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From our friends at Telic Thoughts: An Open Letter to Professors Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins

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An Open Letter, that is, on the Nature of Natural Selection, here:

The concept of natural selection on the surface seems to be a rather simple concept to grasp and you both have explained the concept in your respective writings. I have a few question regarding your views about the nature of natural selection, questions that I feel are not explicitly answered or addressed in your various writings. I have four basic questions, each with their own subset of questions:

1) Is natural selection a prescriptive or descriptive term?

2) Is natural selection a mechanism?

3) Is natural selection a cause or a force?

4) Is natural selection a process or an outcome?

It turns out, they’re all over the map.

But, you know, Darwinism does that to a guy.

As for a reply, we don’t recommend asking the message boy to wait. He needs his sleep.

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4 Replies to “From our friends at Telic Thoughts: An Open Letter to Professors Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins

  1. 1
    Neil Rickert says:

    LOL.

    I’m not a biologist. On my reading, Darwin was clear that he was using the term “natural selection” as a metaphor. My personal preference would be to describe things in terms of “differential survival”.

    Biologists, like all scientists, sometimes talk in a kind of technical shorthand which is understood by other biologists but perhaps confusing to those from outside. When they are being precise, they may say that natural selection can be thought of as a filter. When they are using it as technical jargon, they might talk of it as a mechanism or process. But when they talk that way, the actual process is the differential survival of members of a population that results from the filtering effect.

  2. 2
    Petrushka says:

    Astronomers also talk about planets orbiting, although physicists would say that that planets are following the straightest possible line through space-time.

    Science writing is full of metaphors. One can just as easily ridicule popular writing about theology.

  3. 3

    It seems that natural selection is a descriptive term attached to the observation of differential survival. There is no problem using a term of art to describe a particular process or class of processes.

    The problem arises when people (all too often) describe natural selection as though it were some kind of creative process, which it is not. Further, natural selection itself has zero predictive capability, because it is only meant to be a description of the events *after the fact.* For example, looking at a population with phenotype A and phenotype B, natural selection tells us nothing about what will happen. Only later when we again sample the population and discover that there has been a change in the phenotypic ratios do we say, “look, there was differential survival, and this is an example of natural selection.” It makes no difference what the reason for the change in ratios was: actual differences in the organisms, flood, fire, predators, poor reproduction, lightning strikes, pure luck, etc. All we do is observe that there has been a change and label it “natural selection.”

    Labels are OK as a form of shorthand, but the label itself is not an explanation. And when the label is used, as it sometimes is, as an explanation for the events that gave rise to the label in the first place, the “explanation” is a mere useless tautology. This is why natural selection is often, when not carefully used, nothing more than a tautological statement with all the explanatory power of the age old observation: “stuff happens.”

  4. 4
    Joseph says:

    Natural selection, an oxymoron, is defined as differential reproduction due to heritable (random) variation. IOW it is an output of three processes. Nothing, that would support Darwin, has ever come from it.

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