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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not a question about biology in the terms of SE Biology, but an attempt to initiate discussion about the provability of the theory of evolution by natural selection, a topic that must have been discussed ad nauseam. $\endgroup$ – David Nov 3 '17 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology SE! Please have a look at these closely related questions: biology.stackexchange.com/questions/64688/… and biology.stackexchange.com/questions/40579/is-evolution-a-fact. You will find many more by using the search bar at the top of the page. If there's still something that you need to ask, please edit your question to specify exactly what is still unclear to you. $\endgroup$ – vkehayas Nov 3 '17 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, thank you. The first one I've already looked at, and while helpful was not exactly what I needed and the second I will look at. In any case, I know how to use a search bar, thanks. @David, if this topic has been discussed ad nauseam (which I'm sure it has!), could you please point me to some resources on it? Aside from one article, I'm having a hard time using Google to find anything useful. $\endgroup$ – Christopher Dumas Nov 3 '17 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ There is a helpful discussion along these lines in Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype, chapter 10. $\endgroup$ – sterid Jun 16 at 16:44

I think @Remi.b's answer is great and really the only way to answer your questions is with a comprehensive introduction to evolution. However, I wanted to address the tautology issue more directly.

First, the "survival of the fittest" seems like a tautology with "natural selection" because it is not a description of how natural selection works, rather, it is a phrase meant as a synonym for natural selection, to help describe the result to someone unfamiliar with the phrase.

Let me use an analogy: it would be like if you were a very new learner of English, and I told you "Joe's truck has more mass than an elephant!"

If you aren't really familiar with the term "mass" in English, this phrase could be confusing. So I explain instead that "Joe's truck is heavier than an elephant." If you know the word "heavy" this is easier to understand.

However, there is a tautology there! the car is actually heavier because it has more mass, but that does not make either phrase untrue or untestable: it's just another way of saying the same thing within a context (i.e., those statements are the same if they are exposed to the same gravity).

The testable hypothesis that natural selection makes is that, given 2 things: 1) a population where individuals have traits that give them different chances of survival, and 2) some way for offspring to inherit traits from their parent(s), then the population over time will consist of individuals who are more likely to possess the traits that gave a high chance of survival.

Following this, should the environment change in some way such that a different trait is now beneficial, that trait will increase in prevalence.

There are way too many experiments to summarize here that show 1), 2), and a combination of 1) and 2), as well as experiments that show that indeed, when you have 1) and 2) you get natural selection.

  • $\begingroup$ Since this post just got bumped to the top of the active question list, I've got to poke. I know it'll be a pain, but I think your answer would be made even stronger for those coming across it if you can actually cite one or two or three papers that you allude to in your final paragraph. Not a must, as the rest of your answer makes your point well. But, if you have time, link/cite something here...+1 btw for simple explanation $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Feb 24 at 18:12

The tautology argument is an attack on a rare phrasing and not on the nature of the theory of evolution.

First, the theory of evolution is way more than just natural selection but let's ignore that for the moment.

The phrasing Survival of the Fittest was first suggested by Herbert Spencer and was later used by Darwin when he changed the title of the fourth chapter from "NATURAL SELECTION" to "NATURAL SELECTION; OR THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" (Thanks @BryanKrause for his comment).

It is before all a labelling. A catchy sentence to refer to the process of Natural Selection. In no way does it mean that Natural Selection is a non-sensical explanation.

Natural Selection is easy enough to understand for a layman that you can make you own opinion

Luckily, the concept of Natural Selection is really easy to understand. It does not take any a priori knowledge in Science to understand it and if you have a look at any intro course to evolutionary biology you will understand it yourself.

There are thousands of good sources of information on the subject online. If you want to learn about it, do not look at straw man and other fake explanations from creationist (and other religious extremist) websites! Consider for example Understanding Evolution or many of our posts on Biology.SE such as this one for example. You can also get any intro text book (see here for recommendations).

How does natural selection work?

Here is a copy paste of my answer here. It explains the very basic concept of natural selection through the so-called Lewontin recipe and gives a somewhat silly, but easy, example with a population of pens!

The Lewontin recipe says that natural selection occurs whenever:

  1. Individuals in a population varies in terms of a given trait
  2. This trait has some (additive) heritability. Here is one of the several posts that explain the concept of heritability. It might be slightly a post that is a bit advanced for you though but shortly speaking it means that offspring are more similar to their parents more than they are to other non-kin individuals in the population.
  3. The fitness varies (not necessarily linearly) as the trait varies.

Simple example:

  1. In a population, there are blue pens and red pens
  2. Reproduction is asexual and blue pens create other blue pens while red pens create other red pens.
  3. blue pens make more offspring than red pens.

Of course, there exist strict mathematical formulations of this process that you can learn in any introduction to evolutionary genetics.

Your questions

Note that your questions are all way too broad for a single post (and your question could be closed as too broad) but I wanted to try to give you a hand anyway.

Prove it can be explained non-tautologically

There is no "proof" in science, only evidence. But let's ignore that for the moment.

Please have a look at any intro course to evolutionary biology (see above).

Prove that it does make useful predictions

Please have a look at any intro course to evolutionary biology (see above). Afterward, you can eventually have a look at Is evolution a predictive theory?.

Give falsifying experiments that are reproducable and actually possible.

Please have a look at Demonstrable and repeatable examples of evolution which lists thousands of evidences explained in layman terms.

There are thousands (tens of thousands maybe?) of papers published every year extending our understanding of evolutionary processes! It is hard to know which one you would be interested in!

Related post

You should have a look at Is evolution a fact?

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    $\begingroup$ "Survival of the fittest" was Herbert Spencer's term, not Darwin's, though Darwin later referred to and used that phrasing. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Nov 3 '17 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause Thank you for correcting me. I knew it but somehow managed to got it wrong when writing! I've corrected this mistake. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Nov 3 '17 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ I'm really interested in the history of science and it's really interesting when a rhetorical choice like "survival of the fittest" comes back to haunt a bit. It was really taken as a nice, simple way to convey what selection meant but it has been so contorted since. There are a lots of other examples of where this has happened in science (our insistence on using the word 'theory' in english, is one other example, to mean 'stuff we have figured out' instead of the colloquial 'random idea I just came up with'). $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Nov 3 '17 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause regarding "theory", it's even worse: in Greek, θεωρία is the act of observing, the sight, the act of looking at. It has the same root of "theatre". So, it has more to do with "empiric evidence" or "collected data" than with "rational explanation for this phenomenon". It is, indeed, a very bad choice for what it is supposed to mean in sciences. $\endgroup$ – user24284 Nov 4 '17 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Remi.b regarding the "survival of the fittest" phrase, not only Darwin never said that in the first edition, but he also never used the word "evolution" (actually, there is the verb "evolved", in the last page of the book). On the 6th edition he uses "evolution" no less than 15 times. As I always say, the 1st edition is the edition anyone should choose to read. It is by far the best one: all the changes he did in the subsequent editions were for the worse. $\endgroup$ – user24284 Nov 4 '17 at 5:03

Natural selection is an observation, not a tautology. We can certainly imagine worlds - call them Disney ecologies (or for the religiously inclined, Gardens of Eden) - in which natural selection simply doesn't happen. E.g. each species is independently created, and each pair of a species has exactly two offspring before dying of old age.

This is easy enough to imagine, just as it's easy to imagine a flat Earth enclosed in a dome of "firmament" but it simply doesn't match what we observe happening in the world we live in.


The "survival of the fittest" statement which Darwin recommended as the best formulation of his idea of "natural selection" is definitely a tautology because there is no other operational definition of fitness besides survival (or reproduction). So, survive (reproduce) are those who survive(reproduce).

Darwin naively attempted to imitate the process of selection of domesticated species assuming that new species are produced by "natural selection" in the same way as dogs are produced from wolves. The poor guy was probably not familiar with the facts: the species produced by selection are inferior to the original ones. Dogs are inferior to wolves since they lost a lot of vital features. Moreover, this loss of information is irreversible: you cannot produce a wolf from a spaniel by selection.

In an abstract form, it is quite simple. There is a law: the complexity of a result of a selection algorithm cannot exceed the complexity of the algorithm. Therefore, any selection results in the information loss, and no new information can be produced by selection.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not clear what you are trying to explain here. It is true that selection itself would lead to loss of diversity (information, in other words) but you are forgetting that mutation (and other processes that cause genetic alteration) keep adding more information. Although, the phrase "survival of the fittest" may seem tautological, it is not really so. Fitness is the ability to survive a condition. Although it depends on the condition, it is a property that existed in a population prior to the selection. After the selection, these fit individuals are the ones that survive. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Jun 17 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ So, it would be great if you can clarify what you are really saying. BTW, it is not impossible to make a wolf from a spaniel considering the fact that humans (or any complex multicellular organism) evolved from a unicellular ancestor. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Jun 17 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ If "Fitness is the ability to survive a condition" then the fittest are those who survive. Survival of those who survive. Anything else? $\endgroup$ – Enoch Arden Jun 24 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ And it is not a fact that humans (or any complex organisms) evolved as a result of (whatever) selection. It is an opinion, and it is logically faulty. $\endgroup$ – Enoch Arden Jun 24 at 9:37

This is a great question, Cristopher. You won't probably get many answers because is a pretty uncomfortable topic for Biologists and Scientists in general.

First, I would say that this question SHOULD not be framed in the classical Science vs Religion discussion. Science is one thing and beliefs are another.

Second, for the people that responded before: Reading Intro Bio books does NOT solve the problem. That's both meaningless and silly. Intro bio books are NOT going to explain the flaws of the theory they are founded on.

Third - you say:

Is there any way to save natural selection?

What for? Science is not meant to save hypotheses.

Fourth, regarding these two additional statements:

Prove it can be explained non-tautologically Prove that it does make useful predictions

There'a big NO to both ideas. The tautological aspect in Darwin's hypothesis is clear from the title.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

Natural Selection explains everything without explaining anything.

Fifth, you write:

Give falsifying experiments that are reproducable and actually possible.

Fitness is defined in terms of survival but we (think we) measure it using reproductive success. A hypothesis is supposed to generate predictions, but there is no way you can predict since both survival and reproductive success are exclusively based on empirical observations.

There are many many other issues in Darwin's ideas. The tautological issue is just one of them. Regardless, this is not a discussion that has nothing to do with the role of religion in Science.

There're not many answers out there despite this discussion is fairly old. Not even SJ Gould's ideas are compelling. The whole issue has been relatively 'hidden' for decades.

Bethell T. Darwin's mistake. Harper's 1976; 252:1509 (Feb) p.70.

Gould SJ. Darwin's untimely burial. Nat Hist 1976; 85 (Oct.): 24-30

Good luck,

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    $\begingroup$ As per the OP's username, the OP's first name is likely Christopher, not Cristopher. It is funny that you claim he won't get many answers while there are already 3 answers posted. The only thing that might be uncomfortable to biologists is that the argument is based upon concepts of philosophy of knowledge and not science. For the rest (I hope I will not sound too insulting), you clearly don't know much about evolutionary biology and you mix up your ignorance with a bunch of non-sense, which make it hard to comment. For examples ... $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Jan 29 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Fitness is defined in terms of survival but we (think we) measure it using reproductive success. is wrong. There are many many other issues in Darwin's ideas summarizing evolutionary biology to Darwin's ideas is like summarizing all of physics to Isaac Newton. Natural Selection explains everything without explaining anything is wrong. The tautological aspect in Darwin's hypothesis is clear from the title. I don't know what "title" you are referring to. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Jan 29 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ Sure! Sorry Christopher! How many biologists are out there? How many have seen this question. Do the math. It is unconfortable because Darwin's proposal was exclusively phylosophical. He was not a biologist, and he ignore a lot of things that we now know. Does that makes sense to you? $\endgroup$ – TTL Jan 29 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ Your second commentary is not even an answer. If you want to respond, then do it. This is a discussion and you don't know what the truth is. Don't be a bad scientist and do the homework. Are you actually scientist? Why don't you discuss then? $\endgroup$ – TTL Jan 29 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ I know what NS. You are the one who doesn't think further and follow courses/books blindless. Where did I say: "("survival of the fittest")"?? $\endgroup$ – TTL Jan 29 at 18:47

protected by Chris Jun 16 at 17:24

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