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Natural Selection: A Conceptually Incoherent Term

Neil Thomas
Image: Darwin's finches, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: Professor Thomas’s recent book, Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, is available now from Discovery Institute Press.

Not the least of the problems which readers have registered on reading Darwin’s Origin of Species have been linguistic ones bearing upon a curious lack of semantic and sometimes even conceptual precision in some of Darwin’s formulations. For a start, the title of his famous treatise is something of a misnomer since it notoriously leaves unaddressed the question of the absolute origin of life on earth — that is, how life forms arose on our originally lifeless planet in the first place. Instead, it deals with the more delimited process of speciation, the formation and proliferation of new species from older species already in existence. It was this “origination” of species to which Darwin was actually referring.

Terminological Inexactitudes

Darwin’s sometimes confusing terminological choices are a feature of his work that even experts have had trouble with. In the English language prior to Darwin, for instance, natural selection was a term used by those who reared animals to denote Nature’s serendipity, those unpredictable changes to animal physiology over the generations arising from factors operating outside the sphere of the breeders’ understanding and control. The term stood in semantic contradistinction to breeders’ efforts to mate carefully chosen animals of each sex in order to encourage the emergence of favored features in the resulting progeny. Hence its original meaning in the common understanding of standard English was semantically anchored in notions of the random, unforeseeable, and unplanned.

When Darwin commandeered the term, however, a very significant degree of semantic creep was observed to have overtaken it. Darwin — against the objections of Wallace and other colleagues who pointed out to him that there was simply no comparison between what animal breeders did by the use of human ingenuity and how mindless Nature herself acted — claimed an analogy between the artificial breeding methods of such persons as pigeon-fanciers and the claimed “selection” performed by Nature herself. Nature, Darwin claimed, like the human livestock breeder, exercised her own forms of selection, even going so far as to say that Nature, with limitless millennia at her disposal, could do a more comprehensive job of bringing about major physiological changes (and eventually new species) than could human breeders, a contention he outlined in a famous passage of the Origin of Species.1 Little wonder that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce commented that Darwin was implicitly ascribing to Nature the same ontological status as theists customarily ascribed to God.2 Darwin’s tacit raising of external nature to crypto-divine status was, concluded Wilberforce, just as much an article of faith as any of the more conventional forms of theistic belief. 

Translating the Untranslatable

The difficulty with Darwin’s lapses in intellectual clarity together with his having rather perversely turned the original, familiar meaning of natural selection on its head, was to make itself felt acutely in Continental Europe when Heinrich Bronn was commissioned to translate the Origin into German.3 Bronn, in company with almost all early reviewers, thought Darwin’s theory wrong4 and indeed added an addendum (Schlusswort) to his German translation pointing out the weaknesses of Darwin’s arguments, foremost among which was: Where are all the fossils claimed to document Darwin’s evolutionary links? Darwin was eventually to be so offended by Bronn’s objections that he later moved to a “tamer” translator for the second German version, Victor Carus; but both Carus and Bronn had the same trouble translating the key term of natural selection.5

The trouble stemmed from the term “selection.” Even native English-speaking readers had been confused by the term: some had glossed it (not unreasonably, it may be thought) in the teleological sense of Nature making a conscious choice. Darwin himself had given some succour to that interpretation in numerous passages, one of which I have referred to above, where he appears to point to Nature in a role of actively choosing and winnowing. Bronn’s initial choice of the term “Wahl der Lebensweise” (literally = choice of life mode) was objected to by Darwin for being too purpose-driven and “Lamarckian” by appearing to ascribe to Nature a form of indwelling telos.

A Blinding Logical Contradiction

In deference to Darwin’s wishes, Bronn consented to delete Darwin’s proscribed “W” word (Wahl = choice, choosing), settling for the more non-committal and in truth rather vacuous term “natürliche Zuchtung” (= natural breeding). That translation gives no inkling of what the mechanism behind the putative process could be, and so it is hardly surprising that Victor Carus later restored the offending Wahl word by translating natural selection as “natürliche Zuchtwahl” (= natural choice in propagation). This, however, as was swiftly pointed out by a German contemporary, Ludwig Büchner, simply reinstated Bronn’s original “error” by re-interpolating what Darwin saw (rightly or wrongly) as the teleological fallacy into his translation. Büchner pointed out that nature does not breed in the way of livestock farmers, explaining that in Darwin’s way of thinking any selection must occur without purpose or intent — apparently passing over in tactful silence the blinding logical contradiction of “selection without intent” inherent in Darwin’s thinking! Through no fault of their own, the two German translators found themselves caught up in an unholy semantic mess when confronted by the “floating signifier” of natural selection — a term even Darwin himself was incapable of defining in satisfactorily logical terms.

As a schoolboy I remember being told that the surest way of finding out if any given English proposition made sense or not was to try to translate it into Latin, French, or German. If it transferred easily into the foreign register, all was well and good. If it did not, on the other hand, the failure pointed to something “off” or incoherent about the English itself. Hence, having been a university teacher of German for more than three decades, I have great retrospective sympathy for the translators’ difficulties in having to render a contradiction in terms: a putative selecting mechanism claimed by Darwin himself to be without any conscious capacity to select. How to encompass in words an incoherent postulate that nobody can properly describe or even conceive of with any degree of particularity is clearly something of a mission impossible, and proved predictably “challenging” to both translators. In the end, as observed Carus felt, in the interests of minimal coherence, that he simply had to reintroduce the proscribed term for selection (Wahl) omitted by Bronn at Darwin’s behest. I do however seriously question if either translator at the end of the day, hand on heart, knew what their German translations of this infinitely elusive term actually meant. My own feeling for the language is that neither of their translations would have been anything like as informative to native German speakers as Darwin might have hoped.

It should finally be pointed out that the translators’ difficulties did not spring from any inadequacy of the German language to convey subtle English terms. No language is more adaptable and pliant than German; the jocular claim that you can make up your own German words at will as you go along by improvising ad hoc compound nouns is not entirely a joke, as the German word for compound noun (Zusammensetzung, literally = placing together) itself makes clear. The difficulty that the German translators had with the term was not linguistic but conceptual and points to a far more fundamental incoherence in the term itself — and in Darwin’s thinking. 

Evolution from “The Absolute Empire of Accident”?6

Darwin’s theory that life on Earth could have evolved mindlessly due to the unpredictable ministrations of Mother Nature has never ceased to appear improbable, even impossible, to the generality of people. Many, in decoding for themselves the term “natural selection,” have unmasked it as little more than a scientifically pretentious synonym for a phenomenon little superior to blind chance. If nature is (as Darwin insisted it must be) stripped of any teleological function, it can hardly be expected to “select” anything at all since it would be impossible for it to have any telos or aim “in mind.” The notion that the entire diversity of life could have developed by some preternaturally benign concatenation of flukes does not commend itself as an intuitive probability to unbiased observers with no stake in finding a wholly materialistic explanation for all things. Such observers are more likely to view natural selection so defined as a freethinking donnish fantasy harbored by those who simply will there to be a materialist Grand Theory of Everything.

It is hardly surprising that in a recent attempt to pin down the precise phenomenological status of “natural selection,” David Brown concluded that the term is more of a fuzzy imaginative construct than a phenomenon we might locate in the natural world itself.7 The term lacks an adequately defined referent because such a referent has never been empirically locatable in nature, making the term something of a phantom without material existence. In other words, more than 160 years after Darwin formulated the term, the unsettling truth is that nobody really knows what natural selection might mean or indeed if it means anything at all. To be sure, the term is an imaginative attempt to construct an ideal explanation of how nature could function but reveals no empirically defensible insight into how it actually does function. 


  1. “It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, 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” (On the Origin of Species, edited by Gillian Beer, (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 66.  
  2. The word “metaphorically” in the cited passage is not found in the original, 1859 text but was later inserted tactically to oppose any inference that Darwin was espousing any form of theistic evolution. See Morse Peckham, The Origin of Species: A Variorum Text (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), pp. 168-9.
  3. Heinrich Bronn, Über die Entstehung der Arten with an appendix (‘Schlusswort des Uebersetzers’) [1860] reprinted Charleston: Nabu Press, 2012). For a clear account in English of the German reception see Alfred Kelly, The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860-1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
  4. Bronn’s review of the Origin, which appeared originally in the Jahrbuch für Mineralogie of 1860, pp. 116-20, is reproduced with translation and discussion by David L Hull, in his Darwin: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 118-125.
  5. Charles Darwin, Die Entstehung der Arten. Aus dem Englischen von Julius Victor Carus [1899], ninth edition (Hamburg: Nikol, 2018).
  6. The term is that of 19th-century novelist Charles Kingsley who saw a divine dispensation underlying the apparently aleatory movements of “natural selection.”
  7.  “Selection is not a real phenomenon but simply an observation of which individuals survive” (David Brown, Incarnation and Neo-Darwinism: Evolution, Ontology and Divine Activity [Durham: Sacristy Press, 2019], p. 25).

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



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