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Juggling Terms to Maintain the Illusion of Darwinian Selection

Evolution News
Photo credit: Matt Bero via Unsplash.

What are synonyms for saying lots of words without conveying any real meaning? 

  1. Word Salad: “incoherent speech consisting of both real and imaginary words, lacking comprehensive meaning, and occurring in advanced schizophrenic states.”
  2. Gobbledegook: “language characterized by circumlocution and jargon, usually hard to understand.”
  3. Speciousness: “pleasing to the eye but deceptive.”

The number of synonyms indicates that many people have a shared experience encountering it. Synonyms can be short (bosh, bunk, cant), sophisticated (amphigory, rigmarole, balderdash), or emotional (baloney, drivel, gibberish, hooey, rubbish, and a few other unmentionables). Synonym counts escalate with related words like equivocation, casuistry, sophistry, prevarication. Their commonality is an effort to manipulate words to put on airs while communicating no meaningful information.

Masters of the Art

Darwinian evolutionists are masters at this kind of empty talk. Their victims are often caught unprepared to encounter or recognize it, because they have been trained to “respect science” and “follow the science” (the popular meme today). Way too much gets mashed together into the concept of “science” to give that word precision: is multiverse theory on the same level as electrodynamics? Black holes with gene sequences? Human evolutionary psychology with titration levels for chemical reactions? Evolutionary biologists are poised at the junction of a rich, meaningful science (biology) with a vague, descriptive concept (evolution). This makes the talkers especially prone to shift deftly toward either end of the spectrum of plausibility between.

In order to recognize gobbledygook and not be deceived by it, perceptive readers of evolutionary literature need to focus their laser-beam attention on the precise meanings of words. They also need to remain aware of the difference between association and causation. And they must avoid the fallacy of extrapolation: i.e., a particular fact cannot be extended without warrant

The Selection Deception

A pernicious, ubiquitous term of confusion in evolutionary biology is “selection.” Even 161 years since Darwin put the word on the title page of the Origin, nobody knows what it means. Who or what is the selector? What is it selecting for? How does the concept of selection support Darwin’s dream of a natural world growing and developing into the rich biosphere without guidance or direction? There are many papers publishing “coefficients of selection” on graphs and charts that give an air of precision to the word. There are adjectives that parse selection into various directions: positive selection, negative selection, balancing selection, stabilizing selection, relaxed selection, purifying selection, and more. But that is part of the deception. Since the conclusions were derived by circular reasoning (“Whatever we find, it will support Darwinism”), those adjunct terms become part of the word salad garnished to different tastes. If large gene segments differ between populations, there must have been an explosive radiation. If no genes change much, ah: there is purifying selection at work. Selection selects except when it doesn’t. And since the selector is deemed impersonal, it could not care less what happens.

The only kind of selection potentially able to contribute meaning to Darwinism would be positive selection. Something has to get better — significantly better. A selected variation must gain genetic information that provides new function. Cross off all the other types right now: stabilizing, relaxed, purifying, or any other type that goes down or sideways; even many creationists allow for “horizontal” variations within groups. Darwin’s tree must grow upward. The real-world genetic evidence that Michael Behe has accumulated has only shown survival by breaking things and losing information. One might imagine polar bears from brown bears that way, but not whales from wolves, or sequoias from mosses. Evolutionists claim to measure positive selection, but the reasoning is circular: if a gene survives, it must have been selected, irrespective of the function. But selection is the very question at issue.

The Origin of Species

Positive selection must be significantly greater than tiny steps that might appear to a Darwinist to be an improvement, unless they can be demonstrated to be cumulative. The improvements must also lead to the origin of species and larger taxonomic groups; it cannot occur merely with a species. Look at the variety within the human species; where, though, does history show a landlubber evolving into an Icarus by selection except in fables? No; positive selection, to differentiate Darwinism from random drift or from intelligently-designed front-loading, has to yield mammals from microbes, appealing only to unguided natural processes that “selected” the outcome in hindsight. Yet Darwinists’ main examples in the literature are about tiny variations at the gene or protein level, which fall under the “edge of evolution” according to Behe. 

Add now the confusion over the unit of selection. Is it the gene? The protein? The cell? The organ? The species? The body plan? The population? The ecosystem? Evolutionary biologists divide into camps supporting classic gradualism, punctuated equilibria, evo-devo, species selection, kin selection, group selection, multilevel selection and more. It would be easy to allege that “selection” is one of the most imprecise terms in all of science. It means whatever it must mean in order to keep those wicked ID people out of the game.

If this seems overstated, look at these recent examples.

Naïve students are taught that selection works at the individual level, but evolutionists at Northern Arizona University appeal to multi-level selection to explain whole communities. 

Selectionists used to teach Dollo’s Law, that once adapted, an organism cannot revert, because the changes become canalized. But evolutionists at Santa Fe Institute claim that evolvability itself evolves! What a convenient theory rescue device. Does the evolution of evolvability evolve, too? How far can one take this game? 

More evolvability with fluff from the University of Zurich, but first, pause and salute for the obligatory Darwin Party PSA:

Everywhere we look in the natural world, there’s evidence of natural selection: the resin armor of a lodgepole pine cone evolved to defend against seed-hungry birds and squirrels; the long neck of a giraffe was evolutionarily favored for reaching high vegetation that the competition can’t touch. We know that natural selection shapes how animals and plants evolve and adapt. But does natural selection also influence an organism’s very capacity to evolve? And if so, to what degree? [Emphasis added.]

The rest, as already noted, is just fluff. Evolutionists must hang on to evolvability so that the animals don’t get locked in. How that evolvability will work, and what particularly it will select — hey, didn’t you hear that in the speech?

Darwin and Lamarck at Yale

Lamarck, come in here: I need you!” Large portraits of Darwin and Lamarck side by side introduce this news from Yale. Apparently, Darwin can’t do without his erstwhile rival at scientific explanation. A Yale University lab mixes natural selection with epigenetic inheritance to upgrade the Origin, saying, “both genetic and epigenetic mechanisms need to be combined in a ‘grand unified theory’ of evolution.” There goes almost a century of neo-Darwinism, the last big patch.

In PNAS, Hunter Fraser from Indiana University makes a valiant effort to rigorously measure selection to differentiate it from neutral drift in cases involving hybrids, but it’s all the useless kind of selection. In a hundred instances of the word selection, there’s only stabilizing selection. He mentions “directional selection” but it’s only theoretical, except in trivial examples like male head shape in Hawaiian fruit flies and human skin color, which involve members within species. He cautions wisely, 

It is important to note that results from all trait-based tests of selection must be treated with caution when trait ascertainment bias is present.

But lo! He finds directional selection in crop breeding — artificial selection! Darwinians clap nervously.

Two UC Berkeley evolutionists try again in PNAS to find the elusive selection that makes any difference. Find anything? No; it’s all theoretical. Any positive or directional selection? No, but the graphs show that it “should” happen in their models. 

Our primary focus here has been on evolution in laboratory populations. It is unclear whether we should expect a similar impact of selection in natural populations.

Waste of time. Next.

Duke evolutionist writing at bioRxiv predicted finding purifying selection in the LTEE, and that it would mostly occur in the “superessential” metabolic genes. The results were so contrary to expectations, he invented a new category “idiosyncratic purifying selection” to describe them and likened it to a game of Jenga. If this is Jenga, “who” is selectively removing the sticks carefully to prevent the tower’s collapse? The only potential instances of improvement the author mentions all occurred from loss of genes, as Behe said. Here was a case where scientists knew the actual ancestral paths, and after 60,000 generations, that’s it? Incidentally, all the trillions of cells were still one species, E. coli

Slippery, Vague, Useless

Selection is a slippery, vague, useless word in evolutionary biology that masks its lack of clarity with gobbledygook. In these seven recent examples from different institutions linked only by reliance on the word “selection,” the possibilities for obfuscation became apparent in practice. Pick your favorite synonym for gobbledygook. Hooey works just fine. 

Like stern English teachers, ID advocates would make excellent proofreaders and reviewers of such casuistry given the chance: demanding precise definitions, redlining circular arguments and extrapolations, pointing out invalid inferences. The authors would undoubtedly dislike all the red marks, but science would improve.