Tautology Edit

Wilkins has some things to say about the tautology problem, especially after he realized that the whole ToEx is mired in tautological polemics. But he has to tread carefully and like Popper say one thing but actually mean something else, nobody today in academia can really speak their mind and say what they really believe. "....Few problems in the philosophy of evolutionary biology are more widely disseminated and discussed than the charge of Darwinian evolution being a tautology. The history is long and complex, and the issues are many, and despite the problem routinely being dismissed as an introductory-level issue, based on misunderstandings of evolution, it seems that few agree on what exactly these misunderstandings consist of. In this paper, I will try to comprehensively review the history and the issues. Then, I will try to present the following “solution”, or, one might say, “dissolution”, of the problem, and consider the wider implications of formal, or schematic, explanations in science: yes, the principle of natural selection is a tautology, and so what? It is a promissory note for actual, physical, explanations in particular cases, and is none the worse for that. This is not a new argument, of course, but it does point up the importance of formal schematic models in science...."

Haven't read the paper yet by Wilkins but note the sentence: "...yes, the principle of natural selection is a tautology, and so what?...." [To which type of tautology is Wilkins referring to Tautology1 , Tautology2 or Tautology3]

There is a difference between a logical validity, rhetorical tautology, necessary truth, questology, strawtology, logical tautology, double tautology, truthiness-tautology and tautological expression: They all resort under the rubric tautology or "generic tautology". The single word "tautologyx" is the generic semantic label, but it doesn't discern by itself between the types of tautological prose available to the rhetorician , poet, thinker and wit in the same way the word "lovex" alone doesn't tell us what type of lovex is implied - [(Agape, Phile or Eros (Eros is never used in the bible)]

What type of tautology did Wilkins refer to , from the initial passage itself one can't deduce because of the limited lexicon in the English language. ".....Darwinism is false because, errr, well it’s not entirely clear how a principle that, if a tautologyx, is always true can show that the theory it resides in is false, but then we never expected creationists to be coherent on this...."

From the quoted passage he equivocates Etymological_fallacy ,Polysemy, Equivocation between a "necessary truth" - Tautology1 and "rhetorical tautology" - Tautology3 committing the logical fallacy of "innocence by association" by using the generic label "tautology" and by semantic slight of hand seemingly reconciles Darwin's "... the truth of the propositions cannot be disputed..." with the Popperian demand that a scientific proposition had better be disputable or it is a logical fallacy. 7=7 and what happens, happens as universal truths can't be disputed when viewed as axiomatic assertions, logically valid scaffolding , that all of scientific falsifiable theories assumes as given.

IBA is when F=MA is erroneously referred to as a tautology in an attempt to shield an argument from tautological implications by dragging in the field of math. (see

A logical validity such as A or non-A is an assertion not a proposition. It is not proposed that 7=7 or "what happens, happens" is true but asserted by faith, neither verifiable nor refutable. Propositions must be falsifiable, some way of disproving it must exist. A logical validity must always be true, John S. Wilkins is equivocating between propositions and assertions. All scientific laws are propositions they are potentially falsifiable, logical assertions or necessary truths can't be falsified nor verified.

Tautology post Edit "....It is so far from being trivial that even though it had, in one form or another, been used to explain a lack of change for over 2500 years, selection-type explanations had not been used to explain change until Darwin suggested it...."

And what Darwin meant with "selection-type explanations " was the Aristotle result of accident. Which was interpreted as such by Osborn, and Waagen and Osborn though differed from Darwin, their concept was different yet they used the same terminology, this is where the confusion comes in.

What is the concept that Wilkins has with what Darwin suggested? Wilkins concept seems to be volitional , non-chance but then he no longer is interpreting Darwin, he must label his theories: The Wilkins theory of transformation. Dawkins says that " .... natural selection is the exact opposite of chance...." Which wasn't the interpretation of Darwin by Burroughs, Osborn, Waagen and Kingsley. Dawkins must formulate his own theories and label his theories: The Dawkins theory of transformation. We are dealing with thousands of different theories , all of the them using the same terms but having different concepts.

Post of the month Edit

voluntaristic Edit


backspace  wrote:
> And we don't seem to agree on the meaning of the word "Selection"?
> Question to John Wilkins:'
> Do you sir accept that Selection always, always means a conscious
> decision with a goal in mind?
> (excluding the usage of the word in linguistics).

> Or let me put it this way. What word can we invent to make it clear
> that when we talk about a "Selection"
> in nature that some sort of Pantheistic force is not involved. We can't
> use "Selection" for this because
> it had a different meaning before Darwin mangled the word in 1854.

Selection means a lot of things. In the period before Darwin, artificial selection meant the conscious choices of breeders, but it was clear at that time that this did not mean that breeders chose to breed a pouter (a very derived form of pigeon at the time). Instead, bouncing off each other they entire field of pigeon fancying moved in that way without a central programmer, as it were. Adam Smith's point in economics about how agents' decision led to an unintended outcome also had been about for about 60 years at that time, and so it was nderstood that choices do not constrain outcomes directly.

So "selection" is actually a very good semantic choice on Darwin's part, because it is clear that the outcomes, *even when they involved decision of organisms*, were not the effect of a central planner.

Many were worried about the voluntaristic implications of the use of the term "selection": this is why Wallace and Spencer insisted on changing it to "survival of the fittest", which lacks that implication. Darwin adopted it, but it raised a whole host of other problems - the main one being that it made the whole thing into a tautology, which it wasn't. The main difficulty is that our language *is* voluntaristic, and we don't have a ready made vocabulary without connontations for talking about an a posteriori outcome. "Goals" are unfortunately part of the vernacular - we talk about "in order to" in biology, but we *don't* mean that a particular biological property thereby happened with that outcome in "mind". Because it achieved that result, it was retained. That's selection in biology.

Darwin distinguished between artificial selection (on unintended variants, by the way - it wasn't all a matter of choices made by breeders) and "natural" selection, which involved no selector. I would say that in biology at any rate (and possibly broader cases) "selection" is not voluntaristic, and in a special case (when an agent does it) it is, rather than the other way around. And even if an agent makes a selection, the outcome can be rather different than intended.

Tautology in section Edit

"...Because it achieved that result, it was retained. That's selection in biology...."

"Achieved that result" and "was retained" says the same thing twice, making what Wilkins wrote irrefutable and thus fallacious.

Links Edit Dr. Jordan 1897 article

dfdf Edit

Here Wilkins said something along the same lines: "...Neither term is wholly satisfactory, but not because there is a problem with natural selection, but with ordinary *language*. This is why NS is now a mathematical equation, which doesn't have those problems of implications and connotations of ordinary language. Reality is about facts not language....."

Species: A History of the Idea Edit

Usenet posts Edit

"......The current understanding of fitness is dispositional. That is to say, fitness is a disposition of a trait to reproduce better than competitors. It is not deterministic. If two twins are identical genetically, and therefore are equally fit, there is no guarantee that they will both survive to have equal numbers of offspring. Fitness is a statistical property. What 'owns' the fitness isn't the organism, but the genes. They will tend to be more often transmitted insofar as what they deliver is better 'engineered' to the needs of the organisms in the environment in which they live. And you can determine that, within limits, by 'reverse engineering' the traits to see how they work [Dennett 1995: chapter 8]....."

"....They will tend to be more often transmitted insofar as what they deliver is better 'engineered' to the needs of the organisms in the environment in which they live...."

rephrase Edit

The genes will tend to be more often transmitted insofar as what they deliver is better 'engineered' to the needs of the organisms in the environment in which they live.

rephrase Edit

The genes will be transmitted if what they deliver is better adapted to the needs of the organisms in its environment.

rephrase Edit

The genes will be transmitted if what they deliver is better adapted.

rephrase Edit

The better adapted genes will be transmitted.

strip out gene to generalize Edit

The better adapted ones will be transmitted. This same tautoogical core we get from William R. Greg

drift inverse of selection Edit

No, NS does not *include* drift. Drift is at least the *absence* of selection pressure on a population of smallish size. At the most, drift is a totally different mechanism to selection (but I think it is the inverse of selection).

Wilkins notes on Aristotle Edit

...Epicurean atomism held that the properties of objects were the sum of the properties of the constituents (the atoms). This constitutive metaphysics was rejected not only by Aristotle but by Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophers right through to the modern era. One of the first things Darwin was accused of was being Epicurean. Oddly, however, when the Catholic Church revived Thomistic Aristotelian philosophy in the 1870s, their first target was not Darwin, but Daltonian (that is, atomistic) chemistry. And that makes sense when you realise that the doctrine of transsubstantiation in the Mass (that the outward form, or species of the bread and wine remain the same while the substance is changed into the substance of Jesus’s body and blood, which is at best a confusion of Aristotle’s metaphysics) relies on the notion of substance that chemistry basically removes the need for. .......

FAQ tautology Edit

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Text-only version The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy Evolution and Philosophy A Good Tautology is Hard to Find by John S. Wilkins Copyright © 1997

Some rights reserved This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Summary: The claim that evolutionary theory is a tautology rests on a misunderstanding of the theory. Fitness is more than just survival.

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The simple version of the so-called 'tautology argument' is this:

Natural selection is the survival of the fittest. The fittest are those that survive. Therefore, evolution by natural selection is a tautology (a circular definition).

The real significance of this argument is not the argument itself, but that it was taken seriously by any professional philosophers at all. 'Fitness' to Darwin meant not those that survive, but those that could be expected to survive because of their adaptations and functional efficiency, when compared to others in the population. This is not a tautology, or, if it is, then so is the Newtonian equation F=ma [Sober 1984, chapter 2], which is the basis for a lot of ordinary physical explanation.

The phrase 'survival of the fittest' was not even Darwin's. It was urged on him by Wallace, the codiscoverer of natural selection, who hated 'natural selection' because he thought it implied that something was doing the selecting. Darwin coined the term 'natural selection' because had made an analogy with 'artificial selection' as done by breeders, an analogy Wallace hadn't made when he developed his version of the theory. The phrase 'survival of the fittest' was originally due to Herbert Spencer some years before the Origin .

However, there is another, more sophisticated version, due mainly to Karl Popper [1976: sect. 37]. According to Popper, any situation where species exist is compatible with Darwinian explanation, because if those species were not adapted, they would not exist. That is, Popper says, we define adaptation as that which is sufficient for existence in a given environment. Therefore, since nothing is ruled out, the theory has no explanatory power, for everything is ruled in.

This is not true, as a number of critics of Popper have observed since (eg, Stamos [1996] [note 1]). Darwinian theory rules out quite a lot. It rules out the existence of inefficient organisms when more efficient organisms are about. It rules out change that is theoretically impossible (according to the laws of genetics, ontogeny, and molecular biology) to achieve in gradual and adaptive steps (see Dawkins [1996]). It rules out new species being established without ancestral species.

All of these hypotheses are more or less testable, and conform to the standards of science. The answer to this version of the argument is the same as to the simplistic version - adaptation is not just defined in terms of what survives. There needs to be a causal story available to make sense of adaptation (which is why mimicry in butterflies was such a focal debate in the teens and twenties). Adaptation is a functional notion, not a logical or semantic a priori definition, despite what Popper thought.

The current understanding of fitness is dispositional. That is to say, fitness is a disposition of a trait to reproduce better than competitors. It is not deterministic. If two twins are identical genetically, and therefore are equally fit, there is no guarantee that they will both survive to have equal numbers of offspring. Fitness is a statistical property. What 'owns' the fitness isn't the organism, but the genes. They will tend to be more often transmitted insofar as what they deliver is better 'engineered' to the needs of the organisms in the environment in which they live. And you can determine that, within limits, by 'reverse engineering' the traits to see how they work [Dennett 1995: chapter 8].

Moreover, fitness exists over and above the properties of the individual organisms themselves. There are three debated ways to construe this. Fitness can be a relation of genes to other genes. Fitness can be a supervenient property - that is, it can be a property of very different physical structures (of ants, aardvarks and artichokes) [Sober 1984]. Or fitness can be seen as an emergent property, a property of systems of a certain complexity and dynamics [Depew and Weber 1995]. Whether fitness is a genetic, organismic or system property is a hot topic in modern philosophy of biology. I think the system interpretation is the way to approach it [Weber and Depew 1996, Depew and Weber 1995].

Recently, there have been attacks on the very notion of adaptive explanation by some evolutionary biologists themselves (eg, Gould and Lewontin [1979]). These fall into two camps - those who think adaptation is not enough to explain diversity of form, and those who think that adaptive explanations require more information than one can obtain from either reverse engineering or the ability to generate plausible scenarios. The reason given for the former is a kind of argument from incredulity - natural selection is not thought to be a sufficient cause, and that macroevolution (evolution at or above the level of species) is a process of a different kind than selection within species. Arguments about parsimony (Ockham's Razor) abound.

Arguments for the second view - that selective explanations need supplementing - rest not on the causal efficacy of selection (which is not denied) but on the problems of historical explanation [Griffiths 1996]. In order to explain why a species exhibits this trait rather than that trait, you need to know what the null hypothesis is (otherwise you can make a selective explanation for both a case and its opposite equally well). Perhaps it has this trait because its ancestors had it and it has been maintained by selection. Perhaps it has it because it would be too disruptive of the entire genome and developmental machinery to remove it. Perhaps it has it for reasons to do with genetic drift, simple accident, or whatever. In order to make a good scientific explanation, says Griffiths, you must know a fair bit about the phylogeny of the species, its environmental distribution, and how the processes that create the trait work at the level of genes, cells and zygotes.

This leads us to the question of what a scientific explanation really is; indeed, it opens up the question of what science is, that it is so different from other intellectual pursuits like backgammon, theology or literary criticism.

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Revised tautology FAQ thread on Usenet Edit

On Oct 14, 10:49 pm, Amy Guarino <> wrote: > On Oct 14, 12:44 pm, backspace <> wrote: > > > > > > > > > On Oct 14, 5:34 pm, Burkhard wrote: > > > > On 14 Oct, 15:34, backspace <> wrote: > > > > > As the field of existence is limited and preoccupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better-suited-to-circumstance individuals who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater powers of occupancy than any other kind: the weaker and less circumstance-suited being prematurely destroyed. This principle is in constant action: it regulates the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts; those individuals in each species whose colour and covering are best suited to concealment or protection from enemies, or defence from inclemencies or vicissitudes of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defence, and support: in such immense waste of primary and youthful life these only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind of reproduction. > > > > > rephrase: > > > > the more robust individuals who struggle to maturity, inhabit situations to which they have superior adaptation than other kinds: > > > > the weaker being prematurely destroyed. > > > > > Finally: > > > > The fit individuals survive their habitat while the less fit or weaker die. No test can be devised to refute or verify this. > > > > The same tests that were given to you a hundred times over will do > > > just fine. > > > There is no test that can measure your fitness, you don't possess a > > property called fitness, and don't have more or less 'fit' parts that > > enable you to survive. A fitness measurement machine doesn't exist.

> Even if that were true, it's irrelevant. The concept of Natural > Selection does not depend on characterizations like "fitness" or > "hardiness".

Only sentences can concepts, ns is a term not a sentence. It was the metaphor for SoF in the *natural* competitive *selective* struggle for life as Wallace, Darwin wrote.

> Whatever traits are associated with more progeny in > future generations will become more common in the population, changing > the population as a result.

rephrase: Those with more progeny will become more common and from this we conclude that new attributes will be acquired in the population as a result.

The fact that they had more progeny implies they will become more common, stating the same thing twice. (more common <=> more progeny) Your premise is the acquisition of attributes and therefore your conclusion is that new attributes will be acquired in descendent populations. Your argument between premise and conclusion was a rhetorical tautology, thus the conclusion is a non-sequitur.

Samuel Butler Edit

So, upon further investigation I find that Samuel Butler, in his Evolution Old and New (1879) states the tautology argument clearly.

The fact that one in a brood or litter is born fitter for the conditions of its existence than its brothers and sisters, and, again, the causes that have led to this one’s having been born fitter—which last is what the older evolutionists justly dwelt upon as the most interesting consideration in connection with the whole subject—are more noteworthy factors of modification than the factor that an animal, if born fitter for its conditions, will commonly survive longer in the struggle for existence. If the first of these can be explained in such a manner as to be accepted as true, or highly probable, we have a substantial gain to our knowledge. The second is little—if at all—better than a truism. Granted, if it were not generally the case that those forms are most likely to survive which are best fitted for the conditions of their existence, no adaptation of form to conditions of existence could ever have come about. “The survival of the fittest” therefore, or, perhaps better, “the fertility of the fittest,” is thus a sine quâ non for modification. But, as we have just insisted, this does not render ” the fertility of the fittest ” an especial “means of modification,” rather than any other sine quâ non for modification.

But, to look at the matter in another light. Mr. Darwin maintains natural selection to be “the most important but not the exclusive means of modification.”

For “natural selection” substitute the words “survival of the fittest,” which we may do with Mr. Darwin’s own consent abundantly given.

To the words “survival of the fittest” add what is elided, but what is, nevertheless, unquestionably as much implied as though it were said openly whenever these words are used, and without which “fittest” has no force—I mean, ” for the conditions of their existence.” [Butler 1879:350f]

Butler is no friend to Darwin, having had a feud with him. As a result he spends considerable effort in this book to show that (1) Darwin is not original, and (2) Darwin is not saying anything much. We might think of him, along with Mivart, as the original anti-Darwinian. Butler is arguing in favour of Lamarck’s notion of acquired characters. He want to make out the case that Darwin has no underlying mechanism for the generation of variation (again, recall our friend Goodwin’s making the same point). And to do this he makes, for the first time I can find, the tautology argument. Notice that from the start, the exchange of the phrase “survival of the fittest” for the definition of natural selection that Darwin gives is made, and this is what gives the objection its force. Here’s Darwin’s definition of natural selection, opening Chapter IV of the Origin:

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

As we know now, the source of these variation is mutation, but it was thought to be a knockdown attack on Darwin to point out that these variations were adaptive before they were selected for; and this is still a line of attack. But of course all variations must be adaptive to some degree if the organism is to develop; if they aren’t then the organism is not viable and does not develop to the point where ecological adaptation occurs. Butler’s attack has become widespread.

I will continue to look for earlier critiques of this kind – maybe Mivart (Lynch? Do you know?), but it’s time to move on. The next post will cover the modern arrival of this concern.

Share this: More 2 Comments Filed under Evolution, History, Philosophy, Science 2 Responses to Tautology 1b: Butler thonyc August 22, 2009 at 4:01 pm John you tautology series is realy excellent.


Reply Brandon August 22, 2009 at 9:43 pm The issue of tautology comes up in a dispute between Mivart and Max Muller (it is Muller, however, who raises the issue of tautology, and Mivart does not respond to that point) . Mivart lays out all the letters of the dispute in an interminable footnote in Chapter II of The Origin of Human Reason. But this is not an earlier instance; it occurred in the late 1880s.

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