Natural Selection: Why the Unbelief

If evolution is true, then whatever natural selection does in nature should be self-evidently understood.

What did natural selection “do” in nature for all those who survive to reproduce?

You can’t easily answer the question above, can you? Why not? After a generation of exclusive evolution education all around the world, why is it that neither you nor anyone else can answer this simple question simply?

What does natural selection do in nature?

Natural selection must do something; why else include it as a part of the evolutionary process? Why call evolution the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection if natural selection does not do something to make evolution happen? What does “by” mean?

It seems to us that the lack of a ready answer to the question is odd, and most hobby-evolutionists dodge the question altogether as being ridiculous, as if the answer should be self-evident to any smart person. And yet the hobbyists cannot answer it.

Beyond the hobbyists, serious educators are also troubled by the public’s lack of understanding of what natural selection does in nature. And they should be troubled. Because the lack of an answer is not due to a lack of teaching. It is due to a lack of any substance in teaching about natural selection that provides in any answer to the question above.

Most people are not fools, and they will not be fooled.

Yes, students will go along to get along; nobody wants to be seen as misunderstanding something said to be a fact of nature that is practically a law of nature. And everyone wants to pass their exams. So despite any true understanding, the memorized and meaningless correct answers flow out like magic on test forms.

As a result the quiet part of evolution–not spoken but known to all–haunts all serious evolutionists: They know that almost everyone secretly dismisses natural selection as a mystery at best and as a lie at worst.

Ironically, as we will see, for educators this ever-present lack of understanding stubbornly persists not because students cannot understand. It is because the explanations provided are not understandable. The explainers and the explanations simply do not make sense.

Let us illustrate.

In an interesting article addressing the problem of understanding natural selection entitled “Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions,” posted by BioMed Central (BMC) as part of an “Evolution and Outreach” series, we find the quiet part in the Abstract:

Unfortunately, studies indicate that natural selection is generally very poorly understood, even among many individuals with postsecondary biological education. This paper provides an overview of the basic process of natural selection, discusses the extent and possible causes of misunderstandings of the process, and presents a review of the most common misconceptions that must be corrected before a functional understanding of natural selection and adaptive evolution can be achieved.

Gregory, T.R. Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions. Evo Edu Outreach 2, 156–175 (2009).

Natural selection is “poorly understood”? Why might this be? We find out immediately by reading the very first paragraph labeled as the Introduction. We reproduce it in full below. For discussion purposes we have added bold emphasis and numbered each of the four sentences:

(1) Natural selection is a non-random difference in reproductive output among replicating entities, often due indirectly to differences in survival in a particular environment, leading to an increase in the proportion of beneficial, heritable characteristics within a population from one generation to the next. (2) That this process can be encapsulated within a single (admittedly lengthy) sentence should not diminish the appreciation of its profundity and power. (3) It is one of the core mechanisms of evolutionary change and is the main process responsible for the complexity and adaptive intricacy of the living world. (4) According to philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995), this qualifies evolution by natural selection as “the single best idea anyone has ever had.”


Did you get that? Now do you understand what natural selection does?

You don’t?

Let’s find out why. Let’s take a look at the irony displayed in this paragraph sentence by sentence:

Sentence 1: This sentence describes natural selection, not by what it does in nature, but by the results it produces. A “non-random difference in reproductive entities” is an observation of a result, not a causal process or explanation responsible for producing the result. Defining natural selection as a result fails to address how non-random differences in reproductive entities are achieved. Such a definition is akin to defining “photosynthesis” as “the non-random difference in color in reproductive plants.” Not surprisingly, defining natural selection merely as an observed state of nature absent a process for achieving the state leads to natural selection being “poorly understood.”

The question for thinking people critiquing evolution remains centered on the process or mechanism of natural selection. Again, what does natural selection “do” for the survivors to produce “differences in survival”?

Sentence 2: That this process . . . stop! No process was described in Sentence 1. That is exactly the problem! Until a process (What does natural selection do?) is described, natural selection will continue to be “poorly understood.”

Sentence 3: It [natural selection] is one of the core mechanisms of . . . stop! No mechanism was described in either of Sentence 1 or Sentence 2.

Now do you see the problem? The fact that Sentence 4 is included in this paragraph is pure irony: natural selection may be believed to be the single best idea anyone has ever had, but it is an idea believed despite its being devoid of any substance.

Natural selection is the best idea only for those who do not demand to understand how nature works.

For the rest of us, let’s charitably agree that natural selection remains “poorly understood.”

Here is some good news: natural selection need not ever again be poorly understood by anybody. We have published The Natural Selection Paradox, in which we explain exactly what natural selection does in nature to explain the existence of every living thing.

If you are one of those for whom natural selection is poorly understood, or if you are one of those who think they perfectly understand natural selection but cannot answer the question “what does natural selection do in nature?”, then you should check out The Natural Selection Paradox. We have even provided an abridged version for a quicker read.

You will be either delighted or confounded.

But you will never think about natural selection the same way again.

We promise.

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