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How “Real” Is Natural Selection?

Tom Bethell

Paul Nelson.jpgA few thoughts on Jerry Coyne v. Paul Nelson. The controversy has already received comment at ENV here, here, here and here. Before it erupted, I watched Paul Nelson’s Saddleback talk. In fact I watched it twice and made notes. I thought it was excellent. If I had any criticism, I thought he almost gave away too much in conceding that natural selection (NS) is “a real process.” Later he said it’s “real, but very, very dumb.” OK, maybe.
Sometimes, the relationship between a variant form and the environment is such that the variant increases, or multiplies. Best known case: dark moths camouflaged against dark tree trunks. The speckled variety becomes conspicuous and is more likely to get eaten.
The theory that has been confirmed here is simply that in this environment, with sharp-eyed predator birds, camouflage is helpful. It does not explain how the moths appeared in the first place.
The moth evidence was publicized in the 1950s by Bernard Kettlewell. Its frequent invocation since then — including by Coyne quite recently — goes to show how paltry the evidence for NS is.
An analogous situation arises with varieties of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics. The immune varieties are suddenly “fit” and so they survive. But the word “adaptation” is misleading because the immune varieties have to appear first. They don’t “adapt,” or reshape themselves in recognition of the suddenly hostile environment. They are not like people who “adapt” to cold weather by putting on overcoats. They are like people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.
NS is not supposed to be an explanation of how we get more of something; a dark moth, for example. It’s supposed to show how the moth itself arose. And that is what the Darwinists have never been able to demonstrate; not just with moths but with anything else. That’s why I hesitate to call NS “real.” Well, I guess it is, as long as it’s defined narrowly enough.
Consider something that Coyne said in response to Paul. He mentioned, as though it were too obvious to demonstrate, “the prevalence of selection in explaining obvious adaptations like mimicry, the speed of cheetahs . . .” (emphasis added).
I’d love to see his evidence that cheetahs developed their speed through natural selection. There is no such evidence. It’s what Coyne’s teacher at Harvard Richard Lewontin called a “just-so story.” If it had been demonstrated, we’d keep on hearing about it.
Mimicry is an ongoing phenomenon so it has greater possibilities. No fossil evidence is needed. Are there studies showing that near-resemblance increases the survival odds, and then an even closer resemblance appeared accidentally, and so on? I have never heard of this.
At one point in the exchanges among commenters on the blog post, Paul said (to Erio): “Natural selection is a real process. But did selection construct (for instance) animal body plans? There the answer is No.”
DV then said: “Pray tell us what constructed animal body plans then?”
There we see the naturalistic mindset. As Paul said at one point, quoting Don Kennedy of the National Academy of Sciences, we must remain within the four walls of naturalism if what we are doing is to be called science. Outside those four walls, we will be condemned as creationists. This is the great philosophical change that has been embraced by “science” since Newton’s day.
For the naturalists, it’s pretty much NS or nothing. Which is why they are so eager to protect its pure and venerated image. Complex organisms exist, and in a naturalistic world, but how did they get here? For naturalists, “bit by bit” is pretty much the only answer available. And that is what NS amounts to. One little bit added to another. But that is what the evidence never supports. As Paul argued, there are good reasons to think that widely different body plans never can be built up that way.
There’s much more to say, but that’s enough for now. Congratulations to Paul for keeping his cool in a difficult venue.