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 continues.
By Dr. Charles Todd Wood, director of the Center for Origins Research at Byran College.
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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:
"Yearly 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)
“There 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 selected.”
— Introduction to Origin of Species, p. 5
This was one of Darwin’s first clear statements of the principle of natural selection.
Darwin 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.
This 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 fatal."(5)
In 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 generation.
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.
At first, 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 trait.(6) 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)
Other 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)"
In 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)
Modern 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)
(“DARWIN'S 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.)
Daphne 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).
Through 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.
We know 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.
Though 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?
It’s 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
Darwin 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.
What 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.
Notice 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.
Despite years 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