Why Natural Selection Cannot Explain the Origin of Animal Development

By Paul Nelson

No one has ever accused Richard Dawkins of being bashful. On the contrary, Dawkins’s outspoken claims about the power of natural selection to explain the complexities of organisms have earned him a large following. “The theory of natural selection,” Dawkins states, “provides a mechanistic, causal account of how living things came to look as if they had been designed for a purpose.”1

What few of Dawkins’s followers realize, however, is how rarely Dawkins has used the theory of natural selection to explain the origin of anything. Now, one might say that Dawkins is a “big picture” guy; the details are the business of biologists in the laboratories.

But what if they don’t use natural selection either? What if natural selection, far from explaining the origin of biological design, in fact presupposes it?


This article examines why natural selection, although a real process, does not live up to the claims made on its behalf by Dawkins and other New Atheists. To understand the disconnect between process and claim, we should focus on an aspect of biology where natural selection should be able to show its explanatory prowess: the origin of animal development.

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This case study may be more biology than you ever expected to read in the pages of this journal. But, by the end of this article, you should be able to grasp fully the challenge that real biology makes to the unsupported assertions of atheists, who steal the good name of science.


Most people know intuitively that when they see the birth of a child they are witnessing something utterly remarkable, for which the word miracle is fitting. How could this baby have come to be, when nine months earlier, there was only a single cell, the fertilized egg? What many miss, however, is how this miracle extends to every animal on Earth, from the tiniest worm to the largest whale.

My colleague Ann Gauger and I have compared development to what we call a magical bridge, a structure that would be right at home in any Indiana Jones movie.2 Imagine a bridge (see figure 1) spanning a deep gorge. As long as one continues to walk across it, the bridge will be there beneath one’s feet. If one stops, however, or turns in the wrong direction, the bridge instantly disappears.

This “magical bridge” aspect to animal development is well known to biologists…


Why Natural Selection Cannot Explain the Origin of Animal Development – Christian Research Institute