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Natural Selection as an Opportunistic Process

Natural selection has no foresight, nor does it operate according to some preconceived plan. Rather it is a purely natural process resulting from the interacting properties of physicochemical and biological entities. Natural selection is simply a consequence of the differential multiplication of living beings. It has some appearance of purposefulness because it is conditioned by the environment: which organisms reproduce more effectively depends on what variations they possess that are useful in the environment where the organisms live. In a sense, natural selection is an "opportunistic" process. The variables determining in what direction it will go are the environment, the preexisting constitution of the organisms, and the randomly arising mutations. But natural selection does not anticipate the environments of the future; drastic environmental changes may be insuperable to organisms that were previously thriving.

Adaptation to a given environment may occur in a variety of different ways. An example may be taken from the adaptations of plant life to desert climate. The fundamental adaptation is to the condition of dryness, which involves the danger of desiccation. During a major part of the year, sometimes for several years in succession, there is no rain. Plants have accomplished the urgent necessity of saving water in different ways. Cacti have transformed their leaves into spines, having made their stems into barrels containing a reserve of water; photosynthesis is performed in the surface of the stem instead of in the leaves. Other plants have no leaves during the dry season, but after it rains they burst into leaves and flowers and produce seeds. Ephemeral plants germinate from seeds, grow, flower, and produce seeds—all within the space of the few weeks while rainwater is available; the rest of the year the seeds lie quiescent in the soil.

The opportunistic character of natural selection is also well-evidenced by the phenomenon of adaptive radiation. The evolution of Drosophila flies in Hawaii is a relatively recent adaptive radiation. There are about 1,500 Drosophila species in the world. Approximately 500 of them have evolved in the Hawaiian archipelago, although this has a small area, about one twenty-fifth the size of California. Moreover, the morphological, ecological, and behavioral diversity of Hawaiian Drosophila exceeds that of Drosophila in the rest of the world.

Why should have such "explosive" evolution have occurred in Hawaii? The overabundance of drosophila flies there contrasts with the absence of many other insects. The ancestors of Hawaiian drosophila reached the archipelago before other groups of insects did, and thus they found a multitude of unexploited opportunities for living. They responded by a rapid adaptive radiation; although they are all probably derived from a single colonizing species, they adapted to the diversity of opportunities available in diverse places or at different times by developing appropriate adaptations, which range broadly from one to another species.

The process of natural selection can explain the adaptive organization of organisms; as well as their diversity and evolution as a consequence of their adaptation to the multifarious and ever changing conditions of life. The fossil record shows that life has evolved in a haphazard fashion. The radiations, expansions, relays of one form by another, occasional but irregular trends, and the ever present extinctions, are best explained by natural selection of organisms subject to the vagaries of genetic mutation and environmental challenge. The scientific account of these events does not necessitate recourse to a preordained plan, whether imprinted from without by an omniscient and all-powerful designer, or resulting from some immanent force driving the process towards definite outcomes. Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of a design preconceived by an artist or artisan.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

Natural Selection as an Opportunistic Process

Evolution: Topic Index
The Darwinian Revolution
Darwin's Discovery: Design without Designer
Natural Selection as a Directive Process
Natural Selection as a Creative Process
Chance and Necessity
Teleology and Teleological Explanations
The Compatiblity of Teological and Causal Explanations
Coda: Science as a Way of Knowing


Dr. Francisco Ayala
Dr. Francisco Ayala


See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
Sir Isaac Newton
DNA Double-Helix