If it evolved, how is a feature selected through a long time span with useless function before the feature becomes complete?

For example, an eye is a very complex organ consisting of countless small features. According to evolutionism, every such small feature should be formed by evolution over long time. But most intermediate features would be useless until the small incremental features are accumulated to provide any useful function good enough to be selected by nature. How do evolutionists explain this intermediate useless features and natural selection? I would appreciate if someone doesn't direct me to another long article but provide an essential succinct explanation. (think of all the organs' intermediate state.. would they survive?)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You really should try to write a short comprehensible title. And this is a question and answer forum, not a debating society or a text book. If I suggest you read The Blind Watchmaker this is because Dwarkins went out of his way to argue this very point in that book. Why should we provide you with a summary? In any case, as I believe you already stated that your attitude to evolution was based on religious belief, you're not likely to be convinced by argument. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 16:32
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ This question has been asked many times on this site. See for example biology.stackexchange.com/questions/49209/… $\endgroup$
    – Roland
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 16:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "an essential succinct explanation" of a complex process is never helpful. Learn about it if you really want to know what it's all about. As a Christian, learning molecular biology and evolution actually made me appreciate the complexity of creation and the compassion shown for the adaptability of creation to change. Read something by Francis Collins, a believer and the head of the Human Genome Project and current head of the National Institutes of Health. It's enlightening. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse I disagree that "an essential succinct explanation" is never helpful. Having a very basic framework on which to build a deeper understanding can be, and is, vital. While 'Simple systems develop, interact, grow interdependent.' is utterly simplistic, it captures the thrust of the process and gives something to build on. Simple explanations should not be dismissed so readily. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 18:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You're working under the false and foolish assumption that intermediate traits are useless and should be selected against. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 6:48

2 Answers 2


A little bit of terminology first

"evolutionism" refers to a set of beliefs from the 19th century. Evolutionary biology is much more than "evolutionism" and I suppose you are more interested is the current day understanding rather than a historic perspective on the question, is that right?

An "evolutionist" is a person that believes in evolution without necessarily understanding it (as by opposition to "creationist"). Someone who study evolutionary processes is called an evolutionary biologist (or often evolutionary geneticist although it does not exactly refer to the same field).

Issue with the question

It is a very standard question as it is a common fake argument from religious extremists that refuse to accept the theory of evolution. A good answer is necessarily long as (1) there are a number of processes of interest and (2) within the question it is clear that the person asking it has very little understanding in evolutionary biology. I will try to keep as introductory and short as possible. Asking for a short answer for this question is like asking for the name of the most populated city in the USA and authorized to use only one word in the answer (while "New York" is in two words).

Answering to a specific case

For the reasons explained above, it is often easier (faster) to explain for a specific case than in theory for a general case. Here are two examples from Biology.SE

Source of information

There are good books designed for people that know nothing to evolutionary biology to get an introductory answer to that question. The Blind Watchmaker is one such book for example. More generally speaking, one might want to have a look at Understanding Evolution by UC Berkeley, a very introductory source of information on evolutionary biology.

Key Concepts to answer your question

Quickly speaking here are a series of quick concepts that are necessary to understand in order to answer this question.

  • Genetic drift
    • There are a number of different forces that affect evolutionary processes. Layman often think of natural selection as being the only force causing evolution but this is wrong. Genetic drift refers to the random sampling of individual at one generation to build up the successive generation. The relative importance of drift to natural selection in driving evolution of a population depends on the effective population size. Have a look at Why is the strength of genetic drift inversely proportional to the population size?.
    • Typically a phenotypic feature that explain little in the variance of fitness in the population might well increase in frequency in the population just through drift.
  • Fitness effect of intermediate states
    • It is common for layman to assume that intermediate states ought to be deleterious. This is a typical logical fallacy called argument to ignorance. In reality the intermediate states might well be neutral or only slightly deleterious (and therefore be mainly affect by genetic drift) or might even be beneficial.
  • Existence of intermediate states
    • Darwin framed his theory into the idea that evolution is a very gradual process. As we know today, this is far from being true. Evolution can actually occur through a big steps. There are single mutations that double the amount of genetic material, there are single mutations that completely affect the physiology or anatomy of an individual. There are cases of horizontal gene transfer (transfer of genetic material between species) as well that can cause sudden important change without having to get through intermediate stages. It is sometimes wrong to assume that there must be intermediate steps.
  • Phenotypic flexibility
    • While you haven't raised this question, a common creationist argument is to say that if a mutation occurs to make a bone a big longer, then one organism would simultaneously need mutations that would make muscles, nerves and other tissues longer accordingly. In reality our developmental process is quite flexible to an environmental change or to a mutational change. This flexibility is very much used in medicine and agriculture.

Why do we talk about the "Theory" of evolution

This is just a sidenote but you might want to have a look at this post

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for explaining the down vote so that I can improve my post accordingly. Note that the downvote appeared about 10 seconds after I posted my answer. It seems therefore impossible that the one who down voted had time to read my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ Not the down voter, but it bears mentioning that it's 'beliefs', not 'believes', also 'believes', not 'believe'. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I explained why the answer has to be of a certain length. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While I agree that your answer is illuminating, thorough and good, the core concept I think can be expressed in a shorter phrasing: 'Simple stuff developed, interacted, got more complicated.' It's not a complete answer, nor even ultimately a satisfactory one, but it does get a core point across, and leaves something to build on. Biology is necessarily full of these kinds of simplifications, because life is just… It's just all over the place, man. It's crazy. Complete lunacy. A good and complete answer can't be shorter, but a very rough and ultimately helpful outline can be, I feel. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not the down voter. I read your answer but again another long not-convincing words evading my core question. I'm on something else but will try to add more comments later. I already read about eye evolution but not convincing at all. Still seems like a far-fetched theory which fails to explain things. $\endgroup$
    – Chan Kim
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 0:48

To put it succinctly: None of the parts of any complex organ present in humans today appeared as they are now.

The parts of the organs we have now are useless in isolation because they have over the last ~500 Ma developed to rely more and more on each other, becoming more and more interdependent.

To use the eyes as an example, the very earliest ones (some of which are still found today, in mollusks, for example) were just light-sensitive skin spots or light-sensitive clusters of core cells in the nervous system. Additional features developed around these, and over time became more interdependent.

  • $\begingroup$ The question was not specific to the eye and discussion on the evolution of the eye already exist on Biology.SE $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Remi.b: The eye makes a good case study. And a discussion on the issues with the underlying question already exists on Biology.SE (I assume). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:03

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .