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Natural Selection – What does it do?

Natural selection has no effect at all in bringing about new forms of life. Now you may think that this provocative statement is a little too extreme. Let me explain why it is true.

Such a claim is not new. For the first 70 years following Darwin’s On the Origin of Species there was considerable and open debate amongst leading biologists as to the mechanism of evolution. There was a healthy discussion, with leading scientists and thinkers such as Francis Galton, Hugo De Vriess, William Bateson, Alpheus Hyatt, Theodore Eimer and C. O. Whitman (to name but a few) holding alternative views.[1] Natural selection as the driving force for new forms has only been considered the orthodoxy, since the hardening of the ‘modern synthesis’ in the 1930’s.[2].

Darwinism, including its modern form, states that variation in organisms, which is mainly considered to be due to mutations, is random and non-directional (isotropic). It is natural selection then that picks out the fit so that they survive while the rest die off. Natural selection has replaced any sort of divine creative power and is given, by most biologists, an almost mystical status (though this would be fiercely denied). One only needs to mention ‘natural selection’ for the case to be closed and it is surprisingly rare to find a biologist who has seriously examined the foundations for its current status as the cause of life’s myriad forms.

I will go through the main reasons as to why selection is completely impotent in fashioning new forms.

An image of flour being sifted into a bowlNatural selection is a sieve. Variations occur in organisms and some survive and reproduce because of ‘fitness’ whereas others fail to do so (depending on the conditions, environment, predation etc). As such, all that selection does is to weed out the unfit and allow the fit ones to pass through; just like a sieve in fact. A sieve is inert. It does something but it has no effect whatsoever on what enters it. The variations that enter the sieve are already there. Selection has not produced the new forms. It has no power to ‘push’ evolution in any creative way. It does whittle down what survives but what survives has not been fashioned by it. Hugo de Vriess (1848 – 1935), perhaps the leading botanist of his day wrote: “Natural selection is a sieve. It creates nothing, as is so often assumed; it only sifts. It retains only what variability puts into the sieve. Whence the material comes from that is put into it, should be kept separate from the theory of its selection. How the struggle for existence sifts is one question; how that which is sifted arose is another.”[3]

Another way to see natural selection is as a pruner of a tree. A pruner does not produce the branches but just allows some to continue growing. Of course the sieve or the pruner has an effect, allowing certain forms to continue at the expense of others, but it has no novelty creating power in the slightest.

Given this truth we can now look at the position of any organism in the standard Darwinian evolutionary trajectory. Take a human being for example. According to current evolutionary theory we have evolved from bacteria over about 3.8 billion years. At every step of this story leading to you and me, we are told there has been some new novelty thrown up randomly by mutation so that each particular ancestor had a fitness advantage and was selected to survive. Over a long time humans with brains that are able to think about evolution have emerged. At no time in this scenario has selection had any effect on the actual variations that eventually led to that human brain. In other words, the brain came about entirely and completely (according to Darwinism) by random mistakes in the genetic code. We are therefore told to believe that given certain chemicals and enough time you will have humans. Ah… cry the ‘Dawkinsian’ orthodoxy – you have left out natural selection! No I have not. Natural selection has done something but it has nothing at all to do with the emergence of brains. It has merely killed off all the other variations.

In fact it is worth posing a thought experiment to illustrate this. Imagine a world where all the conditions are set up for life. The right chemicals are there. The water and sunlight and temperature are just right. In this scenario however there is no death and no predation. Food comes from outer space. There is limitless space and plenty of time for mutations to bring about variations. There are limitless environments for organisms to migrate to. There is no natural selection in fact. It is as if every possible branch of the evolutionary tree is allowed to grow unhindered. No pruning. What would happen? Evolutionary orthodoxy would have to admit, by their theory, that without natural selection the new forms would still come about. Eventually humans (or something like them) would appear, along with a host of other random experiments. What we are asked to believe then is that entirely without any direction or creativity or push or any input from outside, inert chemicals will one day become organised on their own to become human beings.

Any serious thinker will not accept this. It is interesting that people in the Intelligent Design movement are mocked for likening evolution to tornadoes forming jumbo jets from scrap heaps. But we are asked here to believe something far more improbable. A human being is vastly more complex than any man-made machine.

We have never in fact witnessed any mutation that confers significant new information leading to novel and useful structures or biological systems. If you care to read carefully the prestigious weekly Journal Nature over a period of year (as I do) then you will not find any such evidence. Such mutations do not happen. It is not that there is no change ever seen after a mutation but there is an ‘edge’ to what Darwinian evolution can achieve and this is extremely limited. [4]

It is time for the orthodoxy to be openly challenged.



[1] For a discussion of these views see: Latham, Antony 2005. The Naked Emperor: Darwinism exposed. Ch. 9. Janus Publishing Co.

[2] For a full history of evolutionary theory it is hard to beat Stephen Jay Gould’s wordy and magisterial The Structure of Evolutionary Theory 2002. Harvard: Belknap Press

[3] H. De Vriess. 1909. The Mutation Theory. Appleton & Co.

[4] As well described in: Behe, Michael. 2008. The Edge of Evolution. The Free Press.

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Antony Latham, 20/07/2017