The Paradox of Evolution: The Strange Relationship between Natural Selection and Reproduction, by Stephen Rothman

Tiffany Taylor on a thought-provoking view of the forces acting to ensure survival

January 21, 2016
Common cactus finch (Geospiza scandens)
Source: David Brossard
Passed over: the question of how reproductive mechanisms evolve is a ‘neglected area’ in evolutionary biology

As On the Origin of Species was published more than 150 years ago, you would be forgiven for assuming that questions about the fundamentals of Darwinian evolution have long since been resolved within the scientific community. However, argues Stephen Rothman, there is still plenty of potential for debate. In The Paradox of Evolution, he examines the role that natural selection plays in shaping reproduction, and concludes that the diverse and complex reproductive mechanisms that we see in nature result not from natural selection but rather from alternative biological forces with a purpose that opposes that of natural selection.

He begins by posing a fair and profound question: “Why in God’s (or Darwin’s) name do we have children?” It is a question that I have been contemplating myself recently, just days away from the arrival of a new addition to our family. Rothman claims that the question of how reproductive mechanisms evolve is a neglected area in evolutionary biology. However, I would disagree. Although the evolution of specific reproductive mechanisms in many organisms may still be misunderstood (there are a lot of organisms to consider), the question of the evolution of sex and reproduction has consumed many great evolutionary biologists both past and present, and there is a plethora of convincing data that highlight the natural conditions under which sex provides a fitness advantage. Perhaps Rothman was not concerned with this area of reproductive evolution, and wanted the reader to consider reproduction’s more physiological aspects. However, here – and in other places within the book – omission of these studies seems to cloud rather than clarify many of his arguments.

It is the biological purpose of natural selection versus reproduction in which a paradox can be found, Rothman reasons. Mechanisms of reproduction have the purpose of ensuring the future of life, sometimes at the cost of individual survival, whereas the purpose of any adaptation moulded by natural selection is solely individual survival. But this statement depends on the level of selection being considered; at the level of the gene, the purposes of both reproduction and natural selection are aligned, namely survival of the gene.

In addressing a profound question in biology, namely the purpose of life, Rothman considers two counteracting forces of nature. In the present, natural selection fine-tunes individuals to maximise their survival potential, and acts destructively, by selecting the strongest and removing the weakest. In contrast, reproduction is a creative force that has no concern with the present, and acts only to promote the survival of future generations. This is the crux of the paradox that Rothman identifies; however, its consideration demands a philosophical approach that I am not sure adds to our advancement and understanding of fundamental evolutionary processes.

What is more, this approach often fails to capture the diversity of life, presenting an animal-centric view that does not represent the vast majority of living organisms. In his final words, Rothman describes this book as a “murder mystery with the killer being none other than death itself” – where natural selection does death’s bidding and reproduction follows behind trying to foil its plans. While I may not agree with all its arguments, this book’s alternative perspective is compellingly thought-provoking.

Tiffany Taylor is teaching fellow in biological sciences, University of Reading.

The Paradox of Evolution: The Strange Relationship between Natural Selection and Reproduction
By Stephen Rothman
Prometheus, 248pp, £12.99
ISBN 9781633880726
Published 1 December 2015

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Reader's comments (8)

Interesting article but it raises the question of how credible macro evolution really is. The evolution battle is often MISrepresented as science against religion - this is baloney! The real battle is between good science and Darwinism. When macro evolution is scrutinised using the scientific method, it crumbles. The scientific method demands observation, measurement and repeatability, macro evolution has none of these; all it has is circumstantial evidence which is open to interpretation. Ask yourself: What evidence is there that our great .…...great grandfather was a self replicating molecule or simple cell? If we cut through the linguistic trickery evolutionists use to confuse and intimidate the masses. Darwinian/Macro evolution can be stated simply as the following equation: Simple beginning (e.g. 1 cell) + lots of time + lots natural selection + many mutations + natural forces (rain, wind, gravity etc.) ============= extremely complex organism (e.g. human, brain, blood circulatory system) Has this been observed? - NO (Even Richard Dawkins agrees with this) Is it plausible? -Not really ; There is no proof that it is. Does it need a lot of faith to believe this? - Certainly does So why do we teach it as a scientific fact? Dr John Sanford (Geneticist and inventor of the GeneGun) said : “The bottom line is that the primary axiom [of Darwinian/Macro evolution] is categorically false, you can't create information with misspellings, not even if you use natural selection.”
It is unfortunate that moderators do not remove the absurd comments of young earth creationists like Theo. He is a notorious creationist spammer who stalks every article that refers to evolution. This comment is a copy and paste he has used over and over and over. His comments have been responded to many times, and his only response is more copy and paste. Since Theo and many of his fellow young earth creationists insist that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and that the earth is less than 10k years old, there really is no arguing with them. They insist the earth was created "just so," meaning no simple evidence such as seeing starlight billions of years old will change their minds. He frequently references Dr. Sanford whose ideas have been long since discredited. Sanford's hypothesis was that the entire biological genome is degenerating - no improvement is possible. This has been torn apart and shown to be false, discrediting the good work this scientist once did. I am sure he can find young earth geologists as well. This only points to using the appeal to authority fallacy, and does nothing to make his case. Moderators -> please do the right thing and delete Theo's comment.
I am disgusted by chris_260943 comments that I should be gagged from questioning the macro evolution myth. The scientific method demands scrutiny not blind belief. I do not appeal to authority but put forward scientific arguments as to why macro evolution is NOT scientifically credible. The arrogance of the evolutionists is astounding as they continually demonize anyone who questions evolution and IGNORE the evidence which repudiates it. The pathetic call for censorship and academic oppression is something I would expect in the Soviet Union - not in America. **In 2005, Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer objected to a private screening of the pro-ID film The Privileged Planet because it drew a "philosophical conclusion." The Smithsonian made no complaints when Sagan's original Cosmos in 1980 argued that "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be." ** A congressional subcommittee staff investigation found that biologist Richard Sternberg experienced retaliation by his co-workers and superiors at the Smithsonian, including transfer to a hostile supervisor, removal of his name placard from his door, deprivation of workspace, subjection to work requirements not imposed on others, restriction of specimen access, and loss of his keys, because he allowed a pro-ID article to be published in a biology journal. The Congressional staff investigation concluded that the "Smithsonian's top officials permit[ed] the demotion and harassment of [a] scientist skeptical of Darwinian evolution" and "officials explicitly acknowledged in emails their intent to pressure Sternberg to resign because of his role in the publication of the [pro-ID] Meyer paper and his views on evolution." Evolution should NOT be treated like a sacred cow and shielded from honest scrutiny.
Theo, I don't think you should be blocked, but everything else he said about you is completely accurate. Your claim however to use science to rail against evolution is a complete nonsense. You use quote mined drivel and appallingly stupid arguments on forums all over the internet to lie about how evolution is supposed to be wrong. You are a scientific illiterate, a spammer and a purveyor of pseudo scientific drool. Creationism isn't an option ins science. It has been disproven and discredited on its major points- leaving nothing as an option should anyone ever discredit evolution. Special creation- disproven Young Earth- disproven World Wide Flood- disproven You have nothing to stand on but the memory of thin ice.
Thank you for supporting my academic freedom - it is refreshing. My arguments against macro evolution is COMPLETELY on scientific grounds. I never mention God; so why you introduce it is a mystery to me. Even Dawkins admits that macro evolution has never been observed. So you are believing in something that you cannot see - I gather this is not a problem for you? Have you scrutinized the evidence for macro evolution? Do you believe that from a single, simple cell that something as complex as a human brain could emerge by purely natural forces? if yes - what evidence do you have for this? Think outside the box
Theo Speciation events have been observed many times over. The fossil record ONLY has evidence of evolution, the order of fossil appearance is in a robust order. Each trait appears and then afterwards is found in new species. You do not find elephants before the jellyfish. You only find chordites after the first backbones appear. The ONLY way to disprove this is to go and find a fossil out of order- significantly out of order. Find an armadillo on the Cambrian layers. So, in observing the fossil layers we observe macro-evolution. This is supported ten times over in the genetic record- both the extant genetics of current species and in the trace genetics found sometimes in fossils. And yes, I believe in things I cannot see. I cannot see Reykjavik, New York, Uranus, radiation and the Earth's molten core. So what? Seeing is not the only form of observation. I live near a radio telescope array where they do not visually "see" anything. But they can watch other galaxies, the echoes of the Big Bang and suns in other solar systems. I cannot "see" hos much oil my car has when I am driving, but I use an instrument that measures it. The oil gauge does this fairly efficiently. You are using, or misusing the word "observe" to suit your purposes. Pretty much in the same way that you misuse the words of other people with your incessant quote mining - and in my observation and judgment- that is lying.
Dear all, Lets keep this debate at a scholarly level? Not much point to ranting and name-calling. As scientists, we should allow for people such as Theo to post counter-arguments to this or any other article related to evolution. When we discuss the significance of evolutionary processes, as opposed to the fact of evolution, there is room for alternative views. As a scientist, I still do not know of a reasonable explanation for the driving force of evolution, which is reproduction to present a diversity of genetic material for survival. Why is there such a force? As opposed to the physical evolution of the cosmos, there is even less "scientific" explanation for the why's and wherefore's of the evolution of organic life , is there? The weak and strong anthropomorphic principles are an attempt to understand, but fall short of explanation. I would be interested to hear some views on why we strive to reproduce and present modified life-forms for nature to select from. Lets have a healthy debate on this...merely saying there is a God that compels us to do so is not open-ended enough.
The glaring flaw in the reviewer's argument (and presumably in Stephen Rothman's book) is that evolution doesn't have a 'purpose'. Nature does not 'promote survival' or in any way have instrumentality. If it did, then you have simply replaced the word God with Nature. The survival of species is a result of them being most fit for a particular set of current circumstances, including having some capacity to adapt from previous ones. There is no intentionality in that process, so the whole discussion of 'purpose' has no relevance.

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