Thursday, November 6, 2008

I Couldn't Have Say It Any Better...

"...natural selection doesn't "produce" anything. As Darwin himself wrote to his friend Charles Lyell, natural selection preserves certain forms and eliminates others. The real "engine" of change in biology is not natural selection, but rather the "engines of variation" that produce the blizzard of new forms, a few of whom survive and reproduce."
-Allen MacNeill @ TT
IMO, Allen MacNeill is absolutely correct. Natural selection cannot create/design anything. It is merely a filter.


  1. Um, that's not amazing. Even Darwin regretted using the term natural selection, saying he should have used natural preservation. It's the conjunction of variation-producing processes and natural selection that's creative, not one or the other alone.

  2. Yup. I believe the "engines of variation" is also sometimes called "mutation."

    In the Origin of Species, Darwin use the term "natural selection" to distinguish that filter from human-guided selection -- the very well known and accepted ability of animal and plant breeders to isolate traits in a species, creating what he called "varieties."

    One of the principle insights of Darwin's Origin of Species is that, just a human breeders have isolated features in animals like pigeons, nature can act on organisms to isolate populations whose features abet them in survival.

    Hence, "natural (not human) selection."

  3. RBH, never said it was "amazing". I just wanted to point out that MacNeill's view of natural selection differs greatly from those who think NS can create (i.e. Richard Dawkins), and that I share MacNeill's view.

  4. Tony, you get no arguments from me.

    I do find it interesting that no one decided to nitpick on my horrible usage of the English language for the post title. ;)

  5. Hmm, JJS. I have to say that I'm curious where you get that Dawkins says that NS creates mutations. The reason I have to ask is that I've found that Dawkins is often accused of a variety of things that, on further review, no one can find a quote of him actually saying.

  6. Tony, I was thinking for a sec that I may have conflated natural selection with the Blind Watchmaker until I ran across this Dawkins quote:

    "Natural selection is the blind watchmaker,..." Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

    It's apparent to me that Dawkins already conflates NS with the Blind Watchmaker to which he credits with creating "Designoids".

  7. JJS,

    Sorry, but a truncated quote like that (without page attribution so I can at least read it fully and in context) wouldn't indict a ham sandwich.

    Do you seriously contend that a man who is considered the best popular writer of evolutionary biology would fundamentally misunderstand his topic?

    I'd still like to see a quote where Dawkins says what you contend he says. (Btw, that the Blind Watchmaker is a metaphor for natural selection does not mean that the blind watchmaker is therefore tasked with creating mutations; it is a metaphor for natural selection, with a metaphor's advantages and its limitations.)

  8. Tony, it is a truncated quote, and also, I found that quote in The Design Matrix. To be precise, it is a truncated quote taken 3rd hand.

    I don't have The Design Matrix nor The Blind Watchmaker in front of me at this moment, but I would think that it is not a hard quote to find. The extended quote provided by Mike Gene did not suggest that Dawkins does not conflate NS with BW.

    If true, then metaphors aside, it still suggests Dawkins sees NS as a creative entity

  9. JJS,

    Thanks for the honesty on the origin of the quote.

    It looks like you're taking a criticism of Mike Gene's about Richard Dawkins. I don't know what Gene's point was in citing that 6 word phrase from Dawkins' book, but I have read The Blind Watchmaker and it's not a case for "Natural Selection is the engine of change" or anything like that. It's not that fine a point, but there is a reason that Dawkins wrote a whole book on the topic of Natural Selection, as opposed to, you know, starting for six words and deciding, mid sentence, that he'd said enough.

    I find myself having to reiterate an earlier point -- that you would benefit from reading at least a couple of good books on evolutionary theory. The Blind Watchmaker is truly an excellent book.