Given that most people do not have advanced degrees in mathematics or the sciences, debates and discussions surrounding evolution and creationism appear in the public square in the form of competing metaphors, similes, and extended analogies.
In other words, we use metaphors, similes, and extended analogies to simplify and grasp issues that might be otherwise inaccessible to us.
Hence we can keep a look-out for the ways in which our use of language, especially metaphorical language, frames and structures discussions of evolution and creationism.
Today’s metaphor comes from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). At the beginning of the third chapter of Darwin’s book, he declares that his term “Natural Selection” was chosen for its analogous associations with animal domestication and plant hybridization—or, in other words, human selection:
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.
But Darwin doesn’t stop his “Natural Selection is like human selection” analogy there, but expands it still further—and with impressive literary flourish—by offering still another metaphor. He says that Natural Selection is to human selection as Nature is to art. Here’s how Darwin sonorously puts it:
We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.
In other words, human domestic selection on the farm is, like a painter’s canvas, rather limited, and, as it were, “two dimensional.” The farmer, like the artist, must necessarily focus on just a few things that he or she finds in Nature. As a practical matter, the farmer and artist are simply unable to see or take in all of Nature’s rich variables and capture them and modify them.
Nature, however, is “incessantly ready for action”—that is, it is ever poised to select an organism’s adaptive traits, wherever and however they might appear. If a modification is beneficial to an organism’s survival, Nature is unlikely to miss it for very long.
Hence, claims Darwin, the power of Natural Selection is vastly superior to its analogous process of human selection, “as the works of Nature are to those of Art.”