I've heard the argument from a lot of creationists that all the evidence for natural selection (and by extension, evolution) in general is worthless because natural selection is so flexible that it could cover all the data, no matter what we discovered. In essence, that natural selection is a tautology:
Survival of the fittest. What is 'fit'? What survives.
There are other creationists, however, that admit that natural selection could be falsified. These are split into two groups:
- The ones that say, if you rephrase natural selection as a non-tautology, it becomes obvious that it doesn't work:
Natural selection has been criticized as a tautology. This would be a major problem for evolutionary biology, if true, because tautological statements can't be falsified and, therefore, can't be scientific. There is merit to this critique insofar as the theory of natural selection is indeed generally described in a tautological manner. However, natural selection can be described non-tautologically if we’re careful. Natural selection should be defined as the theory that attempts to predict and retrodict evolutionary change through environmental forces acting upon organisms. However, this re-framing comes at a cost: it reveals, based on our current knowledge of evolutionary forces, the lack of ability to make accurate predictions about expected changes except in the most simple of circumstances.
- And those that say that the falsifying options provided by natural science are impossible to actually use. Here are some of those falsifying options:
- Charles Darwin himself proposed a rather strong test of evolution: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." [Darwin1859, pg. 175]. This is the basis of claims by various intelligent design writers that various biological structures, such as the vertebrate immune system or the bacterial flagellum, are "irreducibly complex" -- they consist of multiple components that could not develop in the absence of the others. However, these structures have been exhaustively studied in the scientific literature, and scientists have demonstrated entirely plausible evolutionary pathways. See Complexity.
- Famed biologist J. B. S. Haldane, when asked what evidence could disprove evolution, mentioned "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era" [Ridley2004, pg. 66]. This is because mammals, according to current scientific analysis, did not emerge until approximately 40 million years ago, whereas the Precambrian era is prior to approximately 570 million years, when only the most primitive organisms existed on earth.
- Biologists had long conjectured that human chromosome number two was the result of a fusion of two corresponding chromosomes in most other primates. If DNA analysis of these chromosomes had shown that this was not the case, then modern evolutionary theory would indeed be drawn into question. This "fusion hypothesis" was indeed confirmed, rather dramatically, in 1993 (and further in 2005), by the identification of the exact point of fusion. For additional details see DNA.
- Modern DNA sequencing technology has provided a rigorous test of evolution, far beyond the wildest dreams of Charles Darwin. In particular, comparison of DNA sequences between organisms can be used as a measure of relatedness, and can further be used to actually construct the most likely "family tree" hierarchical relationship between a set of organisms. Such analyses have been done, and the results so far dramatically confirm the family tree that had been earlier constructed solely based on comparisons of body structure and biochemistry. For additional details see DNA.
Is there any way to save natural selection? To do so, we need to:
- Prove it can be explained non-tautologically
- Prove that it does make useful predictions
- Give falsifying experiments that are reproducable and actually possible.