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Natural Selection as a Directive Process

The central argument of the theory of natural selection is summarized by Darwin in The Origin of Species as follows:

As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. ... Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variation and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.

Darwin's argument addresses the problem of explaining the adaptive character of organisms. Darwin argues that adaptive variations ("variations useful in some way to each being") occasionally appear, and that these are likely to increase the reproductive chances of their carriers. Over the generations favorable variations will be preserved, injurious ones will be eliminated. In one place, Darwin adds: "I can see no limit to this power [natural selection] in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life." Natural selection was proposed by Darwin primarily to account for the adaptive organization, or "design," of living beings; it is a process that promotes or maintains adaptation. Evolutionary change through time and evolutionary diversification (multiplication of species) are not directly promoted by natural selection (hence, the so-called "evolutionary stasis," the numerous examples of organisms with morphology that has changed little, if at all, for millions of years, as pointed out by the proponents of the theory of punctuated equilibrium). But change and diversification often ensue as by-products of natural selection fostering adaptation.

Darwin formulated natural selection primarily as differential survival. The modern understanding of the principle of natural selection is formulated in genetic and statistical terms as differential reproduction. Natural selection implies that some genes and genetic combinations are transmitted to the following generations on the average more frequently than their alternates. Such genetic units will become more common in every subsequent generation and their alternates less common. Natural selection is a statistical bias in the relative rate of reproduction of alternative genetic units.

Natural selection has been compared to a sieve which retains the rarely arising useful genes and lets go the more frequently arising harmful mutants. Natural selection acts in that way, but it is much more than a purely negative process, for it is able to generate novelty by increasing the probability of otherwise extremely improbable genetic combinations. Natural selection is thus creative in a way. It does not "create" the entities upon which it operates, but it produces adaptive genetic combinations which would not have existed otherwise.

The creative role of natural selection must not be understood in the sense of the "absolute" creation that traditional Christian theology predicates of the Divine act by which the universe was brought into being ex nihilo. Natural selection may rather be compared to a painter which creates a picture by mixing and distributing pigments in various ways over the canvas. The canvas and the pigments are not created by the artist but the painting is. It is conceivable that a random combination of the pigments might result in the orderly whole which is the final work of art. But the probability of Leonardo's Mona Lisa resulting from a random combination of pigments, or St. Peter's Basilica resulting from a random association of marble, bricks and other materials, is infinitely small. In the same way, the combination of genetic units which carries the hereditary information responsible for the formation of the vertebrate eye could have never been produced by a random process like mutation. Not even if we allow for the three billion years plus during which life has existed on earth. The complicated anatomy of the eye like the exact functioning of the kidney are the result of a nonrandom process—natural selection.

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