RESEARCH ARTICLE: Power of Natural Selection

Darwin's Finches

Natural selection is a concept that has been around since at least the early 1800s when creationist Edward Blyth proposed a form of the idea. Blyth observed what he called “acquired variations” which, to his mind were “gradually brought about by the operation of known causes.[1]” Blyth first published this in 1835, nearly twenty-five years before another Englishman would spring onto the public consciousness.

Blyth’s ideas did not gain a great deal of traction immediately, but he did catch the attention of Charles Darwin. Blyth and Darwin corresponded periodically from at least 1855 onward until the ailing Blyth’s health completely failed him. The last known exchange occurred in 1869.  However, Darwin was aware of Blyth and his work at least as early as 1839 where Darwin cites Blyth ideas about hummingbirds in a letter to a friend[2]. Darwin would draw heavily on Blyth’s work when formulating his hypothesis of evolution.

So heavily did Darwin’s idea of natural selection draw from Blyth that numerous evolutionists have commented on it, beginning with Loren Eiseley, a well-known anthropologist, and writer in the early part of the twentieth century. Eiseley coauthored a massive article on Blyth’s influence on Darwin in 1959, the centennial of Origin. In this paper, Eiseley pointed out how strange it was that Darwin spoke highly of Blyth, and had clearly read his major articles, yet never cited them, despite citing others who had similar ideas[3].  Eiseley concluded that Darwin had borrowed heavily from Blyth and did not credit him.  In a modern sense, that would be termed plagiarism.  While Eiseley did his best to still adulate Darwin, as it was the one-hundred-year anniversary of his book being published, the facts were pretty clear.

Eiseley’s comments did not sit well with evolutionists, and they have done their best to bury Blyth’s influence on Darwin and debunk Eiseley’s review. While Eiseley did make at least one mistake in his reading of Darwin’s correspondence, his general argument has held up well. Stephen Jay Gould attempted to take down Eiseley’s argument in his book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory but ended up proving that Blyth had been the most prominent proponent of natural selection prior to Darwin. He did this by finding two people who had proposed something similar, one of whom was unknown to Darwin[4], but did not cite a single prominent naturalist other than Blyth who proposed natural selection before Darwin[5].

Credit to Darwin, however, he did not completely plagiarize his ideas from Blyth. Blyth viewed natural selection as a preservative force, meant to weed out the weak.  “In like manner, among animals which procure their food by means of their agility, strength, or delicacy of sense, the one best organised must always obtain the greatest quantity; and must, therefore, become physically the strongest, and be thus enabled, by routing its opponents, to transmit its superior qualities to a greater number of offspring. The same law, therefore, which was intended by Providence[6] to keep up the typical qualities of a species, can be easily converted by man into a means of raising different varieties; but it is equally clear that, if man did not keep up these breeds by regulating the sexual intercourse, they would all naturally soon revert to the original type[7].”  Clearly, based on Blyth’s own work, he viewed natural selection, or, as he termed it “acquired variations” as a preservative.  It did not create new types, it simply preserved existing ones and helped keep them from deteriorating.

By contrast, Darwin viewed natural selection as a creative force. “The passage from one stage of difference to another may, in many cases, be the simple result of the nature of the organism and of the different physical conditions to which it has long been exposed; but with respect to the more important and adaptive characters, the passage from one stage of difference to another, may be safely attributed to the cumulative action of natural selection, hereafter to be explained, and to the effects of the increased use or disuse of parts[8].”  In other words, according to Darwin, natural selection had the ability, over a period of time, to accumulate enough changes to produce a new species or even new type.  This idea that natural selection is creative has been the underlying force behind all forms of Darwinian evolution ever since.

Meaning of Natural Selection

Based on Darwin’s ideas about natural selection, many of his disciples proposed that natural selection amounted to “survival of the fittest” which is what most people even today think of when they think about natural selection.  To an evolutionist in the early days of evolution, fitness meant the ability to survive.  However, this introduced a problem.  Fitness could not be defined by survival value because of this introduced circularity. The fittest organism was the one that survived, but the one that survived was the fittest.  A new definition was needed, and population geneticists would provide it.

The first person to work on a full theory of natural selection was the English statistician and geneticist Ronald Fisher.  Fisher, who helped co-found the field of population genetics, was a strong supporter of Darwinism and held a lifelong commitment to eugenics[9]. In 1938, he published one of, if not the first work dedicated to the study of natural selection.  In this book, he defined natural selection as: “The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time.[10]

If Fisher’s definition sounds like a mathematical equation, that’s because it is. As a statistician, Fisher posed most of his ideas about natural selection in mathematical terms. Splitting it into English, Fisher postulated that fitness increased in an organism at the same rate its genetics varied. In other words, the more heterozygous the genes are, the more fit an organism is. While this does not define natural selection, it does give us an idea of what evolutionists mean by fitness.

However, not every evolutionist completely agreed with Fisher. L.M. Cook wrote a book about natural selection in which he said “When we speak of natural selection we imply that those who survive have a greater fitness than those who do not.[11]”  In other words, Cook acknowledged that the term natural selection seemed to imply the idea of survival of the fittest, though Cook himself defined natural selection more narrowly in his book.  Like Fisher, Cook emphasized mathematical equations to demonstrate the operation of natural selection in various circumstances.

Natural selection itself has varying definitions. One author recognized just how variable it was writing “Natural selection is a very general term describing a vast range of possible mechanisms.[12]”  This has led to multiple definitions of natural selection that vary as widely as the ideas of the authors penning them. However, there is a sort of consensus on this issue.

In his definitive work Natural Selection: Domains, Levels and Challenges George C. Williams explained the traditional definition of natural selection. “In the usual textbook accounts, and in most applications by professional biologists, natural selection operates by the reproductive successes and failures of organisms in populations. Shifting gene frequencies keep the record of success and failure because greater reproductive success for any individual means greater prevalence of its genes in the future. There is nothing in this process that can anticipate future needs or foster adaptations.[13]” In other words, natural selection is a term for the change in gene frequency within a population. These frequencies change as a result of the ability of offspring with those genes to survive and pass on those genes. It is completely blind to what is coming down the pipe and thus cannot cause organisms to pre-emptively adapt to a coming environmental change.

This definition has some implications. It is possible, for example, that natural selection could change a population response to an environment, then find that the change is less fit as the environment changes again. The likelihood of this happening depends on the speed at which a population reproduces. In bacteria, this could happen within a day or two, because they reproduce quickly. It would take much longer in elephants which have a much longer reproductive cycle.

The reason this particular example is relevant is that natural selection does not make the paternal generation more or less equipped for the environment. Instead, it looks at the offspring they produce to determine fitness[14]. Thus fitness cannot be observed in real-time for an individual. Instead, it is something that is inferred based on the success of the offspring. “Fitness, in the sense of ultimate reproductive success, is evidently only measurable after the fact, i.e. over particular known lineages for defined times.[15]” However, if fitness cannot be measured, only inferred, then is measuring fitness really scientific? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by science.

What is Science?

Science is divided into two types. The first is what is referred to as empirical science. This uses the scientific method, looking at things that can be observed, tested, repeated, and falsified. The findings of empirical science have given us technology, like GPS, iPhones, MRIs, antibiotics, and so on. These advances are often cited as reasons to rely on science. However, they frequently ignore the split between empirical (otherwise called observational) science, and the other type of science, historical science.

Creationists have long proposed the historical science is a separate entity from empirical science. Morris and Whitcomb used the phrase “historical geology” as far back as 1961[16]. Other young-earth creationists picked up the term, with it being frequently used by speakers such as Ken Ham[17].   However, creationists did not invent the phrasing, nor did they popularize it. The terminology first appears in an article published in 1935 by an evolutionist who was later given a major evolutionary science award[18]! The phrasing was popularized by Charles Thaxton in a book published in 1984[19]. Thaxton would later join the intelligent design movement.

Mainstream evolutionists, while regularly mocking creationists for using the term, also regularly use the term themselves. “In essence, an evolutionary explanation is a historical interpretation, and so may not yield predictions which can be tested now.[20]” This author acknowledged that evolution is not testable because it is historical. Ernst Mayr, the preeminent expert on speciation in the twentieth century, wrote “For example, Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.[21]” Mayr went so far as to claim Darwin introduced historical science. While this is undoubtedly hyperbole (the article was published in for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.), Mayr is correct that Darwin popularized the historical science perspective in biology like no one ever had before. Evolutionists even today still use the term “historical science”. “But evolutionary biology is a historical science. Like astronomers and geologists, we evolutionary biologists try to figure out what happened in the past. And like historians, we are bedeviled by the asymmetry of time’s arrow-we can’t go back in time to see what happened[22].” Losos, who has also co-authored a college biology textbook, makes it clear that evolution, as well as astronomy and biology,  is historical, rather than empirical.

Ironically, it is some Christians who are behind the times. The theistic evolution group BioLogos recently helped publish a textbook on origins which said “So, scientifically, there is no basis for the origin science-operation science distinction. (emphasis theirs)[23] While they frequently castigate creationists for being outside mainstream science, as pointed out above, creationists are the ones who agree with mainstream science on this point. Ironically enough, BioLogos has used the terms at one point as well[24].

Fitness and Science

Since science is split between two forms, which form would the inferred fitness calculation be a part of? Inference is part of the realm of historical science, which cannot be observed, tested, or repeated. Therefore, attempting to define natural selection in terms of fitness to the environment is questionable. It certainly cannot be proved in an empirical sense.

However, viewing natural selection as differential reproduction seems more viable. “In modern terms, natural selection operates on genetic variation; that is to say, those individuals with certain favorable genes and gene combinations will not only survive, but will be relatively more successful in producing offspring, and the result will be that the genes they possess will survive by being passed on to descendants.[25]”  This is a potentially viable explanation to an extent. However, calling genes favorable or otherwise assumes that favorable is not arbitrary, or influenced by anything outside the genome.  Obviously, different phenotypes of the same organism may not have the same ability to survive in the same environment.

There are further issues with this idea of differential reproduction. One study on natural selection in plants wrote “In a population of annuals, plants producing abundant seeds were compared genetically with plants producing only a few seeds to see if the characters associated with high seed production could be identified. No genetic differences were found between large and small plants. In general, it appears that any plant that has reached reproductive maturity is genetically suited to its environment…[26]” In other words, in annual plants, there is no difference between the genomes of reproductively successful and unsuccessful plants. Another study done on marine shellfish determined that oceanography had more to do with the success of the offspring than their genetics[27]. This deals a devastating blow to natural selection being defined as differential reproductive success.

If successful and unsuccessful reproducing organisms have identical genomes, then reproductive success is independent of genetics. Therefore, natural selection cannot be defined as the survival of favorable genes in a population. The genes are completely irrelevant to the survival of the offspring. This really does the idea of natural selection as differential reproduction no favors. Since genetics play no, or little role in the success of the offspring, what exactly does natural selection select for? Does it even exist?

The answer is yes, but it does not do what evolutionists want it to do. Natural selection functions as a preservative. Damage to the genome in organisms happens all the time. Human mutation rate alone is around 175 mutations per generation, assuming millions of years of evolution[28][29].  Natural selection acts to ensure any major damage is not passed on to the gene pool.  In other words, some organisms are so grossly unfit that they will die off or be easily eaten by other organisms. Natural selection ensures that these bad traits are removed or highly reduced in the population. Even some evolutionists have recognized the conservative power of natural selection. “The major constraint on natural selection as an agent of change is natural selection as a stabilizing force[30].” In other words,  natural selection prevents a gene pool from taking a nose dive due to mutation. It removes the worst mutations but is blind to the neutral or slightly deleterious mutations.

This is not the same as differential reproduction success. Differential reproductive success takes into account the success of every offspring produced by an organism. Conservative selection can only see the worst offspring and remove those. All other offspring survive and can potentially reproduce.  It cannot see the slightly less fit or the equally fit but different offspring. And, even if it could, fitness is entirely dependent on the environmental conditions so natural selection is really nothing more than environmental selection preserving the animals best suited to the environment.  Since natural selection cannot see the neutral to near neutral offspring, it cannot select for them, and therefore, conservative selection cannot account for upward evolutionary change.

Implications of Selection

The implications of this idea, that selection is conservative, rather than dependent on the success of the offspring, are significant. Evolutionists have known since at least Fisher that “Natural selection is not evolution[31].” In fact, natural selection is the exact opposite of evolution. Evolution is, by all accounts, an upward process in terms of complexity[32].  Natural selection, as we have defined it in this chapter, does not explain an increase in complexity. Instead, natural selection directly prevents an increase of complexity within the gene pool.

Before going any further, it would be wise to define what exactly I mean by complexity.  Evolutionists have struggled with defining this term.  Perhaps this is because there are so many groups of people attempting to define the term. In biology, complexity is generally defined as either structural or functional.  In fact, one author wrote that defining complexity universally might be impossible[33]. Another author admitted complexity was beyond the ability of biologists to currently understand[34]. However, for our purposes, complexity will be considered as a combination of morphological and functional complexity. Thus, when I refer to an increase in complexity, I will be referring to an increase in function or the gaining of new morphology or function.

Conservative selection eliminates an increase in complexity as a possibility for a number of reasons.  The primary one is that it makes it impossible for a large mutational change to persist in the population. Consider the possibility of evolving from an arm to a wing, such as is proposed in the hypothetical “dinosaur to bird model”. How many changes must be made? Numerous. Going from a dinosaur arm to a bird wing requires feathers, restructuring of the bones of the arm and hand, a complete restructuring of the arm and chest muscles and so on. Making those changes would require significant mutational changes, large enough to be eliminated by the conservative force of natural selection.

Evolutionists might counter that an increase in information in the genome would account for the necessary change to make a dinosaur arm into a bird wing. Some, in fact, have made this argument. “Thus, natural selection can be viewed as a filter, a kind of semipermeable membrane that lets information flow into the genome, but prevents it from flowing out.[35]” This author is far from alone in making this claim. Williams makes it as well. “Information can proliferate and be edited by natural selection only if the selection affects the information at a greater rate than competing processes such as mutation and drift.[36]” In other words, Williams claims that information is can increase and be acted on by natural selection only if selection outpaces mutation rate. While this is partly spurious, given that mutations do not create new information, they simply scramble existing information, selection can only operate on existing information anyway, so the point is moot. Even worse, gene flow tends to work against selection. “Gene flow tends to oppose the effects of local selection and thus limits adaptation.[37]” In other words, adding information into the population actually prevents specialization and slows adaptation to the environment among a population. This is because more variation is present and thus the variations that are best for a given environment take longer to be established as predominant in the population.

When evolutionists make this point, they ignore a fundamental issue.  Information transmission requires pre-existing information. Getting truly new information requires thought and intellect. “Creative information can always be linked to a person who has cognitive capabilities, and it represents something new[38].”  In other words, new information requires thought. Only humanity and God Himself have the ability to produce this. Thus, when evolutionists claim that new information is permitted to enter the gene pool via natural selection, they are deceived in claiming it is new.  The information entering a gene pool enters it only by means of reproductive means. That means that, while the information is new to the gene pool, it is not new in the sense that it had not previously existed. Rather it is new in the sense it is new to the population. Evolutionists recognize this. “Natural selection is common enough in natural populations to have been detected in a wide variety of organisms … However, natural selection does not explain the origin of new variants, only the process of changes in their frequency[39].” The author of this quote, Dr. John Endler, has extensive experience with natural selection. When he admits natural selection does not explain new variants, evolutionists would do well to listen.

The implications of the above paragraph are staggering. If the only way that information comes into a population is through reproduction, then there is no way to increase complexity in a population.  Since reproduction only mixes existing information, and massively different animals (ie birds and dinosaurs) have not been shown to successfully breed, then we can say that this mixing is between different organisms with very similar DNA.  Since the DNA is similar, there is no reason to conclude that this process can increase the complexity of the organisms involved. Yet this is exactly what evolution requires.

 Natural Selection and Kinds

Natural selection has been repeatedly used in creationist literature to justify the origin of species under a creationist model. Dr. Jonathan Sarfati pointed out that creationists freely accept that natural selection acting on populations can create new species[40]. Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson explained “Since Noah took only two of the cat min on board the Ark, the 30-plus species of cats alive today have formed since the Flood. How? Via adaptation, natural selection, and biological change.[41] (emphasis his)” In other words, natural selection plays a role in speciation. However, the species is not the same as the kind.  While there is not space here to explain the entire concept of the Biblical kind, I have devoted a previous extensive research project to this topic. I will briefly overview the topic below.

When creationists speak of the concept of a kind, they refer to a larger group that often encompasses multiple species. While there are several variations on the idea of a kind, most creationists agree that kinds are a Biblical grouping that can be defined either by morphology, ability to hybridize, or statistically. The Bible appears to imply that this grouping ought to be based on hybridization[42], but this point is in some question in the creationist community. Regardless, natural selection is a key component of the creationist kind model.

The conservative natural selection view as explained above works very well within the creationist kind model. If a population of organisms was to become isolated, they would be split from others that could breed with them. This would keep new information from being introduced into the population.   This lack of new information would cause traits to become fixed in the population. This is due to the conservative force of natural selection. Since natural selection keeps populations from losing anything but the most deleterious traits, isolated populations would have fixed traits, which may or may not have been fixed in the main population.  For example, if the isolated population was composed largely of homozygous recessive individuals for a given trait, say white fur, then this trait would become fixed.   Thus viewing natural selection as a conservative force works perfectly well with a creation model of created kinds.

Power of Natural Selection? 

Does natural selection have power? Perhaps.  It can certainly select to fit an organism to its environment. There is an absolute myriad of examples that could be given to make this point.  One recent one involves lice that live on pigeons.  The study involved putting lice of different colors on different color pigeons and seeing what happened. Some of the pigeons were restricted, others were not. On the restricted pigeons, lice that matched the feathers and that did not match the feathers both remained at the end of the experiment. On the unrestricted pigeons, only those lice which matched the feathers remained[43].  This is environmental selection at its finest.  Note that this is an example of how conservative selection works. Only the massively deleterious color morphs were killed by the pigeons. The neutral or near neutrals were not eaten. The environment thus proved deleterious to what otherwise would be a neutral color morph of the louse.

Note that it is the environment that drives selection.  The environment around the louse determined whether it lived or died. If it happened to match its background, then it would survive. If it did not, it died.  The environment effectively determines the fate of the louse in this experiment.  And this is true in most cases where natural selection is discussed.  Thus “natural selection” is something of a misnomer. It should be termed environmental selection, though technically the environment is not consciously selecting anything.

Thus natural selection does have power. Its power, however, is largely conservative in a population. It does not have the power to create anything new, nor does It have the power to plan for environmental changes.  Thus, its power is largely limited in scale and scope. It can account for stability within a population or even minor changes that cannot be observed by natural selection, ie changes that are neutral. In other words, it is possible that eye color within a population could change by means of genetic drift but developing an entirely new trait from an existing trait, such as the bird’s wing from a dinosaur forearm is completely impossible.



[1] Edward Blyth “An attempt to classify the “varieties” of animals with observations on the marked seasonal and other changes which naturally take place in various British species and which do not constitute varieties.” Magazine of Natural History 10 (1835)

[2] Charles Darwin “Letter no. 547” Darwin Correspondence Project accessed April 10, 2019.

[3] Loren C. Eiseley and A. Grote. “Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and the Theory of Natural Selection.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Volume 103, No. 1 (1959) Pages 94-158.

[4] That at least one of these men at least was unknown to Darwin is evidenced by the fact he angrily wrote to Darwin when the first edition of Origin was published and demanded a citation for his work, convinced Darwin had read it. Darwin apologetically admitted he had not and cited him in future editions of the book.

[5] Stephen Jay Gould The Structure of Evolutionary Theory Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

[6] Providence was the late eighteenth, early nineteenth-century term for God.

[7] Blyth, 1835.

[8] Charles Darwin The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of the favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray, 1876.

[9]James Moore.  “R.A. Fisher: a faith fit for eugenics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Volume 38, no. 1 (2007) Pages 110-135.

[10] Ronald A. Fisher The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1958.

[11] L. M. Cook Coefficients of Natural Selection London: Hutchinson University Library, 1971.

[12] Oliver Mayo Natural Selection and its Constraints London: Academic Press Inc. Ltd, 1983.

[13] George C. Williams Natural Selection: Domains, Levels and Challenges New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

[14] Richard B. Primack and Hyesoon Kang “Measuring Fitness and Natural Selection in Wild Plant Populations” Annual Review of Ecology Systematics Volume 20 (1989) Pages 367-396.

[15] Mayo, 1983.

[16] Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb The Genesis Flood  Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1961.

[17] Ken Ham “Observational and Historical Science­–Saving Lives” Answers in Genesis May 27, 2014 Accessed June 6, 2019.

[18] A. L. Kroeber, History and Science In Anthropology 37, no.4 (October–December 1935), 546-547.

[19] Charles Thaxton et al., The Mystery of Life’s Origin (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1984), 204–205.

[20] Mayo, 1983.

[21] Ernst Mayr “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought” Scientific American November 24, 2009. Accessed June 6, 2019.

[22] Jonathan Losos. Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and Future of Evolution. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017.

[23] Robert C. Bishop et al Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins  Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018

[24] “Is historical science reliable?” BioLogos Updated January 19, 2019, Accessed June 6, 2019.

[25] John Tyler Bonner The Evolution of Complexity by Means of Natural Selection Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988

[26] Primack and Kang, 1989.

[27] Dennis Hedgecock “Does variance in reproductive success limit effective population sizes of marine organisms?” Genetics and Evolution of Aquatic Organisms  Volume 2 no. 5 (1994)

[28] Michael W. Nachman and Susan L. Crowell “Estimate of the Mutation Rate per Nucleotide in Humans.” Genetics Volume 156 (2000) Pages 297-304.

[29] Note, I do not accept the millions of years idea. Many of these “mutations” are probably not mutations but are rather assumed based on our assumed chimpanzee ancestry.  Thus the mutation rate is likely lower.

[30] Mayo, 1983.

[31] Fisher, 1958.

[32] Daniel W. McShea “Complexity and Evolution: What Everybody Knows” Biology and Philosophy Volume 6 (1991) Page 303-324.

[33] Christoph Adami “What is complexity?” BioEssays Volume 24 (2002) Pages 1085-1094.

[34] Marc H.V. Van Regenmortel “Reductionism and complexity in molecular biology” EMBO Reports Volume 5 no. 11 (2004) Pages 1016-1020.

[35] Adami, 2002.

[36] Williams, 1992.

[37] Thomas Lenormand “Gene Flow and the limits to natural selection” TRENDS in Ecology & Evolution Volume 17, no. 4 (2002) Pages 183-189.

[38] Werner Gitt. In the beginning was information Green Forest, AR; Master Books, 2005, p 112

[39] J.A. Endler Natural Selection in the Wild Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1986.

[40] Jonathan Sarfati Refuting Evolution 2 Powder Springs, GA; Creation Book Publishers, 2004.

[41] Nathaniel Jeanson “Is Natural Selection at Odds with Creation?” Answers Magazine Volume 13, no. 2 (2018)

[42] Emory Moynagh “Modeling the Biblical Kind” In His Image January 16, 2019 Accessed June 7, 2019.

[43] Sarah E. Bush et al., “Host Defense Triggers Rapid Adaptive Radiation in Experimentally Evolving Parasites,” Evolution Letters (2019): 1–9, doi:10.1002/evl3.104.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s