Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Natural Selection: The Evolution of a Mirage

Neil Thomas
Photo: Darwin's finch, by Victor Gleim, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

American scientific educator John A. Moore has pointed out that one of the most ironic episodes in intellectual history occurred when Darwin drew on the very database of knowledge accumulated by natural theologians to support his evolutionary ideas:

The beautiful adaptations [of Nature] could not be denied, all that was required was to switch the explanatory hypothesis from divine will to natural causes.1

The purely material hypothesis began to resonate better with a secularizing age, as David Handke observed:

One reason for this is the manner in which Natural Selection slipped seamlessly into the place of the Creator as the acceptable new face of the creative Designer.2

Needless to say, not all minds in democratic societies could be changed by would-be intellectual fiats issued by Darwin or by anybody else.3 Darwin’s theory that life on Earth could have evolved unplanned and undirected, due to some wondrously benign concatenation of mutational flukes followed by the supposedly “selective” ministrations of Mother Nature, has never ceased to appear improbable to many persons not bent on conjuring up a materialist explanation for all things (at whatever cost to logic and probability). Even Darwin himself developed doubts over time as he came to ask himself: could natural selection really have exerted the vast transformative powers he had claimed for it? This late failure of nerve might well account for his later flirtation with a form of “supplementary” Lamarckism and even go some way to explain the famous peroration of Origin to the effect that evolution had come about by dint of “laws impressed upon matter by the Creator.”

The latter statement can scarcely be glossed as anything other than what is now termed theistic Darwinism since it is plainly discrepant with exclusively natural processes. Darwin’s shifting ideas made it easy for those of his peers with more traditional (Anglican) opinions to infer that ultimately everything owed its existence to a power transcending the natural order.4 It may even be possible to speculate that Darwin’s two-decade-long procrastination over publication of Origin owed something to his difficulties in convincing himself of some ideas which, on the advice of colleagues and critics, he was driven to modify quite considerably over his five later revisions of Origin.

Darwin at the Literal Level

Summarized at the literal level, the Origin of Species aspires to supply us with a fresh, materialist myth to explain the development of earth’s numerous species. That messaging is, however, undermined by interference from an apparently ineradicable subtext arising from Darwin’s deeper intuitions and spiritual promptings. This factor bids us revisit the precise ontological and definitional status of “natural selection” — that ubiquitous metaphor which, in the verdict both of Alfred Russel Wallace and many other of Darwin’s expert peers, had led Darwin so seriously astray.

Conceptual interferences arising from strained metaphors, distant analogies, and widely dispersed narrative patterns with deep roots in people’s imaginations have long been discussed across the whole range of human cultures.5 Even in the context of scientific reporting Misia Landau has detected some surprising interferences from folklore and myth,6 warning that scientists should be aware of the capacity of preexistent narrative structures to exert a subconscious influence on the way they present supposedly objective data. In a similar vein, Andrew Reynolds more recently drew attention to the large role played by analogical reasoning in Darwin’s thinking — a factor which did not always contribute to clarity of thought:

This analogical reasoning was in turn reliant on several key metaphors. One was the Tree of Life to represent the thesis of the community of descent or shared ancestry of all species. The other concerned his hypothesized mechanism for species transmutation, which he called natural selection, a choice of terminology based on an analogy with the process of artificial selection practised by humans in the production of domesticated plants and animals.7

An Important Tool

The fact is that metaphorical and analogical thinking is an important tool for human beings to verbalize their conceptions of reality, so it is not surprising that Darwin and neo-Darwinians have been drawn to it. However, it is not an intrinsically analytical or even descriptive way of approaching the world, something recognized as early as 1666 by Samuel Parker, an eminent member of the Royal Society, who described metaphors in the following terms:

Wanton and luxuriant phantasies climbing up into the Bed of Reason, [that] do not only defile it by unchast and illegitimate Embraces, but instead of real conceptions and notices of things impregnate the mind with nothing but Ayeries and Subventaneous [= borne on the wind] Phantasmes.8

Parker clearly saw metaphorical thinking as leading to false and illusory analogies, opposing “real conceptions” to unnatural (“unchast and illegitimate”) associations of ideas arising from unfocused and unbridled imaginations. The numerous objections of colleagues who pointed out to Darwin that there was simply no comparison between what animal breeders did purposefully and by the use of human ingenuity and how mindless Nature herself acted clearly had a long pedigree.

Nevertheless, Darwin initially persisted in claiming a close analogy between the artificial breeding methods of such persons as pigeon-fanciers and the claimed “selection” performed by Nature herself. He was explicit about this claim, stating that he favored the term “natural selection” in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. Perhaps drawing auxiliary strength from ancient ideas of an active and directive Nature — this being a logic which we have now lost but a conception which achieved its late flowering by the middle of the 19th century9 — Darwin deposed 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, an idea to which he gave lyrical expression in a famous passage in his Origin of Species:

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. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.10

It should be noted in the above that the word “metaphorically” was not present in the first edition of 1859. Darwin later added the expression defensively to protect himself from sundry colleagues’ criticisms that he was advancing a covertly theistic conception of the evolutionary process. Not without reason was Darwin’s metaphor of natural selection recently decoded as “an anthropomorphic but superhuman agency, ‘daily and hourly scrutinizing’ all variation, and making intelligent and benevolent decisions like a Paleyan Designer.”11 Or as Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini more pointedly observed, Darwin strove to exorcize all “ghosts in the machine” such as God, selfish genes, or a World Spirit, yet “Mother Nature and other pseudo-agents got away scot free.”12

The Climb-Down

Hence although the Origin purports to offer humankind a fresh, materialist myth to explain the development of earth’s numerous species, that project is subverted by interference from a subtext springing from Darwin’s well-documented cognitive dissonance concerning material and spiritual domains.13 Such an interference explains his boundless faith in what he stated were the directive powers of a process which others could see only as being unfathomable and wholly unpredictable (such having been the original meaning of natural selection coined by breeders whose sense was so radically altered by Darwin). For Darwin the powers of natural selection transcended human intelligence to such a degree that he came exceedingly close to imputing to it the capacity for intelligent design. It was only belatedly that he succumbed to colleagues’ numerous objections, conceding in a letter to Charles Lyell,

Talking of “Natural Selection,” if I had to commence de novo, I would have used natural preservation.14

This was an emendation with enormous consequences. One can understand why Darwin was minded to hold out as long as possible and why he eventually capitulated only under protest. For the letter to Lyell involved a truly fatal concession which, had it been analyzed dispassionately at the time, could (and arguably should) have halted the onward march of Darwinism there and then in the Fall of 1860. As a host of recent studies make clear, the term to which Darwin eventually acquiesced, natural preservation, can by definition only be passive rather than actively productive in the formation of new body parts (let alone whole new species). The Darwinian theory of an advance from organic simplicity to complexity — from microbes to man — must inevitably fall after such a major semantic retreat.

Wanted: A Theory of the Generative

As Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman and others have recently pointed out, neo-Darwinism simply has no theory of the generative and therefore no innovative capacity: nothing in Darwin’s theory can account for nontrivial innovations15and Darwin’s rowing back on that point was fatal to any macromutational claims. As Professor Nick Lane has recently explained, 

It is generally assumed that once simple life has emerged, it gradually evolves into more complex forms, given the right conditions. But that’s not what happens on Earth (…) If simple cells had evolved slowly into more complex ones over billions of years, all kinds of intermediate forms would have existed and some still should. But there are none (…) This means that there is no inevitable trajectory from simple to complex life. Never-ending natural selection, operating on infinite populations of bacteria over millions of years, may never give rise to complexity. Bacteria simply do not have the right architecture.16

So how did speciation occur then? Competent scientists are thrown back on the placeholder terms “fate” or “chance,” such being all too plainly a cover for complete ignorance.17 Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini are more refreshingly candid:

“So if Darwin got it wrong, what do you guys think is the mechanism of evolution?” Short answer: we don’t know what the mechanism of evolution is. Nor did Darwin and nor (as far as we can tell) does anybody else.18

The bottom line today appears to be that 

Speciation still remains one of the biggest mysteries in evolutionary biology and the unexamined view of natural selection leading to large-scale innovations is not true.19

No Longer Beyond Question

Such new findings mean that aspects of the Darwinian narrative once accepted as veridical and beyond question can no longer provide the solid pillars of scientific consensus we had once assumed them to constitute. Which does not mean that some über-Darwinians will not attempt to cling to old certainties. “Evolutionary psychologist” Steve Stewart-Williams reaffirmed the notion that micromutation can result in macromutation given a superabundance of time:

If natural selection can produce small-scale change in the short term, why could it not produce large-scale change in the long term? Unless a compelling example can be found, a sensible default assumption would be that it could and does. And let’s not forget all the indirect evidence (the fossil record, etc.) suggests that species do indeed evolve from other species.20

Both the “sensible default assumption” to which Stewart-Williams refers and the corroborative fossil evidence are without basis in fact.21 Even the considerably less doctrinaire John A. Moore, despite his attempts to play honest broker between evolutionism and other competing theories, can come up with some eminently contestable verdicts when comparing the relative merits of the two sides:

Whereas the natural theologians began with the answer — divine creation — and then used the data they had gathered from nature to support the answer they had already decided was true, Darwin began with the data of adaptation and followed them wherever they led.22

That statement is surely incorrect on two counts. As to the point about natural theology, Moore places the cart before the horse since for natural theologians the commitment to a belief in God represents the inference to the best explanation provided by Nature itself (not the other way round). As to Darwin following the data in the direction the data prompted, this too is very wide of the mark (pace Darwin’s virtue-signaling protestations to be working on “Baconian principles”). From the start Darwin hoped that the natural selection postulate would revive the flailing evolutionary project initiated by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, by supplying it with some semblance of empirical, properly quantifiable support. He experienced his Eureka moment on reading demographer Thomas Malthus on populations because, hallowed as it was by notions of social-science testability, it was seized upon as a confirmation of the grandpaternal program. Natural selection became a veritable deus ex machina to provide a (claimed) mechanism or vera causa to justify the idea of evolution developed by Erasmus alongside sundry 18th-century French “transmutationists.”

The Forging of a Secular Myth

Had not Charles come to the rescue, there are grounds for supposing that the grandfather’s ideas might have withered on the vine for lack of support and so fallen into neglect in later 19th-century Europe. That which Erasmus termed the transmutation of species was a subject which had already exercised a group of 18th-century French thinkers to whom history refers collectively as “les philosophes.” This group had toyed with the idea of animal types, over vast tracts of time, being liable to experience change in their physical morphology. Julien Offray de la Mettrie, in his L’Homme Machine (1747), argued that all animal forms had emerged from previous forms, so that the earthworm might be expected to transmute in time to become a considerably larger and more complex animal. Often such speculations became airy (even Charles complained that Erasmus’s speculations were without empirical foundation) and could even tend towards the physiologically illiterate. Such was the case when Denis Diderot, mooting in his D’Alembert’s Dream (1769) the possibility of a creature evolving through habitual functioning into another form of life altogether, toyed with the bizarre idea that those humans not required to perform manual labor might eventually become just heads. Not surprisingly, such fantasies were destined to become mal vu, even in France.

In the midst of what others not unreasonably saw as the eccentric musings of a small, self-referential côterie, it became clear that what was required was the identification of a causal underpinning or mechanism which might prove the somewhat counterintuitive phenomenon of physiological evolution alleged by the group. Since that theory had been greeted with considerable skepticism by the generality of people, it was vital to be able to point to the supposed “scientific” credentials of natural selection. Only in that way would it be possible to rescue the idea of evolution from the scorn and ultimately the oblivion to which it was heading before 1859. Hence for Darwin the postulate of natural selection had to be true if he were to keep faith with and support the great evolutionary project initiated by his brilliant grandfather, Erasmus. It was anything but the case of his dispassionately following the evidence in the direction it led him. Rather, the analogical thinking that that had encouraged Darwin to map the biological domain onto that of sociology led to an intellectual mirage masking his theory’s dearth of data-based foundations.

Only time will tell whether the idea of evolution itself, which natural selection was meant to support, will endure now that so many scientists are “coming out” to express doubts about natural selection as traditionally glossed. As Michael Ruse recently pointed out, natural selection cannot actually select and is better understood as a score-recording statistic than as a “true cause”:

Natural selection is simply keeping score, as does the Dow Jones [Industrial] Average. The Dow Jones does not make things (cause things to) happen. It is just statistics about what did happen.23

Natural selection reveals itself as not just a metaphor but a mixed one: Nature being dumb but nevertheless capable of discrimination. It is a poetic concept rather than a scientific one, appealing more to emotional and aesthetic sensibilities than to reason. Denuded of the “cover” provided by natural selection as the motive factor to explain evolution, the broader subject of evolution itself once again becomes as enigmatic to us as it was to our Victorian forbears. Now as in 1858 evolution remains the “mystery of mysteries.” 


  1. John A. Moore, From Genesis to Genetics: The Case of Evolution and Creationism (Berkeley: California UP, 2002), pp. 55-6.
  2. “Teleology: the explanation that bedevils biology,” in Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science, ed. John Cornwell (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 143-155, citation p. 147.
  3. See James Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900 (Cambridge: CUP, 1981).
  4. As Sandor Gliboff noted of Darwin’s somewhat protean conceptions, Darwin’s theory has appeared in many variations (…) Even Darwin’s closest early supporters, such as Wallace, Hooker, Lyell or Gray, differed so much in their interpretations and applications of it that it has been impossible from the outset to identify a single version”; see H. G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), p. 202.
  5. See Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry [1927] (New York: Vintage, 1958).
  6. Misia Landau, Narratives of Human Evolution (Yale: Yale UP, 1993).
  7. Andrew S. Reynolds, Metaphors in the Life Sciences (Cambridge: CUP, 2022), p. 89.
  8. Cited by Reynolds, Metaphors in the Life Sciences (as above), p. 2.
  9. On the longevity of the semi-deified Natura concept see Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Visions, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages(Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 2003). Newman pointed out that the 19th century was the last great age of Nature’s literary “career” where she was given a strong lease on life by many of the poets whom Darwin himself read, such as Wordsworth and Tennyson. There was even a quasi-Spinozan tendency among some of the Romantics, Wordsworth especially, to “merge Nature with Nature’s God” (pp. 52, 137).
  10. Origin of Species, Gillian Beer, ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 66.
  11. Sander Gliboff, H. G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), p. 136. The same point had already been made a century earlier by Bishop Wilberforce and by the leading light of the Oxford Movement of the 1840s, Edward Bouverie Pusey, as the chronicler of English thought, Basil Willey, once made clear: “This same metaphysical unawareness led him also, almost without noticing it, to replace the absent God with a latent personification of Nature, or even of ‘Natural Selection’ itself. True, he catches himself out from time to time, and warns us that he is only speaking metaphorically when he talks of Natural Selection ‘observing minutely,’ ‘with unerring tact discovering each improvement for further perfecting,’ and so forth. But he returns so habitually to that way of speaking, that we feel Pusey to be right in accusing Darwin of having introduced, into the theological vacuum he had created, a power acting according to design (Darwin and Butler: Two Versions of Evolution [London: Chatto and Windus, 1960], p. 30).
  12. What Darwin Got Wrong (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), p. 163.
  13. Of which one of the best accounts remains Neal C. Gillespie’s Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1979). 
  14. Letter to Charles Lyell, September 1860. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-2935.xml
  15. Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman, Your Designed Body (Seattle: Discovery, 2022), p. 370.
  16. Nick Lane, “Lucky to Be There,” in Michael Brooks, ed., Chance: The Science and Secrets of Luck, Randomness and Probability (London: Profile/New Scientist, 2015), pp. 22-33, citations pp. 28, 32.
  17. “Surprisingly, natural selection may have little role to play in one of the key steps of evolution — the origin of new species. Instead it would appear that speciation is merely an accident of fate” (Bob Holmes, “The accident of species,” in Michael Brooks, Chance (as above), pp. 33-42, here p. 33.
  18. What Darwin Got Wrong (as in note 12), p. xiv.
  19. Bob Holmes, “The Accident of Species” in Michael Brooks, ed., Chance (as above), pp. 34-5.
  20. Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), p. 34.
  21. The contention leaves out of account the insuperable difficulty of the species barrier. Furthermore, had the fossil evidence been supportive of Darwin there would have been no justification for Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge to advance their influential punctuated equilibrium theory a half century ago.
  22. From Genesis to Genetics (as in note 1), p. 56.
  23. Michael Ruse, Understanding Natural Selection (Cambridge: CUP, 2023), p. 133. For a fully technical discussion of the “statisticalist” point of view see Charles Pence, The Causal Structure of Natural Selection (Cambridge: CUP, 2021), especially pp. 8-11.