The Tautology Objection

The detailed responses to Ann Coulter’s silliness about evolution are now coming in. P.Z Myers illustrates the insanity of claiming that there is no evidence for evolution. See also this post for further examples of Coulterian insanity.

Over at the Panda’s Thumb, Ian Musgrave deals with the peppered moths issue, showing that Coulter, to put it kindly, doesn’t have the faintest idea what she is talking about.

Coulter also raises the tautology objection in her screed. This is the idea that natural selection is a meaningless tuatology because it is described by the phrase “Survival of the fittest,” but then we define the fittest as “those who survive”. As it happens, a few months ago I wrote two lengthy posts about this argument when it was raised by the equally cluesless right-wing know-nothing Tom Bethell. You can find those posts here and here. Enjoy!


  1. #1 Craig Pennington
    June 19, 2006

    “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for natural selection. Natural selection is the generalization from observations that there exist heritable traits which make reproduction easier or harder for those that possess these traits in a given environment. For example, there is a non-random component in the probability that a short-haired versus a long-haired mammal will reproduce[*] in an very cold environment — and to the extent that being short-haired and long-haired are heritable features, this will have a non-random effect on the make up of the population in that very cold environment over time. Thus, the measure of fitness for the shorthand phrase “survival of the fittest” is not merely survival; it also implies heritable features interacting in some not entirely random way with an environment. “Survival of the fittest” is therefore not tautological.

    [*] A necessary but not sufficient condition for reproduction is survival.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 19, 2006


    Well said. One small quibble, though. I wouldn’t say that natural selection is a generalization from observations. Rather, it is the conclusion that the prolonged action of natural selection acting on chance variations can lead to profound change in the average characteristics of a species that is a generalization from empirical observation. Technically, natural selection is just something that inevitably occurs as soon as certain conditions are met. Specifically: a population of organisms with heritable variation competing for scarce resources.

  3. #3 Pierce R. Butler
    June 19, 2006

    Wasn’t “survival of the fittest” a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer, of “Social Darwinism” infamy? I seem to recall Gould or some other popularizer saying that Darwin never used that phrase, preferring something to the effect of “elimination of the weakest”.

  4. #4 Ricardo Azevedo
    June 19, 2006

    My response to the tautology objection is more basic (following Sober): natural selection is only tautologous in the sense that the whole of mathematics and logic is tautologous. I’m quite happy with that charge.

  5. #5 John Pieret
    June 20, 2006

    Wasn’t “survival of the fittest” a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer, of “Social Darwinism” infamy? I seem to recall Gould or some other popularizer saying that Darwin never used that phrase, preferring something to the effect of “elimination of the weakest”.

    Darwin was talked into using “survival of the fittest,” which was coined by Spencer, in later editions of the Origin by Wallace. See the letter by Darwin to Wallace of July 5, 1866 [p. 229-31].

    Ironically, Wallace recommended Spencer’s phrase and Darwin accepted it because they thought that “natural selection” was too teleological.

  6. #6 stevedoetsch
    July 6, 2006

    Natural Selection �explains� the origin of species only by defining terms and enabling us to describe an observation. It does not describe the cause of the observed thing. The empirical data is that organisms exhibit varying heritable traits and reproduce. That some organisms fail to reproduce as much as others is explained by the interaction of the environment with those organisms (this is natural selection). Why organisms have life sustaining traits and can reproduce at all is not within the power of NS to explain. Unless one accepts the statement �It rains because it is raining� (A implies A) as an explanation, natural selection does not explain the cause of genetic info, and hence fails to explain the origin of species.

    We might say that we can explain a drainage block in my kitchen sink by first making the tautological statement: “either water goes down the drain, or it does not.” If we define water not going down the drain as a �clog� and we see that water is not goning down the drain we can claim to explain it by saying a “clog” caused it. But the fact that I labeled and defined the “clog” does not explain its cause. It only gives a term to the observed reality that water is not going down the drain. The clog does not cause the drainage block, rather the clog IS the drainage block. The real cause of the clog is extraneous to anything yet mentioned or observed in this hypothetical scenario. The real cause of the clog is that my son poured liquid wax down the drain and the wax solidified thus stopping water flow.

    One can mince words and say: �The �clog� causes the water to stop but the cause of the �clog� remains unknown�. Either way, we have not actually explained what is causing the water to stop since we have no empirical data about, or direct experience of, the �clog� itself. We only know the �clog� by its effects. Such is natural selection: an effect the cause of which remains unknown.

  7. #7 Nat Whilk
    July 6, 2006

    It appears to me that (in general and not just on this forum) the reponses to the tautology objection break down almost 50-50 between the claim that it’s not a tautology and the claim that it is a tautology and that’s just fine.

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