No evidence for natural selection
Books | Darwinist examples rely on a misunderstanding of the difference between micro- and macroevolution
by Tom Bethell
Posted 6/09/18, 11:15 am
In Darwin’s House of Cards, Tom Bethell gives us a gusty and gutsy look at a dogma edging beyond its sell-by date. He notes that today’s progressives aren’t progressive—they are defending mid-19th century scientific understanding. As Bethell writes, “Darwin and his contemporaries had no way of knowing just how complex a cell is. Today it is sometimes compared to a high-tech factory. But a cell is far more complex than that. For one thing, factories can’t replicate themselves.”
In our excerpt from Chapter 6, courtesy of the Discovery Institute, Bethell shows the utter lack of evidence for natural selection, and explains why standard Darwinist tropes on peppered moths, Galápagos finches, and antibiotic resistance are bait and switches that depend on listeners not understanding the difference between microevolution (changes within kinds that happen all the time) and macroevolution, where a creature truly new and different emerges.
WORLD named Darwin’s House of Cards the 2017 Book of the Year in the Origins category. —Marvin Olasky
What Is the Evidence for Natural Selection?
In recent years, Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been ever more extravagantly praised, even as counter-arguments have increased. Daniel Dennett, the author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, went further than most when he wrote:
If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.1
An atheist, Dennett once said: “You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter.”2 According to Richard Dawkins, however, natural selection provides “a workable process that does that very counter-intuitive thing.”3
Dawkins and Dennett, both at Oxford at the same time, once worked as an unofficial team. The idea that a pot can make the potter is what made Darwin’s “contribution to human thought so revolutionary and so loaded with the power to raise consciousness,” Dawkins wrote.4 The pot-to-potter claim is in fact quite helpful because it shows just how extreme—Dawkins says revolutionary—Darwin’s idea was. It raised Dawkins’s own consciousness. We can be excused if it fails to raise ours, at least until we hear some evidence for the claim.
Elsewhere, Dawkins said that natural selection “is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life.” Furthermore, it is something that we “know” to be true. It is an “automatic process.”5 Julian Huxley, for one, was already on board. He said in 1959 that Darwin “pointed out that no supernatural designer was needed, since natural selection could account for any known form of life.”6
In The Origin of Species, Darwin provided one (imaginary) example of natural selection (described in the previous chapter). Since then a handful of examples have been endlessly recycled and Darwin himself could well have mentioned them—had he known what to look for. But they are not quite what he had in mind. He regarded natural selection as the mechanism that transforms one species into others. The modern examples show something far less impressive than that. So let’s review them in turn and see what they show.
The Peppered Moth
The most frequently cited example of natural selection is a change in the ratio of speckled and melanic (dark) moths in Britain. Ever since the Chicago centennial, it has been promoted as providing the best support for Darwin’s theory. (In Chapter 3 I briefly covered the moths.) Dark moths had spread in the industrial areas of Britain “within living memory,” said Prof. E. B. Ford of Oxford. Julian Huxley added that the naturalist Bernard Kettlewell had shown that birds “picked off a majority of those moths that did not match their surroundings.” It was “an actual quantitative experiment.”7
Kettlewell began by collecting the two moth varieties and marking them for later recognition. Then he released them in two wooded areas; one polluted, near Birmingham, the other in rural Dorset. In the polluted areas where trees were blackened, the dark moths were abundant. But in the rural woods, where lichens thrived on tree trunks, the light moths did best. The predators were sharp-eyed birds, so Kettlewell concluded that camouflage was the key to their differential survival.
Kettlewell’s experiment was later criticized because he released the moths during daylight hours and they fluttered to the nearest resting place, tree trunks. Later it was discovered that the moths do not rest there. Their normal resting place turned out to be high among the leaves in the crown of the trees. So there were complaints—even accusations of fraud.
An amended version of the experiment was then done by a British biologist, Michael Majerus, but he died before he could publish his results. Other biologists then came to his aid, posthumously. His results, published in Biology Letters, weakly supported the bird-predation and camouflage theory.
Jonathan Wells included a chapter on these much-studied moths in his book Icons of Evolution. He reviewed Kettlewell’s data, but in a sense it was all irrelevant. As Wells later wrote, Darwinian evolution requires much more than the selection of beneficial traits,
and much more than a shift in the proportions of light- and dark-colored moths. It requires the descent with modification of all living things from one or a few common ancestors. Darwin did not write a book titled How the Proportions of Two Pre-existing Moth Varieties Can Change through Natural Selection; he wrote a book titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.8
The real question, Wells added, is whether natural selection can produce “new species, organs and body plans.” That is not answered, or even addressed “by shifts in the proportions of pre-existing varieties of the same species.”
Majerus said in a 2007 lecture that the moth story is important because it is “is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action.” Therefore “it should be taught. It provides after all the Proof of Evolution.”9
Wells commented: What matters, evidently, is that the moth story “is a useful tool for indoctrinating students in Darwinian evolution.”
Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution Is True and an early critic of the Kettlewell deception, embraced the Majerus revision. “I am delighted to agree with this conclusion, which answers my previous criticisms about the Biston story,” he wrote. (Biston betularia is the Latin name of the moth species.) Coyne then continued:
But we have to remember that the evidence for natural selection never rested entirely—or even substantially—on the bird predation experiments, but rather on the data-sets documenting allele frequency changes that were consistent, parallel on two continents, and then reversed when the environment changed.10
Coyne’s last seven words are significant. After Britain enacted its Clear Air Act, the polluted woods recovered and the dark moths lost their relative advantage. The ratio of dark and speckled moths (“allele frequency changes”) then reverted to normal. In the unpolluted environment, the light-colored moths regained the “adaptive” title.
It is sometimes said that natural selection caused the moths “to adapt to their environment.” But notice that no individual moth changed color or acquired a novel adaptation. The dark and light varieties existed before the experiment began and were still with us after pollution controls were in place. The dark (melanic) variety simply became relatively more numerous. It might be said that the moth “population” adapted, but that only serves to disguise the point that individual moths did not.
The persistent invocation of the moth experiment despite its obvious weakness shows that evolutionists do not have more persuasive examples to offer.
Resistance to Antibiotics
As a popular example of natural selection, bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a close runner-up to the moths. So let’s hear the drum roll from Richard Dawkins: Bacterial resistance illustrates “the wondrous power of natural selection.”11
What is that wondrous power?
Bacteria are single-celled organisms, found all over the world, in our gut (E. coli) and deep underwater. Some can replicate asexually in a matter of minutes and their short generation-span accounts for their popularity among lab researchers. If Silicon Valley were ever to achieve self-replication, it would indeed demonstrate a “wondrous power.” But it is something that engineers have not yet been able to manage with any artifact designed by humans.
Bacteria subsist on a wide variety of nutrients drawn from their environment. Now add a poison to the mix: for example, an anti-bacterial substance such as penicillin (discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928). What happens? Some or many of the bacteria will die, but others will survive the onslaught.
The number of bacteria species is not known but it is thought to be in the millions. Some may well be immune to the poison, and so they will survive. The ones that do survive (“the fittest,” of course) will have greater access to nutrients. They will flourish. So that is what bacterial resistance to antibiotics amounts to: differential survival (once again). Some bacteria flourish; others don’t. But this does not explain how any bacterium was generated in the first place.
As with the moths, then, bacterial resistance to antibiotics explains how we get more of something that already exists.
Now let’s complicate the picture a little, with help from Michael Behe, the biochemist at Lehigh University. In Darwin’s Black Box (1996) he famously drew attention to the “irreducible complexity” of the bacterial flagellum—an outboard “propeller” that transports bacteria through fluids. Behe’s message was that if you try to build the flagellum one part at a time, it won’t function. All the parts need to be in place from the beginning. In that respect it is like a mousetrap, Behe said. Part of a mousetrap placed on the floor won’t catch a few mice; it won’t catch any.
In a recent interview, I asked Behe if any new features of an organism have been shown to arise by natural selection.
“As far as I know the strongest such evidence comes from antibiotic resistance in bacteria,” he told me.
But what about the argument that it gives you more of what you already have?
That is usually true, Behe replied, but an experiment can begin with just one bacterium, “and that sometimes does show something new.”
He reassured me that you can indeed start an experiment with a single bacterium, “[a]nd one that has no resistance to antibiotics.” You can grow that up, and as they grow into large numbers, mistakes in the DNA are made, comparable to errors in a manuscript that is repeatedly copied. “But what you find,” Behe added, “is that most of these mutations involve the loss of an activity or function that the bacterium once had.”
In such cases, some of those mutations might “luckily help it survive in the presence of an antibiotic, or something else in the environment,” Behe said. In that way, a mutated bacterium develops antibiotic resistance even though its progenitor was unprotected. But it also shows something else.
“It is good evidence that mutations can do little more than break things,” Behe went on. “And occasionally those breaks have a beneficial side effect.” But it “certainly isn’t building anything.”
We shall hear a similar story from Behe in Chapter 16, dealing with Richard Lenski’s multi-generational experiment at Michigan State University. Lenski has bred bacteria non-stop in his lab since 1988 and is continuing to do so. Again, he showed that when a mutation breaks a bacterial bond, it can be as “liberating” to bacteria as it is to a prisoner who breaks his chains. Nonetheless, Lenski’s bacteria remain the same species of bacteria to this day.
According to Lee Spetner, all cases of antibiotic resistance in bacteria involve such “breaking,” which is a loss of information in the genome. When the antibiotic is removed from the bacterial environment the bacteria revert to their natural form, which is more robust. Losing information is not the kind of evolution that leads to greater complexity and new structures.12
The main point is that experimental evidence on antibiotic resistance has not shown us how we get bacteria, or any other microbe. All it has shown is how we get relatively more (or fewer) of one variety or another. Meanwhile, something else has come up. If you search online for antibiotic resistance you will find it presented not as a triumph of Darwinism but as a problem for public health. This is from the Center for Disease Control:
Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment when it is really needed. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, school-mates, and co-workers—threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.13
In the 1980s, we began to hear that finches in the Galápagos Islands provide one more example of natural selection. This is our third illustration. Darwin spent a few weeks there in 1835 when on board H.M.S. Beagle. He brought finch specimens home to England, but he was not much interested in them at the time. Over a hundred years later the ornithologist David Lack published Darwin’s Finches (1947), proposing that different beak sizes on the different islands were adaptations caused by natural selection.
According to Lack, the finches “started a train of thought which culminated in the Origin of Species.”14
But Darwin’s involvement in this story is less important than what happened later.
The key Galápagos research, done by Peter and Rosemary Grant, starting in 1973, was described in detail by Jonathan Weiner in The Beak of the Finch (1994). He called the Grants’ work “the best and most detailed demonstration to date of the power of Darwin’s process.”15
The Galápagos finches are distinguished mainly by the size of their beaks. A key event was a drought in 1977, when rainfall was a fraction of normal. The finches eat seeds, and with the drought small seeds became scarce. To crack open the more abundant large seeds a larger beak helped. Natural selection therefore “favored” the finches with larger beaks. It was a “selection event,” said the Grants. They concluded that only about twenty such events would be needed to transform an average Galápagos finch into an entirely different species.
Here the Grants were extrapolating, and as Jonathan Wells said, their extrapolation depended on the assumption “that increases in beak size are cumulative from one drought to the next.”16
A few years later the El Niño current brought heavy rainfall, and small seeds were once again abundant. The average beak size then returned to its previous level. In 1987 Peter Grant and his graduate student duly reported in Nature a “reversal in the direction of selection.” Smaller beak size was “favored in years following very wet conditions, possibly because the food supply is dominated by small soft seeds.”17
“Selection had flipped,” wrote Jonathan Weiner. “The birds took a giant step backward after their giant step forward.” The finch population was oscillating back and forth. Wells concluded in Icons of Evolution:
Thanks to years of careful research by the Grants and their colleagues, we know quite a lot about natural selection and breeding patterns in Darwin’s finches. And the available evidence is clear. First, selection oscillates with climatic fluctuations, and does not exhibit long term evolutionary change. … [Yet] evidence for oscillating natural selection in finch beaks is claimed as evidence for the origin of finches in the first place.18
In Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne picked up the story—or a part of it. He attributed the finches’ “adaptation” to an anomalous change in the climate. The large-beaked survivors left more offspring, and then, by the next generation:
natural selection had increased the average beak size by 10 percent (body size increased as well). That is a staggering rate of evolutionary change—far larger than anything we see in the fossil record. … Everything we require of evolution by natural selection was amply documented by the Grants in other studies.19
But there was one thing Coyne didn’t tell his readers: That when the rains returned with El Niño, the average beak size returned to normal.
From Darwin’s House of Cards by Tom Bethell. Copyright © 2017 by Discovery Institute. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
1. Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Touchstone, 1994), 21.
2. Dennett, “SPIEGEL Interview with Evolution Philosopher Daniel Dennett: Darwinism Completely Refutes Intelligent Design,” Der Spiegel, 2005, accessed on April 6, 2016, http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/spiegel-interview-with-evolution-philosopher-daniel-dennett-darwinism-completely-refutes-intelligent-design-a-392319.html.
3. Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 142.
4. Ibid., 117.
5. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 5.
6. Evolution After Darwin, vol. 3, 46.
7. Ibid., vol. 3, 113.
8. Jonathan Wells, “Revenge of the Peppered Moths?,” Evolution News and Views, February 12, 2012, accessed on April 6, 2016, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/02/revenge_of_the056291.html.
9. Michael Majerus, “The Peppered Moth: The Proof of Darwinian Evolution,” 2007, Department of Genetics at University of Cambridge, http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/images/researchpages/majerus/peppered-moth-proof-evolution-text/view.
10. Jerry Coyne, “The Peppered Moth Story Is Solid,” Why Evolution Is True, February 10, 2012, accessed on April 21, 2016, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/the-peppered-moth-story-is-solid/.
11. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, 132.
12. Lee Spetner, Not By Chance! Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution (Brooklyn: Judaica Press, 2006).
13. “Press Release: HHS, Public Health Partners Unveil New Campaign to Promote Awareness of Proper Antibiotic Use,” Center for Disease Control, September 17, 2003, accessed on April 21, 2016, http://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/r030917.htm.
14. David Lack, Darwin’s Finches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), preface, v.
15. Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 9.
16. Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution Is Wrong (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2002), 168.
17. H. Lisle Gibbs and Peter Grant, “Oscillating Selection on Darwin’s Finches,” Nature 327 (1987): 512.
18. Wells, Icons, 173–174.
19. Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 145.