Analysis and critique of the concept of Natural Selection (and of the neoDarwinian theory of evolution)

By Stanley N. Salthe, Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

Part 1. Suitability of the theory as part of Modernism’s origination myth [Edited for this website]


Previously published only on the author’s website. (Updated March, 2006). Part 2 is published as a separate article. Full transcript of the original article as a pdf file.


(1) Derivation from classical capitalist economic theory
(2) Fitness in the conceptual world generated by our culture
(3) Material emptiness
(4) Vestigial value in the anticipation and control of Nature
(5) Privileges the centrality of competition

The concept of evolution is often conflated with the Darwinian theory widely used to explain it--we hear phrases like “natural evolution. The following remarks apply strictly to the neoDarwinian theory.

The neoDarwinian (Synthetic) theory of organic evolution, insofar as it is crucially driven by the concept of natural selection, is not suitable to be a part of Modernism’s creation myth. At a time when the world is becoming crowded, it seems little conducive to peace to believe that competition, which is the basis of natural selection, is the source of all good (including ourselves), however well such a belief might fit within our current economic system.

(1) Derivation from classical capitalist economic theory
This is not just ad hominem--we live in a sociopolitical system that itself derives from classical capitalist ones. This throws suspicion on the theory, in that it may be widely supported (as it is) by folks in many fields of inquiry just because it fits so intelligibly within the world we have created around us. This obscures questions of its “truth”, so that this becomes undecidable under philosophical inspection. As will be explained in Part 2 (3), the values implied by this theory derive from its privileging of short term gain, expedience and opportunism, which are essential aspects of capitalism.

(2) Along these lines, it ought to be noted that the theory of natural selection is itself very fit in the conceptual world generated by our culture.
Being a theory that works on the principle of competition, it is itself very capable of outcompeting theories native to various fields (in this way it is self-referential). For example, in the field of immunology, it outcompeted instructionist theories. How necessary was this replacement? Yes, the selectionist theory works there, but are we sure that (in a different conceptual environment) an instructionist theory could not be constructed that would work as well? (“Work” here means being fruitful in the pursuit of pragmatic knowledge.) If we have a choice of several kinds of theories, all of which are adequate to drive investigation in some discourse, certainly the one that best fits into our current cultural and discursive environments will be chosen. Again, its general ‘truth’ is suspect.

(3) Its material emptiness.
This is demonstrated by the fact that it has jumped from field to field in the last decades. Formally, all that are required to get natural selection (from Richard Lewontin) are (a) preexisting variability in (b) fittingness to an environment, when any of the variants (c) might be propagated by a system of replication with equal facility and cost. (The degree of differential propagation is referred to as fitness.) So there is little restriction on the kinds of systems that might be susceptible to a selectionist interpretation.

Materially empty theories are theories of anything. When we couple this with (1) and (2) above, we see the possibility of a ‘Borgesian’ theory that cannot be resisted, or, at least, could be plausible in any field.

Of course this may not make any difference with respect to the social function of science -- which is to predict, or learn to control, natural processes. It is possible that, in the face of an indefinitely complex and generative world, this function could be carried out with any number of different, even incompatible theories. The point is to get the job done, not to understand truly. [I refer to natural selection’s practical usefulness to society in (4,b).]

If this theory is materially empty, we might wish to know what kind of theory it actually is. I would say that it is a semiotic theory -- that is, a theory of meaning. Selection is a principle of matching between configurations, where one configuration represents, reflects, or is a sign of, another. Ultimately, meaning, in its biological application, is held to be stored in DNA sequences and configurations. So natural selection is about meaning, and meaning is held in informational configurations, not in material dynamics (Howard Pattee).

(4) Its social function in the anticipation and control of Nature has, until recently, been vestigial.
Nevertheless the theory grew like topsy in the Twentieth Century. (a) Let us ask why.And then (b) let us try to see what its social function has (or might) become.

(a) Why its social function has been vestigial. There is reason to believe that natural selection has won our minds because it has been the only (thereby being representable as the only possible) modern theory of organic (biological) evolution. I here simply note that the concept of evolution in general (including cosmic, organic and cultural evolutions) has itself captured the imagination of our society in the Twentieth Century for various reasons, among which has been a struggle to get free of religious bonds standing in the way of various projects. In this light, we need to see that neoDarwinism is only one theory of evolution, of which there might be others (this realization itself is liberating!). True, there is not at present any competing, equally well-developed, theory of organic evolution (which is partly due to the competitive operations of selectionists believing in the validity of their theory). The question of why natural selection has grown so formidably in adherents despite having had few practical implications is referable back to (1), (2) and (3) above.

So, it can be seen that, until very recently, natural selection has had a largely ideological role, as supplying a conceptual mechanism for what we can view as Modernism’s origination myth -- evolution (I use “myth” in its ethnographic sense here, as a believed story of why we are here, how we got here, and what we are doing here). It has not yet succeeded in colonizing evolution theories in all fields -- it still is not prominent in cosmic evolution, for example. In part this is because some so-called theories of evolution (so-called “general theories” in particular) are in reality theories of development. Natural selection has, however, broken into studies of ontogeny (the ‘evo-devo’ approach to organismic development), at the same time that many students of phylogeny (organic evolution), especially ‘cladists’, questioned its usefulness there.

(b) what its social function has (or might) become. Recently there has been a championing of natural selection as a medical principle, thereby gaining for it a more pragmatic importance in order to better justify monies spent studying it. The major insight here is that microorganisms (and some insect pests as well) can mutate and evolve incredibly rapidly -- especially when challenged with antibiotics (or pesticides), or, indeed, antibodies. The response to these challenges can be understood easily using a selection model. This realization has led to altered uses of these agents, and so the selection model has had practical results. (I do not here include the relation of the selection concept to breeding programs on domesticated organisms. These were under way, and mostly completed, long before natural selection was thought of, and, indeed, the idea was originally only a metaphor for them -- Nature doing the selecting instead of people. So the influence was the other way around here.) Recently (see Science 311: 1071), real and supposed uses of natural selection in medicine have been presented as a rhetorical challenge (“Medicine Needs Evolution”) to those advancing the Intelligent Design program as an alternative to biological evolution studies in high schools.

Various trends in biotechnology are based in genetics, and, since genetics has become central to modern neoDarwinian theory, this seems to confer upon this theory some panache by association. However, most of what transpires in biotechnology could go on without any theory of evolution at all. Genetics validated the Darwinian theory (by supplying material causes for inheritance), not the other way around. We can do genetic manipulations without considering natural selection, or even evolution, at all.

But, of course, the neoDarwinian theory fits snugly into our current rage for genetics in biology.

In the realm of computing we have various programs that instantiate the theory of natural selection (e.g., genetic algorithms), or something like it. Certainly here the theory came first, and it has been influential in, say, robotics as well. Even in this area, however, much of its seeming influence may really have come from behaviorism, another mechanistic theory which formally has the same structure as selection theory -- selection by consequences -- as pointed out by B. F. Skinner.

I think it fair to conclude that natural selection’s social role is still primarily to supply an ideological mechanism for a favored myth in the capitalist framework.

(5) Privileges the centrality of competition.
In an increasingly overcrowded world, it happens that more people are coming to believe in the evolution of organisms -- including that of people -- by way of natural selection, which works fundamentally on the principle of competition between types. You and I as individuals cannot compete in this game, but, as tokens of various types (blue eyes / brown eyes; dark skin / light skin -- each of us is a nexus of many genetically coded types) our reproductive success contributes to the competition for representation of these types in the population (and of the genes governing them in the gene pool). It is curious that there is an obvious correlation between holding liberal political views and believing in evolution by natural selection -- seemingly, in this context, a flat contradiction!

This connection to competition probably ought to be the most troubling aspect of selection theory for liberals. Darwinian models have supplied motivation for social Darwinists of one kind or another ever since World War I, ranging from the German High Command at the turn of the Twentieth Century to some contemporary sociobiologists (now morphed into ‘evolutionary psychologists’). We might note here that many sociobiologists hold that competition between populations (e.g., among humans, warfare) is a reasonable way to sublimate competition between types within a population (see discussion of interspecific competition in the last paragraph of Part 2 (1)). Irons’ review of R.D. Alexander’s book The Biology of Moral Systems concludes that the fact that it presents such an unpleasant perspective doesn’t make it wrong. The answer to this view is to bring up the social construction of knowledge, where we see that what is desired can generally be constructed as true. Even Elliott Sober and David Wilson’s recent book, Unto Others, devoted to tracing the evolution of altruism, is nevertheless based on competition, as any neoDarwinian text must be. (If one wishes to catch the moral and philosophical flavor of Darwinian implications, the Alexander book cited above, and Jacque Monod’s Chance and Necessity are central readings.)

It has often been suggested that such social Darwinist applications are “misuses” of the theory. Well, I think that a theory that has so strong a propensity for this kind of (mis)use could properly be held to be suspect when its adherents are growing apace along with the world population. Or, more innocently, we might ask in just what way a theory that privileges competition as the source of everything is ideologically appropriate to an increasingly overcrowded world. Perhaps it is!