Are there any scientific alternatives to evolution?

I got started on this question when I was asked to read Joseph Platt's strong inference paper once again. I started thinking about the importance he places on alternative hypotheses, and started thinking about what alternative hypotheses might be available for evolution, the field I study.

Let me say right off that for me creation/intelligent design is not a valid alternative for two reasons. First, I'm not sure how these alternatives are falsifiable, an important part of any scientific theory. But more crucially, these ideas do not work for me because this notion of creation does not fit with my understanding of G-d. If they work for you, than I don't need to disabuse you of this notion. (Its not that I don't care, its just that its none of my business what you believe.) But given that I can't accept them, and don't see how they are scientific, do I have a viable alternative hypothesis?

I'm starting to feel like I don't. Not that there couldn't be, but that there aren't. Which is not to say that there aren't lots of alternative hypothesis with regards to evolution. Darwin probably had it right, and natural selection probably has played a big role in the evolution of life that we see today. But how large a role have random events probably played in evolution. What would happen if we could rewind and start it all over again? I don't know- its something worth thinking about and maybe even investigating experimentally. Does the fossil record show gradual evolution? Or has is it really better described by punctuated equilibrium? And has that evolution proceeded in small gradual steps? Or have they been big leaps? Do you believe in hopeful monsters? (I don't.)

These are all interesting questions, I think. They are certainly all active areas of research in evolution. But none of them deny that evolution has occurred. Is this really a problem? Am I dealing with an outdated or unrealistic notion of how science works? Is this just more proof of what Kuhn says... Could someone help me out here? I'm beginning to feel like I'm having a crisis of faith...

It is a rhetorical folly to toss intelligent design (ID) in the same bin as creationism and attempt to use the same arguments to disprove it.

The fact that the current batch of ID proponents (IDiots) are rather transparently using it to try to slip their deity into places it doesn't need to be is simply because the current batch of IDiots are (or were) also creationists. For now, it is effective to use the usual anti-creationist arguments against IDiots because they will usually defend against such attacks never realizing that they're irrelevant to the ID position. Equating ID with creationism because the IDiots are creationists is basically ad hominem and prevents someone from examining the future potential ID has to not merely masquerade as a science but to actually become one in it's own right.

IDiots have tried to make much of the fact that the identity of the intelligent designer (IDer) is not the focus of ID and, therefore, ID cannot be said to advance any religion. Most people see though this and see with abundant clarity that "IDer" means "My Deity" to the current batch of IDiots. However, ID makes no necessary appeal to the supernatural.
Francis Crick believes in directed panspermia. In short, he thinks aliens seeded the planet with life. Crick is a proponent of intelligent design for this reason. Sure, sure, perhaps there's not much of an experimental difference in asserting life was created by aliens v. asserting it was created by deities. Theoretically one could imagine if we could get a good look at the genomes of these (presumably undesigned) aliens they would be qualitatively different from our (presumably designed) genomes. While it is possible to take issue with the identity of the IDer, one should realize that it's not the core problem of ID and that ID does not require supernatural or unscientific claims... though the IDiot you're debating might make such claims.

The current stumbling block to ID becoming recognized as scientific is that it lacks a coherent standard of evidence against which one can claim some bit of data as evidence for ID. It is, for the moment, completely lacking in the necessary element of falsifiability.

Michael Behe's concept of irreducible complexity is probably the one people are most familiar with due to his popular book Darwin's Black Box. Unfortunately, the reasoning presented in the book is not new... indeed such arguments could be found in reference to objects such as the eye even in Darwin's time. It is ultimately an argument from ignorance. Behe can't figure out how these irreducibly complex (IC) systems could have evolved, thus they couldn't have evolved. It's also been noted that evolutionary algorithms can be expected to remove unnecessary components and therefore produce IC systems. There are a number of other specific and theoretical problems with the argument that IC systems are inexplicable within an evolutionary framework, but they are better covered in other nodes.
William Dembski is the other main player in the attempt to make ID into a valid scientific pursuit. Dembski's complex specified information (CSI) depends heavily on information theory. I have yet to encounter any IDiot that could competently describe or support a argument built around information theory. In my experience, Dembski's work is (mis)used in much the same way that creationists of yore have exploited thermodynamics. Simply demanding a rigorous scientific definition of information at the opening of such discussions will prevent the cameleon-like shifts in meaning which the sophistry depends on. The problem with Dembski's actual work is that his explanatory filter cannot differentiate between the products of a design process (such as evolution) and the products of an intelligent designer. There are some that contend that CSI does not identify design in general and that CSI is a meaningless concept. Again, these specific contentions are better covered in other nodes.

It is my expectation that should a coherent standard of evidence for intelligent design ever come into being we will quickly discover that we are not intelligently designed and ID will be cast aside as a disproven hypothesis by the scientific community. IDiots will, of course, not be affected and will then be deserving of the same ridicule as creationists.


fhayashi, Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium gives a list of required conditions for a population not to evolve. Natural selection occurs when you violate the condition that all members of the population are equally likely to die and reproduce. Sexual selection occurs when you violate the condition that all members of the population are equally likely to reproduce with any other member of the population. Genetic drift occurs when you violate the condition that the population is arbitrarily large enough to reduce the effects of chance to background noise. The other two primary conditions are that no new alleles are produced in (mutation) or introduced to (gene flow) the population.
Hmmm... let me see if I understand. You're saying you don't believe in creation. And you're looking for another scientific reason for why we are here. Which is legitimate, I guess.

"Science", the entity, doesn't have more that one notion of how we got here. It "believes" in evolution. Just like some people believe in God, I guess. We could go on about the differences, but we won't, because it's irrelevant right now. When science considers something proven 'beyond reasonable doubt', for it's own purposes, it accepts it as true. Evolution cannot be proven, as has been debated many times on E2. However, we see evolution actively taking place in bacteria, we have fossils, etc. That's good enough for us. So of course research in evolution accepts the existence of evolution. Research in cancer accepts the existence of cancer.

Of course, science could be wrong. This won't be the first time it's happened. Newton was 'wrong', and science accepted his 3 laws. Science believed Newton for many years, until Einstein came along and disproved him. Hell, the 'fact' that the sun revolves around the world was only disproved in the previous millenium!

So it could be that someone will come along with a better explanation. But right now, evolution is what we have. And it's good enough for me.

I think that the answers to the questions posed by The Other Dan depend on the definition of evolution being used. If we use the standard definition ("evolution is the change in allele frequency in a population in time"), the answer to his question is no, there is no alternative. However, this is not a huge problem for biology or biologists, as this change can not only be readily observed, but has been in every single population studied, to date. It is thus a fact, as is the existence of carbon, gravity and stars.

However, if we use a looser definition of evolution (which, IMHO, is not a good idea), and let it include the mechanisms by which life has evolved on this planet, then there are most definitely alternative hypotheses. There is fierce debate, as has been amply noded elsewhere, over the fossil record and between the gradualist and punctuated equilibrium camps. There is even vigorous debate over very recent (in geological terms) speciations, and alternative hypotheses are often as plentiful as there are researchers.

Again, as we see so often, the answer to a good question can depend entirely on the definition of the terms being used.


Gritchka has informed me that my discussing of a 'looser' definition of evolution may lead to some confusion. Let me state this clearly: evolution != natural selection. The former is, as I wrote above, a commonly understood and readily observable fact, while the latter is a mechanism by which the former may occur. Natural selection is an excellent example of a scientific theory, and does have its alternatives (such as sexual selection, genetic drift, etc.).
The take home message here is that, while the answer to the questions posed above does depend on the definition of the term being discussed (evolution), it is critical that the term be properly defined. Perhaps this node should be subtitled:

Are there any scientific alternatives to natural selection?

I don't think there's any scientific alternatives to natural selection. (in response to pimephalis above)

Natural selection is the idea that if the characteristics of an organism allow it to survive better than other organisms, then it is more likely to pass on those characteristics to future generations.

The other 'alternatives' listed above (sexual selection and genetic drift) are just additional intricacies that are part of natural selection. Sexual selection is a consequence of the evolution of sex, which allows the rapid recombination of characteristics through the combination of genes (that is, the development of a set of characteristics expressed on any one individual is no longer dependent purely on chance mutation and selection, but through sex, characteristics can be combined and shuffled for each generation. Genetic drift is just noise that is inherent in the system. If there's no selective pressure, there will still be change, as long as it doesn't adversely affect fitness.

Evolution is something that has already happened. Natural Selection is a theory that tries to explain how evolution happened. An alternative to evolution is to ignore the evidence that it has occured.

Evolution and natural selection are truths, with a small "t". The kind of useful truth that is true whether you believe it or not. It may not make people happy if they are seeking Truth with a capital "T", the kind of Truth that make people feel better when they are about to die.

Be careful with your words. The word "evolution" doesn't necessarily apply to "Darwin's Biological Theory of Evolution". Evolution is simply a word that means development or progression. When one says "Biological Evolution" then it simply refers to or, at least, should refer to the development of life. If we are to be accurate, a person's life from prenatal development to adult maturation is biological evolution. But generally, "biological evolution" refers to evolution at the population level rather than an individual level.

A big philosophical questions we posit about life is "How did we get here?". This can be further divided into two things "How did life begin?" and "Where did life go from there?". Evolution is the latter and bio-genesis is the former. Creationism and Intelligent Design attempt to answer the "How did we get here?" without first reducing it into two questions. This is something very important which you should understand. Although Darwin's book was entitled "On The Origin of Species", it deals with where life went once it was already here. Darwin's theory is formally called "orthogenesis". Many new theories are based on this idea i.e. that life has an innate tendency to move in an unilinear fashion due to some internal or external "driving force". This theory is considered no longer to be credible. The credibility now lies in the hands of Neodarwinism, which is actually a collection of several ideas. Neolarmarckism is similar.

"How did life begin?" ideas:

"Where did life go from there?" ideas:
And guess what? None of these are science. Yep, that's right. None of them. They're only making models in accordance to evidence found or finding evidence in accordance to their model. But here's the one key factor: they're all unfalsifiable. You can not test any of these "theories" because each of them is a model of existence in the past. Science deals with proofs, not evidence. It's not science, it's historical speculation. So if you're going to believe in any of these, then do so on the basis of the historical method rather than the scientific method. The only thing you can be scientifically sure of is the collected data (provided the data isn't manipulated by some interest group). You be the judge.

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