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A New Look at Natural Selection

Photo credit: Dreamy Pixel, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Having introduced in earlier posts the idea of a “science of purpose,” I would like now to reflect upon what most naturalists identify as Darwin’s crowning intellectual achievement: natural selection. It is worthwhile to recall that some fifty years before Darwin, renowned naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had already proclaimed that organisms change over time, a most radical view indeed. The word evolution would not be used to describe this transformation until about fifty years after Lamarck’s death.

Darwin agreed with and fortified Lamarck’s claims with detailed descriptions of the variations among species. The concept that species change over time was by no means newly articulated by Darwin. The question was, “How did these changes occur?” Lamarck’s answer, which has been often ridiculed but which we now know is partially true, is that organisms who acquire certain traits during their life will pass on those characteristics to their offspring. 

These acquired characteristics would include such qualities as muscle strength, height, ability to alter the environment with nests, hives, burrows, etc., and would be captured by the germline of the parent and thus inherited by the offspring, giving them a survival advantage. 

Alas, attempts to verify Lamarck’s theory did not materialize until late in the 20th century. Lamarck made his claims 150 years prior, when experiments such as cutting off the tails of mice and dogs to see if their offspring would no longer have tails, all ended in failure.

The Pick of the Litter

Both Darwin and Lamarck knew that siblings vary from one another. Not every puppy is the pick of the litter. And Darwin took great interest in the practice of livestock breeders, who through great skill and directed (aka artificial) selection, could choose among offspring so that over a series of generations certain inherited characteristics would be amplified among dogs, horses, sheep, cattle, etc. Darwin and his acolytes consider his description of natural selection, as the mechanism of how species change, to be his greatest intuition. It earned him the title of the father of evolutionary theory.

And as many of us know, it was the unguided, purely natural process of successfully surviving in the wild that selected certain offspring to survive and breed at the expense of their lesser siblings. Thus, unguided nature, without cognizance or direction, acting upon the randomly inherited variation of characteristics among sibling offspring, was responsible for species change, and therefore, for evolution. In this context, by the way, it is worth noting that it was not Darwin but Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” although Darwin is often incorrectly credited with it.

In an earlier article, I pointed out that the primary agency of evolution is the purpose-driven nature of organisms, which precedes any effect of natural selection on evolution. Stephen Meyer, James Tour, Jonathan Wells, and others have repeatedly noted also that natural selection could have no effect on the origin of life, because before there was life, there was nothing for selection to act upon.

Some Contrariwise Assertions

All that of course is just by way of background, allowing me to make the following contrariwise assertions about Darwin’s great insight, natural selection. Darwin’s aim was to reify the lifeless/inanimate environment as the actual cause of speciation. The intent was clear: to eliminate any suggestion of external or intelligent design. The problem however is that pesky word, selection. It is a straightforward oxymoron to assert that something inanimate, incapable of choosing or directing a cause, could actually direct a cause, i.e., select. Just think of this: When you go shopping for any kind of attire do you not select that which is most appropriate for the occasion? A tuxedo for a wedding, hiking boots and a poncho for trek in a rainforest, a bathing suit for the beach, and something soft and comfortable for bedtime? 

Reducing this argument to more tangible physical terms, it seems that Darwin was unwilling to acknowledge that the fix for conscious selection was already embedded in an environment which had the innate ability to nurture creatures with capabilities suited to it. It is actually very important to be able to extract oxygen out of water if you are going to be a fish or a mollusk or a crustacean. It is actually important to have flippers and not fingers if you are going to be a marine mammal or penguin. It is important to have thick fur and to store fat if you are going to live in the snow. If you want to fly above it all you better have hollow bones and extremely strong pectoral muscles. If you want to burrow below the fray, you better have proper claws for digging. And if you are a pine tree, you need to have antifreeze in your needles if you are rooted beyond certain latitudes or elevations.

Yes, indeed, natural selection is true. But that selection is not accomplished in the oxymoronic fashion of the inanimate acting with purpose. It is instead that the environment itself was designed with purpose so that it had the transcendent ability to nurture the arrival and survival of purpose-driven organisms on our glorious blue planet.