Is Evolutionary Theory a Fallacy?

I don’t think he does, though. What he says is true. If each step on the pathway has a fitness benefit, then the whole pathway will be traversable by natural selection. Imagine if you’re walking on a trail and I tell you, “Every step on the path takes you further up, so the whole path is going up.” That’s clearly true. It’s not always a fallacy of composition to say that the whole shares some characteristic with its parts.

Right, it’s an informal fallacy and does not always invalidate the inference. But there seems no clear reason to think that each step on the pathway defining the evolution of a system has a fitness benefit, when the system in question cannot function (provide a benefit) until all the steps are complete. Again, on evolution the emergence of the system itself appears to be largely coincidental – but coincidences are by definition improbable, and as far as I can tell a theory of coincidences would be unfalsifiable and have no explatory value.


I had a busy day, and I’m trying to get a handle of some the other recent comments here (or at least lick my wounds, lol); but I said I would answer you today…

There are cases where compositional reasoning is true, and others where it isn’t. For example: If this structure is made of three red lego blocks, then the structure is red. You could declare that to commit the fallacy, but the statement is true. Some times there really are no “new” or emergent properties not seen in the individual parts, and the attributes of the individual components really can be validly extrapolated to the whole.

In other cases we know that new properties emerge that invalidate the extrapolation. For example, if the individual pieces of a large molecule are each electrically charged, then the large molecule as a whole is electrically charged. But this is can some times be false, and the large molecule can be electrically neutral, because the positive and negative charges balance out.

That’s all well stated, and I agree. As I mentioned earlier the FoC is an informal fallacy, in that an inference from parts to whole is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false; it depends on the composition of the structure in question. But if someone says the whole has property x because the parts have property x, they are guilty of fallacious reasoning. In my view, that’s what Miller did in his reply to Behe, and what Darwin, Dawkins and others have done in less explicit terms.

Now the good news for atheists, philosophical naturalists and evolutionists of all stripes is that because the fallacy is informal, even if my argument is sound it wouldn’t mean that evolution is necessarily false (though I personally believe that it is mostly false). But it would mean that the evolutionary explanation for functionally complex systems is deeply flawed.

Do you agree with me that the issue you have in mind with the flagellum reduces to problems of emergence?

Yes, I think the question can be framed in terms of emergence, namely about whether natural selection can be reasonably expected to carve out certain complex systems with certain emergent properties (functions).

It seems to me that for the inference to fail to a composition fallacy, that if natural selection can explain each step in the evolution of the flagellum then natural selection explain the entire flagellum, the entire flagellum would have to exhibit novel emergent properties of some sort that makes natural selection unable to act on it at some point. Your thoughts?

Honestly I didn’t quite follow all that. But it sounds more like Behe’s “irreducibility” version of the argument, in that he analyzes the mutual dependence of the parts of a functionally complex system and concludes that it could not have evolved by natural selection. I start with the idea of natural selection acting on various structures and then question whether natural selection can be reasonably expected to perform the additional feat of assembling those structures to produce a new functionally complex system. The difference is subtle, but one implication is that I’m not trying to show that evolution of these sorts of systems is impossible.

There is no reason to think that if one has even the most shallow understanding of evolutionary theory over the last decades.

Wrong. You haven’t shown that to be the case, and there’s zero reason to think it’s true if one considers the benefits of any motility for a few seconds or so.

Only if we accept your false assumptions, even then, you’ve limited them to a single, cherry-picked case, with which you claim to cover all of evolution (look at your title!). That’s pretty fallacious. I think it’s called a fallacy of composition, no?

But selection makes what you call “coincidences,” with zero supporting evidence, probable.

Since you seem to like analogies over evidence, how about if we play a few hands of poker, with you playing no-draw five-card stud (needing coincidences), while I play five-card draw (literally selection). Which one of us would win?

Okay, but then you’ve basically conceded that an argument for the selectable steps in the evolution of the flagellum being selectable, to the entire pathway therefore being selectable, could be sound.

But that’s all we need to rebut the claim that the flagellum constitutes some sort of obstacle to evolution. If we can see by reason that there could be a pathway through which incremental elaboration of simpler structures could produce intermediate structures with selectable functions, then what reason do we have to thinking the flagellum couldn’t evolve?

Right, if in fact the system cannot function (provide a benefit) until all the steps are complete, then it’s hard to see how it could provide a benefit until it’s complete. That’s rather obvious.

It’s just that we already know, empirically, that partial flagella (versions of the structure that lack parts necessary for the motility function) still have functions (other than motility) that provide fitness benefits.

We have direct, real-world evidence that simpler versions of the structure (which constitute plausible facsimiles of intermediate stages in it’s hypothesized evolutionary history), lacking parts, still function in ways that provide fitness benefits.

To pick an example, a smaller part of the flagellum constitutes a protein secretion system that can translocate(move) proteins across a lipid bilayer membrane.

A priori, everything is improbable because we can always imagine alternatives being the case. Why did history turn out as it did, instead of some other way? Even if you think all of history was arranged as-is by some cosmic intelligence, we can still ask the question why this particular history from among an infinitely large set of other possible histories? One in which I have more typos in this post, another in which you blink one additional time while reading it? A priori, what are the odds that a being that would want this history to be picked, instead of wanting some other?

This isn’t restricted to flagella, or our behavior. Pick any real-world object. Some rock outside, nearby your home. Go pick it up, study it, and ponder: How did it turn out exactly like that? It’s going to have some unfathomably unlikely arrangement of atoms arranged into some very specific exact shape, distributed in some particular way. To think of how many things that had to happen in such a specific way to get that rock, instead of one with a tiny difference at that moment.

With the kind of reasoning you’re doing you can doubt all of history, because everything looks improbable after the fact. All historical reasoning, even on rational and intentional design, will fall to it. A designer could have picked otherwise? Why these choices? Why those desires instead of others? You have not discovered a problem with evolution, or coincidences, you have discovered a problem with trying to calculate probabilities for events that already happened.


Let me know if I’ve missed your idea, but it sounds to me that you are suggesting that under natural selection systems must be constructed in series with one component complete before another develops. There would be many counter examples. A lungfish to amphibian transition would not require that lungs be optimized before limbs could further develop. The whale fossil record supports flipper development in parallel with nostrils shifting towards the blowhole location. Natural selection operates on organisms as a whole, not their parts in isolation, and traits can be good enough on the way to better.


You’re confusing steps with parts. And you’re confusing present condition of the system with the only possible condition of the system. An irreducibly complex system is defined as one in which removal of any single part renders the system inoperative. But this only applies to the origin of the system if the only way to create it is by sequential addition of invariant parts. If you look at the literature on IC systems, there are many pathways conceivable that don’t involve that. Consider the evolution of the vertebrate eye, with a retina, eyeball, lens, cornea, and pupil. Would that be IC? But the parts aren’t invariant, and there’s a continuous series of steps from a light-sensitive patch of skin to a camera eye, each of them favored by selection. How does that affect your argument?

John, about this:

Sorry for the miscommunication, but the main difficulty here is that you have failed to make your argument relevant to evolution. Your analogy points out a trivial truth, but nothing connects it to biology. The same is true for your new analogy about soldiers and foxholes.

and this

Further, you should listen to the people who tell you that you don’t understand evolution, but I suspect that’s not why you reject it. Many people who accept evolution don’t understand it either. Your rejection is most likely religious in nature: your view of your religion requires creationism, i.e. the separate creation of “kinds”. Is that correct?

Thanks for the reply. I have given it my best shot, and if my argument missed the mark I can live with that. In any event I don’t have the time or energy to try and reformulate it yet again, or explain why it connects to biology other than to point out that both sides of the argument take place in a biological context. Beyond that it seems that we are beginning to talk past one another, which happens often enough in forums like this. So for now I will stop my side of this conversation here in the name of Peaceful Science.

Besides, given that now you suspect that I don’t understand evolution and I suspect that you don’t understand my argument, now would be a good time to just agree to disagree – or at least agree to be suspicious of one another. :slight_smile:

As for my religion (biblical Christianity): yes, my religious convictions deeply influenced how I initially approached the issue. There’s no getting around that. (How I came to my religious convictions in the first place is another matter, though I can assure it wasn’t an arbitrary decision.) But those convictions have also enabled me to wade past all the insults and manipulation designed to punish or shame evolution skeptics (“science deniers”) into submission. That’s why for me the arguments and analyses are important. I think reason holds true quite regardless of biases or motivations. So while it’s true that I want my religious beliefs to be well grounded, I also believe they actually are.

I would add that given the great number of Christians who embrace evolution, compared to the tiny number of atheists who do not (I’ve yet to meet one who did not), it seems that atheism requires evolution to be true to a much greater degree than Christianity requires it to be false. That may or may not be relevant to your situation, since I have no idea what beliefs you hold (other than what appears to be a strong and steadfast belief in evolutionary theory).

I think you should say they could be guilty of fallacious reasoning, not that they are(as in necessarily).

After all it could be true that the reason why the whole has property x is because the parts have property x. I return to the red lego bricks analogy. Why is the structure made of all the lego bricks red? Because all it’s individual parts are red. Why is the structure made of plastic? Because all the parts are made of plastic.

So one does not necessarily commit a fallacy by doing compositional reasoning. There are cases where such inferences fail, and cases where it doesn’t. For that reason I don’t see much value in erecting the fallacy of composition against a hypothetical case of flagellum evolution. There would have to be emergent attributes that would prevent combinations of parts from being selectable.

Suppose we treat the flagellum as being made of the components A, B, C, and D. When A, B, C, and D, are assembled in some particular order, A-B-C-D, we have a flagellum, and the flagellum has a selectable function. Suppose also it is true that the components individually have evolvable functions that natural selection can explain, such that each component alone has a selectable function. As in A alone has a selectable function, B alone has a selectable function, etc.

So we could say natural selection can explain A alone, B alone, C alone, and D alone. However, and here I think the fallacy could potentially occur, because natural selection can explain any one component alone, therefore natural selection explains the gradual elaboration of the structure such that it first explains A, then it explains A-B, then it explains A-B-C, and finally A-B-C-D.
This could be a faulty inference if, in fact, either A-B, or A-B-C together doesn’t have a selectable function. That when combined into intermediate structures hypothetically ancestral to the flagellum, they are functionless.

But I don’t think the real evolutionary inference is that because A, B, C, and D individually can be explained by natural selection, then A-B-C-D can be explained by natural selection. I get that you found what appears to be an example of an article making a statement to this effect, but I don’t think any case for the flagellum’s evolution requires that sort of reasoning.

Rather, the evolutionary inference is that because natural selection can explain A, A-B, A-B-C, and A-B-C-D, then natural selection can explain the incremental evolution of A-B-C-D through the selectable intermediates. Now that of course does depend on it being true that A, A-B, and A-B-C have selectable functions natural selection can explain.
When it comes to the flagellum, I think we have good evidence that is true. We know of simpler systems made of partial structures that are plausible as pre-flagellar intermediates, that have selectable functions. So I just don’t think we have reason to think there are any unforeseen emergent properties that would prevent the evolution of the flagellum through simpler intermediates. For that reason I don’t think we have any good reason to think the real argument for the flagellum’s evolution actually commits the fallacy of composition.

Sorry that was badly phrased. I should have said the following:
It seems to me that for the inference to fail to a composition fallacy—that if natural selection can explain each component individually of the flagellum then natural selection explains the evolution of the entire flagellum—then intermediate stages in it’s evolution made of fewer components would have to exhibit novel emergent properties as a byproduct of some sort that makes natural selection unable to act on those intermediate structures.

I’m not sure I get what you’re saying. I mean it is a fact that natural selection occurs, that structures of various sorts suffer mutations of various types, and that these alter their functions and properties in different ways when they occur, and that these changes are subject to natural selection. With this in mind, I just don’t see why the flagellum should be thought of as an intrinsically implausible outcome of such a history of such changes? Wouldn’t any sufficiently long history of mutations subject to natural selection, or even a history that involved occasional design-interventions, look incredibly unlikely after the fact?


The problem with that assertion is that you have very little basis to say that is true of evolutionary theory as a whole. So far we have just your reading of a single article. And even if your reading is entirely correct (and I think it at least needs some caveats) you would be indulging in a hasty generalisation (and a rather extreme one) to decide that the entire field has that problem. For someone who seems very concerned with logical fallacies you don’t seem to work very hard to avoid them.

I would also note that the presence of some neutral steps would not be a barrier to evolution of a flagellum.


By “religious beliefs” I presume you mean your creationism, since nothing else is at issue. Consider the possibility that your belief that your creationism is well founded is actually the result purely of wanting it to be true. Consider the possibility that your avoidance of further discussion on the matter is purely, and perhaps unconsciously, a defensive reaction. You may be worried that too much contact with the science might undermine your views.

Who says that Christianity requires evolution to be false to any degree at all? The equation of Christianity with creationism is spurious.


Flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, moon landing deniers and all other forms of conspiracy theorists are equally convinced that their beliefs are true.


But will you stop making it?

So you have time to write a book, but not “the time or energy” to write it well?

You are completely avoiding the science of biology, Don.

I don’t see that. I see that you are incorrect, but don’t really want to admit it.

You forgot logic and evidence.

But not evidence. You’ve never read a single paper from the primary evolutionary biology literature, have you? Yet you claim to understand it better than experts.

As a Christian, I find that to be preposterous, primarily because I don’t “embrace” evolution, I accept it on the basis of evidence. Why not get into the science, which necessarily includes evidence? Why pretend that Dawkins is some sort of evolutionary theorist? Because he’s a Culture Warrior like you?

Are you afraid of what you’ll find if you examine the evidence for yourself? If so, that doesn’t say much for your faith.

As for the category you claim doesn’t exist, there are atheists (and other non-Christians) who embrace IDcreationism.

I suspect that I speak for all participants and lurkers here when I say that I KNOW you don’t understand evolution. You’re clearly afraid to try.

Again, I am extremely confident that we understand your evidence-free argument very well. We also understand that the evidence contradicts it. You don’t do evidence; we see that a lot here. You should ask yourself why you lack sufficient faith to engage with God’s word as it is written throughout nature.

Shhh…with Don, it’s all Darwin all the time! Don, Paul is pointing out your ignorance of fundamental, decades-old evolutionary theory, as Faizal did.


As a matter of deductive logic, that is. But science is not a deductive process. Rather, it operates thru induction and abduction.

Agreed. But I think scientific explanation has to make sense to persuade skeptics to accept the truth of a given scientific theory. I am trying to explain why evolutionary theory (as widely depicted anyway) doesn’t make sense to me and lots of other people.

Now you might not care what skeptics of evolution think, or why, and you might be happy to write off all evo skepticism as sheer ignorance, irrational religious bias, “personal incredulity,” dishonesty, pseudoscience, etc.; but in that case you will have to simply get used to the fact that around 40% of the public (here in the U.S. at least) rejects your theory.

Meanwhile you are doubtless aware that induction and abduction do not have the power to establish absolute truth. Yet you are also doubtless aware that for some reason evolution popularizers like Coyne and Dawkins try to pass off a theory that operates through induction and abduction as absolute truth anyway.

Speaking of Dawkins: in The Blind Watchmaker he asserts: “Cumulative selection , by slow and gradual degrees, is the explanation, the only workable explanation that has ever been proposed, for the existence of life’s complex design.” But you have suggested that the complex design of biological systems is a consequence of numerous mechanisms, not just selection, others that it’s a matter of self-assembly. I’m guessing that at some point someone will tell me that self-assembly occurs by natural selection, lol.

So did Dawkins ever officially retract that statement? If not, maybe you just need a more unified front and more effective spokespersons? I don’t know.

IOW, what you are arguing against is not really just evolutionary theory. Rather, you are arguing against the entire scientific method. You just don’t seem to realize this.

I will be blunt. It does not appear you have any formal training in any scientific discipline, nor in philosophy. Not only have you failed to demonstrate an adequate understanding of fundamental details of evolutionary theory. You do not appear to understand the basics of the scientific method itself. You just seem to have gleaned some fancy-sounding philosophical terms from the internet and, emboldened by the examples of dishonest pseudoscientists such as those with the Discovery Institute, figured this is adequate to join their crusade against the theory of evolution.

My advice is to accept you are grossly underqualified to be writing a book about evolution, and devote the time you would otherwise be wasting on this endeavour to better understanding science.

You are correct that I am unqualified, even grossly so, to speak with any kind of authority about science. To have and voice my thoughts about evolutionary theory as it has been drilled into me over the years, though, is something different. I don’t think evolutionary theory is strictly about science or the scientific method; it also speaks to matters of philosophy, theology and metaphysics. In any case, truth is not really a function of scientific credentials or authority, or the current consensus of scientists on a given theory at a given time. If it were, we would have to conclude that at one time the earth was at the center of the universe, and that Darwin’s theory became true sometime after 1859.

Take it for what it’s worth.

It’s worth more than you probably realize. Though I do intend to finish my book, I will also be taking a lot of the comments here under advisement and adding a number of qualifications to what I have been calling my “core argument” against evolution (I will likely remove my reference to Tim Wong’s analysis in Microbe and try to find better and more current examples for one thing). That argument makes up only one of fourteen short chapters in a book of well under 200 pages, and I’m not exactly a NY Times bestselling author, so it’s not really a big deal anyway.

Here I will disagree. The science needs to produce useful results, and then people who may not understand the details will begin to be persuaded. We still don’t know why the force of gravity behaves as it does, but we can describe its effects and make useful predictions using Newton’s equations (and technically, Newton was wrong). Few understand the time dilation effects of gravity, but we enjoy the benefits of GPS navigation without any need for understanding or persuasion.

Until relatively recently I don’t think evolutionary theory was actively generating results that people (outside of biological sciences) see every day. But that is beginning to change. No doubt you have seen TV ads for “personalized medicine” already.

I am trying to explain why evolutionary theory (as widely depicted anyway) doesn’t make sense to me and lots of other people.

Back to this … here I will agree - a lot of people, for various reasons, do not understand (or do not accept) TOE. But this is not FoC, here the fault is in the understanding. No explanation can ever be sufficient if basic understanding is not already there. We could be stuck in a situation where ToE is not completely understood by most people. That’s not a problem for gravity, so I don’t see why it has to be a problem for evolution.

Sorry about the insults.

I can understand your wanting your beliefs to be true, but you also wrote this:

You CAN have it both ways, but it requires reconciliation of faith and knowledge of science. How you do that is up to you, or for that matter IF you can do that, it’s certainly not my business. :wink:

I will make a suggestion tho, that you can try to accept ToE for the results it produces, and the predictions that can be verified. That should cover most of the biological sciences. You can leave the origin of life and deep evolutionary ancestry as undecided if that is troublesome.

In a similar way, a divide and conquer approach may be useful for your book. Which aspects of ToE are sufficiently explained, and which are not fully “composed”.


Hi Dan
Do you think there is sufficient evidence to continue to support the single point origin model or universal common descent?

The late David L Hull, philosopher in the field of evolutionary biology once wrote Nature 377, 494 (1995):

“Evolutionary theory seems so easy that almost anyone can misunderstand it.”

He was commenting in a review of Gary Cziko’s book “Universal Darwinism” but the aphorism has general application.

There is well developed, philosophical (professional) literature that discusses evolutionary theory, the history of evolutionary thought, and the nature of proof & evidence. As a starting point, I’d recommend books or articles from Elliott Sober. He is a philosopher of science at the U of Wisconsin-Madison. Some of his books are listed here. I’ve read his “Philosophy of Biology” and “The Nature of Selection” and would recommend starting with “Philosophy of Biology”. I’ve been meaning to read Sober’s “Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science” (reviewed here) but life gets busy. Another starting point, if a bit of a slog to get through is Ernst Mayr’s very thick, “The Growth of Biological Thought”. Safe to say that Ernst didn’t lack for strong opinions but his discussion about the nuances of biology as a science comes from first-hand experiences in the early to last quarter of the 1900s’.

In any case, it may be useful to review past work related to evolutionary theory and scientific philosophy. There is quite a deep literature.


Maybe we just need to point out that Dawkins wrote that nearly 40 years ago, in a book you probably haven’t read.

“Drilled into” rather than “learnt” or “researched” noted.

Perhaps you should have found more than one example before writing as if that one example was typical of the entire field.

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Now I’m mildly curious about what’s in the other thirteen chapters, and why you don’t feel the need to run those by a critical audience.

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What you are succeeding at, however, is demonstrating the deeply flawed thinking used by those who are compelled to deny evolutionary theory.

I’m not sure what you mean by “absolute truth”, and I doubt you do either. Induction and abduction, rather than deduction, demonstrate that the earth is not flat. Most people including, I suspect, yourself consider that sufficient to demonstrate the truth of the claim that the earth is not flat, regardless of whether it is “absolutely true.”

The only disagreement I would have with what you quote Dawkins as saying is that many of those slow and gradual steps are neutral with regard to selection. I doubt Dawkins would have any problem accepting that if asked.

Can you give an example?

While on that subject, have you and your fellow evolution-deniers finally settled on an age for the universe? Is it 14 billion years? Or 6000? That’s quite a wide error bar, you know.

Subjects regarding which you also seem grossly unqualified to speak. But don’t let that stop you…

I think we can skip the age-of-the-Earth argument - @Don_Mc isn’t making any claims there.

BUT it does raise a good point. There are numerous fallacious claims made about evolution; If the goal is a sound basis for faith, then one should not reject evolution on the basis of bad rhetoric any more than accepting it.

OR, as I mentioned just above, find a way to reconcile conflicting ideas. This seems the only feasible solution that doesn’t itself generate more bad rhetoric.

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