Tag Archives: Darwinism

Yes of course “survival of the fittest” is tautological!

If one phrase could be said to have percolated into popular consciousness as summing up Darwin’s theory of natural selection, that phrase would be “survival of the fittest”. Which is rather a pity since that phrase is not how scientists state the principles of Darwinism. That’s because the phrase is tautological.

In Darwinian terms “fitness” is the ability to survive and reproduce. As stated by H. Allen Orr: “In the crudest terms, fitness involves the ability of organism … to survive and reproduce in the environment in which they find themselves”.1

Given that “fitness” is the tendency to survive and reproduce then, obviously, it is the fittest who tend to survive and reproduce. The maxim “survival of the fittest” is thus a tautology.

And boy has that caused problems!    Not, I might add, problems for biologists, but problems for some who comment on biology, from creationists to philosophers of science. I had been under the impression that all this had been clarified decades ago, but on reading the article on biological fitness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written in 2015 by Alex Rosenberg and Frederic Bouchard, I was surprised to find that this is still a live issue among philosophers.

The worry is that, if the phrase “survival of the fittest” is tautological, then perhaps the whole concept of Darwinian “fitness” is tautological and thus empty of any actual content, and then maybe the whole of Darwinism becomes “metaphysics” rather than science. This accusation has been made by creationists, and even by luminaries such as Sir Karl Popper.

The reply is actually quite simple: Yes, the phrase “survival of the fittest” is tautological; but no, the concept of “fitness” is not tautological, and nor is Darwinian natural selection. That’s it; that’s the resolution of the “problem”. Continue reading

Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different. Continue reading

On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.

I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being). Continue reading

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism and the naturalistic fallacy

Writing about the Chief Rabbi’s recent attack on atheism has led me to reading more of his writings. His article in The Times from 2010, proposing a “refutation” of the “New Atheists”, is not recent, but it reveals so clearly a flaw common in religious thought that it is worth a rebuttal.

The religious often accuse atheists of their own worst faults. For any biases or misunderstandings that are common among the religious, one can be sure that they will attribute the very same to atheists. And, as I said in my previous post on Rabbi Sacks, the religious are suckers for the naturalistic fallacy. They readily leap from “this is the case” to “it must be good that this is the case”.

Indeed, Abrahamic theology requires them to make the leap, since they believe in a god that is omni-good, omni-wise and omni-capable; thus anything and everything must be their god’s will, and thus it must be good. Much theology is an exercise in scheming up reasons why a good god would have created the universe as we see it.

So steeped are the religious in this way of thinking that they attribute the same to atheists and scientists. If, for example, they see Dawkins arguing that genes are selfish, they interpret him as lauding selfishness as a good thing. If they see Dawkins writing that our surrounding universe is one of “blind, pitiless indifference” they then regard atheism as heartless and nihilistic. They do not draw the conclusion that humanist atheists actually draw, that since there are no gods to look out for us, then humans need to look out for each other. To the religious, human morals and empathy could not arise from humanity, but can only exist as an echo of a much greater love and morality embodied in a god.

So to Rabbi Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism, which he regards as “worth genuine reflection”. It goes like this:

The first point: if you are a Darwinian, what matters is reproductive success. The rest is mere froth. Forget God, faith and the other relics of a believing age. We are here to pass on our genetic heritage to the next generation. A person is just a gene’s way of making another gene. The bottom line is reproduction.

From there he notes that the most secular countries (such as Europe) have lower birth-rates, whereas more religious countries have higher birth-rates. This he sees as a contradiction to the Darwinian imperative, and thus as a “refutation” of “new atheism”, which he regards as “based on neo-Darwinism”. He says that atheists should want as any people as possible to be religious, since that would increase birth rates. Continue reading

Did life happen “by chance”? Yes! Chance is not randomness

It is said that General Montgomery kept a picture of Field Marshal Rommel on his desk. In order to outwit Rommel he had to understand how he thought. Arguing against creationists is an on-going battle, and to persuade effectively we need to understand how creationists think. Creationists will commonly refuse to believe that the living world we see around us “arose by chance”, and the scientist will reply: But you misunderstand evolution, yes mutations happen by chance, but evolution overall is not a random process.

I was reminded of this by Tweets by science broadcaster Brian Cox, the particle physicist who is enthusing large swathes of British teenagers about science, and managing the near impossible, getting actual science content onto prime-time BBC television. Professor Cox was annoyed by a misunderstanding promulgated on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day religious slot.

Brian Cox "chance" tweet 2

Brian Cox "chance" tweet 1

First, what does a scientist mean by the above terms? The mutations that are the raw material for evolution are “random”. In statistics “random” means that different outcomes have the same probability, and in this specific context “random” means that the mutations occur regardless of whether they are harmful or beneficial to the organism. There is nothing that “knows” which mutations would be harmful or beneficial, and so there is nothing that can bias the mutations towards one or the other.

Natural selection, however, is the opposite of random, it is a sieve that preferentially selects the mutations that are beneficial (organisms with these mutations leave more descendents) and preferentially rejects the mutations that are harmful (organisms with them leave fewer descendents). As Professor Cox tweeted, natural selection is non-random. The combination of random mutations and non-random selection of those mutations is the engine of evolution, the engine that adapts an organism to its environment, leading to the whole wonderful panoply of life. As summarised by Richard Dawkins: “Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators”.

If “chance” were a synonym of “random” then the complexity of today’s life would not have originated “by chance”, since it results from the highly directional process of Darwinian evolution, which is a one-way ratchet continually selecting organisms that better fit their environment.

But is that really what people mean by “chance”? Well, no. In common parlance, “chance” is not a statement about probability, it is statement about intent and design. A “chance outcome” is one that no-one intended. The most salient aspect of a “game of chance” is not so much randomness but that crucial elements are not under conscious control, in contrast to, say, chess. If you say “I bumped into my friend Alex by chance”, you are not making a statement about the probability of your meeting, you are saying that neither of you had planned or intended it.

Thus the primary definition of “chance” is (e.g. from Oxford Dictionaries) “the occurrence of events in the absence of any intention or design”. Does life result from a process without any intention or design? The scientific answer is “Yes”! To a scientist life’s complexity does occur “by chance”!

Replying to a creationist who refuses to accept that life arose “by chance” by talking about random and non-random process is missing the point. The creationist makes a much more profound rejection of the idea. After all, the creationist has no problem with processes that lack intelligent intervention but are still non-random and directional. For example rain water running downwards and eventually running into the sea is directional, but such processes (the creationist thinks) don’t produce complexity, they don’t produce life.

The creationist is a vitalist, he doesn’t accept that something living can arise from non-living material or from merely physical processes, whether directional or not. To him life can only arise from previous life, and ultimately from a god. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Dust alone would not have sufficed.

The creationist doesn’t accept Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that life can arise from non-life, that both living and non-living matter are physical material, obeying only physical processes, and that the difference between them is just the result of replication, replication after replication, with random variation and non-random selection of the variants.

The idea that, over vast eons of time, over billions of generations, such a process could generate complexity, is unfathomable to a creationist. It is unfathomable because his brain is a product of that process, produced to do a job of promoting more replication, and thus his brain’s intuition is tuned to understanding changes that can occur within human lifetimes, not to understanding the eons of Earth’s deep time.

Thus the creationist intuitively rejects the idea that Darwinian evolution can produce complexity, when in truth it is the only process that can produce complexity of the degree seen to dazzling magnificence in Earth’s life. To a creationist such complexity could only have arisen by intelligent purpose.

In saying that “life could not have arisen by chance” it is not the presence of randomness that the creationist is complaining about, it is the absence of intention and purpose. And thus a response about random and non-random processes can only be a small part of the reply.

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism

by Coel Hellier


  • Nazi racial ideology was creationist. Hitler considered that the different human races had been created separately. The Aryan race was the “master” race, created as “God’s highest handiwork”, the other races (Jewish, Black, Slav, etc) were literally “sub-human”. The races had been created by God in their current form (humans had not evolved from other animals).
  • Nazi ideology pointed to both artificial and natural selection as a mechanism preserving the health of a species by weeding out the weaker and less able. This struggle for existence countered a natural tendency for things to decay. To the Nazis this mechanism preserved species in their original (God created) form. They did not consider that natural selection operating over long periods of time caused species to evolve; they regarded the species as fixed.
  • Hitler considered that allowing interbreeding between the separately created races would destroy the Aryan race, and thus be a sin against God. He considered it a high imperative to preserve the Aryan race in its primordial excellence. In Mein Kampf he advocated that Jews should be celibate to prevent such interbreeding. Later he developed a “final solution” to this “problem”.
  • Nazi ideologues strongly opposed most Darwinian concepts; they rejected macro-evolution, they rejected the common origin of the different human races, they rejected human evolution from animals. They rejected such doctrines which they saw as depriving man of his soul. They banned Darwin’s works and called his theories an “English sickness”.
  • Hitler saw the Christian churches as having been corrupted by Jews, starting with Paul. He regarded Jesus as an Aryan, and wanted to restore what he saw as the original message of Jesus. The Nazis formed their own church, the “German Christians”, and their own theological institutes, promoting the idea of Jesus as an Aryan. Hitler despised atheism and had “stamped it out” on taking power with the disbanding of the German Freethinker’s League.
  • The German people during the Third Reich were overwhelmingly Christian, with among the highest church-attendance rates in Europe. In a 1939 Census 94% declared themselves Christian. Nearly all of those involved in the Holocaust regarded themselves as Christian; the Auschwitz SS self-labelled as Catholic (42.6%), Protestant (36.5%) or Gottgläubig (20.1%; the word means God-believer or devout, and was the term favoured by the “German Christians”); not one was recorded as “without faith” (atheist). Indeed Himmler declared that: “I have never tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God”.
  • Since the war many in the largely-Christian victorious West have conducted a misinformation campaign trying to exonerate religion of any blame for the Nazis, and instead place the blame on atheists and Darwinian ideology. The truth is the opposite. Yet, the misinformation campaign has been sufficiently sucessful that many people still believe it. Creationists, particularly, are still trying to promote this disinformation.

1: Introduction
2: Nazi Racial Theory (de Gobineau)
3: Houston Stewart Chamberlain
4: Hans Günther
5: Hitler and Mein Kampf
6: Creationist denial
7: Religion in the Third Reich
8: Christian Denial
9: Conclusion

1: Introduction

Among those who dislike Darwin’s explanation of human beings as the product of evolution a common accusation is that Darwinian thinking has led to horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. For example the American religious commentator Ann Coulter writes: “From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists” (which is wrong on all the others, not just Hitler). So widespread is the claim that even many who accept that Darwinian evolution has been established as true, well beyond any reasonable doubt, also believe that Darwinian ideas were misused to justify Nazi atrocities. For example the British political commentator Andrew Marr writes that Darwinism was “used to justify … the Nazi holocaust”.

Are these claims correct? Remarkably, for a claim so widely accepted, no they aren’t. Indeed, the Nazi ideology underpinning the extermination of the Jews was opposed to and incompatible with Darwinism, instead being a religious and creationist doctrine.
Continue reading