Is natural selection a highly effective designer?

  • Clarifying the question

    Features of life give a strong impression of innovative design. One hypothesis to explain this is that the innovations were brought about by an unguided evolutionary process, possibly a Darwinian process. Is Darwinian evolution (i.e. natural selection acting on random variations) a very effective way to bring about the ingenius kinds of variations and innovative designs we see in biology?

  • Controversy among experts

    Most biologists today affirm Darwinian evolution. However, there is significant contorversy over the issue. Specifically, many critics are skeptical of the ability of Darwinian mechanism to produce objects which superficially appear designed. For example:

    • Richard Watson (specialist in evolutionary computation, population genetics etc.) admits: "In computer science we recognize the algorithmic principle described by Darwin--the linear accumulation of small changes through random variation and selection--as hill climbing, more specifically random mutation hill climbing. However, we also recognize that hill climbing is the simplest possible form of optimization and is known to work well only on a limited class of problems. [Compositional Evolution (Cambridge, 2006), 272.]
    • Aditya Barve & Andreas Wagner: “How evolutionary adaptations and innovations originate is one of the most profound questions in evolutionary biology.” [“A latent capacity for evolutionary innovation through exaptation in metabolic systems,” Nature 500 (2013): 203-206.]
    • Günter Theißen (Dept. of Genetics at Friedrich Schiller University): “[W]hile we already have a quite good understanding of how organisms adapt to the environment, much less is known about the mechanisms behind the origin of evolutionary novelties, a process that is arguably different from adaptation. Despite Darwin's undeniable merits, explaining how the enormous complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet originated remains one of the greatest challenges of biology.” [“Saltational Evolution: Hopeful Monsters are Here to Stay,” Theory in Biosciences 128 (2009): 43] (Internal citations omitted).]
    • Lynn Margulis: “Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn't create … neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change -- led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.” [quoted in “Lynn Margulis: Q & A,” Discover Magazine (April, 2011), 68.]
    • Stanley Salthe (Professor at Brooklyn, author of Evolutionary biology [originally promoting it]): “I am a critic of Darwinian evolutionary theory -- which was my own erstwhile field of specialization in biology. … I have found that upon close examination there are many limitations on the power of Darwinian explanations.” [Salthe's personal website]. Elsewhere “As to its ability to explain the evolution of organisms (as opposed to the evolution of gene systems), it has not, after some 60 years of development, delivered a very convincing mechanism. It cannot explain origins, or the actual presence of forms and behaviors.” [Analysis and critique of the concept of Natural Selection (and of the neoDarwinian theory of evolution) in respect (Part 1) to its suitability as part of Modernism’s origination myth, as well as (Part 2) of its ability to explain organic evolution (March, 2006), [online at]4
    • Scott Gilbert: “…the modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.” [John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern Evolution?,” Nature 455 (2008): 281 (quoting Gilbert).]
    • Stuart Newman: “You can't deny the force of selection in genetic evolution … but in my view this is stabilizing and fine-tuning forms that originate due to other processes.” [John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern Evolution?,” Nature 455 (2008): 281.] (Quoting Newmann)
    1. Similarly:

      Andreas Wagner & Aditya Barve: “Exactly how new traits emerge in evolution is a question that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists.” [“A latent capacity for evolutionary innovation through exaptation in metabolic systems”. Nature 500 (2013).]

    2. Elshwere:

      Günter Theißen: “Explaining exactly how the great complexity and diversity of life on earth originated is still an enormous scientific challenge … There is the widespread attitude in the scientific community that, despite some problems in detail, textbook accounts on evolution have essentially solved the problem already. In my view, this is not quite correct.” [“The proper place of hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology,” Theory in Biosciences, 124 (2006): 349-369.]

    3. Elsehwere:

      Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan: "Mutations, in summary, tend to induce sickness, death, or deficiencies. No evidence in the vast literature of heredity changes shows unambigious evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation." [Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of the Species, p. 29 (Basic Books, 2002).]

    4. Interesting note:

      Susan Mazur (Journalist): “Stanley Salthe, a natural philosopher at Binghamton University with a PhD in zoology -- who says he can't get published in the mainstream media with his views … told me the following: 'Oh sure natural selection's been demonstrated … the interesting point, however, is that it has rarely if ever been demonstrated to have anything to do with evolution in the sense of long-term changes in populations … Summing up we can see that the import of the Darwinian theory of evolution is just unexplainable caprice from top to bottom. What evolves is just what happened to happen.'” [The Altenberg 16: An Exposé Of The Evolution Industry (North Atlantic Books, 2010), 21.]
      Adam Wilkins: “The arguments from paleontological evidence for the importance of natural selection largely concern the observed long-term trends of morphological change, which are visible in many lineages. It is hard to imagine what else but natural selection could be responsible for such trends, unless one invokes supernatural or mystical forces such as the long-popular but ultimately discredited force of ‘orthogenesis.’” [“Evolution: A View from the 21st Century” Genome Biol Evol 4(4)(2012): 423-426.]

“Yes, after all…
  • There are several forthcoming evidences

    Among the evidences we will dive in to eventually:

    • The “fitness landscape” is restrictive.
    • Darwinism breaks genes (as a rule).
    • DNA modifications can't create organs or body-plans.
    • There are extreme cases of stasis.