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The Theory of Natural Selection is a tautology.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake.

Our modern society is in love with Darwin. Our ideas about nature, evolution, society and ourselves have been shaped by this man. It seems like every reasonable person in the world agrees that Darwin’s theory is correct and useful. Darwin’s theory aims at explaining how species evolve and become new species through the means of what he called “Natural Selection”, which was defined by him as follows: “This preservation of favourable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection”. In other words, traits that benefit the individual tend to be preserved over time, while injurious traits tend to disappear. Traits that are not beneficial or detrimental are not affected by Natural Selection.

The accusation that this definition is tautological is nothing new and is well known, but it is generally ignored. A tautology is a statement that is true in every possible case. For instance, a statement like “The car is red because it’s not green” can’t be false because everything that is red is, by definition, not green. This statement is true but it’s useless as an explanation because it doesn’t give any information other than what is implied by its terms. Darwin’s critics accuse him of crafting a tautological statement because in his definition “favourable” or “beneficial” traits are defined as those that are preserved, and traits that are preserved are of course those that are favourable or beneficial. In other words, what Darwin says is that traits that are preserved are preserved. For instance: A Darwinist would say that human thumbs exist because they provide an advantage for the survivability of the species, so humans with thumbs have always been more successful at being alive and passing on their genes than human species without them. But if humans had no thumbs we could make the exact same argument, mutatis mutandis. Because of course what already exists has a higher chance of continuing to exist than things that no longer exist or that have never existed. Another example: Individuals who are born with healthy reproductive organs are more likely to pass on their genes than individuals who are born infertile. In both cases we can see “natural selection” in action. Both “explanations” are obviously true, but they are tautological, they don’t add any new information.

So the theory of Natural Selection explains nothing, and while scientists and biologists may admire Darwin and “believe” in Natural Selection, especially in opposition to creationist explanations, the truth is that Darwin’s book On The Origin of Species is an artifact of the past and university curriculums hardly devote any time to it. If people were to suddenly forget all about Darwin our understanding of evolution would remain roughly the same - although we would lose his contributions in other fields. Nowadays people seem to think that “evolution” and “natural selection” are synonyms but that’s not true at all. Evolution wasn’t a new concept to educated people back in the XIXth century, and everyone grasped the concept of heritability. So why was it so important, or why was it considered important, and why did it cause such a revolution in our understanding of nature? The answer is: Because of the concept of struggle for existence. People have always known that animals and humans change throughout the generations, but Darwin’s theory asserted that everything in nature, both animal and human, is determined by a struggle for scarce resources, that is, by an economic problem. Again, this is something that everyone who has felt hunger or desire to reproduce has understood to some degree, but before Darwin nature was much more than simply being alive and reproducing yourself. It was a divine creation, it had meaning, it had truth, it spoke in a rich language understandable to humans. Darwin’s theory made this language unintelligible, because it showed that an economic mindset was enough to understand nature for the purpose of fulfilling our needs. If a car is red, we don’t need to know the owner’s preferences or the manufacturer’s motivations in order to know that it is not green, and this knowledge is enough to use it. The fact that humankind descends from apes was polemic only because it showed that humans and apes have the same needs and aspirations, even if they had different evolutionary strategies to acquire them. But this is the conscious part, the part that everyone acknowledges. There’s also an unconscious consequence of the theory of natural selection: That nothing exists outside the struggle for existence.

This last idea is what makes Darwin’s theory so apt for the modern world. Science can overcome Darwin, modern society seemingly cannot. And even though biologists don’t pay much attention to him, Darwin is still quite popular in politics, philosophy, and social sciences. Because if there’s something at which modern society is particularly good, it’s at providing the means for existence and reproduction. So a theory of nature that asserts that this is all there is to it it’s bound to be popular, because it justifies the current state of affairs and exalts it as the best possible outcome of a long evolution towards an efficient society. All other possible alternatives are overcomed, and any possible development can only follow its example. Politically, liberals love it because it justifies and naturalizes their belief in the free market, and marxists love it because it promises future and exciting developments when men conquer the course of the evolution of their species with their own hands. Philosophically it solves the problem of how living creatures were created out of lifeless things, and it solves it in such a way that is comprehensible for human cognition. But the most peculiar development comes from the social sciences. First, came the social Darwinists who tried to apply the principle of survival of the fittest quite literally, but after WWII this became impossible for political reasons. We now have evolutionary psychology, a field that instead of trying to control human behavior creates a mythology around it, providing panglossian theories for human behavior that explain nothing and are therefore impossible to prove or disprove, but that provide a common ground between the general public and solicitors, drivelers, quacks, pickup artists - in a world, charlatans of all kinds. Everybody wants the secret to “hack” human behavior. There’s a particular internet subculture of men who are frustrated with modern society and with the changes in gender roles, and who look in evolutionary psychology for mating strategies to end their loneliness, believing that the atavistic caves where man supposedly learned to be man are like the rooms in which they spend most of their lives, without realizing that it is the selfishness of modern society that created this idea of the primitive caveman and that erodes human connections by reducing them to a mere survival strategy.

But it is clear that man became man not by surviving or by conquering the means to preserve and reproduce himself, but by the conquest of the unnecessary. As Gaston Bachelard(1) puts it: “Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of necessity”. Furthermore, there’s no evidence for the existence of a “survival instinct” anywhere in nature. We believe ourselves to be smarter than animals because they risk their lives in pointless endeavors, they are mostly unable to plan ahead and to cooperate for their survival as we do. But who said they needed to? If everything life needed is to survive, then asexual organisms would be the pinnacle of evolution, everything that has come after it is useless and inferior by this standard. While it is true that a struggle is necessary to exist, if existence were its only goal, if one could not risk even existence itself in exchange of something else, this struggle would be meaningless. Sexual reproduction is an example of a struggle where individual existence is put into question, because it bridges the gap between two individuals and creates something new. It is luxurious and exuberant, as life itself. This is something that has always been quite clear for humans since the dawn of time, but that seems incomprehensible now. Biology can progress through Darwinism but only by obscuring the mystery of life, turning it into something miserable and petty, like human economy. This progress is nothing but a change of perspective, focusing one thing and ignoring another. But as all perspectives are, in principle, equally valid, it’s only desire what moves us towards something else and something better than our trivial everyday existence and its meaningless struggles. Is it not, as Georges Bataille puts it, the tiger’s fruitlessness what makes it the king of the jungle? By predating on other animals, that eat other animals, that eat plants, and so on, the tiger splurges a huge amount of the jungle’s resources. Some would say that it serves the purpose of maintaining the balance of the ecosystem, but couldn’t this balance be imposed by the tiger itself? Its existence would then be more than a struggle for existence, it would be a struggle to impose its own norm, its own will, its right to splurge. This struggle would be unintelligible without the base of mere existence, because individual existence imposes a period of activity and silence, a discrete grammar for the tiger’s individuality to express itself, but the meaning of the tiger’s behavior can only be confused with its grammar by a fool. The tiger itself is but an echo of something infinite.

(1)Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire.

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I always find it funny that in the soft(er) sciences, the "hardest" theories are reliably the most hated. The average psychology enthusiast will gladly cite papers with vague definitions and findings on discrimination, priming, growth mindset and so on, but they'll suddenly be very skeptical for clearly defined and well-quantifiable traits such as IQ, reaction time and so on. Almost any complaint that is thrown at the latter group applies moreso to the former.

In biology, the hardest and most hated theory is, of course, evolution. Pure biologist will try to avoid it if possible because applying it involves too much math, and almost all ideologies hate some part of its implications. On its most basic level, its also rather trivial (though not tautological); In laymans terms, it goes something like:

Axiom 1. There exist things that can replicate themselves

Axiom 2. Different things have different proficiency at replicating themselves, which is called their fitness f


Conclusion: Things with higher fitness will outscale things with lower fitness, irrespective of their original prevalence

You'll notice that while it's easy, you still need to prove the intermediate here, and in the past this was absolutely called into question. There's a lot of theoretically possible growth functions - linear, logarithmic, root, and so on - that would make it mostly implausible for an originally small group to outscale a large group in any feasible amount of time. As we know now, the correct growth function is exponential, which has this explosive property of jumping orders of magnitude quickly. Even better, the exponential has a rather rigid shape, which you'll come to recognize time and time again when you're actually working with biological data, as I do.

This is, as said, the most basic version. It gets even better! We can actually set up different systems of replication, add mutation generation and how these mutations affect individuals, and the theory of evolution will give us different predictions of the exact shape of the course of the population over time and the distribution of mutations we should expect. And we can prove these in simulations! For one of my favorite examples of this rather theoretical portion of biology, see Gunnarson et al The short version is that we can distinguish between a population that has recently grown fast and one that has been mostly stagnant entirely based on its current distribution of mutations, no time-based data needed. But we need evolutionary principles to explain this. Or for a much older examples, look at the differences between a Moran Process and a Wright-Fisher Process; Both are plausible, albeit very simplified, population models, and they lead to different predictions, which can be quantified and measured. Of course in the lab, as others have pointed out, we can further watch this process in action. Macro-evolution is then simply the only plausible extension of these finding without invoking some magical "essence" of beings that is not stored biologically and thus never changes.

So you're plain wrong that it leads to no new conclusions; In fact we haven't even come close to finding out all the implications. Tbh, you're argument is on the level of arguing against the entirety of modern particle physics by saying: "well, of course there has to be something that is the smallest, which is even the literal meaning of the word atom. Greek philosophist already thought the same!" while ignoring that a) it actually was controversial in the past - yes for almost any basic concept you can find a greek philosopher who argued in favor of it, just as you can find one who argued against it - and b) that particle physics, just as evolution, is well-quantifiable and can be shown to work the same on multiple levels - analytical mathematical proofs, numerical differential equation simulation, stochastic/Monte-Carlo style simulations, and finally in the lab itself. Your distinction between "Evolution" and "Natural Selection", which doesn't really exist in evolutionary theory, doesn't add much conceptual depth imo, either.

The fact that in practice there's no difference between "evolution" and "natural selection" is proof of the extent to which biologists are prejudiced in favour of Darwin, even though most biologists I've known haven't even read his book. But the distinction does exist, and I bring it up because people keep saying that I'm denying evolution by saying that Natural Selection is a tautology. I care not how much conceptual depth you find in it.

Now, my argument is nothing of the sort, I think you read a comment I made to another person on this thread and got stuck with it, because the accusation you make has nothing to do with my original post and is aimed at said comment, which was justified in the context of that specific conversation. If you wanted to reply to that, then you should have replied there.

You'd agree that what Democritus called "atoms" has nothing to do with what physics nowadays call so, other than the name and the fact that they were both supposedly undivisable, but we now know that this last thing is not true. This is exactly what happens with what you say. Your definition of fitness is not Darwin's, because Darwin didn't define fitness as an individuals "proficiency at replicating itself". So Darwin is Democritus and you are John Dalton. But Darwin's fitness and your fitness share nothing but the name. Your definition is not tautological, Darwin's is. You'd say of course! Biology has progressed since Darwin's time, and we now have information that Darwin lacked. That's fair, but just as Democritus is not the father of modern physics, Darwin can only be the putative father of modern "evolutionary theory". Think about it this way: What do we need Darwin for? In a universe where people knew nothing of Natural Selection, but we still had genetics, mathematics, paleontology and evolutionism, would we be unable to predict the SFS of tumors? You'd say: But Darwin did exist in this universe, and there's evidence that he was right. Well of course, as Darwin's statement was tautological, literally everything is evidence for it. Every green and red car is evidence that red is not green. The polemic part of Darwin's theory, and I'm sick of repeating it, is that it was based on economics. The polemic part of Darwin was Malthus, who was actually the one who discovered the aptly named Malthusian growth model.

You say that psychology enthusiasts will gladly cite papers with vague definitions and findings. Well, they love the theory of Natural Selection, so what conclusion should we extract from that? The people talking about Darwin nowadays are not mathematical biologists, they are people like Jordan Peterson.

Addendum: IQ may be clearly defined and well-quantifiable but intelligence isn't.