optimum solution.

Smith would expect an ad hoc addition to the original formulation, and this is just what the researcher does next. The miss can be explained if we assume that another parameter is at work. The behavior exhibited by the birds represents a compromise between the demands of energy efficiency and those of predator pressure — the birds cannot stay away from the nest long enough to conduct a proper search for the optimum particle size, since while they are gone their young are exposed to predators. Now the researcher publishes this account.

Well, the new hypothesis could not be tested, so the researcher does not suggest that it is confirmed. He merely gives the history of his investigation and his final position. What is the import of his data? Only, it would seem, that the simple model which equated adaptation directly with optimum particle size was too simple. Both Smith and Lewontin recognize the described procedure as a common one. But Lewontin is uneasy about the general thesis — in this case the optimalization of adaptation. He wonders how this sort of thing can be said to test the thesis of adaptation. Smith dismisses the difficulty with the remark that it was never the intent of the researcher to test the theoretical background. Only the local application is under test — i.e., the simple model which failed. Their difference outlines an aspect of the problem that has been of crucial importance to the critics.

Smith had warned about the possibility that research could become a test of the researcher’s ingenuity rather than of the hypothesis. But when can we say that this has indeed happened? Where would Smith draw the line? This question seems to be the real import of the exchange between Lewontin and Smith, but as far as I can see it was not answered. Smith never really rises to the problem of testing the hypothesis of adaptation, and Lewontin (1977) seems convinced that this hypothesis cannot be tested — for the reason given above by Bethell:

The example of central-place foraging illustrates a basic assumption of all such engineering analyses, that of ceteris paribus, or all other things being equal. In order to make an argument that a trait is an optimal solution to a particular problem, it must be possible to view the trait and the problem in isolation, all other things being equal. If all other things are not equal, if a change in a trait as a solution to one problem changes the organism’s relation to other problems of the environment, it becomes impossible to carry out the analysis part by part, and we are left in the hopeless position of seeing the whole organism as being adapted to the whole environment.

Bethell’s criticism, when formulated according to my analysis above, is sustained by Lewontin, who evidently understands the engineering criterion suggested by Gould as a purely theoretical notion which is difficult if not impossible to operationalize. But Smith responds to all this with a judgment on what the researcher should or should not do. At no point does he undertake to examine what difficulties might be inherent in the structure of the theory itself, rather than in the practice of the researcher. Lewontin, like most critics, is worried about both the research practices and the nature of the hypothesis being researched.

If the purpose of testing looked to be a clear and straightforward business at the beginning of this section, the practice has turned out to be rather murky. It begins to seem questionable that a procedure of testing could ever be adequate to the purpose offered above. Of course, it may well be the case that things become indeterminate when we think about natural selection and adaptation because the theory is itself indeterminate, and a theory of a different form would facilitate testing in a way that natural selection does not. Or the fault may lie with the procedures of the researcher. Or perhaps the whole notion of testing was impossible from the beginning. These three possibilities must be sorted out.

Determinate Form

By now it has become obvious that theories are not easily challenged by tests. No theory is proven or disproven by such a procedure, and what else is left? Fortunately, there are intermediate possibilities. If a test may not decide a theory is true or false, it can, in some cases, decide whether a theory is superior or inferior to another contender. This is perhaps its strongest form, but there are still other applications. Even when there are no alternative theories to dispute the field, successful predictions extend the known pattern of relations, discovering novel facts and perhaps even shifting the interpretation of the theory and the universe to which it applies. Unsuccessful predictions can generate expectations concerning the parameters supposed responsible for the failure, thus investigating a closely related area. And all testing can serve to refine the conceptual apparatus by which the theory is operationalized, clarifying the relation between the language of the theory and the actual field of observation.

That tests cannot prove or disprove theories, and may even fail to offer any serious challenge, is sometimes known as the Duhem-Quine thesis (Duhem, 1906 Quine, 1953), although the point was also recognized in the early work of Popper (1934). The argument is simply that since all actual applications of a general theory entail elements additional to the theory — at least a ceteris paribus clause and probably several other theories which are used to understand those parameters which are involved but not covered by the general theory (when attempting to estimate the impact of a particular trait on the organism’s relation to its environment, we must take into account all that is known or supposed about the way that environment works, and this will involve many other theories) — a failure of prediction could be due to any one of these three areas. Faced with such a failure we must ask, before discarding the theory under examination, whether we are sure of the theoretical background of the test (does the environment really work in the manner we have supposed?), and whether we are sure that our ceteris paribus assumption is correct (could unknown parameters be interfering?). Only testing could investigate such questions, but testing, as we have just admitted, is never completely certain, since all tests involve assumptions which could be questioned.

Given the possibilities of the scenario that now presents itself, Maynard Smith’s remark on the danger of a degeneration to a test of ingenuity becomes very pointed. Since a test cannot disprove a theory, can it question it? What is to prevent the researcher, for example, from supposing that some unknown parameter is interfering whenever any prediction fails, and thereby insulating the basic theory from being inconvenienced by facts? Such excuses could be generated ad infinitum, if we were willing to do so, and eventually the only thing being tested would be our ingenuity and stamina. Of course, the important phrase is “if we were willing to do so.” If we are not willing, we shall embark on one of the paths mentioned above, all of which lie between proof and disproof on one hand and mere ingenuity on the other.

The strongest form that a test may take is that of arbiter between two competing theories. The orbit of Mercury was an unexplained anomaly for Newtonian theory for eighty-five years, but although the ceteris paribus assumption had been fairly well investigated and no other parameter had been found to explain the unexpected path, the absence of interference could not be proven and the theory simply lived with its anomalies. Things changed when Einstein’s theory accounted for the orbit, as well as for other problems. Of course, Einstein’s theory had its own anomalies, but it could account for more than the Newtonian approach. Thus, the orbit of Mercury became one of the deciding factors in the replacement of Newton’s theory by Einstein’s. In such a situation, given that there is a real imbalance between the success of one theory compared to that of another, the result of prediction can cast a crucial vote. (Notice that this does not mean that the superior theory is true, or even that it is truly superior. After all, perhaps Newton is correct but the interfering parameters have led affairs to a coincidence with Einstein’s predictions. The point is that given present knowledge, Einstein’s theory accounts for more, and until such hidden parameters are found, we should adopt it.)

Since natural selection does not seem to have serious competition at the moment, we could move on to the next case. Successful prediction is of value whether or not we must decide between theories. Such success extends the known pattern of relations in a systematic way, even as success in the research program mounted on the basis of the theory of relativity has done, and even if the theory behind the test were wrong, the new factual material so ordered would be of great value, perhaps as the basis of a better theory when one is needed.

A failure of prediction, on the other hand, calls into question not only the basic theory but also the theoretical background and the ceteris paribus assumption. The researcher must decide which of these is to bear the responsibility for the failure and investigate accordingly. It is possible, after all, to submit the ceteris paribus assumption to scrutiny. If a planetary orbit is found to disagree with the predicted path, we may speculate that some other body is affecting it, and conduct a search for this hypothetical entity. If subatomic events take place for no apparent reason, we may propose that they herald the emergence of a new particle, and search for it. In such cases our proposal will be limited by our calculations, for the whole sphere of operation is determined by quantitative laws, and if we cannot exhaust the possibilities of new parameters, we may make a determinate search for those which our technology puts in our reach.

While doing this, of course, we shall refine our operational language in order to clarify how its terms translate into aspects of observation. As an area of investigation becomes familiar, it should be possible to specify with increasing precision what shall constitute a condition and what a consequent, and to distinguish observations which shall be part of one group from observations that shall be part of the other. Thus, even if our predictions continually fail, some gain is still possible, for the significance of these failures is cumulative when they are so systematically investigated, and we can learn from them.

Well, but it is not always so neat! No it is not, for the scenario I have sketched is merely an imagined one, based on an enumeration of possibilities. As far as I can tell, the criticisms of natural selection are based upon the assumption that the causal relations postulated by a theory should lend themselves to empiric examination, which means, since proof and disproof seem to be mythical, and ingenious ad hoc adjustments are often a point of complaint, that the critics must actually ask for something between these two poles. I have offered my sketch of what lies between the poles in order to pin down the critics. What do they say is missing?

All the critics I have mentioned seem to agree on two difficulties: the theory is not empirically determinate and the defenders are not critical enough. The disagreement between Lewontin and Maynard Smith seems to have this form, for Lewontin asks how the basic theory could be tested and Smith replies that it is not under test. Obviously, for Lewontin, Smith is neither critical enough nor possessed of a testable theory, and where Smith sees good work, Lewontin may see only ingenuity.

As I mentioned above, there is basic agreement between Lewontin and Bethell, for both find the theory too indeterminate. The level at which this indeterminacy appears, however, is now specifiable. Both are really worried about the aftermath of failed predictions. Their disagreement is with the process at that point, and the implications of that process for the state of the theory. Well, it is at that point that the ceteris paribus assumption is called into question, but unlike the case of the aberrant orbit or sub-atomic event, the interaction between the organism and its environment does not lend itself to quantitative investigation. We have no way of summing the contributions of various structures to the survival of the whole organism. All ceteris paribus clauses are inexhaustible, but at least some are theoretically determinate, to be investigated on the basis of the same laws that are under question (the possible parameters influencing the orbit of Mercury would be calculated according to the same theory by which the orbit was itself calculated). The clause that attends our investigations into optimalization of adaptation is not determinate.

Neither Darwinism nor, in its present form, neo-Darwinism, contains a theoretical reduction of the organism to a determinate system, and thus neither contains a way of determining the contributions of various parameters, or even the number of parameters. In practice, of course, predictions are made on the basis of individual traits, but whenever anything goes wrong the resulting foray into ad hoc speculations invokes the notion that the summation of effects is really indeterminable — any parameter could be interfering in who knows how many ways. No reasonable program for investigating the ceteris paribus assumption has been forthcoming for over a hundred years, and none is in sight now. Critics like Bethell find this an impossible situation, for it suggests that the failure of prediction can have no bearing on our theory, which runs counter to Bethell’s notion of science.

The indeterminacy of the theory at this level is, I think, well documented. And just because we understand so little about the contribution of a particular trait toward fitness, it is difficult to inconvenience the theory by its failures. We cannot specify the conditions and the consequent, the this and that of our causal statement, well enough to know whether anything is seriously wrong. Because the theory is not theoretically determinate it cannot be made empirically so.

If other parts of neo-Darwinism have been well scrutinized, natural selection has escaped any serious testing and will continue to do so until we know a great deal more about organism-environment interactions. We are so far from a science that can reduce these interactions to a determinate system that some critics have wondered whether it makes any sense to attempt to operationalize the principle at all. If experience cannot question a theory, how can it support it? Would correct predictions mean very much if we knew that incorrect ones would not mean anything at all, at least for our allegiance to the theory? Questions like this are a source of frustration to the critics, even more so when they are not recognized by the defenders. It is difficult to understand, for example, why Maynard Smith, having admitted that the hypothesis of adaptation by natural selection was not under test in the programs that investigate it, went on as if this were no problem at all. After all, for Lewontin it was a problem, and Smith was answering Lewontin. It may be, of course, that test or no test, the principle of natural selection is considered so fruitful that these worries pale by comparison. Since this is, in fact, a strong possibility, it would be worthwhile to explore the concept.


A theory may be judged by its fruitfulness, but only if one is clear about how this is to be measured. The term, when applied to the work of a historical period, usually means something different from a usage describing present work. Phlogiston chemistry might be judged a very fruitful episode in eighteenth century chemistry, depending upon what standards we use to estimate its worth, but one standard we shall not use is correctness. Phlogiston chemistry was also, by modern standards, incorrect. That conclusion does not prevent historians from crediting Priestley and his co-workers with various discoveries, advances in technique and empirical knowledge, etc., but no one will suggest that it would be fruitful, now, to return to an incorrect view. Fruitfulness of this type is limited to a time period — which is past.

It is obvious that the sort of fruitfulness I have just described is possessed in full by the theory of natural selection. The power of this argument to convince its contemporary audience, when first put forward, is largely responsible for placing biology on an evolutionary footing. But evolutionary biology is now in place, and will remain so with or without the aid of natural selection. The present fruitfulness of the principle must be estimated on standards which are independent of past revolutions.

The several ways by which estimations of present fruitfulness might be made, divide into two major categories: those methods that attempt to establish some line of demarcation between the scientific and the non-scientific (such as falsifiability), and those which simply estimate the amount, rather than the quality, of work generated. Let us take the second case first.

A theory which is popular enough to be applied often can be credited with a power to generate activity, but this is desirable only if some profit is derived from it. Mere activity, in itself, seems to have no intrinsic value other than paying the bills. Activity within the context of a community given to reflection and self-criticism, however, might be thought a different matter. The lay public often equates simple activity within that community with progress, but this is only because the same public assumes that the scientist is privy to some criterion by which the quality of activity may be judged — i.e., a line of demarcation. Within the ranks of scientists, such a notion becomes circular.

Scientists are well aware that their profession embraces certain critical standards. But were a scientist to defend a theory on the grounds that it had achieved a consensus in the community, he would neglect the very standards which are premised as the basis of his argument — the standards by which the community judged the value of the theory in the first place. Unless we assume scientists to be infallible, the fact that a theory has been adopted does not justify that adoption.

It is still possible to argue, on the other hand, that the continuous progression of theories through competition insures the quality of the present survivors to be the “best in the field.” As Macbeth (1971) has argued, the best in the field has meaning only in relation to the competing theories. If they are not of high quality, their successors cannot boast of any great achievement. And if we possess a criterion, independent of the results of competition, by which to judge the quality of theories, why refer to the competitive aspect at all? The “best in the field fallacy,” as Macbeth terms it, is only another way of asserting the authority of the community without examining the standards from which that authority is derived.

The authority of the scientific community is, for any member of that community, a compromised witness. It fosters an indefinite faith in serendipity which suggests that any theory that generates activity must advance science. After all, activity implies change, and all change, given the inevitable advance of science, cumulates in progress. The mysticism of this view looks somewhat more recognizable if recast in the form of a sociological description. It is probably true, that is, that any community of co-workers which spends its energy carrying out practices dictated by communal belief and shared technique, will believe that such energy is fruitfully spent. “Business as usual” is profitable business. But while this may be an accurate description, it is self-defeating as an argument. By the assumption that any theory that has been adopted is good enough we relinquish, contrary to intention, the attempt to judge the value of a particular theory.

The amount of work credited to a theory is finally only a measure of how many people believe it. This standard works fine for historians who are estimating the historical importance of this or that theory, but it has no bearing on the problem at hand. Consensus is a witness of convincing power but not, unless we owe the flat-earthers an apology, of truth.

The alternative seems to be a line of demarcation between good scientific theories and other speculations, but the attempt to use testability in this way with regard to natural selection came to grief in the preceding section. Yet whether natural selection is being tested or not, it certainly is being applied, and it is to these applications that its proponents will point when defending it. If a demarcation is to be found, it must be sought here.

Two possibilities suggest themselves: the generation of new information and the extension of the theory’s representative powers. The first has no value for our intentions because it applies to all theories which generate research. The second is more interesting. The representative power of a theory is its ability to represent, or explain, the world in its terms — to form a picture of what the world would be like, if the theory were true. A theory that cannot represent all of the relevant information after its own model is a nonstarter, for one could not, if the theory failed to do this, even imagine it to be true. It would seem, therefore, that the ability of the theory to explain the known world, and to extend such explanation to new information as it is discovered, should provide scientific credentials for the theory.

The problem at hand, however, concerns theories which are already in place, and therefore already credentialed in this sense. Nor is it very conceivable that a generally accepted theory could exhibit any serious weakness in this area, were that theory unfalsifiable. Could evolutionary biologists, for example, ever lack for “just so” stories — narrative scenarios which explain how it all happened after the fact? No mythology, belief system, etc., has ever been found wanting on this requirement! What is the import, then, for the purposes of estimating theories, of the extension of representation — i.e., new applications? When this activity is scrutinized, it seems to be nothing more than the discovery of what was already implicit in the theory itself. Such work investigates the theory rather than the world.

Let me illustrate the point above. Maynard Smith points out, in a passage quoted above, that “most organs can readily be understood as contributing to survival and reproduction,” and reminds us that were this not the case Darwinism would never have been accepted in the first place. The fact that these organs can be “understood” — represented — in this way is important, but it guarantees nothing more than the possibility of truth. As Smith implies when he mentions this aspect, the ability to represent the world is a necessary minimum for any theory, and thus we would not be considering the theory if it could not do so. Why Smith offers it as evidence in defense of a theory under attack I do not know. Yet the attitude that the representative powers of the theory may be used to form a judgment not merely of the possibility, but of the actuality, of the theory’s coincidence with reality is widely shared. A recent text book (Dobzhansky et al., 1977 [the passage below is by Ayala]) offers the following in a discussion of the “operational ways of measuring adaptation”:

Williams (1966) has proposed that a useful criterion for identifying individual adaptations is whether an analogy can be established between some human artifact and the feature presumed to be an adaptation. A mammalian oviduct may be seen as a mechanism for conveying the early embryo to the uterus the uterus may be seen as designed for the protection and nourishment of the embryo. Ayala (1968b, 1970) has suggested utility as a criterion for identifying adaptations. A feature of an organism is regarded as an adaptation if it has utility for the organism and if such utility explains the presence of the feature.

Since the author is trying to show, at this point in the text, that natural selection is neither circular nor tautologous, the passage seems oddly misdirected.

By the turn of the nineteenth century it was quite clear that organisms seemed teleologically constructed — i.e., their features looked goal-directed or designed for specific purposes, one of which was always the continuity of the organism. This structure of appearances was appealed to as evidence of intelligent creation, and was one of the problem elements that would have to be explained by any theory of origins which did not invoke intelligent purpose. Darwin met the challenge through an analogy of intelligence — the action of natural selection approximates the action of an intelligent breeder. Given this history, however, the programs for “identifying” adaptations above seem little more than exercises in definition. Consider, for example, that the following points are part of Darwin’s argument:

organisms exhibit goal-directed features

the action of natural selection, seen as analogous to that of a breeder, can account for this.

If we add to these the following definition:

features which are supposed to have been evolved through this action are termed adaptations

the goal-directed features of organisms, recognized by analogy to a human artifact or by the impression of utility, are adaptations.

But since this follows by definition, being simply the new name given to goal-directed appearances by our theory, we have made no empirical advance over pre-Darwinian biology through this extension of theory. The only empirical observations made were practically identical with pre-Darwinian es used to identify the appearance of goal-directedness. Williams and Ayala are exploring what their theory means. Their mode of operationalizing their concepts represents the world according to their model but produces no test of the model. They have assumed that goal-directed appearances are Darwinian adaptations, but the argument offers no evidence for the truth of this assumption.

I said at the beginning of this paper that fruitfulness could only be measured in terms of the user’s intent. A theory that is too indeterminate to be seriously tested, however, can only serve to picture the world rather than to investigate it. The picture is, predictably, generally applicable, for the very lack of determination that prevents serious testing also assures that the picture can be stretched to fit all circumstances. And the picture is compelling — it has become a ubiquitous belief in wider circles than the scientific community. It is only human to wish to extend belief, and by so doing to make the world more understandable. Peoples of all ages have done as much. But is there no distinction to be made between scientific investigation and the extension of belief? Lewontin (1972) clearly thought there was:

For what good is a theory that is guaranteed by its internal logical structure to agree with all conceivable observations, irrespective of the real structure of the world? If scientists are going to use logically unbeatable theories about the world, they might as well give up natural science and take up religion.

Of course, to make sense of this remark one must agree that there is a difference between those two institutions.

In what may be an uncharacteristic slip, Lewontin (1978) has provided me with a good example of the manner in which the Darwinian view exerts a metaphysical compulsion upon our thought. Concluding a discussion of the apparent untestability of adaptation, he writes:

Adaptation is a real phenomenon . The problem of locomotion in an aquatic environment is a real problem that has been solved by many totally unrelated evolutionary lines in much the same way. Therefore it must be feasible to make adaptive arguments about swimming appendages. And this in turn means that in nature the ceteris paribus assumption must be workable.

The evidence cited, in this passage, consists of observations made before the theory was formulated. Lewontin seems to be saying that when the theory was offered to explain such evidence it was already known to be true, for he seems to assume that these observations can be explained in no other way. Well, if natural selection is the only thing that could possibly be behind the known structure of organisms, we do not need any further test. We need not, in fact, have any concern with testing at all, for we already know the answers, the truth being manifest from the beginning. Peters (1976) concludes that we are “in danger from an evolutionary metaphysic in which the logical Darwanian devices have become great ‘empirical’ truths.” Perhaps this is why the defenders of natural selection have so often missed the point of the criticism. The defenders already know that organisms evolved by natural selection, and they have difficulty realizing that the critics might not know.

The User’s Intent

I have emphasized in the preceding sections, the case for the prosecution because I wanted to make it clear that there was a case. The indeterminacy that clouds organism-environment relations is a crucial ignorance which effectively prevents the researcher from advancing further than the stage of representation. The concepts cannot be operationalized in a fashion determinate enough to afford a test. Of course, all this could change with future discoveries, but for the moment the limitation is clear. The critics are right about that.

On the other hand, this is not to say that it must follow that natural selection is a bad or unscientific theory. Such a decision rests, as always, with the intent of the person who uses the theory. While writing this paper, I was reminded that the criticism offered here would fit a great deal of science, not all of it biological. I must agree, so it would. But is this a definitive consideration? I take it that the critics of natural selection who got around to studying other theories would advance the same critique there if it applied. As Macbeth’s argument on the “best in the field fallacy” points out, the fact that a theory proves to be as good or even better than other theories only means that we have a basis for choosing between these theories, but it says nothing about whether any of them are any good. Natural selection is less determinate than some theories, but certainly as applicable as many others. I never meant to argue that there was a consensus in the scientific community that indeterminacy was a disqualifying criterion. Rather, I wanted to suggest that the mere fact of consensus was not enough to base our judgment upon.

So we return to the purpose of the researcher. What does he or she want from the theory? The theory does provide a rational explanation of appearances in terms of understandable mechanisms. If this is all that is desired, natural selection can meet the demand. On the other hand, the simple models of adaptation have run into trouble with almost predictable regularity (I mean models of optimalization, not mere selective pressure), as Smith admits. If the researcher wants to investigate the process by which fitness is optimalized, I am afraid the picture is rather unpromising. Good empirical investigation, for many researchers, and certainly for the critics I have been reading, demands some sort of testing. The theory manifests an inadequacy here. It is not testable, and should not be defended as such.

Since the theory has difficulties perhaps it should not receive such emphasis. There are alternative questions open to the researcher. The actual discovery of the patterns of nature may not necessitate a theory of their mechanism. The discovery of the natural system in taxonomy did not depend upon a speculation on the mechanism by which the system came about, but Darwin’s speculation on mechanism drew heavily on what was already known of that system. Darwin’s thesis would have been impossible without the advances made by pre-Darwinian taxonomy, particularly with regard to the concept of common plan. A branching diagram of taxonomic information may display a pattern of relations that owes nothing to the speculative mechanisms of natural selection, but which could prove to be of crucial value in investigating the world. Such patterns are themselves theories of a sort they make predictions, they are testable, they are highly determinable by observation. They do not, of course, tell us about mechanism, at least, not immediately. But this represents an advantage, for we are not so likely to generate a pattern from our theoretical mechanism, rather than from our observations, if we have no theoretical mechanism. Perhaps many researchers simply do not need natural selection to investigate their part of the world. It would be interesting to find out whether this were so. Candid readers must decide for themselves.

Summary and Conclusion

Natural selection has demonstrated its ability to represent the world in its terms and to compel belief. It has been of crucial importance historically, in that it was instrumental in the conversion of the biological community to evolutionary thought. But until the organism can be theoretically reduced to determinate laws, the theory is too incomplete to be testable. Applications of the theory, therefore, tell us more about the theory than the world, and do not serve the purpose of efficiently investigating the latter. When the confusion between test and application is eliminated, the present dialogue on the merit of the theory may emerge from the miasma of miscommunication, and the theory’s value for various intentions be clearly estimated. Given that the stated purpose of most research is the investigation of the world, it may be that, until such time as a complete theory is put forward, the effort expended on applications of natural selection would be best spent elsewhere — either in other research, or in the attempt to formulate a more workable theory to replace Darwin’s speculation.

Ronald H. Brady taught in the school of American Studies at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. This article was originally published in 1979 as “Natural Selection and the Criteria by Which a Theory Is Judged”, Systematic Biology vol. 28, pp. 600-21.


I am grateful to Donn Rosen for suggesting this paper and to Norman Platnick and David Hull for their careful reading and critical comments. My thanks also to Norman Macbeth for bringing my attention to the problem in the first place, and for many conversations on the subject.


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Smith, J. M. 1978. Optimization theory in evolution. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 9:31-56.

Waddington, C. H. 1960. Evolutionary adaptations. In Yax, S. (ed.), The evolution of life. University of Chicago Press, p. 385.

Survival of the Fittest: Tautologous and Unfalsifiable?

Yesterday, I ran a piece on the idea that you often hear from creationists that &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo (SoF) is a tautology that carries no meaning. I hopefully dealt with this in some way in that previous post. However, I would like to take the opportunity to add a few ideas and to discuss a connected notion, one that survival of the fittest is an unfalsifiable scientific concept, thereby invalidating it as being a scientific concept.

First of all, let us discuss the idea of falsifiability.


Philosopher of science Karl Popper constructed the idea that if a scientific theory is unfalsifiable and it is not a scientific theory. His Falsification Principle can be summarised as follows:

Summary of Popper&rsquos Theory

Karl Popper believed that scientific knowledge is provisional &ndash the best we can do at the moment.

Popper is known for his attempt to refute the classical positivist account of the scientific method, by replacing induction with the falsification principle.

The Falsification Principle, proposed by Karl Popper, is a way of demarcating science from non-science. It suggests that for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false.

For example, the hypothesis that &ldquoall swans are white,&rdquo can be falsified by observing a black swan.

For Popper, science should attempt to disprove a theory, rather than attempt to continually support theoretical hypotheses.

Of course, the nature of falsifiability (and testability) is problematic in certain areas of science, particularly those theories that involve predictions (postdictions) about the past. How the universe began, evolution itself and all sorts of processes that might necessarily take billions of years or have taken place billions of years ago and are not in any meaningful sense testable seem to cause problems for such a principle. As David Bailey states in &ldquoIs Evolution Falsifiable?&ldquo:

Evolution, when viewed in the modern context of a huge volume of convincing empirical data, entirely qualifies as a rigorously testable theory. And in fact it has survived decades of withering testing. This is precisely why evolution is taken so seriously as the governing paradigm of modern biology.

It should also be pointed out that strict adherence to &ldquofalsifiability&rdquo is not an accurate description of the process of modern science. For one thing, major theories are seldom falsified by a single experimental result. There are always questions regarding the underlying experimental design, measurement procedures, and data analysis techniques, as well as questions of whether the underlying theories have been properly applied. For example, if we were to strictly apply Popper&rsquos principle, Copernicus&rsquo heliocentric theory was falsified from the start and should not have been further considered, because it could not predict planetary motions as accurately as the traditional Ptolemaic system. It only after Kepler modified the theory to include elliptical orbits with time-varying speeds, and when Newton showed that this behavior could be mathematically derived from his laws of motion, that it gained widespread acceptance. It must also be kept in mind that in most cases, &ldquofalsified&rdquo theories continue to be extremely accurate models of reality within appropriate domains. Even today, over 100 years after Newton&rsquos mechanics and Maxwell&rsquos electromagnetic equations

Applying the principle to survival of the fittest

Some people, including philosophers and scientists themselves (i.e., not evolution-deniers), have sought to apply this principle to the &ldquoscientific theory&rdquo of survival of the fittest. Indeed, even Karl Popper earlier in his career did this. Frank J. Sonleitner (in &ldquoWhat Did Karl Popper Really Say About Evolution?&rdquo[1]) observes:

But he did make one mistake&mdashfor which we should forgive him some well-known biologists (who should know better) have made the same mistake. Popper takes &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo as the definition of natural selection (Popper, 1972, p. 241). This catchy phrase was an invention of Herbert Spencer, which Darwin, in a rare example of bad judgment, interpolated into later editions of On the Origin of Species : &ldquoThis preservation of favorable individual differences and variations and the destruction of those which are injurious I have called Natural Selection or the Survival of the Fittest&rdquo (p. 64). Clearly it is an alternate name (and not a very apt one) for the process in question but not a definition.

The argument regarding &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo is that the only way one can usually tell who the fittest are is to see who survives. But then survival of the fittest becomes &ldquoalmost a tautology&rdquo and hence untestable (Popper, 1972, p. 69 1963a, p. 964).

I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme&mdasha possible framework for testable scientific theories. [Popper, 1976, p. 168]

I would advise reading the paper &ldquoPopper&rsquos Shifting Appraisal of Evolutionary Theory&rdquo that details how Popper confuses appraisal of evolutionary theory with that of physical theories, and this somewhat explains where he went wrong.

In my previous article, this was something that Christian commenter Luke Breuer found to be a problem. Indeed, many commenters gave Luke and Enoch Arden (a denialist) a hard time over their claims but these are genuinely interesting ideas that have often been debated in good faith. However, I don&rsquot think Enoch Arden comes from a position of good faith on the other hand, I am confident that Luke is genuinely striving towards a coherent truth (that is not mean to be nearly as condescending as it sounds!).

In a Philosophy Now article (&ldquoSurvival of the Fittest&rdquo) Fred Leavitt adds another couple of quotes to the mix:

For example, Karl Popper wrote:

&ldquoThe trouble about evolutionary theory is its tautological, or almost tautological character there does not seem to be much difference, if any, between the assertion &lsquothose that survive are the fittest&rsquo and the tautology &lsquothose that survive are those that survive.&rsquo For we have no other criterion of fitness than survival.&rdquo (Objective Knowledge, revised. ed., 1979, pp.69)

In the same vein, C.H. Waddington claimed that:

&ldquoNatural selection turns out on closer inspection to be a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognized relation. It states that the fittest individuals in a population will leave most offspring. Once the statement is made, its truth is apparent.&rdquo (in Evolution After Darwin, ed. Sol Tax, 1960, p.385)

Popper changed his mind

Sonleitner points out that, later in his career, Popper recanted his original claims and position on SoF and evolution in general:

The fact that the theory of natural selection is difficult to test has led some people, anti-Darwinists and even some great Darwinists, to claim that it is a tautology. . . . I mention this problem because I too belong among the culprits. Influenced by what these authorities say, I have in the past described the theory as &ldquoalmost tautological,&rdquo and I have tried to explain how the theory of natural selection could be untestable (as is a tautology) and yet of great scientific interest. My solution was that the doctrine of natural selection is a most successful metaphysical research programme. . . . [Popper, 1978, p. 344]

I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation. . . . [p. 345]

The theory of natural selection may be so formulated that it is far from tautological. In this case it is not only testable, but it turns out to be not strictly universally true. There seem to be exceptions, as with so many biological theories and considering the random character of the variations on which natural selection operates, the occurrence of exceptions is not surprising. [p. 346]

There will be more on this last point later (referring to mechanisms, as I did yesterday, such as genetic drift).

Tautology revisited

I gave a whole series of arguments about this in yesterday&rsquos article however, it is worth adding something from the aforementioned Philosophy Now article:

&hellip This the concept of fitness is not needed. The theory can be rephrased as follows:

1. Individuals vary in many ways. (This is empirical.)
2. Individuals survive and reproduce with varying degrees of success. (This is empirical.)
3. Some of the variations in characteristics that affect survival and reproductive success are transmitted to offspring. (This is empirical.)
4. Populations will come to resemble successful individuals more than unsuccessful ones. (This is both empirical and a logical deduction from the preceding.)

Omitted from the new formulation is any discussion of the particular qualities that enhance or impair reproductive success. These differ from species to species and in different environments, and they may change over time. For example, Bernard Kettlewell&rsquos classic book (The Evolution of Melanism, 1977) documents how dark-colored moths evolved from lightcolored ones in industrial areas of England. Whereas lightcolored moths had been better camouflaged in unpolluted areas, dark-colored ones are less conspicuous when resting on tree trunks blackened by pollution. Kettlewell&rsquos work notwithstanding, evolutionists are frequently uncertain about the adaptive value of specific characteristics. Still, all living organisms are descendants of, and thus inherited characteristics from, ancestors who were fit enough to mature and reproduce. So evolutionists are justified in presuming that the vast majority of present-day organisms are fit.

It would be tautologous to argue that certain cheetahs outreproduce others because they are more fit. However, to suggest that the success of cheetahs depends partially on their leg size is not tautologous it is a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Scientists can use their previous experiences (observations that fast cheetahs are more successful than slow ones and that long legs facilitate speed) plus the principle of induction to predict future reproductive outcomes based on leg size. Alternatively, they can use their prior observations plus the inductive principle to hypothesize that present day cheetahs have long legs because ancient cheetahs with long legs left more descendants.

The original version of Darwin&rsquos natural selection theory, or the idea &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo, is unfalsifiable because of its circular definition of &ldquothe survival&rdquo and &ldquothe fittest&rdquo. In order for a theory to state the relationship between two ideas, such as &ldquothose who survived&rdquo and &ldquothose who are the fittest to the environment&rdquo, these very ideas should be defined independently.

But then goes on to almost immediately admit: &ldquoDarwin himself also positively agreed with and adopted this phrase [SoF] to generalize this idea of natural selection theory.&rdquo Which is to admit this statement of SoF is a generalisation and not the theory in and of itself. This is the key!

&ldquoSurvival of the fittest&rdquo is not a scientific theory

The Philosophy Now quote leads me to my next point. Namely, that SoF is not actually a scientific theory and need not be beholden to the falsification principle. I can&rsquot really put this any better than the following quote:

Here&rsquos the funny thing about that aspect of Evolution: it isn&rsquot the theoretical part. It&rsquos the mathematical part (statistics, to be exact). And math is just logic.

The thing with statistical models is that they cannot make hard and fast predictions. We can perform an experiment where the statistical prediction never happens 100 trials in a row it&rsquos just unlikely. And we know that, so we can&rsquot make any predictions that can be falsified. Instead, we use a notion of confidence.

Anyway, that was more background than anything. The point is that &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo is not the part of the Theory of Evolution that should be falsified because selection isn&rsquot a special thing it just logically follows. The portion that would falsify the theory would be if genetics was wrong (offspring did not inherit traits, random mutation did not occur, etc.) or if an outside force was actively preventing selection.

TLDR It doesn&rsquot need to be defended because it&rsquos the externally consistent part of the theory.

This is a hugely important point. SoF is merely a statistical summary of the theory of evolution by natural selection. In order to falsify that theory you would need to look at the component parts of that theory. When we say that finding a rabbit in the Precambrian rock strata would falsify the theory of evolution, we should actually be more granular than that (and therefore more accurate), but we could say that the theory of evolution can be falsified. Again, though, survival of the fittest is not a synonym for evolution.

However, the expression &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo (taken on its own and out of context) gives a very incomplete account of the mechanism of natural selection. The reason is that it does not mention a key requirement for natural selection, namely the requirement of heritability. It is true that the phrase &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo, in and by itself, is a tautology if fitness is defined by survival and reproduction. Natural selection is the portion of variation in reproductive success that is caused by heritable characters (see the article on natural selection). [19]

If certain heritable characters increase or decrease the chances of survival and reproduction of their bearers, then it follows mechanically (by definition of &ldquoheritable&rdquo) that those characters that improve survival and reproduction will increase in frequency over generations. This is precisely what is called &ldquoevolution by natural selection&ldquo. On the other hand, if the characters which lead to differential reproductive success are not heritable, then no meaningful evolution will occur, &ldquosurvival of the fittest&rdquo or not: if improvement in reproductive success is caused by traits that are not heritable, then there is no reason why these traits should increase in frequency over generations. In other words, natural selection does not simply state that &ldquosurvivors survive&rdquo or &ldquoreproducers reproduce&rdquo rather, it states that &ldquosurvivors survive, reproduce and therefore propagate any heritable characters which have affected their survival and reproductive success&rdquo. This statement is not tautological: it hinges on the testable hypothesis that such fitness-impacting heritable variations actually exist (a hypothesis that has been amply confirmed.) [19]

Even if SoF was a scientific theory, it arguably has been, indeed, falsified. As mentioned in my previous article, genetic drift (whereby random neutral mutations spread throughout the population) shows that SoF does not hold all of the time. The fact that we have dominance of certain eye colour throughout populations is arguably a reality of this. Having brown eyes as a characteristic is not a fitness-imbuing genetic characteristic. It may be more dominant due to some kind of correlation, but it does not itself carry some kind of advantage, it seems. But, you could argue, this is a single characteristic that does not represent overall fitness.

It depends at what point you are looking at something, and what reference set you decide upon.

But what we can do from this is look at certain neutral characteristics and try to compare to a control. For example, imagine a very simple organism in a lab that has a hundred different genes. It is hypothesised that one gene (A7) is neutral to fitness. You could flip this to another neutral variant B7 in an experiment and see which organism outcompetes the other in a fair test. We could put the same amount of each micro-organism (A7 and B7) in a petri dish and see which variety gains dominance over some time. If, over a massive number of simulations, we have a 50-50 split (so that half time A7 dominates and the other half of the time B7 dominates), then we can see that this genetic variance has no bearing on the fitness of the organism.

However, on the 36th running of the simulation, B7 is the dominant micro-organism and is the only one to survive by the end of that simulation. If you just look at this simulation, then the fittest hasn&rsquot survived. This is an example of genetic drift, of course. I would imagine it outcompetes by some kind of random chance &ndash perhaps reproducing more quickly over one generation &ndash thus conveying a statistical advantage that eventually reaches a mathematical tipping point. But it falsifies the idea that survival of the fittest is some kind of entirely pervasive mechanism. It isn&rsquot it is a generalisation. Organisms tend towards survival of the fittest, but sometimes, out in the real world, particular organisms will dominate on account of another mechanism, like this. And this can be shown in the lab, and probably has been in experiments like Lenski&rsquos (which itself looks to verify SoF).

In other words, where survival of the fittest is used as a shorthand for evolution by natural selection, it is falsified every time another mechanism for evolution holds. Thus, when we see genetic drift work, it falsifies evolution by natural selection. Except, it doesn&rsquot falsify it because when you have various mechanisms working towards the same end (the difference in allele ratios over time) then when one mechanism takes hold, it doesn&rsquot mean that the other isn&rsquot true at all. It just means that it wasn&rsquot true in that instance.

This perhaps exemplifies the difference between a physical law and a phenomenon created by various different mechanisms and constrained in particular ways. A ball falling up when we predict it will fall down due to gravity, ceteris paribus, arguably falsifies gravity. However, a group of organisms having a different allele ratio in a particular group at some point in place time, victim to huge numbers of variables and laws, can be arrived at in various different ways.

The reality is that in real life, various evolutionary mechanisms interact with each other to produce spciation and variation. For example, see &ldquoNatural Selection, Genetic Drift, and Gene Flow Do Not Act in Isolation in Natural Populations&ldquo.

I will leave you now with a long quote from the philosopher Rebecca Millstein, whose essay on this appears in the Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Science (chapter available here). This should do the job:

No summary of the philosophy of evolution would be complete without a discussion of the &ldquotautology problem,&rdquo given the amount of space that has been devoted to it. Yet given a proper understanding of tautology and evolutionary theory, there is neither a prima facie tautology, nor is there a problem. Nonetheless, much interesting philosophical discussion about the nature of fitness has arisen as a result of the misunderstanding.

The &ldquoproblem&rdquo isn&rsquot new, either. According to Hull (1969), evolutionists as far back as Darwin have been defending the theory of natural selection against the criticism that it is tautologous. Nonetheless, the criticism refuses to die, kept alive in large part by creationists who love to quote Popper&rsquos claim that &ldquoDarwinism is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research programme&rdquo (Popper 1974: 134 italics in original), but who ignore his subsequent recantation (Popper 1978).

The standard criticism goes as follows: the principle of natural selection is &ldquothe survival of the fittest,&rdquo but who are the &ldquofittest&rdquo? Those that survive. The principle then becomes &ldquothe survival of those that survive.&rdquo Thus, the critics charge, the theory of natural selection is a tautology, and is therefore circular and empty it says nothing about the way the world is, since it is true regardless of the empirical reality. This claim is often conjoined with the claim that the theory of natural selection is unfalsifiable &ndash a tautology cannot be proven false.

A few technical points regarding the standard criticism &ndash if there is anything wrong with 20 the phrase &ldquothe survival of the fittest,&rdquo it is that it is an analytic statement, not that it is a tautology, as Sober (1984) points out. A tautology is a statement that is true by virtue of its logical form alone, such as &ldquoEither it is raining or it is not raining.&rdquo An analytic statement, on the other hand, is a statement that is true by virtue of the meaning of its constituent words (i.e., true by definition), with the classic example being &ldquoa bachelor is an unmarried man.&rdquo If the phrase &ldquothe survival of the fittest&rdquo were to be worded as a statement that could be true or false &ndash it isn&rsquot a statement in its current form &ndash then it would be characterized as an analytic statement rather than a tautology. Still, even as an analytic statement, the critics&rsquo charge that the phrase is circular, empty, and/or unfalsifiable lingers.

One possible line of response to the standard criticism involves a reexamination of the concept of &ldquofittest&rdquo. If the only thing that makes one group of organisms fitter than another is that the first group in fact survived when the second did not, then this seems to be the source of the circularity. In response to this concern, Mills and Beatty (1979) and Brandon (1978) independently developed the propensity interpretation of fitness (although Brandon prefers the term &ldquoadaptedness&rdquo). On this view, fitness is not defined in terms of an organism&rsquos actual survival or reproductive success. Instead, fitness is an organism&rsquos propensity, or ability, to survive and reproduce in a particular environment. (Fitness is never defined absolutely, but always relative to a given environment what enhances survival or reproductive success in one environment may not do so in a different environment.) Thus, &ldquothe survival of the fittest&rdquo is not &ldquothe survival of the survivors,&rdquo but rather &ldquothe survival of those who have the greatest propensity to survive.&rdquo The organisms that have the greatest propensity to survive may not in fact survive consider, for example, two identical twins, one of which is struck by lightening and dies, the other which survives and leaves offspring. Both are equally fit (have the same propensity to 21 survive and reproduce), yet one has greater actual reproductive success. In this manner, the propensity interpretation of fitness attempts to break the purported circularity of the theory of natural selection.

The propensity interpretation of fitness is not without its critics (see, for example Rosenberg 1982 Rosenberg and Williams 1986). Even Beatty and Finsen (née Mills) return to point out some technical difficulties with their own position (Beatty and Finsen 1989). Nonetheless, the view enjoys widespread acceptance among philosophers of biology (see, for example, Burian 1983 Brandon and Beatty 1984 Sober 1984 Richardson and Burian 1992). Sober responds to Beatty and Finsen&rsquos self-criticisms and points out that whereas the criticisms apply to the particular mathematical implementation of the propensity interpretation, they do not challenge the nonmathematical heart of the propensity interpretation (Sober 2000).

In spite of the popularity of the propensity interpretation as an account of the concept of fitness, some philosophers &ndash including Beatty (1992), who has changed his position on this issue &ndash have argued that it does not actually solve the tautology problem. Rather, Waters suggests, if we spell out the principle of the survival of the fittest as &ldquoOrganisms with greater higher fitnesses in (environment) E will probably have greater reproductive success in E than (conspecific) organisms with lower fitnesses&rdquo (1986: 211), there are two basic ways of interpreting the term &ldquoprobably&rdquo: the propensity interpretation and the frequentist interpretation. Waters argues that if one chooses the propensity interpretation, the principle is true by definition if one chooses the frequentist interpretation, the principle is not analytic, but it is untestable.

If this argument is correct, does that mean that the theory of evolution is circular and unfalsifiable? It might, if the phrase &ldquothe survival of the fittest&rdquo actually described the theory &ndash but it does not. The real problem with the standard criticism is that it misrepresents evolutionary 22 theory, as Hull (1969) and Waters (1986) note. As discussed above, the present-day theory of evolution includes not only natural selection as a possible mechanism leading to the differential survival and reproduction of types random drift is a possible mechanism, as are migration and mutation. In other words, in any particular case survival may not be &ldquothe survival of the fittest.&rdquo

Even Darwin&rsquos theory of natural selection alone is not captured by this phrase9 as previously mentioned, Darwin described natural selection as a process requiring 1) a struggle for existence where not all organisms that are born can survive, 2) heritable variations between organisms in the population, and 3) variations that confer a differential ability to survive and reproduce. Whether any or all of these conditions obtain in a particular population is an empirical question, not a matter of definition, and thus we can test the population for the presence or absence of the three conditions. The theory of natural selection is neither circular nor vacuous.

The tautology problem ought to be a dead issue, even if there are those who refuse to let it go. [p. 238-40]

I hope that clears some things up.

Finally, you can always grab my book that sparked off this debate here&hellip Please do&hellip

Op-Ed: Time to Ditch Natural Selection?

CEH Editor questions whether 156 years of natural selection theory has produced anything of scientific, philosophical, or cultural value.

Ask any college-educated adult what Darwin was famous for, and it will probably be this: he came up with a mechanism to explain evolutionary change, called natural selection. This theme has been drummed into our heads all through school. Darwin supporters like Richard Dawkins call natural selection the most elegant theory in the history of science. Charles Darwin found a mechanism, supposedly like a machine or natural law, to explain the trendy Victorian ideas of inevitable progress and universal common descent. It appeared that Darwin, unlike predecessors like Robert Chambers, had sanctified evolution as a testable scientific theory. Natural selection, we are taught, automatically sifts through natural variations and produces higher fitness, without any need for intelligent guidance. It’s right in the title of his book, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. The myth of natural selection, we shall see, is a facade hiding emptiness. It’s time to get rid of it.

But wait, some creationists will argue. Natural selection is real it just doesn’t produce new information. It’s a filter that allows existing information to adapt to new environments. Some will point to early scientists or philosophers like Edward Blyth or even William Paley who articulated a similar conserving principle. We should keep the term, they say just don’t use it to teach that organisms can develop new genetic information, like an eye or a wing. NS shouldn’t be blamed just because Darwin corrupted it. Having read the defenses of NS by good friends and knowledgeable scientists who want to preserve it as a useful half-truth, I’m still going to urge all us all to junk the term on the grounds that it does more harm than good. Here are a dozen reasons.

Pre-Empting Comeback Arguments

Let’s briefly address the alleged evidence for its operation as a conservative principle. I’ve seen the slides at creation presentations. A common example is the long-haired puppies of medium-haired dogs moving to Alaska that survive over short-haired siblings, because they are naturally selected for the cold. Another is the plant that grows longer roots to reach the water table. At one level, these illustrations are intuitively obvious. I used to use such examples myself. But as you read this catalog of flaws with NS, I hope to show that the problems outweigh any explanatory value these examples seem to provide.

Natural Selection Is Not a Law

If NS were a law of nature, we would see every organism trending along the same trajectory: for instance, bearing more offspring. But NS explains opposite outcomes with equal ease (see Oct 1 entry for examples). It explains why the sloth is slow and the cheetah is fast. It explains why the roundworm is round and the flatworm is flat. It explains why some animals bear lots of young and why some bear few. We are led to believe that NS explains up, down, in, out and sideways by some mysterious, aimless force, and whatever results was caused by NS. For some time now, I have been calling NS the “Stuff Happens Law” because NS is simply a restatement of the phrase, “stuff happens.” The Stuff Happens Law is the polar opposite of scientific explanation. NS, therefore, is a charade, amounting to giving up and saying, “We don’t know que sera, sera.

Natural Selection Is a Post-Hoc Rationalization, Not a Cause

Nothing is caused by natural selection. No evolutionist predicts natural selection. They never say (or can say) that “Given these boundary conditions, Gene X will mutate at the 152nd base, and this new adaptive function will result and overtake the competition.” Maybe under extremely well-controlled lab conditions with microbes they come close to this, but never in the wild. It’s always after-the-fact rationalization. The way evolutionists use the term is the same way they accuse creationists of answering everything with “God did it.” Their habit is “natural selection did it.” It’s a catch-all generality of the same sort as the “demon of alcohol” that got ahold of the drunk, or the “demon of forgetfulness” that made the husband forget the anniversary. NS is the evolutionist’s universal demon – a useful placeholder for ignorance on which all credit or blame can be placed.

Natural Selection Is Subjective

Today’s selection theory seems very precise and mathematical. In journal papers, you can find neo-Darwinians measuring coefficients of selection and using them in differential equations. They speak of positive selection, negative selection, balancing selection, purifying selection, and epigenetic selection. In my experience, this is all hand-waving. It is jargon masquerading as science. Evolutionists assume that anything that is conserved has been selected, whether or not they know what it does for the organism. But anything not conserved has also been selected, they say. If everything is selected nothing is selected it’s the old Dodo bird verdict from Malice in Blunderland: “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Trying to dress this theory up with numbers is like saying 0.55 whatevers * 1.708 happenstances = progress in an unspecified direction, at least until the wind changes.

NS is also subjective because evolutionists cannot agree on the target of selection. Is it the family, as the kin selectionists argue? Is it the population? Is it the morphology of the whole animal, or just a trait? Is it the gene? Is it a protein fold? a tissue? a cell type? an organ? Is it all of the above, more, or something else? Evolutionists have been debating these issues since Darwin and are still at loggerheads. The bigger the target of selection, the less it’s meaningful. It’s like hitting the broad side of a barn and calling yourself a marksman.

Natural Selection Is Vacuous

Selection implies a choice of this or that, to the exclusion of all else. One might find choices in physics made mindlessly, like osmosis, but natural selection is different it claims to climb Mt. Improbable against the other well-established laws of physics, especially the Second Law of Thermodynamics, like a mindless Maxwell Demon—only this demon doesn’t know or care about the difference between hot and cold. It also pretends to explain everything in natural history, including opposite outcomes: extinction as well as survival, explosive radiation as well as stasis, convergence as well as divergence, the specialized feeder as well as the omnivore, the loner and the herder. A theory that explains everything explains nothing. One might as well substitute a nonsense word for NS: “On the origin of species by means of gribbleflix.” One can hear Dawkins now, extolling the elegance of such a theory!

Nature Selection Is an Oxymoron

If it’s natural, it’s not selection. If it’s selection, it’s not natural. Selection implies intelligent design, the very thing Darwin tried to get away from. The phrase is self-contradictory. One might as well speak of natural voting.

Natural Selection Is a Personification….

Selection implies a selector. Darwin extended artificial selection into natural selection, drawing faulty analogies between what a farmer does in breeding his animals to what nature does over eons of time. He envisioned NS as an invisible agent (a fairy? a ghost?), as shown in his notorious quote,

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest rejecting that which is bad preserving and adding up all that is good silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.

This view of the world borders on pantheism or animism. Darwinians cannot be acquitted with quotes about what they “mean” by NS. You have to watch how they actually use it. Pantheism is a frequent subtext in their writings, as if nature is an entrepreneurial spirit, wanting to expand and fill every available niche. NS is their “tinkerer” and their “blind watchmaker” even while they insist they are materialists. When pressed, they may try to sanitize the term as “differential reproduction,” but that term is not helpful to them it fails to factor in adaptation, because there is no guarantee that the “fittest” organism (whatever that implies) will reproduce more, or suffer some decompensatory epistatic pleiotropy that reduces its fitness in other ways. “Differential reproduction,” therefore, also reduces to “stuff happens.”

Darwin never really liked the phrase natural selection. He was painfully aware of its inherent personification – so much so that he began to favor Spencer’s catchy phrase “survival of the fittest” as more descriptive of what he meant.

….But Survival of the Fittest Is a Tautology

But Spencer’s phrase was worse. How are the fittest determined, except by survival? And how can they survive unless they are the fittest? It reduces NS to a tautology, saying that survivors survive. Some creationists argue the tautology objection is weak, but I am not convinced. Selection theory must be evaluated by how it is used, not how it is supposed to work in theory. Anytime fitness is defined in terms of survival, the tautology objection raises its head. Fitness is not like bodybuilders at the gym it’s whatever works to produce viable offspring (“stuff happens”). The couch potato is the fittest if he gets the girl. Darwinians imagine fitness in both the blackness of the raven and the shimmering colors of the peacock this is why it’s misleading to point to some intuitively-obvious scenario of adaptation and wave NS as the “law” that explains it. Watch Darwinians use “fitness” in their journal papers, both theoretical and experimental, and you will catch them repeatedly defining it in terms of numbers of offspring, and then using number of offspring as proof of fitness. “Survival of the fittest” is therefore a tautology, and if Darwin himself equated Survival of the Fittest to Natural Selection, the tautology label sticks for NS, too. No less an influential thinker than Phillip Johnson saw through this (Darwin on Trial, ch. 2, 95-96, 160).

Natural Selection Is Self-Refuting

This objection is not a problem for creationists who might grant a limited role to NS. But for Darwin and modern secular materialists, everything in the living world is ultimately a product of NS. By logical necessity, then, this means their own brains, conscious minds and personal choices are the result of blind, unguided processes over which they have no control: because the moment they let rational choice enter, then NS no longer explains everything. Consequently, NS commits intellectual suicide. They might as well say that blind, unguided, irrational processes caused their brains to write a paper arguing that natural selection is blind and unguided. The late William Provine was an honest evolutionist who realized that Darwinian theory makes it impossible to believe in free will. And you better believe he used his free will to teach that principle to his students, with passion.* (see update below)

No idea can survive self-refutation. This single objection should relegate NS to the dustbin of history. Why on earth would anyone want to pull this already-refuted theory out of the dustbin and say it has some value?

Natural Selection Is a Shell Game with Shifting Definitions

One of the most instructive (and amusing) parts of Walter ReMine’s classic book The Biotic Message was his demonstration that “fitness” (the assumed outcome of NS) is not really a single concept, but rather a collection of four definitions (tautological fitness, special fitness, metaphysical fitness, or lame fitness). As a former magician, ReMine knows how misdirection can fool an audience. He quoted evolutionists, showing how they shift the definition of fitness—sometimes within the same sentence—to create an illusion of understanding. So if you want to defend NS, which one? The tautological one, the special one, the metaphysical one, or the lame one? Whether or not you accept ReMine’s categories, you have to specify which shell has the nut under it. Whoops the evolutionist just switched it on you.

Natural Selection Is Unguided

Phillip Johnson understood the core idea of NS, and that is this: it is unguided. Whatever one might want to say about NS in its defense, at its core, it offers no direction, no goal, no purpose, no plan, and no ultimate meaning. For this reason, it is indistinguishable from genetic drift. Both are like Brownian motion on a frictionless surface without gridlines. Wright’s “fitness landscape” model cannot help, because the peaks and valleys on the landscape also fluctuate aimlessly in this blind, purposeless view of the world. The upshot is this: the environment is random, variability is random, and NS cannot provide any directionality to the scenario, being blind and aimless itself. So what do you get when run blind processes on random circumstances? Stuff happens!

By contrast, creationists believe in the providence of God. They might have vigorous discussions about primary and secondary causation. They might speak of pre-designed flexibility and robustness for surviving changing environments. They might cogitate on whether genetic drift and genetic entropy represent effects of the curse. But why use darkness when we have light? Let’s feast on the Creator’s smorgasbord rather than snacking on crud from Darwin’s table.

Natural Selection Has Nothing to Offer Science, Philosophy or Theology

At this point, it should be apparent that NS theory is so convoluted, so imprecise, so vacuous, as to easily qualify for the worst theory in the history of science because it duped so many people for so long. Countering that NS is real is no more satisfying than saying “Stuff Happens” is real. What does such an empty concept have to offer anyone of learning? Should a scientist be satisfied with appeals to the Stuff Happens Law? How can it hold up logically to the philosopher? And why on earth would any theologian think it has merit in a created world?

Natural Selection Is Loaded with Unsavory Baggage

Natural selection is not morally neutral. It has been used for the most evil crimes and genocides in world history. Much as Darwinians would wish to distance themselves from “Social Darwinism,” its advocates—and the promoters of eugenics (beginning with Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton)—all understood NS and “survival of the fittest” as providing scientific justification for their views. NS became the “law of the jungle” that rationalized nature red in tooth and claw, the elimination of imbeciles and defectives, and the breeding of a super-race. Why on earth would any moral person, let alone a Christian or Jew, wish to associate with a concept that has been implicated in the deaths of 164 million people?

Natural Selection Plays into the Hands of the Enemy

Letting your opponent frame the terminology in a debate is bad strategy. It would be like defending the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” when arguing against abortion, or “marriage equality” when arguing against homosexual unions. I maintain that granting any validity to the phrase “natural selection” is like that. The phrase is so inextricably linked to Charles Darwin and his world view, it cannot be sanctified by any attempt at redefining it to mean something else. It is what it is, and it means what it means.

It’s time to ditch ‘natural selection’. The phrase has nothing good to offer science, philosophy, or theology. It is a subjective, vacuous, self-refuting concept loaded with unsavory baggage. Creationists should attack it, not defend it. It’s improper to apply it where it was never intended. If one wishes to explain adaptation of long-haired dogs to cold climates, new terms and concepts should be used, not the tainted language of “natural selection.” That’s Darwin’s deadly legacy. Let the dead bury their dead.

David Coppedge, Editor, Creation-Evolution Headlines

* Update 10/04/15: Casey Luskin confirms with two influential ID leaders that natural selection is a tautological non-explanation, and that the late staunch Darwin professor Will Provine (Cornell), 1942-2015, understood the problem to the point of modifying his views about it. Hear Luskin’s interviews with Phillip Johnson (ID the Future) and and Paul Nelson (ID the Future), where Nelson describes how Provine in 1990 believed that the apparent design in nature was explainable by natural selection, but then reversed his view by 2001. Here’s the applicable quote, reprinted by Dr. Arthur Chadwick:

Having natural selection select is nifty because it excuses the necessity of talking about the actual causation of natural selection. Such talk was excusable for Charles Darwin, but inexcusable for evolutionists now. Creationists have discovered our empty “natural selection” language, and the “actions” of natural selection make huge, vulnerable targets.[p.200]” Will Provine. The Origin of Theoretical Population Genetics (University of Chicago Press, 1971), reissued in 2001.

Update 01/03/16: Here are some quotes by scientists and scholars from our quote database and from previous CEH articles to support my contention that natural selection theory is vacuous, tautological, subjective, useless, and evil. Look for anything that is scientifically solid in these confessions, made primarily by true believers in neo-Darwinism.

“Practicing biologists may be surprised that there is still debate about what kind of a force, principle or process ‘natural selection’ actually is, on what sort of entities it might act and the meaning of ‘fitness’. We readily invoke, but often cannot easily explicate, these concepts.” — W. Ford Doolittle, Current Biology, January 2015.

Q. Many biologists define life as anything that undergoes Darwinian evolution.
A. We pretend that makes sense, but if you look it makes no sense at all. What is the unit of Darwinian evolution? Is it the gene? Is it the cell? Is it a multicellular organism? Is a city evolving? How about Gaia? Is that a life form? — Charles Lineweaver, New Scientist May 16, 2012.

“These invocations of evolution also highlight another common misuse of evolutionary ideas: namely, the idea that some trait must have evolved merely because we can imagine a scenario under which possession of that trait would have been advantageous to fitness. Unfortunately, biologists as well as philosophers have all too often been guilty of this sort of invalid inference. Such forays into evolutionary explanation amount ultimately to storytelling rather than to hypothesis-testing in the scientific sense. For a complete evolutionary account of a phenomenon, it is not enough to construct a story about how the trait might have evolved in response to a given selection pressure rather, one must provide some sort of evidence that it really did so evolve. This is a very tall order, especially when we are dealing with human mental or behavioral traits, the genetic basis of which we are far from understanding.” — Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis, fall 2012.

“We have already seen that distinguished scientists have accepted uncritically the questionable analogy between natural and artificial selection, and that they have often been undisturbed by the fallacies of the “tautology” and “deductive logic” formulations [see Ch. 2]. Such illogic survived and reproduced itself for the same reason that an apparently incompetent species sometimes avoids extinction there was no effective competition in its ecological niche.” — Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (1991), pp. 28-29.

“The struggle for life and elimination of the weakest is a horrible process, against which our whole modern ethics revolts. An ideal society is a non-selective society, one where the weak is protected which is exactly the reverse of the so-called natural law. I am surprised that a Christian would defend the idea that this is the process which God, more or less, set up in order to have evolution.” — Jacques Monod, 1976

“Kamberov and colleagues’ study is an exceptional example of experimental genetics, but does it provide, as the authors suggest, a general framework for assessing candidate adaptive mutations? Genetically altered mice are a powerful experimental tool, but the extent to which recent positive selection in humans acts on pathways and amino-acid residues that have been conserved across mammalian evolution is uncertain. More importantly, it is often not clear how to investigate positively selected genomic regions for which the target gene, let alone its action, is unknown. And so a major challenge for population genomics remains the construction of meaningful null hypotheses. As Charles Darwin, the best known evolutionary biologist, once said, ‘It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance’.” — Nature (see 4/09/13 entry)

“Contrary to a widespread impression, natural selection does not leave any unambiguous ‘signature’ on the genome, certainly not one that is still detectable after tens or hundreds of millions of years. To biologists schooled in Neo-Darwinian thought processes, it is virtually axiomatic that any adaptive change must have been fixed as a result of natural selection. But it is important to remember that reality can be more complicated than simplistic textbook scenarios.” — Austin L. Hughes, evolutionary biologist from the University of South Carolina, in PNAS, quoted in our 9/08/08 entry, “How Not To Prove Positive Selection.”

“‘A lot of what we know about selection is very crude,’ Schluter says. ‘When we start to do experiments we are surprised to find stuff happening that we didn’t anticipate.’” — quoted by Elizabeth Pennisi in Science Magazine, from our 7/16/13 entry, “Evolution as Stretchy Glue.” [subjectivity, imprecision, Stuff Happens Law]

“In an era when natural philosophers were consciously coming to rely on idioms of prediction, experiment, demonstration, and discovery, when accredited truths of nature were established by seeing and believing, Darwin’s approach was doubly unusual. He was inviting people to believe in a world run by irregular, unpredictable contingencies, as well as asking them to accept his solution for the simple reason that it seemed to work.” — Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 56.

“The theory that traditionalists use leads them anywhere they want to go,” he complained. “To make [a theory] really stand [up], you have to show that that’s the only result that can come from your theory, and they haven’t done that.” — E. O. Wilson criticizing kin selection theory, which he formerly espoused from an article “Evolutionary Biology: Agreeing to Disagree” by Elizabeth Pennisi in a special issue of Science Magazine on Darwinism, exploring the standoff between evolutionists over the target of selection. See our 2/09/09 entry, “Is Ignorance Evidence?” See more about this ongoing and nasty fight about the target of selection in our 3/25/11 entry, bullet item #3, where the name-calling gets intense.

“Natural selection commonly drives the origin of species, as Darwin initially claimed…. Tests of parallel evolution of reproductive isolation, trait-based assortative mating, and reproductive isolation by active selection have demonstrated that ecological speciation is a common means by which new species arise. Evidence for mutation-order speciation by natural selection is more limited and has been best documented by instances of reproductive isolation resulting from intragenomic conflict. However, we still have not identified all aspects of selection, and identifying the underlying genes for reproductive isolation remains challenging.” — Dolph Schluter contradicting himself in Science Magazine, as quoted in our 2/09/09 entry. Can you reconcile his bluffing with his evidence? “It took evolutionary biologists nearly 150 years, but at last we can agree with Darwin that the origin of species, ‘that mystery of mysteries’, really does occur by means of natural selection. The main question today is how does selection lead to speciation?” [Isn’t that what Darwin’s “mechanism” was supposed to solve? Isn’t that what Schluter said it does solve?]

“We find that even in enormous populations, natural selection is often very inefficient at distinguishing between mutations that are beneficial and deleterious on average. In addition, substitution rates of all mutations are dramatically increased by variable selection pressures. This can lead to counterintuitive results. For instance, mutations that result in a trade-off but are predominantly deleterious during their lifetime can be much more likely to fix than mutations that are always neutral or even beneficial.” — from Harvard evolutionists in PNAS. Does this not equate natural selection to the Stuff Happens Law? See 8/27/15, “More Flaws in Darwin’s Mechanism.”

“Traditional evolutionary biology began in the 1930s with the ‘modern synthesis,’ which fused Darwin’s theses on phenotypic variation and selection with Mendel’s concepts of genetic inheritance to explain the source of biological diversity. This synthesis predated knowledge that genes were made of DNA and of the structure of DNA and how it replicates. Thus, molecular mechanisms could not be integrated into concepts about how phenotypic variation is generated. Instead, assumptions had to be made about the origins of the variation that drives evolution. Among the cornerstone assumptions were that mutations are the sole drivers of evolution mutations occur randomly, constantly, and gradually and the transmission of genetic information is vertical from parent to offspring, rather than horizontal (infectious) between individuals and species (as is now apparent throughout the tree of life). But discoveries of molecular mechanisms are modifying these assumptions.” — Science Magazine (see 3/12/14, “How Useful Is Evolutionary Theory?”). If the cornerstone assumptions were wrong, how can Darwin’s theory of natural selection acting on random mutations ever have been right?

“Precisely what new characteristics will be selected for or against, and spread or be deleted from the population, is very hard to predict, however.” — Cameron Smith in our 12/27/12 entry admitting that natural selection cannot make predictions.

“My studies of natural selection had begun with no forebodings, but by this time I was becoming puzzled and skeptical. A process that operates invisibly, with an intensity that cannot be observed and with no ability to explain specific problems, an impersonal process that is continually given personal qualities—this sets my teeth on edge. Therefore I went back to the definitions to see if the premises were in order. I slowly realized that they were not. The phrase differential reproduction conceals a flaw.” — Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried: An Appeal to Reason (1971), p. 46 in his chapter on natural selection. He proceeds to show that “differential reproduction” (often used as a synonym for natural selection) is tautologous.

Ibid., pp. 46-47: Macbeth is incredulous after citing noted evolutionist C. H. Waddington admitting natural selection is a tautology but then extolling “the enormous power of the principle as a weapon of explanation.” Macbeth responds, “Why do I find this staggering? Because a man who is astute enough to see that differential reproduction is a tautology is unable to see anything improper in a tautology. Because a man who reveres Darwin reduces Darwin’s major contribution to a tautology, yet asserts that this does not reduce the magnitude of Darwin’s achievement. Because a man who must know how weak natural selection is in explaining hard cases, and who still has his finger on the reason for this weakness (the tautology), still speaks of the enormous power of natural selection as a “weapon of explanation.” [Macbeth then finds the same tautology in the writings of George Gaylord Simpson about natural selection. More good quotes can be found in Macbeth’s ch. 6 on “Survival of the Fittest.”]

Darwin “was obsessed with competition,” Cardinale says. “He assumed the whole world was composed of species competing with each other, but we found that one-third of the species of algae we studied actually like each other. They don’t grow as well unless you put them with another species. It may be that nature has a heck of a lot more mutualisms than we ever expected. “Maybe species are co-evolving,” he adds. “Maybe they are evolving together so they are more productive as a team than they are individually. We found that more than one-third of the time, that they like to be together. Maybe Darwin’s presumption that the world may be dominated by competition is wrong.” — Live Science, “Darwin Was Wrong” as quoted in our 4/30/14 entry, “Malthus Misled Darwin Who Misled the World.”

“The narrator declares that “we humans have sinned terribly against [the] laws of natural selection,” by coddling the genetically impaired and, even worse, by allowing them to reproduce, duplicating their defects in a new legion of offspring. “We have not only sustained unworthy life,” he decries, “we have allowed it to multiply.” The title of the 1937 film is Victims of the Past, a reference to the idea in the disgraced genetic field of eugenics that illness, disability and delinquency were passed without deviation, gene by gene, from one generation to the next. The film was a piece of Nazi propaganda, required showing in German theaters in support of the nation’s program for the compulsory sterilization of the “genetically unfit” to choke off undesirable human traits — and undesirable human beings.” — from a Holocaust Museum exhibit review in The Baltimore Sun, quoted in our 4/22/04 entry.

Clearly then, natural selection is a word without power, and perhaps a word without meaning. Insofar as evolution is concerned, using “natural selection” to cover our ignorance about process is inexcusable. (Dr. Arthur Chadwick, 2011)

“And so we are to believe that natural selection, which “is not an agent, except metaphorically”, manages to design artifacts and the organism, without which we would lack even the concept of an agent, is not, after all, a creative or originating agent itself. Its agency has been transferred to an abstraction whose causal agency or “force” is, amid intellectual confusion, both denied and universally implied by biologists. Natural selection becomes rather like an occult Power of the pre-scientific age — all in order to render “illusory”, and indeed to usurp, the visible agency of the organism.” (Stephen L. Talbott, The Nature Institute, 5/17/16)

“What we do have is a god-like power of natural selection whose miracle-working activity in creating ever new organisms is vividly clear to eyes of faith, but frustratingly obscure to mere empirical investigators.” (Talbott, ibid.)

“The thing to hold onto in all this is natural selection. If there seems to be real purpose in organisms, so we’re told, then natural selection explains it, or explains it away, in non-purposive terms. If there is only an illusion of purpose, natural selection is the responsible agent behind the illusion. Just as we trace the machine’s intelligence and intentions to a human designer, we must trace the organism’s intelligence and intentions, such as they may be, to natural selection, the blind, mindless, unintelligent, yet wondrously effective designer whose existence Darwin exposed. But do we have any possible grounds for taking natural selection seriously as a designer of organisms and explainer of their intelligence?” (Talbott, ibid.)

“So natural selection, being simply another name for the outcome of all the purposeful activities of organisms, is not an explanation for them. It assumes what it is supposed to explain. It turns out that the “blind designer” is a cheat it relies upon the not-so-blind teleological services of the very organisms it is said to be designing.

“All this is a very big deal. The lapses of thought in the supposed explanation of biological purpose testify to a radical misjudgment of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. If natural selection is defined in terms of the activities that originally suggested a wise agency on the organism’s part, then it tells us nothing about how those activities gained their teleological character. (Talbott, ibid.)

“No one can deny that our answers to these questions could be critically important even for the most basic understanding of evolution. But we have no answers. In the current theoretical milieu, we don’t even have the questions. What we do have is a god-like power of natural selection whose miracle-working activity in creating ever new organisms is vividly clear to eyes of faith, but frustratingly obscure to mere empirical investigators.

“This is not a science ready for submission to a larger public along with a demand for acquiescence. Not if this public has yet to dull its sensitivity to fundamental questions in the way that the research community seems to have done.” (Talbott, ibid.)

“Evolution’s main mechanism is random change. You have heard of natural selection but it, as even Alfred Wallace agreed, is not a mechanism as such. It doesn’t cause or coax helpful biological change to occur. It merely kills off the weaker designs. Evolution is a theory of randomness.” (Cornelius Hunter, Evolution News 4/15/17).

“A quite general issue has still received no canonical treatment: what kind of a thing is natural selection anyway? A law, a principle, a force, a cause, an agent, or all or some of these things? The view that natural selection is a law has been countered by the view that it is a principle, while that conclusion has been countered in turn by an insistence that it is neither….” (Hodge, M.J.S. 1992. Natural Selection: Historical Perspectives. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 218.)

“To understand the history of the term ‘natural selection’ both before and after this moment in the Origin, we have, therefore, to look not for a sequence of explicit definitional equations but, rather, for the reasons why people, starting with Darwin himself, have felt themselves able to grasp and wield the concept adequately in the absence of consistent, authoritative definitional analysis of the term.” (Ibid., pp. 212-219).

Stephen Jay Gould, commenting on fellow evolutionist’s confusion over the “unit of selection,” considers a more serious problem: “In short, Emerson’s paper gives us an unintended insight into the confusing lack of definition that natural selection has always suffered, even at the moment of its greatest explicit influence.” (Gould, S. J. 2002, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 544-545.)

“Practicing biologists may be surprised that there is still debate about what kind of a force, principle or process ‘natural selection’ actually is, on what sort of entities it might act and the meaning of ‘fitness’. We readily invoke, but often cannot easily explicate, these concepts. Godfrey-Smith explains why.” (W. F. Doolittle, 2015. “Philosophy, Who Needs It?”, Current Biology. 25 (1): R31–R33.)

“For nearly 100 years biologists have argued about how exactly natural selection can possibly work. If nature selects the individuals with the best genes then why aren’t all organisms the same?” (Uppsala University, 12 December 2018, “Biologists shed new light on an old question,” ScienceDaily.)

“But what natural selection actually is (a force or a statistical outcome, for example) and the levels of the biological hierarchy (genes, organisms, species, or even ecosystems) at which it operates directly are still actively disputed among philosophers and theoretical biologists. …Few consider—as ‘units of selection’ in their own right—the processes implemented by genes, cells, species, or communities. ‘It’s the song not the singer’ (ITSNTS) theory does that, also claiming that evolution by natural selection of processes is more easily understood and explained as differential persistence than as differential reproduction.”
(W. Ford Doolittle and S. Andrew Inkpen. 2018. “Processes and patterns of interaction as units of selection: An introduction to ITSNTS thinking,” PNAS 115(16): 4006–4014. See our analysis from 2 April 2018 and 3 April 2018.)

Editor in Chief for Bioessays complains bitterly about the misleading use of selection and anthropomorphisms used in evolutionary literature, saying “I believe that a large part of our difficulty in avoiding the invocation of agency and direction in evolutionary processes is our persistent inability to define natural selection in terms of physical laws and processes.” He adds “In the meantime, anthropomorphic terminology in evolution might persist just because scientists like using it. But it is one of the worst things we can do, given widespread public misunderstanding of the fundamental principles of evolution. And I bet that it even leads scientists themselves astray sometimes.” “It is about time that we stopped such anthropomorphic terminology and thinking, and confronted the likelihood that – far from being ‘excusable shorthand’ – it is an important contributor to a false impression of evolution among many non-scientists. I feel that much of the ‘excuse’ for using terms that evoke will, direction and strategy in evolutionary processes is a problem of finding the right words…Purpose can only be exercised by a supernatural entity in this situation.” (Moore, Andrew, “We need a new language for evolution,” Bioessays 33: 237, 2011).

“One often reads the following claims: (1) The modern conception of natural selection differs from Darwin’s own conception only with respect to incidental features (2) Natural selection is a very simple idea with enormous explanatory power. Both claims are problematic…The modern conception of natural selection is not the same as Darwin’s, unless we describe natural selection in the most abstract manner.” (Lewens, T. 2010. “Natural Selection Then and Now,” Biological Reviews, 85(4): 829-835, 2010).

Share your comments on this article! Agree? Disagree?

I can see how one sometimes needs to apply selection theory to defeat it. It might be necessary, for instance, to demonstrate that a neo-Darwinist’s selection coefficients cannot account for a trait at issue. It would be like saying, “Even using so-and-so’s own figures and assumptions, it doesn’t work.” Winning on the opponent’s home field makes for a stronger victory. That’s different from calling NS a real process in nature that should be respected and taught as a fact. (Remember, “stuff happens” is a fact, too.)

Let me also make clear that all my arguments are “against the idea” and not “against the person” who disagrees with me. I respect those who disagree and hope my opinions will be respectfully addressed in turn. I hope my critics, though, will sincerely do some self-reflection on the question, “What am I really gaining by defending ‘natural selection’ and using that term in my toolkit of explanation? Is this dubious concept worth it?” The Darwinians have had 156 years to explain this concept and have left it in a mess. I don’t think we can scrub off those stains and sanitize it to refer to what Blyth or Paley might have meant. The stink spreads the moment you say the phrase.

To me this is not an issue worth parting company over. It’s more a matter of seeking wisdom, rhetorical strategy, and effectiveness. So if you disagree, we’re still friends I hope.

Advertisements for the Multiverse

After watching the Breakthrough Prize awards tonight, tomorrow night on the Science Channel you can watch a program that actually features physicists rather than Hollywood/Silicon Valley celebrities. There’s an hour long infomercial for the Multiverse, entitled “Which Universe Are We In?”. You get to hear from

  • Max Tegmark starting and ending the show with a generic promotional spiel about how wonderful the multiverse is.
  • Seth Lloyd about how weird QM is, and that it and cosmology provide strong experimental support for the multiverse.
  • Anthony Aguirre explaining about seeing collisions of other universes in the sky, and about how evidence for the multiverse has now been seen (BICEP2), providing a huge leap forward for the multiverse.
  • Laura Mersini-Houghton about the string landscape and how she has used it to make predictions, which are now becoming accepted.

The program ends kind of like a car commercial, with beautiful scenery and swelling music. A voice over mentions un-named fuddy-duddy critics, mainly to say that BICEP2’s “great support for the theory of the multiverse” has “given then something to think about”. It suggests that the answer to the question raised by all these different kinds of multiverse (“which one is true?”) can be answered by believing all multiverse models at once, no need to choose.

No mention of tedious things like dust. This multiverse is all new and shiny, slices, dices, provides every reality you could possibly want.

On a somewhat higher level, Quanta magazine followed up last week’s multiverse piece with a new one this past week, Multiverse Collisions May Dot the Sky from Jennifer Ouellette. Aguirre appears here too, working with collaborators on analyzing possibly observable consequences of bubble collisions. One of them is Hiranya Peiris, who explains that multiverse theory is like the theory of evolution:

Peiris acknowledges that this argument has its critics. “It can predict anything, and therefore it’s not valid,” Peiris said of the reasoning typically used to dismiss the notion of a multiverse as a tautology, rather than a true scientific theory. “But I think that’s the wrong way to think about it.” The theory of evolution, Peiris argues, also resembles a tautology in certain respects — “an organism exists because it survived” — yet it holds tremendous explanatory power. It is a simple model that requires little initial input to produce the vast diversity of species we see today.

A multiverse model tied to eternal inflation could have the same kind of explanatory power. In this case, the bubble universes function much like speciation. Those universes that happen to have the right laws of physics will eventually “succeed” — that is, they will become home to conscious observers like ourselves. If our universe is one of many in a much larger multiverse, our existence seems less unlikely.

The problem of course with bubble collision “predictions” are that they’re not falsifiable. As far as they’re concerned, you can only win: seeing nothing doesn’t disprove the multiverse. The most recent attempt to look for evidence in the CMB that I’m aware of is this, which found nothing in the WMAP-7 data. I haven’t seen anything using Planck data released so far. Presumably when new data is released later this month some kind of search for bubble collision evidence will be done, and Quanta magazine isn’t likely to report the likely outcome.

The Quanta piece isn’t an infomercial like the TV program, it does explain some of the problems with this whole endeavor, including this from Erick Weinberg:

“My own feeling is you need to adjust the numbers rather finely to get it to work,” Weinberg said. The rate of formation of the bubble universes is key. If they had formed slowly, collisions would not have been possible because space would have expanded and driven the bubbles apart long before any collision could take place. Alternatively, if the bubbles had formed too quickly, they would have merged before space could expand sufficiently to form disconnected pockets. Somewhere in between is the Goldilocks rate, the “just right” rate at which the bubbles would have had to form for a collision to be possible.

Researchers also worry about finding a false positive. Even if such a collision did happen and evidence was imprinted on the CMB, spotting the telltale pattern would not necessarily constitute evidence of a multiverse. “You can get an effect and say it will be consistent with the calculated predictions for these [bubble] collisions,” Weinberg said. “But it might well be consistent with lots of other things.” For instance, a distorted CMB might be evidence of theoretical entities called cosmic strings. These are like the cracks that form in the ice when a lake freezes over, except here the ice is the fabric of space-time. Magnetic monopoles are another hypothetical defect that could affect the CMB, as could knots or twists in space-time called textures.

Weinberg isn’t sure it would even be possible to tell the difference between these different possibilities, especially because many models of eternal inflation exist. Without knowing the precise details of the theory, trying to make a positive identification of the multiverse would be like trying to distinguish between the composition of two meteorites that hit the roof of a house solely by the sound of the impacts, without knowing how the house is constructed and with what materials.

There’s also the problem that even if you did see something, it really would tell you pretty much nothing about the supposed other universe:

Should a signature for a bubble collision be confirmed, Peiris doesn’t see a way to study another bubble universe any further because by now it would be entirely out of causal contact with ours. But it would be a stunning validation that the notion of a multiverse deserves a seat at the testable physics table.

Update: One problem with arguing that the multiverse is like the theory of evolution that physicists should keep in mind: creationists love it.

Is natural selection a tautology, and therefore not truly falsifiable? - Biology

  1. Popper's statement of nonfalsifiability was pretty mild, not as extensive as it is often taken. He applied it only to natural selection, not evolution as a whole, and he allowed that some testing of natural selection was possible, just not a significant amount.

Moreover, he said that natural selection is a useful theory. A "metaphysical research programme" was to him not a bad thing it is an essential part of science, as it guides productive research by suggesting predictions. He said of Darwinism,

Finally, Popper notes that theism as an explanation of adaptation "was worse than an open admission of failure, for it created the impression that an ultimate explanation had been reached" (Popper 1976, 172).

When speaking here of Darwinism, I shall speak always of today's theory - that is Darwin's own theory of natural selection supported by the Mendelian theory of heredity, by the theory of the mutation and recombination of genes in a gene pool, and by the decoded genetic code. This is an immensely impressive and powerful theory. The claim that it completely explains evolution is of course a bold claim, and very far from being established. All scientific theories are conjectures, even those that have successfully passed many severe and varied tests. The Mendelian underpinning of modern Darwinism has been well tested, and so has the theory of evolution which says that all terrestrial life has evolved from a few primitive unicellular organisms, possibly even from one single organism.

However, Darwin's own most important contribution to the theory of evolution, his theory of natural selection, is difficult to test. There are some tests, even some experimental tests and in some cases, such as the famous phenomenon known as 'industrial melanism', we can observe natural selection happening under our very eyes, as it were. Nevertheless, really severe tests of the theory of natural selection are hard to come by, much more so than tests of otherwise comparable theories in physics or chemistry.

The fact that the theory of natural selection is difficult to test has led some people, anti-Darwinists and even some great Darwinists, to claim that it is a tautology [see CA500]. A tautology like 'All tables are tables' is not, of course, testable nor has it any explanatory power. It is therefore most surprising to hear that some of the greatest contemporary Darwinists themselves formulate the theory in such a way that it amounts to the tautology that those organisms that leave most offspring leave most offspring. C. H. Waddington says somewhere (and he defends this view in other places) that 'Natural selection . . . turns out . to be a tautology' ..4 However, he attributes at the same place to the theory an 'enormous power. . of explanation'. Since the explanatory power of a tautology is obviously zero, something must be wrong here.

Yet similar passages can be found in the works of such great Darwinists as Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and George Gaylord Simpson and others.

I mention this problem because I too belong among the culprits. Influenced by what these authorities say, I have in the past described the theory as 'almost tautological', and I have tried to explain how the theory of natural selection could be untestable (as is a tautology) and yet of great scientific interest. My solution was that the doctrine of natural selection is a most successful metaphysical research programme. It raises detailed problems in many fields, and it tells us what we would expect of an acceptable solution of these problems.

I still believe that natural selection works in this way as a research programme. Nevertheless, I have changed my mind about the testability and the logical status of the theory of natural selection and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation. My recantation may, I hope, contribute a little to the understanding of the status of natural selection.


Evolutionary ideas came to prominence in the early 19th century with the theory (developed between 1800 and 1822) of the transmutation of species put forward by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). At first the scientific community - and notably Georges Cuvier (1769 - 1832) - opposed the idea of evolution. [1] The idea that laws control nature and society gained vast popular audiences with George Combe's The Constitution of Man of 1828 and with the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844. When Charles Darwin published his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, he convinced most of the scientific community that new species arise through descent through modification in a branching pattern of divergence from common ancestors, but while most scientists accepted natural selection as a valid and empirically testable hypothesis, Darwin's view of it as the primary mechanism of evolution was rejected by some. [2]

Darwin's contemporaries eventually came to accept the transmutation of species based upon fossil evidence, and the X Club (operative from 1864 to 1893) formed to defend the concept of evolution against opposition from the church and wealthy amateurs. [3] At that time the specific evolutionary mechanism which Darwin provided - natural selection - was actively disputed by scientists in favour of alternative theories such as Lamarckism and orthogenesis. Darwin's gradualistic account was also opposed by the ideas of saltationism and catastrophism. Lord Kelvin led scientific opposition to gradualism on the basis of his thermodynamic calculations for the age of the Earth at between 24 and 400 million years, and his views favoured a version of theistic evolution accelerated by divine guidance. [4] Geological estimates disputed Kelvin's age of the earth, and the geological approach gained strength in 1907 when radioactive dating of rocks revealed the Earth as billions of years old. [5] [6] The specific hereditary mechanism which Darwin hypothesized, pangenesis, which supported gradualism, also lacked any supporting evidence and was disputed by the empirical tests (1869 onwards) of Francis Galton. Although evolution itself was scientifically unchallenged, uncertainties about the mechanism in the era of "the eclipse of Darwinism" persisted from the 1880s until the 1930s' [7] inclusion of Mendelian inheritance and the rise of the modern evolutionary synthesis. The modern synthesis rose to universal acceptance among biologists with the help of new evidence, such as that from genetics, which confirmed Darwin's predictions and refuted the competing theories. [8]

Protestantism, especially in America, broke out in "acrid polemics" and argument about evolution from 1860 to the 1870s—with the turning point possibly marked by the death of Louis Agassiz in 1873—and by 1880 a form of "Christian evolution" was becoming the consensus. [9] In Britain, while publication of The Descent of Man by Darwin in 1871 reinvigorated debate from the previous decade, Sir Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) notes a steady acceptance of evolution "among more educated Christians" between 1860 and 1885. [ citation needed ] As a result, evolutionary theory was "both permissible and respectable" by 1876. [10] Frederick Temple's lectures on The Relations between Religion and Science (1884) on how evolution was not "antagonistic" to religion highlighted this trend. [11] Temple's appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1896 demonstrated the broad acceptance of evolution within the church hierarchy. [10]

For decades the Roman Catholic Church avoided officially rejecting evolution. However, the Church would rein in Catholics who proposed that evolution could be reconciled with the Bible, as this conflicted with the First Vatican Council's (1869–70) finding that everything was created out of nothing by God, and to deny that finding could lead to excommunication. In 1950 the encyclical Humani generis of Pope Pius XII first mentioned evolution directly and officially. [12] It allowed one to enquire into the concept of humans coming from pre-existing living matter, but not to question Adam and Eve or the creation of the soul. In 1996 Pope John Paul II labelled evolution "more than a hypothesis" and acknowledged the large body of work accumulated in its support, but reiterated that any attempt to give a material explanation of the human soul is "incompatible with the truth about man". [13] Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 reiterated the conviction that human beings "are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." [14] At the same time, Pope Benedict promoted the study of the relationship between the concepts of creation and evolution, based on the conviction that there cannot be a contradiction between faith and reason. [15] Along these lines, the research project "Thomistic Evolution", run by a team of Dominican scholars, endeavours to reconcile the scientific evidence on evolution with the teaching of Thomas Aquinas [16] (1225 - 1274).

Islamic views on evolution ranged from those believing in literal creation (as implied in the Quran) to many educated Muslims who subscribed to a version of theistic or guided evolution in which the Quran reinforced rather than contradicted mainstream science. This occurred relatively early, as medieval madrasahs taught the ideas of Al-Jahiz, a Muslim scholar from the 9th century, who proposed concepts similar to natural selection. [17] However, acceptance of evolution remains low in the Muslim world, as prominent figures reject evolution's underpinning philosophy of materialism as unsound to human origins and a denial of Allah. [17] Further objections by Muslim authors and writers largely reflect those put forward in the Western world. [18]

Regardless of acceptance from major religious hierarchies, early religious objections to Darwin's theory continue in use in opposition to evolution. The ideas that species change over time through natural processes and that different species share common ancestors seemed to contradict the Genesis account of Creation. Believers in Biblical infallibility attacked Darwinism as heretical. [ citation needed ] The natural theology of the early-19th century was typified by William Paley's 1802 version of the watchmaker analogy, an argument from design still deployed by the creationist movement. Natural theology included a range of ideas and arguments from the outset, and when Darwin's theory was published, ideas of theistic evolution were presented [ by whom? ] in which evolution is accepted as a secondary cause open to scientific investigation, while still holding belief in God as a first cause with a non-specified role in guiding evolution and creating humans. [19] This position has been adopted by denominations of Christianity and Judaism in line with modernist theology which views the Bible and Torah as allegorical, thus removing the conflict between evolution and religion.

However, in the 1920s Christian fundamentalists in the United States developed their literalist arguments against modernist theology into opposition to the teaching of evolution, with fears that Darwinism had led to German militarism and posed a threat to religion and morality. This opposition developed into the creation–evolution controversy, involving Christian literalists in the United States objecting to the teaching of evolution in public schools. Although early objectors dismissed evolution as contradicting their interpretation of the Bible, this argument was legally invalidated when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968 that forbidding the teaching of evolution on religious grounds violated the Establishment Clause. [20]

Since then creationists have developed more nuanced objections to evolution, alleging variously that it is unscientific, infringes on creationists' religious freedoms, or that the acceptance of evolution is a religious stance. [21] Creationists have appealed to democratic principles of fairness, arguing that evolution is controversial and that science classrooms should therefore "Teach the Controversy". [22] These objections to evolution culminated in the intelligent-design movement in the 1990s and early 2000s that unsuccessfully attempted to present itself as a scientific alternative to evolution. [23] [24]

One of the main sources of confusion and ambiguity in the creation–evolution debate is the definition of evolution itself. In the context of biology, evolution is genetic changes in populations of organisms over successive generations. The word also has a number of different meanings in different fields, from evolutionary computation to molecular evolution to sociocultural evolution to stellar and galactic evolution.

Evolution in colloquial contexts can refer to any sort of progressive development or gradual improvement, and a process that results in greater quality or complexity. [25] When misapplied to biological evolution this common meaning leads to frequent misunderstandings. For example, the idea of devolution ("backwards" evolution) is a result of erroneously assuming that evolution is directional or has a specific goal in mind (cf. orthogenesis). In reality, the evolution of an organism has no "objective" and is only showing increasing ability of successive generations to survive and reproduce in its environment and increased suitability is only defined in relation to this environment. Biologists do not consider any one species, such as humans, to be more highly evolved or advanced than another. Certain sources have been criticized for indicating otherwise due to a tendency to evaluate nonhuman organisms according to anthropocentric standards rather than more objective ones. [26]

Evolution also does not require that organisms become more complex. Although the history of life shows an apparent trend towards the evolution of biological complexity, there is a question if this appearance of increased complexity is real, or if it comes from neglecting the fact that the majority of life on Earth has always consisted of prokaryotes. [27] In this view, complexity is not a necessary consequence of evolution, but specific circumstances of evolution on Earth frequently made greater complexity advantageous and thus naturally selected for. Depending on the situation, organisms' complexity can either increase, decrease, or stay the same, and all three of these trends have been observed in evolution. [26]

Creationist sources frequently define evolution according to a colloquial, rather than scientific, meaning. As a result, many attempts to rebut evolution do not address the findings of evolutionary biology (see straw man argument). This also means that advocates of creationism and evolutionary biologists often simply speak past each other. [28]

Status as a theory Edit

Critics of evolution assert that evolution is "just a theory", which emphasizes that scientific theories are never absolute, or misleadingly presents it as a matter of opinion rather than of fact or evidence. [29] This reflects a difference of the meaning of theory in a scientific context: whereas in colloquial speech a theory is a conjecture or guess, in science, a theory is an explanation whose predictions have been verified by experiments or other evidence. Evolutionary theory refers to an explanation for the diversity of species and their ancestry which has met extremely high standards of scientific evidence. An example of evolution as theory is the modern synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian inheritance. As with any scientific theory, the modern synthesis is constantly debated, tested, and refined by scientists, but there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that it remains the only robust model that accounts for the known facts concerning evolution. [30]

Critics also state that evolution is not a fact. [31] In science a fact is a verified empirical observation while in colloquial contexts a fact can simply refer to anything for which there is overwhelming evidence. For example, in common usage theories such as "the Earth revolves around the Sun" and "objects fall due to gravity" may be referred to as "facts", even though they are purely theoretical. From a scientific standpoint, therefore, evolution may be called a "fact" for the same reason that gravity can: under the scientific definition, evolution is an observable process that occurs whenever a population of organisms genetically changes over time. Under the colloquial definition, the theory of evolution can also be called a fact, referring to this theory's well-established nature. Thus, evolution is widely considered both a theory and a fact by scientists. [29] [32] [33] [34]

Similar confusion is involved in objections that evolution is "unproven", since no theory in science is known to be absolutely true, only verified by empirical evidence. [35] [36] This distinction is an important one in philosophy of science, as it relates to the lack of absolute certainty in all empirical claims, not just evolution. Strict proof is possible only in formal sciences such as logic and mathematics, not natural sciences (where terms such as "validated" or "corroborated" are more appropriate). Thus, to say that evolution is not proven is trivially true, but no more an indictment of evolution than calling it a "theory". The confusion arises in that the colloquial meaning of proof is simply "compelling evidence", in which case scientists would indeed consider evolution "proven". [37]

Degree of acceptance Edit

An objection is often made in the teaching of evolution that evolution is controversial or contentious. [38] [39] Unlike past creationist arguments which sought to abolish the teaching of evolution altogether, this argument makes the claim that evolution should be presented alongside alternative views since it is controversial, and students should be allowed to evaluate and choose between the options on their own. [39] [40]

This objection forms the basis of the "Teach the Controversy" campaign by the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle, Washington, to promote the teaching of intelligent design in U.S. public schools. This goal followed the Institute's "wedge strategy", an attempt to gradually undermine evolution and ultimately to "reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." [22] Several other attempts were made to insert intelligent design or creationism into the U.S. public school curriculum, including the failed Santorum Amendment in 2001. [41]

Scientists and U.S. courts have rejected this objection on the grounds that science is not based on appeals to popularity, but on evidence. The scientific consensus of biologists determines what is considered acceptable science, not popular opinion or fairness, and although evolution is controversial in the public arena, it is entirely uncontroversial among experts in the field. [42] [43]

In response, creationists have disputed the level of scientific support for evolution. The Discovery Institute has gathered over 761 scientists as of August 2008 to sign A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism in order to show that there are a number of scientists who dispute what they refer to as "Darwinian evolution". This statement did not profess outright disbelief in evolution, but expressed skepticism as to the ability of "random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life." Several counter-petitions have been launched in turn, including A Scientific Support for Darwinism, which gathered over 7,000 signatures in four days, [44] and Project Steve, a tongue-in-cheek petition that has gathered the signatures of 1,393 (as of May 24, 2016) evolution-supporting scientists named "Steve" (or any similar variation thereof—Stephen, Stephanie, Esteban, etc.). [45]

Creationists have argued for over a century that evolution is a "theory in crisis" that will soon be overturned, based on objections that it lacks reliable evidence or violates natural laws. These objections have been rejected by most scientists, as have claims that intelligent design, or any other creationist explanation, meets the basic scientific standards that would be required to make them scientific alternatives to evolution. It is also argued that even if evidence against evolution exists, it is a false dilemma to characterize this as evidence for intelligent design. [46]

A similar objection to evolution is that certain scientific authorities—mainly pre-modern ones—have doubted or rejected evolution. [47] Most commonly, it is argued that Darwin "recanted" on his deathbed, a false anecdote originating from Lady Hope's story. [48] These objections are generally rejected as appeals to authority. [49]

A common neo-creationist objection to evolution is that evolution does not adhere to normal scientific standards—that it is not genuinely scientific. It is argued that evolutionary biology does not follow the scientific method and therefore should not be taught in science classes, or at least should be taught alongside other views (i.e., creationism). These objections often deal with:

Religious nature Edit

Creationists commonly argue that "evolution is a religion it is not a science." [21] The purpose of this criticism is to reframe the debate from one between science (evolution) and religion (creationism) to between two religious beliefs—or even to argue that evolution is religious while intelligent design is not. [50] [51] Those that oppose evolution frequently refer to supporters of evolution as "evolutionists" or "Darwinists". [21]

The arguments for evolution being a religion generally amount to arguments by analogy: it is argued that evolution and religion have one or more things in common, and that therefore evolution is a religion. Examples of claims made in such arguments are statements that evolution is based on faith, [35] and that supporters of evolution dogmatically reject alternative suggestions out-of-hand. [52] These claims have become more popular in recent years as the neo-creationist movement has sought to distance itself from religion, thus giving it more reason to make use of a seemingly anti-religious analogy. [42]

Supporters of evolution have argued in response that no scientist's claims are treated as sacrosanct, as shown by the aspects of Darwin's theory that have been rejected or revised by scientists over the years to form first neo-Darwinism and later the modern evolutionary synthesis. [53] [54] The claim that evolution relies on faith is likewise rejected on the grounds that evolution has strong supporting evidence, and therefore does not require faith.

The argument that evolution is religious has been rejected in general on the grounds that religion is not defined by how dogmatic or zealous its adherents are, but by its spiritual or supernatural beliefs. Evolutionary supporters point out evolution is neither dogmatic nor based on faith, and they accuse creationists of equivocating between the strict definition of religion and its colloquial usage to refer to anything that is enthusiastically or dogmatically engaged in. United States courts have also rejected this objection: [55]

Assuming for the purposes of argument, however, that evolution is a religion or religious tenet, the remedy is to stop the teaching of evolution, not establish another religion in opposition to it. Yet it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause, Epperson v. Arkansas, supra, Willoughby v. Stever, No. 15574-75 (D.D.C. May 18, 1973) aff'd. 504 F.2d 271 (D.C. Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S. 924 (1975) Wright v. Houston Indep. School Dist., 366 F. Supp. 1208 (S.D. Tex 1978), aff.d. 486 F.2d 137 (5th Cir. 1973), cert. denied 417 U.S. 969 (1974).

A related claim is that evolution is atheistic (see the Atheism section below) creationists sometimes merge the two claims and describe evolution as an "atheistic religion" (cf. humanism). [51] This argument against evolution is also frequently generalized into a criticism of all science it is argued that "science is an atheistic religion", on the grounds that its methodological naturalism is as unproven, and thus as "faith-based", as the supernatural and theistic beliefs of creationism. [56]

Unfalsifiability Edit

A statement is considered falsifiable if there is an observation or a test that could be made that would demonstrate that the statement is false. Statements that are not falsifiable cannot be examined by scientific investigation since they permit no tests that evaluate their accuracy. Creationists such as Henry M. Morris have claimed that any observation can be fitted into the evolutionary framework, so it is impossible to demonstrate that evolution is wrong and therefore evolution is non-scientific. [57] [58]

Evolution could be falsified by many conceivable lines of evidence, such as:

  • the fossil record showing no change over time,
  • confirmation that mutations are prevented from accumulating in a population, or
  • observations of organisms being created supernaturally or spontaneously. [57]

J. B. S. Haldane, when asked what hypothetical evidence could disprove evolution, replied "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era." [59] [60] Numerous other potential ways to falsify evolution have also been proposed. [37] For example, the fact that humans have one fewer pair of chromosomes than the great apes offered a testable hypothesis involving the fusion or splitting of chromosomes from a common ancestor. The fusion hypothesis was confirmed in 2005 by discovery that human chromosome 2 is homologous with a fusion of two chromosomes that remain separate in other primates. Extra, inactive telomeres and centromeres remain on human chromosome 2 as a result of the fusion. [61] The assertion of common descent could also have been disproven with the invention of DNA sequencing methods. If true, human DNA should be far more similar to chimpanzees and other great apes, than to other mammals. If not, then common descent is falsified. DNA analysis has shown that humans and chimpanzees share a large percentage of their DNA (between 95% to 99.4% depending on the measure). [62] Also, the evolution of chimpanzees and humans from a common ancestor predicts a (geologically) recent common ancestor. Numerous transitional fossils have since been found. [63] Hence, human evolution has passed several falsifiable tests.

Many of Darwin's ideas and assertions of fact have been falsified as evolutionary science has developed, but these amendments and falsifications have uniformly confirmed his central concepts. [64] [65] In contrast, creationist explanations involving the direct intervention of the supernatural in the physical world are not falsifiable, because any result of an experiment or investigation could be the unpredictable action of an omnipotent deity. [66]

In 1976, the philosopher Karl Popper said that "Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research programme." [67] He later changed his mind and argued that Darwin's "theory of natural selection is difficult to test" with respect to other areas of science. [68] [69]

In his 1982 book, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, philosopher of science Philip Kitcher specifically addresses the "falsifiability" question by taking into account notable philosophical critiques of Popper by Carl Gustav Hempel and Willard Van Orman Quine and provides a definition of theory other than as a set of falsifiable statements. [70] As Kitcher points out, if one took a strictly Popperian view of "theory", observations of Uranus when it was first discovered in 1781 would have "falsified" Isaac Newton's celestial mechanics. [ how? ] Rather, people suggested that another planet influenced Uranus' orbit—and this prediction was indeed eventually confirmed. Kitcher agrees with Popper that "there is surely something right in the idea that a science can succeed only if it can fail." [71] But he insists that we view scientific theories as consisting of an "elaborate collection of statements", some of which are not falsifiable, and others—what he calls "auxiliary hypotheses", which are.

Tautological nature Edit

A related claim to the supposed unfalsifiability of evolution is that natural selection is tautological. [68] Specifically, it is often argued that the phrase "survival of the fittest" is a tautology, in that fitness is defined as ability to survive and reproduce. This phrase was first used by Herbert Spencer in 1864 but is rarely used by biologists. Additionally, fitness is more accurately defined as the state of possessing traits that make survival more likely this definition, unlike simple "survivability", avoids being trivially true. [72] [73]

Similarly, it is argued that evolutionary theory is circular reasoning, in that evidence is interpreted as supporting evolution, but evolution is required to interpret the evidence. An example of this is the claim that geological strata are dated through the fossils they hold, but that fossils are in turn dated by the strata they are in. [35] However, in most cases strata are not dated by their fossils, but by their position relative to other strata and by radiometric dating, and most strata were dated before the theory of evolution was formulated. [74]

Objections to the fact that evolution occurs tend to focus on specific interpretations about the evidence.

Lack of observation Edit

A common claim of creationists is that evolution has never been observed. [75] [76] Challenges to such objections often come down to debates over how evolution is defined (see the Defining evolution section above). Under the conventional biological definition of evolution, it is a simple matter to observe evolution occurring. Evolutionary processes, in the form of populations changing their genetic composition from generation to generation, have been observed in different scientific contexts, including the evolution of fruit flies, mice, and bacteria in the laboratory, [77] and of tilapia in the field. Such studies on experimental evolution, particularly those using microorganisms, are now providing important insights into how evolution occurs, especially in the case of antibiotic resistance. [77] [78]

In response to such examples, creationists say there are two major subdivisions of evolution to be considered, microevolution and macroevolution, and it is questionable if macro-evolution has been physically observed to occur. [79] [80] Most creationist organizations do not dispute the occurrence of short-term, relatively minor evolutionary changes, such as that observed even in dog breeding. Rather, they dispute the occurrence of major evolutionary changes over long periods of time, which by definition cannot be directly observed, only inferred from microevolutionary processes and the traces of macroevolutionary ones.

As biologists define macroevolution, both microevolution and macroevolution have been observed. [81] [82] Speciations, for example, have been directly observed many times. [83] Additionally, the modern evolutionary synthesis draws no distinction in the processes described by the theory of evolution when considering macroevolution and microevolution as the former is simply at the species level or above and the latter is below the species level. [37] [84] An example of this is ring species.

Additionally, past macroevolution can be inferred from historical traces. Transitional fossils, for example, provide plausible links between several different groups of organisms, such as Archaeopteryx linking birds and non-avian dinosaurs, [85] or the Tiktaalik linking fish and limbed amphibians. [86] Creationists dispute such examples, from asserting that such fossils are hoaxes or that they belong exclusively to one group or the other, to asserting that there should be far more evidence of obvious transitional species. Darwin himself found the paucity of transitional species to be one of the greatest weaknesses of his theory:

Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

Darwin appealed to the limited collections then available, the extreme lengths of time involved, and different rates of change with some living species differing very little from fossils of the Silurian period. In later editions he added "that the periods during which species have been undergoing modification, though very long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which these same species remained without undergoing any change." [87] The number of clear transitional fossils has increased enormously since Darwin's day, and this problem has been largely resolved with the advent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which predicts a primarily stable fossil record broken up by occasional major speciations. [88] [89]

As more and more compelling direct evidence for inter-species and species-to-species evolution has been gathered, creationists have redefined their understanding of what amounts to "created kinds", and have continued to insist that more dramatic demonstrations of evolution be experimentally produced. [90] One version of this objection is "Were you there?", popularized by young Earth creationist Ken Ham. It argues that because no one except God could directly observe events in the distant past, scientific claims are just speculation or "story-telling". [91] [92] DNA sequences of the genomes of organisms allow an independent test of their predicted relationships, since species which diverged more recently will be more closely related genetically than species which are more distantly related such phylogenetic trees show a hierarchical organization within the tree of life, as predicted by common descent. [93] [94]

In fields such as astrophysics or meteorology, where direct observation or laboratory experiments are difficult or impossible, the scientific method instead relies on observation and logical inference. In such fields, the test of falsifiability is satisfied when a theory is used to predict the results of new observations. When such observations contradict a theory's predictions, it may be revised or discarded if an alternative better explains the observed facts. For example, Newton's theory of gravitation was replaced by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity when the latter was observed to more precisely predict the orbit of Mercury. [95]

Unreliable evidence Edit

A related objection is that evolution is based on unreliable evidence, claiming that evolution is not even well-evidenced. Typically, this is either based on the argument that evolution's evidence is full of frauds and hoaxes, that current evidence for evolution is likely to be overturned as some past evidence has been, or that certain types of evidence are inconsistent and dubious.

Arguments against evolution's reliability are thus often based on analyzing the history of evolutionary thought or the history of science in general. Creationists point out that in the past, major scientific revolutions have overturned theories that were at the time considered near-certain. They thus claim that current evolutionary theory is likely to undergo such a revolution in the future, on the basis that it is a "theory in crisis" for one reason or another. [96]

Critics of evolution commonly appeal to past scientific hoaxes such as the Piltdown Man forgery. It is argued that because scientists have been mistaken and deceived in the past about evidence for various aspects of evolution, the current evidence for evolution is likely to also be based on fraud and error. Much of the evidence for evolution has been accused of being fraudulent at various times, including Archaeopteryx, peppered moth melanism, and Darwin's finches these claims have been subsequently refuted. [98] [99] [100] [101]

It has also been claimed that certain former pieces of evidence for evolution which are now considered out-of-date and erroneous, such as Ernst Haeckel's 19th-century comparative drawings of embryos, used to illustrate his recapitulation theory ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"), were not merely errors but frauds. [102] Molecular biologist Jonathan Wells criticizes biology textbooks by alleging that they continue to reproduce such evidence after it has been debunked. [100] In response, the National Center for Science Education notes that none of the textbooks reviewed by Wells makes the claimed error, as Haeckel's drawings are shown in a historical context with discussion about why they are wrong, and the accurate modern drawings and photos used in the textbooks are misrepresented by Wells. [103]

Unreliable chronology Edit

Creationists claim that evolution relies on certain types of evidence that do not give reliable information about the past. For example, it is argued that radiometric dating technique of evaluating a material's age based on the radioactive decay rates of certain isotopes generates inconsistent and thus unreliable results. Radiocarbon dating based on the carbon-14 isotope has been particularly criticized. It is argued that radiometric decay relies on a number of unwarranted assumptions such as the principle of uniformitarianism, consistent decay rates, or rocks acting as closed systems. Such arguments have been dismissed by scientists on the grounds that independent methods have confirmed the reliability of radiometric dating as a whole additionally, different radiometric dating methods and techniques have independently confirmed each other's results. [105]

Another form of this objection is that fossil evidence is not reliable. This is based on a much wider range of claims. These include that there are too many "gaps" in the fossil record, [106] [107] that fossil-dating is circular (see the Unfalsifiability section above), or that certain fossils, such as polystrate fossils, are seemingly "out of place". Examination by geologists have found polystrate fossils to be consistent with in situ formation. [108] It is argued that certain features of evolution support creationism's catastrophism (cf. Great Flood), rather than evolution's gradualistic punctuated equilibrium, [109] which some assert is an ad hoc theory to explain the fossil gaps. [110]

Improbability Edit

A common objection to evolution is that it is simply too unlikely for life, in its complexity and apparent "design", to have arisen "by chance". It is argued that the odds of life having arisen without a deliberate intelligence guiding it are so astronomically low that it is unreasonable not to infer an intelligent designer from the natural world, and specifically from the diversity of life. [111] A more extreme version of this argument is that evolution cannot create complex structures (see the Creation of complex structures section below). The idea that it is simply too implausible for life to have evolved is often wrongly encapsulated with a quotation that the "probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747"—a claim attributed to astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and known as Hoyle's fallacy. [112] Hoyle was a Darwinist, atheist and anti-theist, but advocated the theory of panspermia, in which abiogenesis begins in outer space and primitive life on Earth is held to have arrived via natural dispersion.

Views superficially similar, but unrelated to Hoyle's, are thus invariably justified with arguments from analogy. The basic idea of this argument for a designer is the teleological argument, an argument for the existence of God based on the perceived order or purposefulness of the universe. A common way of using this as an objection to evolution is by appealing to the 18th-century philosopher William Paley's watchmaker analogy, which argues that certain natural phenomena are analogical to a watch (in that they are ordered, or complex, or purposeful), which means that, like a watch, they must have been designed by a "watchmaker"—an intelligent agent. This argument forms the core of intelligent design, a neo-creationist movement seeking to establish certain variants of the design argument as legitimate science, rather than as philosophy or theology, and have them be taught alongside evolution. [20] [42]

This objection is fundamentally an argument by lack of imagination, or argument from incredulity: a certain explanation is seen as being counterintuitive, and therefore an alternate, more intuitive explanation is appealed to instead. Supporters of evolution generally respond by arguing that evolution is not based on "chance", but on predictable chemical interactions: natural processes, rather than supernatural beings, are the "designer". Although the process involves some random elements, it is the non-random selection of survival-enhancing genes that drives evolution along an ordered trajectory. The fact that the results are ordered and seem "designed" is no more evidence for a supernatural intelligence than the appearance of complex natural phenomena (e.g. snowflakes). [114] It is also argued that there is insufficient evidence to make statements about the plausibility or implausibility of abiogenesis, that certain structures demonstrate poor design, and that the implausibility of life evolving exactly as it did is no more evidence for an intelligence than the implausibility of a deck of cards being shuffled and dealt in a certain random order. [42] [113]

It has also been noted that arguments against some form of life arising "by chance" are really objections to nontheistic abiogenesis, not to evolution. Indeed, arguments against "evolution" are based on the misconception that abiogenesis is a component of, or necessary precursor to, evolution. Similar objections sometimes conflate the Big Bang with evolution. [28]

Christian apologist and philosopher Alvin Plantinga, a supporter of intelligent design, has formalized and revised the improbability argument as the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which asserts that it is irrational to reject a supernatural, intelligent creator because the apparent probability of certain faculties evolving is so low. Specifically, Plantinga claims that evolution cannot account for the rise of reliable reasoning faculties. Plantinga argues that whereas a God would be expected to create beings with reliable reasoning faculties, evolution would be just as likely to lead to unreliable ones, meaning that if evolution is true, it is irrational to trust whatever reasoning one relies on to conclude that it is true. [115] This novel epistemological argument has been criticized similarly to other probabilistic design arguments. It has also been argued that rationality, if conducive to survival, is more likely to be selected for than irrationality, making the natural development of reliable cognitive faculties more likely than unreliable ones. [116] [117]

A related argument against evolution is that most mutations are harmful. [118] However, the vast majority of mutations are neutral, and the minority of mutations which are beneficial or harmful are often situational a mutation that is harmful in one environment may be helpful in another. [119]

Unexplained aspects of the natural world Edit

In addition to complex structures and systems, among the phenomena that critics variously claim evolution cannot explain are consciousness, hominid intelligence, instincts, emotions, metamorphosis, photosynthesis, homosexuality, music, language, religion, morality, and altruism (see altruism in animals). [120] Most of these, such as hominid intelligence, instinct, emotion, photosynthesis, language, and altruism, have been well-explained by evolution, while others remain mysterious, or only have preliminary explanations. Supporters of evolution further contend that no alternative explanation has been able to adequately explain the biological origin of these phenomena either. [121]

Creationists argue against evolution on the grounds that it cannot explain certain non-evolutionary processes, such as abiogenesis, the Big Bang, or the meaning of life. In such instances, evolution is being redefined to refer to the entire history of the universe, and it is argued that if one aspect of the universe is seemingly inexplicable, the entire body of scientific theories must be baseless. At this point, objections leave the arena of evolutionary biology and become general scientific or philosophical disputes. [122]

Astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe have argued in favor of cosmic ancestry, [123] [124] [125] [126] [127] [128] and against abiogenesis and evolution. [129] [130]

This class of objections is more radical than the above, claiming that a major aspect of evolution is not merely unscientific or implausible, but rather impossible, because it contradicts some other law of nature or is constrained in such a way that it cannot produce the biological diversity of the world.

Creation of complex structures Edit

Living things have fantastically intricate features—at the anatomical, cellular and molecular level— that could not function if they were any less complex or sophisticated. The only prudent conclusion is that they are the products of intelligent design, not evolution.

Modern evolutionary theory posits that all biological systems must have evolved incrementally, through a combination of natural selection and genetic drift. Both Darwin and his early detractors recognized the potential problems that could arise for his theory of natural selection if the lineage of organs and other biological features could not be accounted for by gradual, step-by-step changes over successive generations if all the intermediary stages between an initial organ and the organ it will become are not all improvements upon the original, it will be impossible for the later organ to develop by the process of natural selection alone. Complex organs such as the eye had been presented by William Paley as exemplifying the need for design by God, and anticipating early criticisms that the evolution of the eye and other complex organs seemed impossible, Darwin noted that: [133]

[R]eason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Similarly, ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said on the topic of the evolution of the feather in an interview for the television program The Atheism Tapes:

There's got to be a series of advantages all the way in the feather. If you can't think of one, then that's your problem not natural selection's problem. It's perfectly possible feathers began as fluffy extensions of reptilian scales to act as insulators. The earliest feathers might have been a different approach to hairiness among reptiles keeping warm.

Creationist arguments have been made such as "What use is half an eye?" and "What use is half a wing?". [134] Research has confirmed that the natural evolution of the eye and other intricate organs is entirely feasible. [135] [136] Creationist claims have persisted that such complexity evolving without a designer is inconceivable and this objection to evolution has been refined in recent years as the more sophisticated irreducible complexity argument of the intelligent design movement, formulated by Michael Behe. [20] Biochemist Michael Behe has argued that current evolutionary theory cannot account for certain complex structures, particularly in microbiology. On this basis, Behe argues that such structures were "purposely arranged by an intelligent agent". [137]

Irreducible complexity is the idea that certain biological systems cannot be broken down into their constituent parts and remain functional, and therefore that they could not have evolved naturally from less complex or complete systems. Whereas past arguments of this nature generally relied on macroscopic organs, Behe's primary examples of irreducible complexity have been cellular and biochemical in nature. He has argued that the components of systems such as the blood clotting cascade, the immune system, and the bacterial flagellum are so complex and interdependent that they could not have evolved from simpler systems. [138]

In fact, my argument for intelligent design is open to direct experimental rebuttal. Here is a thought experiment that makes the point clear. In Darwin's Black Box [. ] I claimed that the bacterial flagellum was irreducibly complex and so required deliberate intelligent design. The flip side of this claim is that the flagellum can't be produced by natural selection acting on random mutation, or any other unintelligent process. To falsify such a claim, a scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure (for mobility, say), grow it for ten thousand generations, and see if a flagellum--or any equally complex system--was produced. If that happened, my claims would be neatly disproven.

In the years since Behe proposed irreducible complexity, new developments and advances in biology such as an improved understanding of the evolution of flagella, [140] have already undermined these arguments [141] [142] The idea that seemingly irreducibly complex systems cannot evolve has been refuted through evolutionary mechanisms, such as exaptation (the adaptation of organs for entirely new functions) [143] and the use of "scaffolding", which are initially necessary features of a system that later degenerate when they are no longer required. Potential evolutionary pathways have been provided for all of the systems Behe used as examples of irreducible complexity. [141] [144] [145]

Cambrian explosion complexity argument Edit

The Cambrian explosion was the relatively rapid appearance around 542 million years ago of most major animal phyla as demonstrated in the fossil record, [146] and many more phyla now extinct. [note 1] [147] This was accompanied by major diversification of other organisms. [note 2] Prior to the Cambrian explosion most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years the rate of diversification accelerated by an order of magnitude [note 3] and the diversity of life began to resemble that of today, [150] [151] although they did not resemble the species of today. [146]

The basic problem with this is that natural selection calls for the slow accumulation of changes, where a new phylum would take longer than a new class which would take longer than a new order, which would take longer than a new family, which would take longer than a new genus would take longer than emergence of a new species [152] but the apparent occurrence of high-level taxa without precedents is perhaps implying unusual evolutionary mechanisms. [153] [154]

There is general consensus that many factors helped trigger the Cambrian explosion, [155] but there is no generally accepted consensus about the combination and the Cambrian explosion continues to be an area of controversy and research over why so rapid, why at the phylum level, why so many phyla then and none since, and even if the apparent fossil record is accurate. [156]

An example of opinions involving the commonly cited rise in oxygen Great Oxidation Event from biologist PZ Myers summarizes: [157] "What it was was environmental changes, in particular the bioturbation revolution caused by the evolution of worms that released buried nutrients, and the steadily increasing oxygen content of the atmosphere that allowed those nutrients to fuel growth [158] [159] [160] ecological competition, or a kind of arms race, that gave a distinct selective advantage to novelties that allowed species to occupy new niches and the evolution of developmental mechanisms that enabled multicellular organisms to generate new morphotypes readily." The increase in molecular oxygen (O2) also may have allowed the formation of the protective ozone layer (O3) that helps shield Earth from lethal UV radiation from the Sun. [161]

Creation of information Edit

A recent objection of creationists to evolution is that evolutionary mechanisms such as mutation cannot generate new information. Creationists such as William A. Dembski, Werner Gitt, and Lee Spetner have attempted to use information theory to dispute evolution. Dembski has argued that life demonstrates specified complexity, and proposed a law of conservation of information that extremely improbable "complex specified information" could be conveyed by natural means but never originated without an intelligent agent. Gitt asserted that information is an intrinsic characteristic of life and that an analysis demonstrates the mind and will of their Creator. [162]

These claims have been widely rejected by the scientific community, which asserts that new information is regularly generated in evolution whenever a novel mutation or gene duplication arises. Dramatic examples of entirely new and unique traits arising through mutation have been observed in recent years, such as the evolution of nylon-eating bacteria which developed new enzymes to efficiently digest a material that never existed before the modern era. [163] [164] There is no need to account for the creation of information when an organism is considered together with the environment it evolved in. The information in the genome forms a record of how it was possible to survive in a particular environment. The information is gathered from the environment through trial and error, as mutating organisms either reproduce or fail. [165]

Violation of the second law of thermodynamics Edit

Another objection is that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. [166] [167] The law states that "the entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium". In other words, an isolated system's entropy (a measure of the dispersal of energy in a physical system so that it is not available to do mechanical work) will tend to increase or stay the same, not decrease. Creationists argue that evolution violates this physical law by requiring an increase in order (i.e., a decrease in entropy). [35] [168]

The claims have been criticized for ignoring that the second law only applies to isolated systems. Organisms are open systems as they constantly exchange energy and matter with their environment: for example animals eat food and excrete waste, and radiate and absorb heat. It is argued that the Sun-Earth-space system does not violate the second law because the enormous increase in entropy due to the Sun and Earth radiating into space dwarfs the local decrease in entropy caused by the existence and evolution of self-organizing life. [32] [169] [170]

Since the second law of thermodynamics has a precise mathematical definition, this argument can be analyzed quantitatively. [171] [172] This was done by physicist Daniel F. Styer, who concluded: "Quantitative estimates of the entropy involved in biological evolution demonstrate that there is no conflict between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics." [171]

In a published letter to the editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer titled "How anti-evolutionists abuse mathematics", mathematician Jason Rosenhouse stated: [173]

The fact is that natural forces routinely lead to local decreases in entropy. Water freezes into ice and fertilised eggs turn into babies. Plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen, but [we do] not invoke divine intervention to explain the process . thermodynamics offers nothing to dampen our confidence in Darwinism.

Other common objections to evolution allege that evolution leads to objectionable results, including bad beliefs, behaviors, and events. It is argued that the teaching of evolution degrades values, undermines morals, and fosters irreligion or atheism. These may be considered appeals to consequences (a form of logical fallacy), as the potential ramifications of belief in evolutionary theory have nothing to do with its truth.

Humans as animals Edit

In biological classification humans are animals, [174] [175] a basic point which has been known for more than 2,000 years. Aristotle already described man as a political animal [176] and Porphyry defined man as a rational animal, [177] a definition accepted by the Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages. The creationist J. Rendle-Short asserted in Creation magazine that if people are taught evolution they can be expected to behave like animals: [178] since animals behave in all sorts of different ways, this is meaningless. In evolutionary terms, humans are able to acquire knowledge and change their behaviour to meet social standards, so humans behave in the manner of other humans. [179]

Social effects Edit

In 1917, Vernon Kellogg published Headquarters Nights: A Record of Conversations and Experiences at the Headquarters of the German Army in France and Belgium, which asserted that German intellectuals were totally committed to might-makes-right due to "whole-hearted acceptance of the worst of Neo-Darwinism, the Allmacht of natural selection applied rigorously to human life and society and Kultur." [181] This strongly influenced the politician William Jennings Bryan, who saw Darwinism as a moral threat to America and campaigned against evolutionary theory his campaign culminated in the Scopes Trial, which effectively prevented teaching of evolution in most public schools until the 1960s. [182]

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote August 8, 2005, in NPR's Taking Issue essay series, that "Debates over education, abortion, environmentalism, homosexuality and a host of other issues are really debates about the origin — and thus the meaning — of human life. . evolutionary theory stands at the base of moral relativism and the rejection of traditional morality." [183] [184]

Henry M. Morris, engineering professor and founder of the Creation Research Society and the Institute of Creation Research, claims that evolution was part of a pagan religion that emerged after the Tower of Babel, was part of Plato's and Aristotle's philosophies, and was responsible for everything from war to pornography to the breakup of the nuclear family. [185] He has also claimed that perceived social ills like crime, teenage pregnancies, homosexuality, abortion, immorality, wars, and genocide are caused by a belief in evolution. [186]

Pastor D. James Kennedy of The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ and Coral Ridge Ministries claims that Darwin was responsible for Adolf Hitler's atrocities. In Kennedy's documentary and the accompanying pamphlet with the same title, Darwin's Deadly Legacy, Kennedy states that "To put it simply, no Darwin, no Hitler." In his efforts to expose the "harmful effects that evolution is still having on our nation, our children, and our world," Kennedy also states that, "We have had 150 years of the theory of Darwinian evolution, and what has it brought us? Whether Darwin intended it or not, millions of deaths, the destruction of those deemed inferior, the devaluing of human life, increasing hopelessness." [187] [188] [189] The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture fellow Richard Weikart has made similar claims, [190] [191] as have other creationists. [192] The claim was central to the documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) promoting intelligent design creationism. The Anti-Defamation League describes such claims as outrageous misuse of the Holocaust and its imagery, and as trivializing the ". many complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry. Hitler did not need Darwin or evolution to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people, and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler's genocidal madness. Moreover, anti-Semitism existed long before Darwin ever wrote a word." [189] [193]

Young Earth creationist Kent Hovind blames communism, socialism, World War I, World War II, racism, the Holocaust, Stalin's war crimes, the Vietnam War, and Pol Pot's Killing Fields on evolution, as well as the increase in crime, unwed mothers, and other social ills. [76] Hovind's son Eric Hovind claims that evolution is responsible for tattoos, body piercing, premarital sex, unwed births, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), divorce, and child abuse. [194]

Supporters of evolution dismiss such criticisms as counterfactual, and some argue that the opposite seems to be the case. A study published by the author and illustrator Gregory S. Paul found that religious beliefs, including belief in creationism and disbelief in evolution, are positively correlated with social ills like crime. [195] The Barna Group surveys find that Christians and non-Christians in the U.S. have similar divorce rates, and the highest divorce rates in the U.S. are among Baptists and Pentecostals, both sects which reject evolution and embrace creationism. [196]

Michael Shermer argued in Scientific American in October 2006 that evolution supports concepts like family values, avoiding lies, fidelity, moral codes and the rule of law. [197] He goes on to suggest that evolution gives more support to the notion of an omnipotent creator, rather than a tinkerer with limitations based on a human model, the more common image subscribed to by creationists. Careful analysis of the creationist charges that evolution has led to moral relativism and the Holocaust yields the conclusion that these charges appear to be highly suspect. [198] [ dead link ] Such analyses conclude that the origins of the Holocaust are more likely to be found in historical Christian antisemitism than in evolution. [199] [200]

Evolution has been used to justify Social Darwinism, the exploitation of so-called "lesser breeds without the law" by "superior races", particularly in the nineteenth century. [201] Typically strong European nations that had successfully expanded their empires could be said to have "survived" in the struggle for dominance. [201] With this attitude, Europeans except for Christian missionaries rarely adopted any customs and languages of local people under their empires. [201]

Atheism Edit

Another charge leveled at evolutionary theory by creationists is that belief in evolution is either tantamount to atheism, or conducive to atheism. [202] [203] It is commonly claimed that all proponents of evolutionary theory are "materialistic atheists". On the other hand, Davis A. Young argues that creation science itself is harmful to Christianity because its bad science will turn more away than it recruits. Young asks, "Can we seriously expect non-Christians to develop a respect for Christianity if we insist on teaching the brand of science that creationism brings with it?" [204] However, evolution neither requires nor rules out the existence of a supernatural being. Philosopher Robert T. Pennock makes the comparison that evolution is no more atheistic than plumbing. [205] H. Allen Orr, professor of biology at University of Rochester, notes that:

Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology—Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky—one was a devout Anglican who preached sermons and published articles in church magazines, one a practicing Unitarian, one a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, one an apparent atheist, and one a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and the author of a book on religion and science. [206]

In addition, a wide range of religions have reconciled a belief in a supernatural being with evolution. [207] Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education found that "of Americans in the twelve largest Christian denominations, 89.6% belong to churches that support evolution education." These churches include the "United Methodist Church, National Baptist Convention USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), National Baptist Convention of America, African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, and others." [208] A poll in 2000 done for People for the American Way found that 70% of the American public felt that evolution was compatible with a belief in God. Only 48% of the people polled could choose the correct definition of evolution from a list, however. [209]

One poll reported in the journal Nature showed that among American scientists (across various disciplines), about 40 percent believe in both evolution and an active deity (theistic evolution). [210] This is similar to the results reported for surveys of the general American public. Also, about 40 percent of the scientists polled believe in a God that answers prayers, and believe in immortality. [211] While about 55% of scientists surveyed were atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious theists, atheism is far from universal among scientists who support evolution, or among the general public that supports evolution. Very similar results were reported from a 1997 Gallup Poll of the American public and scientists. [212]

Group [212] Belief in young Earth creationism Belief in God-guided evolution Belief in evolution without God guiding the process
American public 44% 39% 10%
American scientists* 5% 40% 55%
*Includes persons with professional degrees in fields unrelated to evolution, such as computer science, chemical engineering, physics, psychology, business administration, etc. [212]

Traditionalists still object to the idea that diversity in life, including human beings, arose through natural processes without a need for supernatural intervention, and they argue against evolution on the basis that it contradicts their literal interpretation of creation myths about separate "created kinds". However, many religions, such as Catholicism which does not endorse nor deny evolution, have allowed Catholics who believe in the theory of evolution to reconcile their own personal belief in evolution through the idea of theistic evolution. [13] [213] [214] [215] [216]

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  2. ^ This included at least animals, phytoplankton and calcimicrobes. [148]
  3. ^ As defined in terms of the extinction and origination rate of species. [149]
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Marilynne Robinson Errs (But Still Rocks)

To see a fine thinker bamboozled by a minor fallacy is always a freaky spectacle, like watching an elephant trip over a peanut. It’s sad, too: a little spring goes out of my step and my shoulders droop lower. If the mighty can take such falls, what hope for the rest of us? Consider G. K. Chesterton, who repeatedly proclaimed with ringing certainty that gradual evolution cannot produce a bat’s wing because a wing is useless until it’s complete—the old “you can’t fly with half a wing” argument. (In fact, any fraction of a winglike structure might do an organism oodles of good, as the next flying squirrel you meet will attest. Also, structures evolved for one function may turn out to be handy for another.) Another example is Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-winning novelist whose essays in The Death of Adam I have recently had the pleasure to encounter.

Robinson is one of those authors who give me the lovely feeling, while reading, of being better-educated than I really am. She is a figure-skater of the mind. Her essay “Darwinism,” in The Death of Adam, is a ripping good read. Her discourse on the worldview implied by Genesis is eye-opening and beautifully written, and I cheer for her loathing for the dogma that a world of universal competition is the best possible. But a cat may look at a queen, and I see a problem.

Robinson distinguishes between

evolution, the change that occurs in organisms over time, and Darwinism, the interpretation of this phenomenon which claims to refute religion and to imply a personal and social ethic which is, not coincidentally, antithetical to the assumptions imposed and authorized by Judaeo-Christianity. (pp. 30-31)

This is promising, yet she goes on to thoroughly blur “Darwinism” as ideology with “evolution” proper. In her next paragraph she speaks of “this theory called Darwinism,” pointing explicitly at the theory published by Darwin in The Origin of Species, 1859. Yet Darwin did not claim to “refute religion” and the Origin contains no claim that evolution entails a particular “personal and social ethic.” She then identifies natural selection as a “tautology,” by which is meant a circular statement (like “my mother is a woman”) that conveys no real information:

The popular shorthand version of it is “the survival of the fittest.” . . . There is an apparent tautology in the phrase. Since Darwinian . . . fitness is proved by survival, one could as well call the principle at work “the survival of survivors.” This is not, strictly speaking, tautological, if the point is to bless things as they are, insofar as they are a matter of life and death. (p. 31)

The way in which Robinson suggests that natural selection is an “apparent” tautology is ambiguous at first blush, since “apparent” can mean either (1) obvious or (2) seeming real or true, but not necessarily so. So is Robinson saying that natural selection is obviously tautological or only seemingly so? The former, alas. She states the idea’s alleged circularity in unequivocal language and then excuses it from strict tautology only on the ironical ground that it might have a normative or values-stating function, “blessing” life that manages to prevail in terms of mere survival. [In her following paragraph, she elaborates on her view that natural selection is tautological. A commenter charges me with unfairly representing Robinson on this point: that comment, and my reply to it, with Robinson quoted in full, can be seen below.]

The claim that natural selection is tautological, an empty elaboration of the trivial truth that survivors survive, is often made by creationists and periodically rediscovered by nonscientist intellectuals like Tom Bethell, [1] [2] Karl Popper, [3] and Robinson herself. It seems like a classic “Aha!”: Who survives? The fit. Who are the fit? Those who survive. A mere circle of words!

It’s not clear to me whether Robinson realizes what is at stake here whether she knows that she is alleging that the whole of modern biology has been organized for 150 years around a painfully obvious brain-fart. For according to biology, natural selection is the sifting mechanism that has produced not only the bat’s wing but your eyes, my brain, the fish’s tail. As the Orthodox Christian evolutionary pioneer Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense without evolution — and, we might add, nothing in evolution makes sense without natural selection. For natural selection is what produces adaptation, wondrous structure.

Robinson’s assertion that natural selection is tautological is, therefore, intentionally or not, an attack on the core explanatory idea of an entire field of modern science. If the attack is valid, then well and good (for the attack). If not, then not so well, and not so good.

To begin with, spinning circular phrases out of an idea does not prove that the idea itself is circular: it is in fact an easy trick, and one could play it all day long. Who, in general, wins the playoffs? The best teams. Who are the best teams? Those that win. So, then, do playoffs reveal nothing? Are sports tautological? No, because “winning” in sports, like “fitness” in biology, has specific physical meaning. In any game, something real and particular happens on the field. The winners must accomplish something not entirely random, namely the scoring of points against vigorous opposition. Likely winners and losers can often be pointed out before a game based on observable, relevant differences. The same is true of individual organisms’ evolutionary success (production of relatively abundant offspring). Organisms must do real-world things: they must survive to reproductive age, resist disease, evade predators, obtain food, find mates, and so forth, all in particular real-world environments. As Stephen Jay Gould puts it, fitness is expressed by differential survival, not defined by it. [4]

What’s more, the principle of natural selection yields testable, nontrivial predictions, which no tautology could do. When a dry spell in the Galapagos produces a shortage of small, easy-to-crack seeds, the principle of natural selection predicts that finches with larger beaks, which are better suited to cracking large seeds—finches that are, in these circumstances, “fitter”—will prosper relatively, and that inherited beak size will therefore increase in the next generation of birds. This has been confirmed by meticulous measurements of beaks in the field (the famous Grant studies). [5] The development of antibiotic and pesticide resistances also exemplifies the non-circularity of natural selection. Scores of studies measuring selection in non-tautological action could be adduced.

So there is nothing fishy, counter-intuitive, or tautological about natural selection, the “survival of the fittest,” at all. The sensation of insight that suffuses people when they discover selection’s circularity is a delusion.

Natural selection is not a tautology: its operation has been traced in nature, beak by beak and bird by bird, shaping finches in response to changes in food supply. This image of four Galapagos finch species is from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, 1845 edition.

Robinson rightly scorns bogus “survival of the fittest” reasoning by Darwin and others that justifies or softens the brutal behaviors of nations and classes. I wince at her revelation that a 1980 writer used the extermination of native Tasmanians by rifle-wielding Europeans to illustrate the logic of natural selection. But the ease with which the concept of natural selection can be hijacked does not tell us anything about its merit. (The idea of God is easy to hijack too, but Robinson does not therefore reject it.) She even claims, amazingly, that scientists have admitted that natural selection cannot be observed. This, however, is false: scads of papers have been devoted to measuring the effects of selection, both in the laboratory and the wild. Observing selection in action is one of the jolliest pastimes of working evolutionary biologists.

How does the elephant trip over the peanut? How does Robinson get it so wrong? Here’s my idea:

Ideas are sticky. They clump, herd, associate. Yet not all the associations that result are valid or meaningful: bad ideas may stick to good ones. When this happens, we may react to the resulting cluster as a whole, allowing our dislike of a prominent, smelly, bad idea to bias our treatment of a fine idea onto which it has glommed. I speculate that some keen thinkers, like Chesterton and Robinson, screw up on natural selection because they first notice that some idea that natural selection happened to walk into the bar with, like eugenics or free-market absolutism, is evil hogwash. They then find reasons to reject natural selection and so discredit the ugly doctrine that claims evolution as its authority. This is natural, tempting, and intellectually disastrous. And when Christians do it, we mirror the guilt-by-association thinking that some zealous antireligious thinkers practice.

Robinson is a truly important and worthwhile writer, and it will please me deeply if she someday renounces her fallacious claim that natural selection is tautological. In the meantime, we all do well to remember that babies really are sometimes found in bathwater.

[5] The data are here:

Some thoughts on whether or not evolution is falsifiable.

Here is a classic example of a falsifiable claim: All crows are black.

Notice that this claim can be falsified by a single observation of a white (or any non-black) crow. This is what it means to be falsifiable. [This video does a good job of summarizing the idea.] (

Now, how would this apply to evolution?

Below is a summary of the evolutionary proposition: Every living organism has descended from a single ancient cell by the process of natural selection acting on random mutation over the course of billions of years.

This proposition is the theory, and this is not falsifiable.

Nestled securely behind the veil of prehistory and fortified by a process that required, ultimately, billions of years to take place, it is both unobservable and unreproducible. It is, therefore, unfalsifiable by these methods.

The only way to make evolution falsifiable is to advance propositions that are falsifiable by observation and which follow necessarily from the truth of evolution or which, if true, make evolution false.

In my recent conversations on DebateEvolution, I was presented with the following as an example of such a proposition: “If it was shown that there is no basis for the inheritance of traits from one generation to the next, evolution is wrong.”

I agree that if I could do this, I would prove evolutionary theory false. The problem is that I cannot do it because I would have to prove that we do not inherit genetic traits from our parents, and we obviously do this. Rather than challenging me to find a single non-black crow, he challenged me to prove that no birds are black. This is not possible since we already know that many birds, including crows, are black. Since it is impossible to do this, this is not a falsifiable claim. It is useless, therefore, in attempting to falsify evolution.

I do believe evolution is falsifiable, however. Dan Graur provides a potential example of how to at the 2013 meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in Chicago:

"If the human genome is indeed devoid of junk DNA as implied by the ENCODE project, then a long, undirected evolutionary process cannot explain the human genome. If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, then all DNA, or as much as possible, is expected to exhibit function. If ENCODE is right, then Evolution is wrong."

Clearly Graur expects Junk DNA to follow necessarily from the truth of Evolution.

If A (Evolution), then B (Junk DNA)

Therefore not A (Evolution)

This would successfully falsify evolution, so obviously it could be done, in theory. In fact, in may already have been done, in theory. But in practice this is never allowed to happen. Notice, for instance, the shell game Dawkins plays with the first premise at around 12:50 of this video

According to Dawkins, evolutionists have always hoped for what ENCODE has demonstrated. In other words, according to him, evolutionists have always thought possible/hoped for this:

If A (Evolution), then not B (not Junk DNA)

Which, in effect, means evolutionists have always thought this:

If A (Evolution), then B (Junk DNA)

If A (Evolution), then not B (not Junk DNA)

And so I'm afraid it will go with attempts to falsify evolution. At the end of the day, statements like “The vast majority of the genome is junk,” or "There are no fossil rabbits in the Precambrian" can be adjusted to fit the evidence. With a little shifting of goalposts, evolution can accommodate any proposition and its opposite equally well.