Though scientists often differ in their beliefs about the origin of life, there is one area that is widely thought of as being well understood, at least in principle — the evolution of life from its origin to all the complexity and variety we see today. The secret, it is said, is Darwinian Evolution.
Before Charles Darwin, most scientists were creationists — they believed that God fashioned every lifeform and directly put them on Earth. But two scientists changed all that forever — Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin and Wallace were the first in the modern era to elucidate the principle of natural selection. While Wallace was largely written out of history for his dissident views, Charles Darwin has been commemorated ever since. His book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, proposed something radical. He suggested that life in all its varieties could have been the outcome of natural variation, a struggle for existence, and inheritance.
Darwin noticed that individuals within a species naturally vary. For instance, in humans, we have different skin tones, heights, strengths, and a multitude of internal differences too. Other species are the same, with finches having different beak lengths, moths having differently coloured wings, etc…
Darwin then noticed that some biological features would give their owners a survival advantage. This meant that they were more likely to survive and successfully reproduce compared to organisms who didn’t have them. For instance, an antelope that can run faster is more likely to outpace predators, thereby enabling it to pass on its genes to the next generation. The slower antelopes might die before they can reproduce. Thus, the faster antelopes will have more children compared to the slower ones, and the trait for ‘fast galloping’ will spread among the local antelope population. This process, Darwin called natural selection. In today’s parlance, this uncontroversial phenomenon of small-scale change within species is termed micro-evolution. Individuals within a species change their characteristics over time, while staying essentially similar.
Darwin’s great innovation was to extrapolate this commonly observed phenomenon and make it responsible for the appearance of all life on Earth. He suggested that right from the first organism, changes in environments could create selection pressures. Selection pressures are any factors in the environment that can affect the survival and reproduction of a species. In the case of antelopes, it could be the local cheetah population. If the maximum speed of local cheetahs is 30mph, then antelopes galloping more slowly may not be able to survive as long and pass on their genes. For a polar bear born with a thin hide, the selection pressure would be the temperature of the Arctic. Too cold, and the polar bears with thinner hides die. For a moth with a darker wing, it could be how much pollution there is visible on local tree trunks. The more pollution, the blacker the tree trunks, and the better disguised dark-winged moths are.
Darwin thought that such endless fluctuations in such selection pressures could explain the diversity we see in life. He proposed that as the selection pressures change, so do the organisms we see in nature. With countless environmental changes occurring over millions of years, endless varieties of life could come to survive and spread in an environment, each of them adapted to their local selection pressures. Thus according to Darwinism, macro-evolution — the origin of new species — is nothing but small-scale micro-evolution occurring over vast swathes of time. Tiny incremental changes tinker with the individual characteristics within a species, and over time, new species with entirely new genetic and anatomical structures are formed.
Darwinian evolution thus states that this process of long-term tinkering would produce organisms that appear finely-tuned to their environment, as if they had been specially designed for them. Says Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s most influential advocate in the modern day:
“Biology is the study of complicated things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.” [i]
However, according to Darwin, this appearance of design would be nothing more than an illusion, one created by the blind hand of natural selection. Darwin’s idea thereby cuts to the heart of the idea of Divine Design in nature. It purported to explain how organisms look designed without actually being designed by a Higher Power.
In the early 20th century, Darwinism merged with breakthroughs in Mendelian genetics. Together, they formed the Modern Synthesis, more commonly referred to as Neo-Darwinism.
The modern theory holds that organisms adapt gradually by random mutations, with beneficial traits being preserved by natural selection, passing on their traits from a common ancestor via genetic inheritance. On account of these powerful principles we are told to abandon our common-sense view of life as being designed, in favour of an explanation that needs no theistic guidance.
But as we shall see, Neo-Darwinism is a paper tiger, which collapses with the slightest scrutiny.
Natural Selection is a Culling Process
Natural selection is the jewel in the crown of Neo-Darwinism. Proclaiming its merits, Richard Dawkins writes in his book The God Delusion:
“The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance. But many people define ‘come about by chance’ as a synonym for ‘come about in the absence of deliberate design’. Not surprisingly, therefore, they think improbability is evidence of design. Darwinian natural selection shows how wrong this is with respect to biological improbability.”
“The greater the statistical improbability, the less plausible is chance as a solution: that is what improbable means. But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection.
Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was…” [i]
Here, like in so many of his books, Dawkins seeks to convince us that natural selection is an alternative to chance and design in explaining the appearance of biological complexity. However, he fails to delineate two key stages in the evolution of a trait:
- Generation — the appearance of a trait in the living world.
- Propagation — how that trait persists in the living world.
Dawkins says that natural selection can explain the improbability of biological traits. However, the improbability of a trait relates to the likelihood of its production by chance. This is determined physically by 1) the genes which code for it, and 2) the cellular processes which express it. The interplay between new genes and expressive cellular processes determines whether a new trait, a new phenotype will appear in the world.
Natural selection does not act at this first stage of generation at all. Selection is related only to the second step — the persistence of a trait in a population after its initial occurrence. As environmental pressures act on organisms, the organisms live or die according to their innate endowments. Thus, selection is a culling process. It is not a creative process. Selective processes do not produce anything themselves. They can therefore only be relevant to the propagation of a trait after its initial appearance.
To be bleak, natural selection simply describes death. Under differing conditions, certain organisms die more quickly than others. The ones that die less quickly pass their genes onto the next generation more often. Hence survival of the fittest.
This is significant because a theory of death cannot be a theory of life. Natural selection has never produced a single cell, organ, or limb. It has to rely on pre-existing candidates, biological novelty that has already been produced. When an interviewer selects a candidate for a new job, the interviewer hasn’t actually given birth to the new candidate — she’s just allowed them to stay in the building. Natural selection is the interviewer. It makes or breaks the dreams of ambitious organisms. Organisms that already exist.
It’s clear then that if we want to know how all the microbes, plants, animals and humans got here, we ultimately need to look elsewhere. As the philosopher Jacob Gould Schurman put it way back in 1887:
“Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” [ii]
And yet, it’s the arrival that is of interest. When the question is asked, ‘where did the world of life come from?’ the answer needs to explain how life arose, not just why specific lifeforms survived. Neo-Darwinists confuse the creation of a trait with the propagation of a trait. Natural selection may explain the latter, but it is unable to explain the former.
Can Natural Selection Direct Higher Evolution?
A common retort to this argument will be argue that natural selection reduces the improbability of producing complex biology by preserving simpler versions of more complex traits. Once the simpler traits are ‘fixed’ in a germ-line, genomes are then able to mutate further to reach a higher evolutionary end-point. For instance, an advanced brain may be too improbable to reach in one fell swoop. However, it could be reached through a series of slightly less advanced brains, each one getting closer to the advanced end-product. In this way, natural selection is said to gradually reduce the improbability of complex biology, by preserving way-points to some final evolutionary destination. Dawkins elucidates this idea in many of his books:
“…natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance.” [i]
Unfortunately for Neo-Darwinists, there are two key problems with this line of argument.
Firstly, it ascribes a sense of foresight to natural selection which it simply does not have. Natural selection is a dead, unintelligent process. It is the product of unplanned environmental pressures acting on randomly produced organisms. Natural selection is not trying to help a biological trait to become more complex. As such, it will not preserve anything just because it might become more useful in the future. Natural selection is concerned with the here-and-now.
For the sake of argument, imagine two orangutans — Einstein and Chad. Einstein has a brain that has the potential to evolve into a more advanced one, similar to that of a primitive human. Chad is a dullard intellectually, but is brawnier and has markedly faster reaction times. Given a youth of fighting and tree swinging, natural selection will readily kill the Einstein over Chad, despite the fact that Einstein’s progeny has more evolutionary potential. Why? Because unguided natural selection can neither see the future, nor does it care about it. It has no desire to help evolve smarter animals. Like any good undertaker, it’s not picky about who’s died.
As this is the case, it is wrong to imagine that natural selection will preserve organisms with more potentially advanced traits over organisms with less potentially advanced traits, if the former traits do not confer a survival advantage right now. It therefore does nothing to reduce the improbability of more complex biology arising in the future.
Secondly, the same old problem of generation vs. propagation returns here. Even if natural selection somehow selected for more potentially advanced traits and organisms, it would not have produced them. It would simply allow them a platform to exist. But whether that potential evolution actually takes place depends on whether the relevant creative mechanism can generate the more complex biology.
Yet again, we return to the key point that natural selection is not a creative process — it is only a culling process. It can only select what already exists. Thus the search for evolutionary explanation lives and dies on its creative mechanism.
Pulling Back the Curtain on Neo-Darwinism
This bait-and-switch of Neo-Darwinism, the tendency to mistake selection for creation, has not not gone unnoticed. There is a growing minority of dissidents who recognise the poverty of explanation offered by mainstream evolutionary biology:
“Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create… Neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change [which] led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.” [iii]
— Professor Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary Biologist, Winner of the National Medal of Science (1999).
“Innovation, not selection, is the critical issue in evolutionary change. Without variation and novelty, selection has nothing to act upon.” [iv]
— Professor James Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and winner of the Darwin Prize Visiting Professorship (1993).
“… look, you might as well forget about natural selection because what does it mean “selection” when the organism keeps changing according to environmental conditions?” [v]
— Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, author and lecturer in genetics.
“The natural selection of random variations cannot provide an adequate explanation of why organisms are the way they are and how they came to be that way. For that, we must draw on all of science.” [vi]
— Emeritus Professor Peter Saunders, specialist in biological systems at KCL.
But perhaps it was said best by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, the 4th Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who wrote in his magisterial book Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth:
“Naturalists claim that both the function of creation and the function of selection are performed by forces which are separate yet work in perfect unison. They would have us believe that the mindless genes create, and a formless, impersonal law of natural selection selects. At the same time however, they dismiss the issue of genes as though taken for granted and subjugate them to the authority of natural selection. Thus they unite the two functions which have to be treated as separate, combining them in a most absurd manner.
If genes recede into an inconspicuous position as creators, what is left into the bargain is merely a selector which admittedly has no mind with a conscious decision-making faculty. Genes thus pushed aside, natural selection is the only factor which remains in the field. In this sense the separate functions of creation and selection are moulded, without justification, into one. However, no scientist with the slightest idea of what Darwin propounds can attribute to him the claim that natural selection could also directly create. There has to be some creation before natural selection can begin to work. It is this dilemma which the proponents of natural selection can never resolve.” [vii]
The realisation that natural selection is not a creative force is extraordinarily significant. It means that even if Darwin was right about species forming by incremental change over long periods of time, natural selection cannot be held as responsible for these changes. In reality, it did nothing. There is not a single biological feature in the history of evolution that was produced by natural selection. Every biological feature must have been produced by a creative process, which selection is not. The immense fine-tuning of organisms to their environment cannot be ascribed to natural selection, it can only be ascribed to the process which produced them. This has a profound effect on our broader view of evolution. It means that the displacement of Intelligent Guidance from evolutionary history rests on rocky ground. Richard Dawkins once wrote:
“Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” [viii]
But in their fervour to intellectually fulfil themselves, Dawkins and his colleagues seem to have fundamentally misunderstood natural selection. If natural selection cannot account for the appearance of any biological trait, the question arises — is the design hypothesis back on the table? Perhaps things ‘look designed’ because they are designed?
Or perhaps not. Recall the unholy trinity of Neo-Darwinian mechanisms:
- Random mutations cumulating gradually.
- Natural selection as the main filter of evolution.
- Genetic heredity passing on traits from one common ancestor.
Working our way up from the bottom, we see that genetic heredity only describes how traits which already exist are inherited; natural selection describes how already-existing organisms live or die; only random variation remains. This surely, is the engine of evolution, the true creative process which generates new biology. For if it can be shown that undirected natural processes (random variation) can give rise to the stunning diversity of life we see today, then there is no need for recourse to a Design explanation. If they cannot, design remains the default explanation.
It is to this topic that we shall turn our attention next.
[i] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion (p. 145; 147). Transworld. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Jacob Gould Schurman, The Ethical Import of Darwinism (1887)
[iv] Shapiro, James A.. Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press Science) (Kindle Locations 283-284). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.
[v] Mazur, Suzan. The Paradigm Shifters: Overthrowing ‘the Hegemony of the Culture of Darwin’ (p. 44). Kindle Edition.
[vi] Mazur, Suzan. The Paradigm Shifters: Overthrowing ‘the Hegemony of the Culture of Darwin’ (p. 50). Kindle Edition.
[viii] Dawkins, R., 2004. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc
[i] Dawkins, R., 2004. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc..