Is Failure and Unsuccess also part of Natural Selection?

I have questions about this. Isn’t the science of “natural selection” in current theory as much about the unsuccessful as the successful? The comparison of the two is what relative fitness is, if I’m understanding it correctly.

So why is it not correct that natural selection is both about the fit and the misfit? It seems the hypothesis is built on the idea that misfits must die out before reproducing.

People of course can build and “try again” - people have the ability to think through a process and reason regarding where it went wrong.

But, as far as I understand it now, the science of natural selection is about the reproduction of those that don’t fail. That’s different than building on success in a conscious way like people do in an economy.

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You have that correctly. In so far as one thing A is having a reproductive advantage over another B, then that A is being selected over B.
The classic example is the evolution of melanism in the peppered moth, where the dark moth phenotype had an advantage in a specific evironment over the white moth phenotype. So it is totally correct to say that the dark moth had an advantage over the white moth, and so compared to the dark moth, the white moth was “unsuccessful”.

You appear to have understood this part correctly.

It’s technically not required that those with disadvantaged alleles die out before reproducing, technically all that has to happen for natural selection to occur is that they reproduce less on average.

If carriers of allele A has 2.5 children on average, and carriers of allele B has 2.4 children on average, then B is disadvantaged in comparison to A, even though B still manages to reproduce 2.4 times on average before dying.


OK. But that only looks at natural selection as differential reproduction.

That doesn’t fit the phrase “survival of the fittest” well at all. It also doesn’t really fit this description below. How is “reproducing less” chaos and randomness? And “reproducing more” meaningful and orderly? Or would you disagree with the statement? Or would you widen the definition of natural selection?

Natural selection is beautiful. It is easy to observe and model. It is one of the most widely-loved and studied processes among evolutionary biologists. It’s no wonder that it has captured the imagination of the public — we value meaning over randomness, order over chaos. A basic understanding of natural selection gives us optimism that the world is improving, leading to a better future.

True, but that phrase is also a rather poor description of evolution by natural selection. It’s a common phrase of course, but has little relevance to the actual theory of natural selection. You shouldn’t put too much weight on those kinds of colloquial-use terms when it comes to understanding how evolution works.

Your quote does not say that it is. As for the rest of your questions I think you’ll have to pose them to whoever wrote what you are quoting. In particular I disagree with the last part about natural selection giving us optimism that the world is improving. While I do have such optimism, natural selection isn’t where I find any justification for that.


Keep in mind that “survival of the fittest” is a slogan. It is not a description, and it is not a definition. It is only a slogan.

Then you should take that up with @nwrickert who said we should look at natural selection as “building on success.”

And I didn’t see you disagree that evolution in general influences how you think about the world.

But how is it not what you were arguing about “building on success”?

I started this post because the philosophy of Darwinism bleeds into biology and how biologists think. From my perspective, it’s keeping them and you from ignoring obvious problems with the science.

I see you @Rumraket as correctly understanding neutral theory and so you appeal to natural selection. I see others as understanding natural selection doesn’t have that much power and so think there must be more beneficial mutations and so don’t really understand neutral theory. And/or I see others that assume everyone else knows there are problems, but you’re just working on figuring them out. I see lots of contradictions and it starts to make me feel like I’m going crazy - as it shouldn’t be me that sees the problems in science, it should be scientists.

Look how Mayr agrees with me about what natural selection is.

The discovery of natural selection, by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, must itself be counted as an extraordinary philosophical advance. The principle remained unknown throughout the more than 2,000-year history of philosophy ranging from the Greeks to Hume, Kant and the Victorian era. The concept of natural selection had remarkable power for explaining directional and adaptive changes. Its nature is simplicity itself. It is not a force like the forces described in the laws of physics; its mechanism is simply the elimination of inferior individuals. This process of nonrandom elimination impelled Darwin’s contemporary, philosopher Herbert Spencer, to describe evolution with the now familiar term “survival of the fittest.” (This description was long ridiculed as circular reasoning: “Who are the fittest? Those who survive.” In reality, a careful analysis can usually determine why certain individuals fail to thrive in a given set of conditions.)

Darwin pointed out that creation, as described in the Bible and the origin accounts of other cultures, was contradicted by almost any aspect of the natural world. Every aspect of the “wonderful design” so admired by the natural theologians could be explained by natural selection. (A closer look also reveals that design is often not so wonderful—see “Evolution and the Origins of Disease,” by Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams; Scientific American , November 1998.) Eliminating God from science made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this day.

this is perhaps Darwin’s greatest contribution—he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism; essentialism or typology is invalid, and we must adopt population thinking, in which all individuals are unique (vital for education and the refutation of racism); natural selection, applied to social groups, is indeed sufficient to account for the origin and maintenance of altruistic ethical systems;

That’s fitness.

No, it doesn’t. Haven’t we been patiently explaining that to you for quite a while now? This is why science is about evidence, not rhetoric.

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There is no philosophy of Darwinism. If there is any philosophy being used it is the philosophy of science.

Are you confused when one geologist talks about sediment deposition and another geologist talks about erosion? Do you understand that deposition and erosion can be occurring at the same time in different places?

Natural selection for beneficial and against detrimental mutations can be happening at the same time as neutral drift in different individuals in different parts of the genome. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

Let’s make this simple. Why do you think humans and chimps look different from one another? Would you agree that the two species are different because the DNA sequence of their genomes are different? Would you also agree that some of those genetic differences have little or no impact on physical differences while other genetic differences have a much larger impact on those physical differences?


Success is relative. It doesn’t guarantee improvement.

Everything could be getting worse, in which case slowing down the rate of getting worse would count as success.


And that is all that natural selection is: differential reproduction. :slight_smile:


He’s not wrong to say natural selection can be viewed in that way. Doesn’t contradict anything I’ve said. You really are working overtime to try to make it appear as if there is some Big Problem™ going on here.

Why would I disagree with that? Of course it has some influence, at the very least it influences how I think biology works. But I’m not letting natural selection guide my life. I am not a social Darwinist, as I do not think we should structure society to reflect a sort of brutal competition for mates and resources. That is what happens in nature, and I am very much glad that we’ve been able as a species to largely move beyond such a state of affairs, and survive and thrive in large part by cooperation and solidarity with each other. I am hopeful that this trend will only continue in the future.

From my perspective, it very much looks like you’ve had your views of evolutionary biology permanently damaged by you getting your biology education primarily from creationist sources.

I have no idea what you mean by that. I think both concepts are significant aspects of evolution, and the combination of them has enormous explanatory power. I am not somehow arguing against or abandoning neutral theory when I argue that others seem to me too quick to dismiss natural selection as a powerful explanatory force in evolution. Or at the very least, that they are not being particularly clear about what they think natural selection does and does not explain.

It’s simply not enough to just say “Darwinism has been abandoned”, because then people like you who still have little idea what’s going on, take that to mean “nobody thinks natural selection happens, ever happened, or explains anything”. And then it leaves people like me in the unenviable position of trying to explain what other people probably meant, when they could have just added 10-20 more words to their statement to clarify things.

That sentence is so confused it’s hard to know where to begin.

Perhaps the explanations for things you see is at least partly that you want to? But I will concede that there is partly a problem with clear communication going on too. Some people just aren’t very good communicators. Maybe I’m one of them, but at least I do try to explain and clarify things.

There is a long and storied (and still ongoing) tradition of debating the relative contributions of natural selection and other processes in the evolution of life on Earth. I don’t know how else to say this but there isn’t anything about evolution that you see that scientists don’t also see and understand even better.


I’ll respond to more later, but actually I’m getting my biology education from the forum. I’ve only read Jeanson and Sanford’s papers and not half of Sanford’s book. I never looked into any creationist sources until this year and not until after I joined this forum. You all have taught me way more. So I don’t know what you’ll say to that. :upside_down_face:


Well, that is it, more or less. It is not just about surviving to maturity, however. Sexual selection is more stringent than appropriating the resources to live. For much of the animal world, there is always the pesky competition and it is winner takes all. Even for humans, the population geneticist Rod Stewart wrote

Some guys have all the luck
Some guys have all the pain
Some guys get all the breaks
Some guys do nothing but complain

Potential mates are terrific aggregators of comparative genetic fitness.

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Please tell Eugenie Scott. I have it set to the time stamp.

Mercer, you try to confuse me a lot.

So do you think what I quoted above makes science accessible for Christians, if it’s the philosophy of science being used? Do you disagree with what Mayr said?

He compares Darwin’s thought to Greek philosophy here. I have it set to the time stamp.

Are Mayr’s ideas about natural selection totally rejected now? (See video transcript in the details for his definition)

He compares Darwin to Plato and Aristotle here.

I didn’t explain well what I meant. Of course.

OK - how does that argue FOR your view of evolution?

Differential reproduction is easy to understand, and easy to model, and it obviously leads to change over time. But to me the current theory requires a scale of the sort that bleeds into the meaning of life and that is what I was trying to say in this thread. I just didn’t know how to define it. Here’s an attempt:

In what world does differential reproduction lead to the variation we see without a lot of death and evolutionary dead-ends combined with very high fertility rates for some? Try explaining current theory to a room full of mothers. I’d take a bet that 9 out of 10 will think you’re crazy.

There’s so much of nature that isn’t this though, and many animals are social and cooperate.

I wasn’t very clear that at all - what I meant was I have not ever seen you arguing for such things as an equilibrium of mutations, such as is being discussed on the GE thread.

You’re better at it than most.

OK - good, but I would’ve abandoned the current theory a long time ago if I was involved in the debate. It’s been 150+ years. It shouldn’t be this hard…

I agree with Neil. The building on success idea is that leaving more offspring shifts the ratio of alleles available in a breeding population to selection. Each generation builds on the survivors of the previous generation. Small changes accumulate, all shaped by the niche environment. Without selection, there would be no trend of adaptation to a particular niche.


It was explained to mom, dad, and the kids this way. Many years back, we took the children to some science pavilion, and one of the set ups they had was a big wheel of fortune type spinner representing the life of a salmon, where each wedge stood for how said fish went to the great waters in the sky, from being squished as an egg to being a bear’s meal on the return trip. Out of a hundred wedges or so, only one thin triangle represented getting to the finish line and successfully breeding. Spin the wheel.

There are different ways of looking at it, but natural selection is a necessary consequence of a couple of simple but inexorable truths. One. The number of individuals in natural populations are saturated to a dynamic equilibrium with the carrying capacity of their environment. Two. There are more babies born than that number.

Fate can of course be capricious. As Ecclesiastes observes, the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong…but time and chance happen to them all. But selection operates at the level of populations, hence differential reproduction between even slight advantages and liabilities. May the odds be ever in your favor


Or as it’s sometimes put, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong – but that’s the way to bet.


As others have noted, we aren’t going to wade through multiple videos. You are going to have to either describe what you are asking about or quote Mayr directly.

Just so you understand, there are multiple mechanisms that are part of the modern theory of evolution. There is natural selection and neutral drift. One doesn’t replace the other, they both work side by side.

It doesn’t. There has been a lot of death and a lot of evolutionary dead-ends. There are still species with very high fertility rates. For example, bacteria can double their population every 20 minutes under certain conditions.

The same would be true of quantum mechanics, but quantum mechanics is still true (in a scientific sense). Reality doesn’t care if you understand it or not.

If 50% of a genome is the result of past mutations then 50% of new mutations will occur at positions that were previously mutated. Would you agree with that?

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I had to backspace a little to get to the point. I think you set the time stamp a bit too far forward.

I’m not actually sure what you are suggesting here. I pretty much agree with what Eugenie said.

At the particular timestamp, she comments about “survival of the fit enough”. She is pretty much saying the same as I say, when I disagree with the idea that evolution optimizes. I usually say that suboptimal is good enough.

In any case, I don’t see where Eugenie is taking “survival of the fittest” or “survival of the fit enough” as more than a slogan.

I actually don’t understand your story. But yeah, regarding the last sentence, there’s a reason why the novels/movies used it. Thinking about it, the Hunger Games probably encapsulate what current theory is quite well.

Yep, got that.

Good. I’m glad you agree, as this is how I see current theory. Getting to this was my entire point.

I meant, explain it to those who actually undertake the process of reproduction. You can’t explain quantum mechanics to particles.

Yes. How is this relevant?

Again, it’s a focus on survival instead of reproduction. And if it’s only a slogan, why do scientists use it to explain how they understand evolution?