In the previous article, we saw that natural selection is (1) a biblical principle, (2) an analytic truth, (3) scientifically observable, and (4) a creationist concept. It is the opposite of evolution because it reduces genetic information. Yet, a handful of Christians deny natural selection. Why is this? We have seen that some Christians have been duped by Darwin’s trap – his linking of the truth of natural selection to the false idea of evolution. Hence, the denial of natural selection represents a pendulum swing, a knee-jerk reaction, rather than a thoughtful analysis. Consequently, the arguments against natural selection do not stand up to rational scrutiny.
We also saw the errors of the genetic fallacy, the straw-man fallacy, self-contradictory claims, and several errors involving terminology. But the bad arguments do not end there. Natural-selection-deniers make some claims that are directly contrary to the Bible. Furthermore, they tend to misunderstand the concept of biological adaptation, and make basic errors in logic. In this article, we will explore these errors, and how they might have been avoided if proper scientific protocol had been followed. It is crucial that we defend creation in a truthful and rational fashion – in a way that is faithful to the Bible. This is necessary if we are to promote and defend the Gospel.
Those who deny natural selection often have misunderstandings of biological adaptation. So, a review of this topic is in order. Adaptation always involves a change of some sort, either in an organism or group of organisms, that is advantageous in the given environment. Of course, a change that is helpful for survival in one environment may be harmful in another environment. Organisms with variations that hinder survival in a particular environment are less likely to survive and pass on such a trait. Consequently, we do not generally find organisms in environments for which their traits are not sufficient for survival. There are two very different types of biological adaptation which have very different causes. Natural selection-deniers often confuse these two types.
The first we might call physiological adaption. This involves changes to an individual organism’s physiology. Many organisms have the ability to modify some of their physiology to better equip them to survive in a given environment. Consider the human body. It is an amazingly well-designed machine that is capable of self-modification – within certain limits – to its environment. If you move to a significantly higher altitude, you may find it rather difficult to breathe at first due to the lower oxygen content. But within a few weeks, your body will adjust by producing more red blood cells, and you will breathe easier. The body adjusts to the environment.
Likewise, if you are a light-skinned person who spends a lot of time in the sun, your body will respond by increasing the production of melanin in the skin. This dark pigment protects the skin against harmful ultraviolet light from the sun. Hence, your skin will grow tan in those areas exposed to sunlight. The important thing to understand about these physiological adaptations is that they do not affect the DNA sequence. As such, they are not normally passed on to any offspring. If the parents are very tan due to sun exposure, their baby will not be born tan. If the parents exercise regularly and become very muscular, their baby will not be born any more muscular than otherwise. So, physiological adaptations affect only the organism itself, and not the offspring. Therefore, this kind of adaptation does not result in a multi-generational change. Many scientific studies have confirmed this.
Furthermore, physiological adaptation has natural limits. First, the body can only adapt if it has the genetic instructions to do so. Hence, when a fresh-water duck is placed in a saline environment, it has the capacity to enlarge a gland which helps it to remove salt. Humans cannot do this because we lack the genetic instructions for such a gland. Second, the body cannot adapt continuously to any environment: there are limits. You can adapt to a low oxygen environment, but not indefinitely. There is a minimum level of oxygen below which no human could survive. And of course, none of these types of adaptations involve any change to the DNA, and are therefore not passed on to children.
However, the other type of adaptation does not involve any changes to an individual organism. Rather, it involves a difference in the typical characteristics of a group of organisms from those of their ancestors, in such a way as to increase survival of the group in a particular environment. Over two or more generations, the most common alleles in the DNA of a group of organisms will be different from those of their ancestors. We might call this genetic adaptation because the typical alleles in DNA have changed in the population over time. This type of adaptation is passed on to the descendants because they inherit the DNA of their parents.
As a hypothetical example, imagine a group of dogs, some with long fur, some with medium fur, some with short fur. Fur length is regulated by certain combinations of genes in the DNA. If the environment becomes very cold, those dogs with shorter and medium length fur will struggle to survive because they are not well-insulated. They will tend to die in that environment, while the dogs with the longer fur survive and reproduce. And since the dogs with long fur have genes to produce long fur, their descendants will have long fur. Within a generation or two, almost all the dogs in this group will have long fur because this is the most common genetic combination – unlike their ancestors. While no individual dog changed its fur length, over the generations, the group came to have traits well-suited to their environment because the alternative traits led to death.
This example is simplified, but we know that this type of process does occur. Indeed, wild dogs in cold climates tend to have genes for long, thick fur, while those in hot environments tend to have genes for short, thin fur. It is not that the dogs self-adjusted their physiology in this case (because that would not have been passed on to their offspring). Rather, those dogs that did not already have traits suitable to survival in the given environment died and their genes were removed from the population. This is a great example of natural selection.
We will see below that some deniers of natural selection confuse these two types of adaptation, and mistakenly think that physiological adaptation involves changes in DNA that lead to speciation. But physiological adaptation of an individual organism does not affect its DNA sequence. As such, it is not possible for this to account for the differences we see in the DNA sequence of different organisms. On the contrary, Ph.D. creation scientists who understand this topic have published papers that explain speciation from a scientific and biblical perspective.
Another false claim is a misrepresentation of what scientists teach. Namely, the natural-selection-deniers seems to believe that natural selection is supposed to be the sole mechanism for producing variety within a kind. This is not the case. Many variations in organisms (like eye color) have almost no effect on survival value. Under certain conditions, a group of organisms can come to have genetic differences and hence trait differences from their relatives even if that trait has almost no effect on survival. This phenomenon is called genetic drift. Since there is no survival advantage or disadvantage, genetic drift really does not involve natural selection or adaptation. Genetic drift may be responsible for many of the variations we see within a given kind of organism.
“Continuous Environmental Tracking”
One critic has proposed what he sees as an alternative to natural selection which he calls “continuous environmental tracking.” He suggests that organisms self-adjust their own anatomy to match their environment, and pass on these changes to their offspring, and that such a process can explain the different species we observe today without natural selection. Although he refers to this as “research” it is really simply a speculation, one that has already been disproved scientifically.
Unfortunately, the person promoting this view has done no experiments to verify his claim. Genuine scientific research involves experimentation and observation, and then the publication of the materials and methods of the project along with the results in peer-reviewed literature so that it may be vetted by experts in the field. But since this was never done, we will see that this speculation has many problems and has, in fact, already been refuted by genuine scientific research. The conjecture is also contrary to the Bible as will be demonstrated in the next article. When someone with no training in scientific research promotes speculations contrary to known experimental results, this is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The author summarizes “continuous environmental tracking” as “creatures respond to changing environmental conditions by reshaping themselves from the inside out. Their own internal mechanisms produce variable traits that are highly suitable to certain challenges, traits they can then pass on to offspring through their innate reproductive and inheritance capabilities.” So, according to this view, organisms change themselves to suit their environment and then pass on those changes to their offspring so as to track their environment continuously. Of course, there is another term that describes this idea: evolution.
Yes, “continuous environmental tracking” as described above is exactly what Darwin believed. Of course, he wasn’t the first to promote an evolutionary view of organisms. But Darwin would completely agree with the above quote verbatim because it perfectly summarizes his view. To be clear, the author of the position professes to be a creationist and rejects the notion that all life is descended from a common ancestor. But the point is that if the process he describes were true, then evolution would happen. The evolution from microbes to people would be entirely reasonable and inevitable. If indeed organisms can continuously produce novel traits in response to environmental changes “by reshaping themselves from the inside out” and “then pass [those traits] on to offspring,” then logically, anything could eventually evolve into anything else. Apparently, the only difference between the mechanism of “continuous environmental tracking” and Darwinian evolution is that the advocate of the former rejects natural selection as part of the process, whereas Darwin embraced natural selection as part of the process.
So, the claim of “continuous environmental tracking” is that organisms can physiologically adapt to their environment, changing their own physiology as needed, and then pass on those changes to their offspring, which might in turn make additional changes, resulting in speciation. Here we see the aforementioned confusion of physiological adaptation with genetic adaptation. Physiological adaptations are not generally passed on to offspring because they do not affect the DNA sequence.
Some people have the impression that “continuous environmental tracking” is a new idea. In fact, it is a very old idea. The claim that organisms adjust their individual physiology as needed and then pass on those traits to their descendants was proposed by the evolutionist Jean Baptiste Lamarck in the year 1801.
Lamarck believed that organisms would continuously, physiologically adjust themselves to their environment and then pass on those traits to the next generation. Hence, the giraffe is said to have originally had a short neck, but was able to adjust it slightly – stretching it in order to eat the highest leaves in the tree. The animal then passed on this trait to its offspring, which was born with a longer neck, and stretched it further, and so on. Thus, physiological adjustments that an organism makes to itself can be passed on to the next generation. This of course is exactly what “continuous environmental tracking” claims. So, why then do modern Ph.D. biologists (both creationists and evolutionists) reject Lamarckian evolution? The answer is the discovery of genetics.
Lamarck didn’t know about DNA, genes, or any of the mechanisms that encode an organism’s traits. So, he could be forgiven for thinking that physiological adaptations are passed on to descendants. Today, we know that most of our traits are encoded in the instructions in DNA. Things like eye color, blood type, and so on, are all determined by the instructions in the DNA. However, the physiological adjustments that an organism makes in response to a particular environment (e.g. becoming tan from working long hours in sunlight) do not affect the DNA coding sequence. And since the child’s DNA sequence is determined entirely by the combination of the parents’ DNA, non-genetic adaptations in the parents will have absolutely no effect on the DNA sequence of the child. And since the child’s DNA determines his or her traits, physiological adaptations of the parents do not affect the genetically-determined traits of the children.
This is a fatal error in “continuous environmental tracking.” It confuses the non-genetic physiological adaptation of an individual organism with the generational genetic adaptation of a group of organisms. The first does not involve any change in the DNA sequence, whereas the latter does. Hence, physiological adaptation cannot result in speciation because it cannot account for the differences in DNA sequences in different species as we will explore below.
So, from a purely genetic perspective, “continuous environmental tracking” fails. But, can epigenetics save the day? Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. Although DNA largely determines the traits of an organism by encoding the instructions for the proteins, factors external to the DNA sequence can control the expression of genes. Epigenetic factors can essentially turn certain genes in the DNA on or off without changing the DNA sequence. In fact, all the cells of the body have the same DNA sequence, but epigenetics ensures that the instructions to produce an eyeball, for example, are not active in the foot. Hence, epigenetics is essential in the process of differentiation of cells as the zygote of any organism becomes an adult.
The field of epigenetics has exploded in the past few decades. And two very interesting facts relevant to our topic have emerged. First, studies in epigenetics have shown that gene expression can be affected by environmental factors. That is, external factors can affect the expression of genes without altering the DNA sequence, resulting in modified physical traits. Second, some epigenetic modifications are potentially inheritable; they can be passed on from one generation to the next. So, is it possible that an organism could modify its own anatomy as needed, and then epigenetically pass this on to the offspring? If so, could “continuous environmental tracking” or Lamarckian evolution actually be possible?
In fact, scientific research in epigenetics has already refuted the claims of “continuous environmental tracking” in several ways. First, most of the researched, environmentally-induced, heritable, epigenetic changes do not involve adaptation at all. They are actually the opposite of what is needed for Lamarckian evolution or “continuous environmental tracking.”
For example, studies have shown that when women were pregnant during a time of famine, the children inherited increased rates of coronary heart disease and obesity. Furthermore, when the children reached adulthood, they had higher rates of schizophrenia. These increased risks of disease were presumably passed on via epigenetics. Studies have shown that a mother’s exposure to air pollution during pregnancy increases the child’s susceptibility to asthma. Even fathers who consume certain supplements excessively can – presumably through epigenetics – increase the probability that the children will have problems with high blood sugar.
Of course, these are not adaptations to overcome environmental challenges. Rather, they are diseases and hence not the kinds of inherited traits that the “continuous environmental tracking” advocate was hoping for. Rather, he was hoping that the parents would self-adjust in a positive way to their environment, and then pass on those positive adaptations to the offspring. That is what “continuous environmental tracking” (and Lamarckian evolution) is supposed to continuously accomplish. But epigenetic research has shown many cases of the opposite. The offspring become less adapted by being more prone to various diseases due to epigenetics inherited from their parents. While contrary to “continuous environmental tracking,” this evidence is consistent with what biblical creationists expect: the degradation associated with the curse (Romans 8:20-22, Genesis 3:14-19).
Scientists who have done genuine research on this topic have uncovered many such examples. And while creation scientists are certainly open to the hypothesis that some positive/adaptive acquired traits may be passed on epigenetically, the advocate of “continuous environmental tracking” has suggested that such is the mechanism of adaptation and speciation. Creation biologists already know this is false from experiments such as the above.
Second, scientific observations and experiments have already shown that most acquired traits are not inheritable. Science confirms that your baby will not be born muscular if you work out, or be born tan simply because you spend a lot of time in the sun. These scientific observations and many others rule out Lamarckian evolution or “continuous environmental tracking” as an alternative to the observed facts.
Third, and most importantly, the advocate of “continuous environmental tracking” has proposed it as an alternative to natural selection. Recall, he claims that natural “selection isn’t really real.” The only way that “continuous environmental tracking” could be a legitimate alternative to natural selection is if organisms never died. Only if they were always able to evolve traits to match whatever environment they encounter would “continuous environmental tracking” be plausible. But we already know that doesn’t happen. The fact is that certain organisms can only survive in certain environments. Although God has equipped organisms with the ability to adjust their physiology somewhat to cope with various conditions, this capacity is limited, and usually non-heritable.
So, the possibility of some acquired adaptations being passed on epigenetically does not remotely disprove the fact that organisms not sufficiently suited to their environment perish. We know scientifically that natural selection occurs. Hence, anything that is proposed as an exclusive alternative is necessarily disproved. This is such a severe error in reasoning that we will explore it in detail in a later section.
Fourth, the advocate of “continuous environmental tracking” claims that it is the mechanism of speciation, presumably via acquired traits passed on epigenetically. This is a particularly embarrassing error because different species have been shown to have differences in their DNA sequence, and not just epigenetic differences. The processes of genetic drift, natural selection, and mutations can account for genetic differences between generations; epigenetics cannot. The severe absurdity of this error deserves special attention which we will explore in the next section.
There are additional reasons why informed Ph.D. creation biologists reject speculations like “continuous environmental tracking” in favor of scientific explanations. To be clear, many of the organisms God created do have an ability to self-adjust to their circumstances – but only within the limits of their internal biological instructions. Therefore, they cannot track their environment continuously. You cannot gradually adapt a fish to live permanently on land. It does not have the genetics or epigenetics to self-adjust to such an extreme. There are limits, and the fact that we can classify organisms into discrete categories proves this.
As the creationist Edward Blyth put it, “But, without re-entering into the details of this subject, it will be sufficiently clear to all who consider the matter, that, were this self-adapting system to prevail to any extent, we should in vain seek for those constant and invariable distinctions which are found to obtain” (Blyth 1837). “Continuous environmental tracking” was scientifically refuted nearly two centuries ago. It is truly a pity that the errors above were not caught by Ph.D. creation biologists before they were published in creation literature.
Non-Genetic Genetic Changes
One very strange aspect of the claims of “continuous environmental tracking” is their self-contradictory nature. We saw in the previous article that natural-selection-deniers both embrace and deny selection. But there are other contradictions as well. For example, “continuous environmental tracking” is supposed to be a process that both does and does not affect an organism’s DNA sequence. Let me explain.
On the one hand, the person promoting these ideas claims that organisms “possess elaborate built-in systems composed of sensors, cellular algorithms, and output responses that enable them to continuously track environmental changes.” This is a reference to physiological adaptation of an individual organism, changes that do not involve any changes to the DNA sequence. Although such changes do occur, they occur within certain limits and hence they cannot modify the organism continuously.
On the other hand, the same author suggests that such changes show “that creatures are designed for robust speciation.” Speciation involves generational changes to the DNA sequence, whereas physiologically acquired traits do not. For example, lions and tigers are different species, but they are both part of the cat kind. Both species are descended from just two cats that were on Noah’s ark. Yet, tigers and lions have differences in their DNA sequence; they differ by 19 million to 20 million base pairs. So whatever process caused the diversification of lions and tigers obviously affected their DNA sequence over the generations. Yet, physiological adaptation – even if it involves an epigenetic component – does not involve changes to the DNA sequence.
Here again we see the confusion between physiological adaptation and genetic adaptation. Deniers of natural selection don’t seem to understand the difference. The advocate is claiming that “continuous environmental tracking” involves physiological changes that do not affect the DNA sequence, and yet somehow also explains how organisms “undergo speciation” which does involve generational changes to the DNA sequence. Hence, “continuous environmental tracking” both does and does not affect the DNA sequence of organisms. It is internally incoherent, and therefore false.
By the way, informed Ph.D. creation biologists do have scientific models that are based on actual scientific research that explain how organisms undergo speciation within a given kind. These models involve both natural selection and genetic drift, along with the ingenious way that God has encoded genetic information. Furthermore, such models make testable predictions. You can read a peer-reviewed technical paper on this topic here.
Magnets Disprove Gravity?
Imagine someone argued that gravity does not actually exist. To prove this, he sticks a magnet to the refrigerator and says, “See, it doesn’t fall. Magnetism is also a force, and can even be much stronger than gravity. Therefore, gravity does not exist!” Wouldn’t that be absurd? How does the existence of other forces somehow disprove the existence of gravity? Of course, it doesn’t. The argument is ridiculous. There is an implicit bifurcation fallacy; the underlying assumption is that only one force can exist. Hence, if magnetism is real, then gravity is not. But the possibility that both gravity and magnetism exist is not considered. It’s a very silly error, and yet, this is exactly the kind of argument used to dismiss the biblical concept of natural selection.
A natural-selection-denier wrote, “Two recent reports undermine natural selection, but support design.” Already we see evidence of the bifurcation fallacy: the author has fallaciously assumed that (1) either natural selection is true, or (2) design is true.” But why not both? Natural selection is not opposed to design. On the contrary, the Bible presents natural selection as part of God’s design in a fallen world. This is exactly how the creationist Blyth perceived it as well (Blyth 1835, 1836).
The article continues: “The reports reinforce the reality that creatures are active, problem-solving beings that sense environmental changes and produce targeted adaptive responses.” Essentially, organisms can physiologically adapt – within certain limits – to better survive in a given environment. But how does that even remotely argue against natural selection? Of course, it doesn’t. Furthermore, this isn’t news. Creation scientists have known for ages that God has equipped organisms with a limited ability to adapt to particular environments. But since this ability is limited, and since different organisms have different inherent abilities, some organisms have a survival advantage over others in a given environment. It is an observable, scientific fact that some organisms cannot survive in a given environment, while others with traits suitable to that environment can. That’s natural selection.
Clearly the author of the article does not understand natural selection. Apparently, he thinks that it is supposed to be the only factor in adaptation (something that no one believes). And hence, by showing that other factors also exist, he thinks he has disproved natural selection. This is no different in principle from arguing that magnets disprove the existence of gravity.
Wouldn’t that be Nice?
Since natural-selection-deniers have no rational basis for their position, they often attempt to stir emotions using various fallacies: errors in reasoning. One such fallacy is called the appeal to consequences. This is the error of believing that something is true because it would be desirable, or believing that something is false because it would be undesirable. A hypothetical example would be: “You don’t seriously believe in the holocaust, do you? That would be terrible!” In fact, the holocaust did happen, and it was terrible. Just because something is unpleasant doesn’t make it false. And just because something would be nice does not make it true. The fallacy of the appeal to consequences, though irrational, is often persuasive because people often want to believe what is pleasant and disbelieve what is unpleasant.
At least one denier of natural selection has used this error in print to persuade people that “continuous environmental tracking” is true because it potentially does not involve the death of any organisms – they simply continuously self-adjust to their environment. Whereas, we are led to believe that natural selection must be false because organisms unfit to their environment would die – and that’s very sad. We are told that natural selection “is predicated on death eliminating ‘unfit’ members from populations of creatures as they struggle to survive.”
Conversely, we are told that “continuous environmental tracking” explanations “seem to resist any explanations involving death-driven, mindless, and random evolutionary trial-and-error scenarios.” After all, we are told that when organisms have traits that are insufficient to survive in their environment, they respond “by reshaping themselves from the inside out. Their own internal mechanisms produce variable traits that are highly suitable to certain challenges.” Wouldn’t that be nice? If organisms never had to die because they could simply adjust their own anatomy continuously to match whatever environment they happen to be in, that would be wonderful. And perhaps that is fun to believe.
But the rational person observes that organisms do in fact die. They are not always able to adapt to their habitat. And providentially, organisms that have traits unsuitable to their habitat have a greater tendency to die than organisms well-suited to their environment. The fact that it would be nice if no (living, nephesh נֶ֣פֶשׁ) organisms died is utterly irrelevant to the fact that they do.
To be clear, God did indeed equip organisms with various abilities to adapt to certain environments. But these abilities have limits and are not able to cope with all environments. They were never intended to. By God’s sovereign plan, some organisms are unable to adjust sufficiently to a given environment and perish. Had Adam never sinned, then no nephesh animals would have died, though there is no reason to think that natural selection would not have operated in the world of plants and microbes which are not “living” in the biblical sense. But Adam did sin, and there is death in the world. Wishful thinking will not undo that biblical truth.
Scientific research in genetics and epigenetics has shown that natural selection is very real, and have refuted the conjecture of “continuous environmental tracking.” Advocates of such a conjecture have confused physiological adaptation with genetic adaptation, and are apparently unaware of the scientific research confirming the genetic differences inherent in different species. We have seen that the arguments against natural selection do not withstand rational analysis. It is disappointing that a creationist would continue to make assertions that have been refuted.
But what is perhaps more disappointing is the anti-biblical nature of the claims made by the natural-selection-deniers. We saw in the first article of this series that the Bible contains examples of natural selection. But there is far more to this topic. The driving worldview behind the scientific and logical errors discussed above is fundamentally unbiblical. In the next article, we will explore the anti-biblical nature of such claims.
Blyth, Edward, “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 Vol. 8, No. 1. January, 1835. pp.40-53.
Blyth, Edward, “Observations on the Various Seasonal and Other External Changes Which Regularly Take Place in Birds”, The Magazine of Natural History Vol. 9. 1836 A.
Blyth, Edward, “Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds – Part 2”, The Magazine of Natural History Vol. 9. 1836 B.
Blyth, Edward, “Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 4”, The Magazine of Natural History Vol. 10. 1837