Tautologies Are a Valid Part of Science!

These Creationists think they have a crushing complaint about Darwinism -- it's based on a tautology:

"Waddington is not alone in his assessment of the serious problems facing evolution as a result of natural selection having been shown to be a circular argument. G.A. Peseley joined the ranks of those criticizing natural selection as evolution’s mechanism when he stated:

"'One of the most frequent objections against the theory of natural selection is that it is a sophisticated tautology. Most evolutionary biologists seem unconcerned about the charge and make only a token effort to explain the tautology away. The remainder, such as Professors Waddington and Simpson, will simply concede the fact. For them, natural selection is a tautology which states a heretofore unrecognized relation: the fittest—defined as those who will leave the most offspring — will leave the most offspring.

"'What is most unsettling is that some evolutionary biologists have no qualms about proposing tautologies as explanations. One would immediately reject any lexicographer who tried to define a word by the same word, or a thinker who merely restated his proposition, or any other instance of gross redundancy; yet no one seems scandalized that men of science should be satisfied with a major principle which is no more than a tautology (1982, 38:74).'"

I know what they mean! Think of the notorious pseudo-scientist Sir Isaac Newton, who declared that an object will continue in uniform, straight-line motion (rest being a special case of this) unless acted upon by a force. And how do we know that's right? How do we find out if a force is present? We use F=MA, in other words, we detect a force by seeing if some mass is deviating from uniform, straight-line motion! As the famed physicist Sir Arthur Eddington re-phrased these two laws, "Objects move in straight lines unless they don't."

This is not a criticism of Newton, but of the afore-mentioned Creationists. They, along with many others, have not realized that such tautologies are crucial in a science, for they set up the concepts that will direct further research. Of course, they themselves are not subject to empirical investigation -- they are the assumptions underlying empirical work, which never starts from a blank slate -- to do so is impossible, in fact. You can't set out with zero conceptual apparatus and "just start testin' sh*t" -- how would you ever have any idea what you were testing?

Oh, and the silly Mr. G.A. Peseley, whoever he is, seems unaware that a dictionary is a giant tautological network!


  1. Oh man, that link was embarrassing. As Dick Clark (not the old guy, but rather the Mises Institute aficionado) once put it to me when I had newly converted, "A lot of times Christians are their own worst enemies."

    What's really ridiculous is that those guys being quoted first point out it's a tautology, and then say "...which has nothing to do with the origin of species." In context it doesn't seem that they realize THIS is the modern evolutionist's solution to the Popperian critique!

    I.e. yes, natural selection is a non-falsifiable tautology. But it is a useful concept that allows them to express their empirical theory of common descent! Biologists also use mathematics when they talk about gene frequencies. Don't they know that math is just a bunch of tautologies?!

    I thought this quote was really funny:

    Dr. Hitching even went further to note that “a tautology (or truism) is a self-evident, circular statement empty of meaning, such as ‘Darwin was a man,’ or ‘biology is studied by biologists.’ The trouble with natural selection (and survival of the fittest) is that it seems to fall into this category”...

    Is it really a tautology to say Darwin was a man? Sometimes I see a person (usually in New York City) and can't tell if the person is a man or woman. Should I go consult a dictionary?

    I hate it when the people you're arguing with can't even state their argument well. You have to first help them out, before knocking them down.

  2. BTW Gene, how is it that this post stays at the top of the site? Or have you changed the settings so that all of my new posts appear after your latest one?

  3. Sorry about that! Set the post time wrong. (I had started it two days ago, saved a draft, and used the wrong date to bring it to the top.)

  4. Anonymous12:43 AM

    Karl Popper complained that the theory of evolution is based on a tautology, but later got a clue and recanted.

  5. Anonymous12:46 AM

    yes, natural selection is a non-falsifiable tautology.

    No, it isn't. For instance, Darwin's notion of the parent traits "blending" couldn't be correct because natural selection would not occur.

  6. Actually, what you mean to say is that the natural selection that would occur with blending would be insufficient to generate new species. Those who produced the most offspring under that scenario would still be those with the most offspring!

  7. "Karl Popper complained that the theory of evolution is based on a tautology, but later got a clue and recanted."

    Right. What he recanted on was that this was a complaint -- he realized that all sciences have tautological components.

  8. Anonymous4:57 PM

    It is interesting that so many (usually Protestant) critics of Darwinism have seized upon a rigidly Popperian concept of what counts as "science." It is as if there is some sort of positivist or falsificationist mode of accessing scientific truths and then a purely fideist mode of accessing religious truths (believe everything written in this Book, and don't worry over how that book is to be interpreted...).

    A more interesting argument that may be posed against at least exclusivist-Darwinian explanations for the coming into being of the great variety of extant species is the following:

    Darwinian natural selection is true a priori (and in this sense, not falsifiable), but only specifies a hypothetical mechanism whereby order, complexity, and adaptedness can spontaneously emerge when the appropriate conditions are present. Once the mechanism is grasped it cannot be contested. However, all the argument shows is that the various species that now exist could have evolved by this process. What is NOT shown by this argument is that the various species DID evolve by this process (or, evolve at all).

    In this respect, natural selection is a bit like the Austrian Business Cycle Theory:

    The manipulation of interest rates via the infusion of new credit into financial markets may indeed cause particular boom-bust cycles; however, that does not mean that all booms and busts are caused by this mechanism (e.g. some may be caused by information cascades and the like).

    In both cases, I think it is advisable to say that both Darwinaian natural selection and the ABCT are true, but don't necessary explain everything some of their most fervent proponents believe they explain.


  9. What's more, even if everything happened per the Neo-Darwinist standard view, it says nothing about design! (I.e., an omniscient God could simply have set up conditions so that seemingly random processes were known (by Him) inevitably to produce the outcome we see.)

    Kant made this point in the 1700s!

  10. What's more, even if everything happened per the Neo-Darwinist standard view, it says nothing about design!

    Well, it depends what you mean by "everything happened." Often the current description explicitly says that things arise "by chance" or through "random mutation," and they add "without design."

    This is actually one of the stickling points of loudmouths like Philip Johnson. I.e. I think he is right on this point, even though he embarrasses himself with arguments like "it's just a tautology!"

    Anyway Gene, you are right in the sense that even Michael Behe is open to the possibility that all organisms have a common ancestor. So if we could watch a film of the evolution of life on Earth, Behe and Dawkins could both say, "Yep, just what I thought." Behe would see the brilliant initial setup of God playing itself out, while Dawkins would see the outcome of random mutations and natural selection.

  11. Well, if they mean "random" in the correct way -- as an epistemological term, meaning "WE can't see a patter," the view is compatible with Divine design. When they overstep the real meaning of "random" and claim because they see no pattern or plan there ISN'T one, then they are talking rubbish.

  12. Brian N.8:30 AM

    "Kant made this point in the 1700s!"

    Could you please cite Kant's argument? I'd like to read it.

  13. Brian, my reference is from Eric Voegelin, The New Order and the Last Orientation, p. 156, but he gives no cite! My guess would be the Critique of Judgment. Any help out there? Roderick?

  14. Brian N.12:02 PM

    Might it be amongst his discussion on Onto-theology and Cosmo-theology?

  15. Did a little googling and I'm pretty sure it's the Critique of Judgment -- here's some discussion of Kant's evolutionary view:

  16. Anonymous11:23 PM

    There are tautologies in evolution, but this is merely a semantic problem. A good example comes from cladistics, which contains the following circularity: lifeforms that look alike are related; we know they're related because they look alike.

    From a 2 dimensional perspective, this is entirely correct, and would be damning if this was all there was to it.

    The more-to-it is that 'looking alike' and determinants of 'relatedness' are not static. Proper depiction requires a third dimension. The circle is actually a spiral. There is no circularity except with reference to the unchanging TERMS used that feed back into each other. The relevant information convered by these terms is constantly changing, improving in fact. This argument can be identically used to dismantle the supposed "survival of the fittest" tautology.

  17. OK, anonymous, so dismantle it!

    In any case, my point was that saying a science contains tautologies IS NOT an attack on it! If evolution contains no non-testable assumptions it would be the only science that doesn't!

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