Natural selection seems logical. In a hostile environment, only the fittest survive; and we see it happening. But even in Darwin’s day, no one was sure how minor variations could
produce new species. Despite the passage of 150 years, the debate
By Dr. Charles Todd Wood, director of the Center for Origins Research at Byran College.
To read more from AnswersInGenesis, click here.
In 1844 Samuel Morse sent the world’s first
telegram; James Polk defeated Henry Clay in the U.S. presidential
election; and in a tiny town in England, 35-year-old Charles Darwin put
the finishing touches on the first full presentation of his “species
theory. A central pillar of Darwin’s theory was the idea of a “natural process of selection,” which he described with these words:
more are bred than can survive; the smallest grain in the balance, in
the long run, must tell on which death shall fall, and which shall
survive. Let this work of selection, on the one hand, and death on the
other, go on for a thousand generations; who would pretend to affirm
that it would produce no effect.(2)
is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any
being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself,
. . . will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally
— Introduction to Origin of Species, p. 5
This was one of Darwin’s first clear statements of the principle of natural selection.
looked at life a little differently than his contemporaries. Natural
theologians emphasized the balance and perfection of nature, but Darwin
saw creatures at war with one another, struggling for limited
resources. Those animals that were faster and stronger would prevail in
this struggle over the slower, weaker animals.
struggle for existence was not new to Darwin. Many other people had
noticed it long before Darwin wrote it down. For example, one of
Darwin’s mentors, Charles Lyell, wrote about it in his Principles of Geology,(3) and another of Darwin’s friends, Edward Blyth, even used the phrase “struggle for existence."(4) None of these
earlier writers ever worked out the implications of natural selection
to the extent that Darwin did.
To these men’s early
thoughts about the struggle for existence, Darwin added random
variation in reproduction. If creatures produce slightly varying
offspring, what happens in an environment that cannot support them all?
Previous writers had mostly emphasized how offspring deviated from the
supposed perfect balance in nature. For example, Blyth wrote, “How
beautifully do we thus perceive . . . the balance of nature preserved.
. . . The slightest deviation from the natural hue must generally prove
contrast, Darwin imagined a world where variations could be bad or
good, and new generations of creatures could be markedly better than
their parents. As creatures with good variations preferentially
survived and produced offspring more than creatures with not-so-good
variations, the more “fit” creatures became the majority of the next
There is little wrong with the logic of
natural selection. Given that organisms produce offspring with slight
variations in a relatively hostile environment where only the best
equipped survive, natural selection is inevitable. The question is the
long-term result of natural selection.
scientists were quite skeptical of natural selection. They recognized
its logic, but they frequently questioned whether it could lead to new
species. The respected Scottish engineer Fleeming Jenkin raised the
reasonable objection that, if a creature gained a beneficial trait, it
would soon be lost after mating with creatures that lacked the new
Catholic anatomist St. George Mivart claimed that natural selection
could not account for complex structures such as the eye, since they
would only be useful (and selectable) when fully formed.(7)
skeptics of natural selection included the Duke of Argyll, American
paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, and German botanist Karl von Nägeli.(8)
So widespread was the rejection of natural selection that historian
Erik Nordenskiöld declared it “long ago abandoned” in the 1920s.(9)
Several non-scientists also objected to natural selection, often on religious grounds.(10)
In 1877, New York pastor J. B. Thomas noted, “It is enough to say . . .
that even among evolutionists, as far as I can judge, it is assigned a
less and less prominent place."(11)
In the 1920s, anti-evolutionism reached its peak with a national
campaign led by former U.S. secretary of state and three-time
presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. At that time, Cincinnati
pastor John Herget reasserted Mivart’s objections, citing the
complexity of bird wings:
"Natural selection is
based on the usefulness of variations to the organism, and in what way
an incipient wing, especially in the early stages, could be of use to
any creature it is impossible to see.(12)"
the 1930s and 1940s, the secular scientific community returned to
natural selection with the development of the neo-Darwinian synthesis.
This new model of evolution wedded Darwin’s original ideas about
advantageous variations with a more modern understanding of Mendelian
genetics. At this point, early creationists began to express softer
opinions about natural selection.
In 1947, creationist
biologist Frank Marsh admitted that natural selection could be a factor
in producing new species within the limits of a created kind.(13)
Flood geology pioneer Harold Clark pleaded, “Let us not waste our
energies trying to deny one of the most obvious scientific truths;
rather let us realize natural selection does play a part in nature."(14)
creationists disagree about the role of natural selection. Some think
that natural selection might have played a role in developing species
within kinds after the Flood.(15) Others see natural selection as a maintenance device that destroys deviants,(16) much like Darwin’s friend, Blyth, believed. Still others believe that natural selection doesn’t do much of anything.(17) There really isn’t any such thing as the creationist position on the long-term effects of natural selection.
Most creationists, however, do acknowledge that natural selection can work as a kind of fine-tuning agent within a kind.(18)
In fact, thanks to thirty years of amazing field work by Peter and
Rosemary Grant, natural selection has been observed on multiple
occasions among the finches of Daphne Major in the Galápagos Islands.(19)
FINCHES” Charles Darwin discovered a confusing array of plump little
birds on the Galápagos Islands, but he didn’t realize they were all
finch species. Contrary to popular opinion, Darwin never claimed to
observe natural selection on the islands. Over a century later, Peter
and Rosemary Grant spent thirty years tagging and tracking finches at
Galápagos. They did observe natural selection but not new species.)
Major is a tiny island less than five miles north of the much larger
island of Santa Cruz. Just a half mile by a third mile, Daphne Major is
the remnant of a once-active volcano, with a central caldera about a
quarter mile across at its widest point. The island is home to breeding
populations of the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) and the cactus finch (Geospiza scandens).
thirty years of observations at Daphne Major, the Grants tracked and
tagged almost all finches on the island. Each individual finch was
measured for various characteristics, including the beak size and
shape. The Grants found that particularly severe weather changes
(caused by El Niños) resulted in very rapid changes in beak shapes.
During an El Niño, the heavy rains caused more plants to grow than
during dry years, thereby providing a bounty of food for young finches.
As expected, finch populations exploded. After the El Niño, when the
normal dry years returned and the bounty of food disappeared, many
finches that could not obtain enough food died.
that these changes are due to natural selection because the Grants
tracked the parentage and deaths of almost all of the birds. Birds with
beaks suited to the wrong kind of food died out and left no offspring
after El Niño. The next generations were then adapted to the food
sources available on Daphne Major.
The finches of
Galápagos illustrate the power of natural selection to make quick
changes in populations in only a few generations. What the finches do
not tell us is whether such changes can lead to new species. The
Galápagos finches started out as finches, and after thirty years of
natural selection, they were still the same species of finches. That’s
not to say that the Grants’ observations were worthless, but only that
the Grants did not directly observe the emergence of a new species.
creationists don’t entirely agree on the long-term effects of natural
selection, we all agree that all the animal and plant kinds had their
origin during the Creation Week, when God called them into existence.
We all agree that natural selection had no place in God’s original
design, since natural selection works by killing. As creationists
continue to research this fascinating topic, a better understanding of
natural selection will undoubtedly emerge.
Did Darwin Steal Natural Selection?
kind of surprising to learn that Darwin wasn’t the first to think of
the idea of natural selection. Actually many scholars before Darwin
wrote about the struggle for existence and the elimination of the
unfit. Some have been so surprised by this fact that they suggest
Darwin actually plagiarized his ideas from others, particularly from
Edward Blyth and Patrick Matthew.
A careful analysis of
Darwin’s writing and the sources from which he allegedly plagiarized
reveals no verifiable instance of plagiarism.* Darwin did
draw inspiration from other writers when he devised natural selection,
in particular Candolle and Malthus, but he referenced them in On the Origin of Species. However mistaken he might have been, Darwin came up with his own ideas about evolution.
*See J. S. Schwartz, “Charles Darwin’s Debt to Malthus and Edward Blyth,” Journal of the History of Biology 7 (1974): 301–318; see also Todd Wood’s “There Is No Darwin Conspiracy” (Answers Research Journal,in review).
Natural Selection in Action
believed creatures were at war with one another, competing for limited
resources. In their struggle to survive, the stronger, faster, and more
cunning survived and thrived, while the rest died.
The struggle that Darwin witnessed was a result of God’s Curse after Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17–19). The problem is that Darwin believed natural selection could do something it has not been observed to do.
does natural selection actually do? Simply put, it takes out animals or
plants that have a harder time surviving. Consider an illustration. Say
a species of finches lives on a lush island where abundant rains allow
a great variety and abundance of food.
Now a drought
strikes. In particular, plants that produce smaller seeds begin dying,
making it difficult for small-beaked finches to find food. If they are
unable to find food, the small-beaked finches will start dying and
produce fewer young. The shift in the average beak size of the
population is the result of natural selection.
that NATURAL SELECTION REQUIRES THREE THINGS: (1) variation (the
original population has different beak sizes); (2) variation that is
heritable (finches with a particular beak size produce young with the
same bill size); and (3) limited resources (not enough food for all
finches to survive).
Notice what NATURAL SELECTION DOES
NOT DO: (1) Natural selection does not explain where the original
variation came from—that variation was already there. (2) Natural
selection does not change any individual—it only changes what fraction
of the population has a particular trait.
of research, we have not directly observed natural selection producing
new species of finches, as Darwin believed it could. We do, however,
see natural selection fine-tuning finch populations to help them
survive in a cursed world.
Dr. Todd Charles Wood earned his PhD in biochemistry and has more than twenty published technical articles in such fields as biochemistry and genomics. He is the director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College. Todd has also written Understanding the Pattern of Life.
1. This original manuscript was hidden in a closet with a note to Darwin’s wife instructing her to see to its publication should he die unexpectedly. It was discovered long after Darwin’s death and published by his son Francis in 1909.
2. Francis Darwin, ed., Foundations of the Origin of Species (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 70.
3. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1832), p. 143.
4. 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,” The Magazine of Natural History 8 (January 1835): 40–53.
5. Blyth, 1835.
6. Fleeming Jenkin, “The Origin of Species,” North British Review 46 (1867): 277–318. Back
7. St. George Mivart, On the Genesis of Species (London: Macmillan and Co., 1871), chap. 2. Back
8. See Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).
9. Erik Nordenskiöld, The History of Biology (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1949), p. 476. Back
10. In the decades after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, evolution faced a mixed crowd of strong objectors, often religiously motivated. Their opinions on creation were diverse. (The gap theory and day-age interpretations of Genesis, which assumed long periods of time had elapsed before or during Creation Week, were quite common. Rigid belief in a six-day creation, just a few thousand years ago, was less common.) Some leaders in this crowd, such as William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) of Scopes trial fame, even accepted evolution of plants and animals but not humans. It was out of this movement that the first modern creationists—those interested in developing a uniquely biblical and creationist understanding of the world and its history—first arose. Back
11. J. B. Thomas, The Old Bible and the New Science, 2nd ed. (New York: American Tract Society, 1877), p. 18.
12. John F. Herget, Questions Evolution Does Not Answer (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1923), p. 52.
13. Frank Lewis Marsh, Evolution, Creation, and Science, 2nd ed. (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1947), p. 326.
14. Harold W. Clark, “What about Natural Selection?” The Ministry 16 (July 1943): 35–36. Back
15. For example, Carl Wieland, “Darwin’s finches: evidence supporting rapid post-Flood ‘adaptation,’” Creation Ex Nihilo 14 (Fall 1992): 22–23.
16. For example, Kurt P. Wise, Faith, Form, and Time (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002), pp. 164–165.
17. For example, L. James Gibson, “Intelligent Design, Natural Selection, and God,” Origins 25 (1998): 51–54.
18. Carl Wieland, “Muddy Waters: Clarifying the Confusion about Natural Selection,” Creation 23 (2001): 26–29.
19. See Peter R. Grant, Ecology and Evolution of Darwin’s Finches (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986); Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, “Unpredictable Evolution in a 30-year Study of Darwin’s Finches,” Science 296 (2002): 707–711; Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, How and Why Species Multiply (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008). Back