A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Natural Selection for Dummies (Like Me)

IMG_4327Do You Know What Natural Selection Is?

 Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was so  enlightening for science that it’s worth being reminded about every so often, especially since there are still plenty of people (in America) who denounce it without actually understanding what it is.

I used to be one of them, so I know. These people think the theory of evolution says that we all got here by random, blind chance, like a monkey throwing up a bunch of letters that happen to land in the form of a Shakespeare play. Absurd? Yes! The theory of Intelligent Design makes much more intuitive sense than that; it’s no wonder people won’t accept the scientific evidence for evolution, if this is what they think it means. (And given the powerful anti-knowledge force of religion, it’s no wonder so many of us are still dummies.)

But that’s not at all what it is. There’s a crucial concept these people are missing: natural selection.

I sometimes think of natural selection as “Natural Design” as opposed to “Intelligent Design”—instead of a supernatural being who intelligently created the world, nature itself is this creating force (speaking figuratively, of course).

Here’s the Meat

When Darwin coined the term, he meant it to be contrasted with “artificial selection,” or selective breeding. It’s helpful to remember this comparison in trying to understand natural selection. A livestock breeder carefully selects which of his animals mate in order to increase certain desired traits (based on genes) within his population of livestock. Similarly, in earth’s history, nature (to further personify it for sake of comparison) “chose” which organisms would mate with each other, by “letting” some of them die and some of them live to reproduce. Because the ones who lived and reproduced had traits that gave them a survival advantage in their environment over the ones who died, those advantageous traits increased in their species’ population. This process, when combined with the billions of years of earth’s history, led to the evolution of species to bring us where we are today.

That’s natural selection in a nutshell. Keep in mind that I’m a poet-type, not a scientist. But I do have a great (and continually growing!) awe of and appreciation for science, because of ways like this in which it helps explain our world.

2 comments on “Natural Selection for Dummies (Like Me)

  1. Margaret Agard
    September 18, 2013

    I have these scientific issues with natural selection creating different species.
    1. It’s logically inconsistent – natural selection is designed to ensure the survival of the species therefore it wouldn’t create a new species. An ancient horse looks an awful lot like a modern day horse – not a platypus
    2. There is no actual evidence of one species evolving into another in the fossil record (only very odd drawings of what “might” have happened.)
    3. Nature kills the oddity – a bird with a bad wing (ever seen that drawing of a bird evolving into another species) would be killed by it’s own mother and certainly wouldn’t be allowed to mate. Too bad people left the farm. They would know this.
    4. Most random genetic abnormalities result in sterile animals.
    5. It hasn’t been replicated – the long term fruit fly experiment which was equivalent to 12,000 years of evolution resulted in only more fruit flies. See this article referencing other articles published in Nature and other well accepted journals. http://www.icr.org/article/5779/
    6. Yes it is a 200 year old theory. So was the ether theory for matter in space – it also lasted well over 200 years before it was at last shown to be false. Longevity of a theory, and wide acceptance by the scientific community, does not make it scientific fact.
    I wrote these same 6 statements on why I did not accept evolution as an explanation for the explosion of life here on earth when I was sixteen and have not yet seen any reason to change it, as nothing has changed in the last 47 years – except for a new fruit fly experiment with the same result.


  2. Jim Spence
    August 23, 2016

    Ms. Agard,

    1) You are incorrectly using the word ‘species’. You are correct when you say natural selection is designed to ensure the survival of a species, but then you make a mistake in stating ‘it wouldn’t make a new species’. Nature discards those traits that would be detrimental to a species, and rewards the species with those traits that strengthen it. This then evolves into a stronger, more productive species. Is it the same species? For awhile it is, then a new species evolves. Fossil records show hundreds of thousands of species that no longer exist, for one of two reasons: they were either killed off by some large scale natural disaster (such as the asteroid that impacted the earth about 65 million years ago, killing off most species [including the dinosaurs]); or they weren’t strong enough to live in an ever changing world. This second is called the survival of the fittest…evolution. Only the strongest traits in every species survive, and pass these strong traits down to their offspring. Over and over and over again, for millions of years. And eventually (if you can call millions of years ‘eventually’) a new species is born, bred from the natural selection of its ancestors.

    “An ancient horse looks an awful lot like a modern horse – not a platypus.” No offense, but with this statement you are either showing your ignorance or a total misunderstanding of what evolution is. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the latter. And do you know why an ancient horse looks an awful lot like a modern horse? Because your definition of ancient doesn’t go back more than 6,000 years, roughly the time a young earth creationist says that their god made Earth. Six thousand years ago, every species still alive today looked virtually identical to the same species back then. However, all species continue to evolve, including human beings. We have changed in just the last 6,000 years; we’ve become taller, for one example. We continue to evolve (as does every other species).

    In truth, whatever the ancestor of a horse 100 million years ago actually was probably doesn’t look a whole lot like a horse today. You should be more specific when you use terms like ‘ancient’.

    2) “There is no actual evidence of one species involving into another in the fossil record.” You are completely wrong with this statement. However, you are not alone. Young earth creationists in particular, and intelligent design followers in general, ignore the most basics facts of evolutionary science: proven scientific facts that are beyond dispute, other than by the religious who accept their religious text as all the ‘facts’ they need. The problem stems by what you, and most in your community, define as evidence. You want a direct example, one skull that evolutionists can show you and say, “Ah HA, here it is.” This doesn’t exist, for good reason. But what does exist are a large number of transitional skulls that show the gradual evolution from simian to man. You would look at this long line of skulls and say, “This is ape, and this is ape, and so is this one,” and so on until you’d see one and say, “And this is man.” Your reasoning is that one did not evolve into the other. And someone else in your community would look at the same large number of transitional skulls and pick out any of the dozens of others as the point when it became man. You would not or could not agree on which one is simian and which one suddenly becomes man, because the change is gradual over time. Evolution.

    We did not suddenly become man. You can try to dispute the 4.5 billion year age of earth, but you would fail. And since the evolution of man took place over millions of years, it is obvious that this transitional period took place over hundreds of thousands of generations.

    The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has over 6,000 such examples of human evolution.

    No actual evidence? Tell that to the Smithsonian…or to any of thousands of true evolutionary and geological scientists who do their best to prove, and then disprove, and then prove again, that evolution is a fact.

    3) “Nature kills the oddity.” By your own admission you’ve admitted that survival of the fittest works. Nature does, in fact, kill out the oddity, the weakest part of any species, and rewards the species with a stronger, more durable member. If this bird was born with a weak bone in its wing, it dies off (whether its mother kills it or a predator does) and then its sibling with a strong wing passes on this trait. Survival of the fittest. You make my case for me.

    4) Yes, you are essentially correct, most random genetic abnormalities result in sterile animals. But who said that evolution created ‘random genetic abnormalities’? This is not the definition of evolution. Evolution, as I’ve said a few times already, rewards the good traits and removes the bad ones. Evolution does, in fact, give us the occasional random genetic abnormality, which is usually sterile. And these die out. Survival of the fittest, once again.

    5) I’m sorry, but quoting anything from the “Institution of Creation Research” is a no-win situation. The mere fact that they are trying to prove something they already believe makes any research they do worthless. The ICR does everything backwards from the mainstream scientific community. Science takes a set of facts, and then asks what conclusion they can draw from it. Creationists, specifically the ICR, take the conclusion they want, and then try to find facts to support it. This isn’t scientific research; this is dishonesty in a clerical collar.

    First, the article you cited says they went through 600 generations and found no evidence for evolution. Six hundred generations is a drop in the evolutionary bucket. Plus, you say this equates to 12,000 years of evolution. In what? Flies? Human beings? If there are three generations of humans per century, your 12,000 years would be 36,000 generations of humans. A fruit fly lives only a few days, so 12,000 years of evolution in a fruit fly is roughly 1.5 million generations of fruit flies, not the 600 generations this article mentions. Your figures don’t add up, any more than this research does.

    Second, there are literally hundreds of true, scientific experiments showing evolution in fruit flies (try UC San Diego for one, Dr. Michael Rose is another, Richard Lenski, William Dallinger…the list goes on and on with people that have actual credentials).

    Third, you cite only one study. Are you actually basing your argument on one single study? You’re trying to disprove evolution by one extremely flawed (see item one) study?

    I’ve got a study for you: the Russian Domesticated Red Fox. And this took place in only fifty years. Rather than explain it all, here’s a link:


    You need more than one discredited study to disprove evolution.

    6) This is one of my favorite arguments from the creationist side; the interpretation of the word ‘theory’. I’m not sure if you actually understand what a scientific theory is. There, of course, have been scientific studies done in the past that have disproven what were once considered theories. But this is what true science does: it doesn’t work to prove anything, it works to disprove it. Science gladly accepts evidence that proves it wrong, and then it works to come up with better evidence. Would you say that the theory of gravity is wrong? The oxygen theory of combustion? The theory of special relativity (discovered by Albert Einstein)? The theory of heliocentrism? These are all scientific theories, proven time and time again by researchers doing their best to disprove them.

    Four thousand years ago man didn’t understand how the sun rose and set. They gave credit to a god. Two thousand years ago man didn’t understand how tides worked. They gave credit to a god. Over and over again, man has been mesmerized by things he didn’t understand, and gave credit to a god. And science has come along and explained them. Every day science understands more and more about our natural world and how we got here. And every day, your god and all of the other gods worshiped in this world have less and less of a strangle hold on the unknown. This is called the God of the Gaps theory. If you really want to hang your hat on this, be my guest.

    If I may, I’d love to quote Isaac Asimov, my favorite author: “The religious use the word ‘theory’ like it was something made up after a long night of drinking.”

    As a wrap up:

    As for your last statement, you’ve seen nothing in the last 47 years that would change your mind about evolution…I’m truly at a loss as to what you could possibly mean, except to try and cast aspersions towards people who accept quantitative, provable, researched science as the best explanations for where we came from.

    You have faith in a 2,000 year old book, written by people who had absolutely no idea of natural laws; I have faith in people smarter than you and me who actually work all day, every day, trying to prove themselves wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2013 by in Discoveries from Learning and tagged , , , , , .
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