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A Tale of Two Flowers

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

A chance encounter on a wonderfully bright and warm Spring day led to a remarkable conversation between two strangers. Both were enjoying the tranquility of the forest, busy with life. And each welcomed the unexpected meeting with the other.

“Why, hello!” said one as he walked up to the camp of the other. “I do hope I’m not interrupting your solitude.”

“No,” said the other man, looking up from a small fire over which sat a pot of steaming water, “not at all. In fact, if you are not in a haste to reach your destination, perhaps you can join me in my morning tea.”

“Of course! I would enjoy that,” said the first man. “My name is Certain. And yours?

“My name is Curious,” said the man tending the tea pot of heating water.

“What a coincidence!” Certain exclaimed, “I also used to be Curious. But now I am Certain.”

“And what, Certain, is that burden which you carry in your left arm?” Curious noticed that despite apparently having come from a distance, Certain carried in his left arm a potted plant. The plant stood straight and tall as a beautiful flower full of color and life.

“Ah, you noticed!” said Certain with visible pride in his face. “This plant is no burden to me. Rather, what you see me holding is my greatest creation.”

“Your creation?” Curious asked as he eyed Certain with an air of interest and amusement. “The pot? Or the flower?”

Certain smiled. “The flower! I created this beautiful flower. And I love to show it to all who will hear my story of creation. You see,” Certain said with a wink, “I’ve discovered a process that can be used by anyone to produce equally beautiful flowers.”

“Well have a seat and let’s talk,” Curious said as he motioned to a large flat rock beside the small fire. “I’m intrigued, as I also love beautiful flowers. But you say you created this flower? Don’t you mean you grew it from seed and tended to it carefully and tenderly?”

As Certain sat and Curious offered him a cup of tea they both gazed upon the flower. It was, indeed, an extremely beautiful flower; it was one like Curious had never seen. Its colors, size, proportions, and even its smell seemed unnaturally beautiful.

“No, I created it, from virtually nothing. If I were to be a bit more modest, I would say that at minimum I played the key role in creating it. As a fact, however, this flower would not exist but for me.” Certain could see the questioning look from Curious, so he continued, “Well, I will admit that there was the first starting plant, but it didn’t look anything like this beautiful and unique creation.”

The flower did appear unique. But Curious still wondered at Certain’s claim to have created the flower. He watched as Certain sipped his cup of tea, and replied, “I don’t get it. In what way did you “create” this flower?”

“Simple!” Certain said as he relaxed and shifted to a more comfortable position. “For a bit more tea I will share my creation process with you in detail. It is very repeatable and involves only two easy steps.”

“Really? I’m suspicious,” Curious replied kindheartedly but seriously. “But I have plenty of tea and I enjoy the company of strangers. So, please, continue and explain this process to me. Is it magic?”

“No, no, no,” Certain said shaking his head. “You will see, there is nothing magic or unnatural. Just two simple steps and after a bit of time a small primitive excuse for a flower became this majestic, beautiful flower you see here.” Both Certain and Curious looked at the flower now sitting on the ground near their feet.

“A ‘small, primitive excuse’ for a flower? What are you talking about?” Curious asked with a look of growing unbelief.

“You are, indeed, curious!” Certain laughed. “But I hope your curiosity is not stifled by incredulity. If so, you may never reach certainty, as I have.”

Curious cupped his tea in his hands as he looked from Certain’s face to the flower and back. “Go on.”

“Let me explain. Years and years ago I wandered, dejected and downtrodden, through these very woods. Looking for anything to give me hope, my eyes fell on a small, spindly plant with nothing but a speck of color on a small curled-up petal that had yet to fall to the ground.”

“This was the small, primitive excuse for a flower?” Curious asked.

“Yes. I don’t know how it got there. For all I know it appeared out of nowhere. But despite its primitive form, I recognized immediately that it had life. It seemed a metaphor for my life and my eyes were fixed in a strange attraction.”

“And this was your starting flower? For the purposes of your flower-producing process we will assume it just sprang up out of nowhere without explanation?” Curious continued with an expression bordering between wonder and skepticism.

“Yes! That’s right. That little flower, if you can call it that, appeared in due time and I created the flower you see before you now as a direct descendent of that first primitive plant.”

“And you say that you created the one in the pot before us by a process applied to that first primitive plant?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Certain said with an air of satisfaction, motioning to his flower, “you can clearly see that there is grandeur in this flower, with its evident power of beauty, having been originally breathed into that first spindly little flower; and that, whilst this planet we live on has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning as that first little flower this most beautiful and wonderful of flowers has evolved.” He paused as he waited for Curious to absorb this bit of rehearsed wisdom and to probe for more information.

“Well, we have plenty of tea and the weather is perfect,” Curious said as he looked toward the sky. “Tell me about this process.”

“Gladly. I never tire of proclaiming that of which I’m sure.” Certain continued, “On that day in the forest I bent down and carefully scooped up the primitive little flower with its roots and soil. I gently placed it in my bag and excitedly headed home. Once I got home, I replanted that primitive little flower in a bed of soil where it could grow with plenty of sun and water.

“And it grew?”

“It did,” Certain said, “but it changed little from its appearance in the woods. However, I was soon delighted to find that it had gone to seed and one bright morning I awoke to find two new flowers in its place.”

“Two new flowers?”

“Yes, and as I gazed upon these two new flowers—offspring of my primitive first life—I noticed something unexpected and amazing.”

“Go on,” Curious said.

“A cursory look at these two descendants of my first primitive flower revealed distinct variation—one of the descendant flowers was much more beautiful than the other. Neither came close to the grandeur you see in front of you now, but one clearly had favorable characteristics and the other unfavorable characteristics.

Favorable and unfavorable? What are you talking about?”

“Their outward appearance, their morphology, if you want to get technical. Both exhibited variations received from the parent flower. But one had inherited traits of beauty that the other lacked.”

“So what did you do? So far you have not created anything,” Curious said without intending to be provocative.

Certain paused to consider the question and replied, “I killed the flower with the unfavorable characteristics.”

“You what?”

“I killed it. I selected it to die. By doing so I eliminated the chance that it could propagate more ugly flowers. And by letting the more beautiful flower live I allowed it to eventually generate more beautiful flowers.”

Curious considered this for a moment. “Did it?”

“Not right away. Remember this is a process that takes time; change happens generationally. Over time the first beautiful flower offspring likewise went to seed and one morning I was again delighted to find two more flowers enjoying the sun of my garden.”

“What did they look like?”

“Once again, I found that the second-generation offspring exhibited variation. They each differed in characteristics from the parent flower, a process I describe as ‘descent with modification.’ While they both resembled the first beautiful flower that I let live, they each also exhibited heritable traits—variations that could be passed to their own eventual offspring. In fact, once again, one of them was evidently more beautiful than the other.”

“One was more beautiful than the other? Again? What did you do? I’m still trying to understand how you created anything yet.”

Ignoring the growing skepticism he detected, Certain replied, “What could I do? The process of creation must continue! Once again, I killed the less beautiful flower.”

“Again? Could you not simply stand aside and let both live?”

“No. You see, I began to see a pattern here, a process that I could harness to ensure only the most beautiful flowers propagated into the future. I call it ‘survival of the prettiest.’”

“Survival of the prettiest?”

“Yes, because you see, I found that if I selected the flower with unfavorable beauty traits to die, the flower with favorable beauty traits can continue to live and reproduce. This process of descent with modification and selection continued for many, many years. Each year I was delighted to find, once again, a flower of greater beauty beside a flower of lesser beauty.”

“And each year you killed the flower of lesser beauty and did nothing to, or for, the flower of greater beauty?”

“Yes! That’s it,” smiled Certain. “This cycle of replication in which one flower bloomed with favorable traits for beauty and the other bloomed with unfavorable traits for beauty can continue indefinitely. One can only imagine the possibilities for beautiful flowers in the future as I continue to select the unfavored flower to die!” Certain leaned back and took a sip of tea, believing he was on the verge of making a curious person certain.

“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” Curious said slowly. “In the process you have described so far, you have yet to play any role in creating anything, right? In fact, as I see it you have done nothing whatsoever to even contribute to the creation of the more beautiful flower we see here. All you did is kill less beautiful flowers. So far, you have failed to explain how your selection process has any relation to the origin, development, or existence of the more beautiful flowers, including the flower we see before us.”

“No so fast there,” Certain said, straightening up and looking a bit defensive. “I was an integral part of the process to produce this beautiful flower you see before you now. My role was to select among the offspring of each generation so that only beautiful flowers lived to reproduce. It is very simple; you could say that I ‘favored’ the more beautiful flowers. The others I ‘rejected.’”

Rejected, I can understand,” said Curious. “You killed those you did not deem more beautiful. But what does it mean to “favor” the more beautiful? It seems to me that in this process “favoring” the more beautiful flower is the same thing as doing nothing to, or for, that flower. Is that right?”

Pausing a moment to gather his thoughts, Certain continued. “Well, I see I have encountered someone who likes to play with words. Very well, let me explain. When I favor a flower, it merely means that I indirectly selected for it by killing off a different flower such that certain traits or characteristics of that flower give it an advantage in surviving and reproducing in its environment. This advantageous trait is passed down to the flower’s offspring, and over time, the frequency of these traits in the population increases.”

“I understand. But you have yet to distinguish between anything you do, including ‘indirectly selecting,’ from ‘doing nothing’ for the flower with the advantageous trait of greater beauty. So far, ‘favoring’ the more beautiful flower appears to be identical to doing nothing to or for the more beautiful flower.”

“I’m tempted to consider you either a simpleton or a religious fanatic on the issue of flower evolution,” Certain said with a barely concealed look of annoyance. “But you serve good tea and I enjoy the process of educating others on my amazingly simple process. Did I use the term evolution? Yes, that is the term I have landed on to describe my process of descent with modification and selection. With each new generation of flowers, one inherits favorable beauty traits and the other unfavorable. And, in effect, I select one to live by selecting one to die. I like the idea of ‘evolving,’ that is, change over time, to describe what happens by my amazing process. Don’t you?”

Curious reached out a stick to stir the dying fire under the pot of water and said, “The term ‘evolving’ is fair enough. But I’m still trying to see how you created anything in this process, including the flower you are now showing to me. Let me ask you a question. Selecting one to live by selecting one to die means you did nothing to cause or explain any ‘evolving’ in the one that lived, right?

“You are intentionally failing to understand,” answered Certain, “if you …”

“But consider,” interjected Curious, “if you did nothing with each new generation of flowers to “favor” one over the other, what would happen? Would not the evolutionary path in the line of the more beautiful flowers be identical?”

“If I did nothing? Well, that would be preposterous! Selecting is an integral part—the very keystone—of the process of flower evolution in which small, spindly flowers can change—over long periods of time, mind you—into the beautiful flower I brought to you today. My selection step can cause evolutionary change in flowers by favoring traits that are better suited for survival of the beautiful in a particular environment, i.e., my flower bed. As flowers with advantageous traits for beauty survive and reproduce more successfully, their genes become more common in the population over time. It’s really very simple.”

“You used that word favoring again,” said Curious with a strong emphasis on the word “favoring.” “I’m not trying to be obtuse, but I’m still having difficulty seeing how you had any role in creating this flower. Be patient as I try to understand what you are saying. Let’s imagine any new generation of flowers in which you observe one having favorable traits for beauty and the other having less favorable traits for beauty. What would happen to the more beautiful flower and its offspring if you did nothing? That is, suppose you did not select, what would happen to the line of more beautiful flowers?”

“I’m afraid you are not listening, my friend. I’m tempted, despite your good tea and company, that you simply wish to be a contrarian! If I were not to select, there would be no evolutionary process! My selection is a key mechanism for driving evolutionary change in flowers, as it causes the frequency of beauty traits in flowers to shift the beauty of a population of flowers over time in response to changes in the environment.”

“Fair enough,” said Curious. “But whether in one flower or a population of flowers, the general process remains the same, correct? With each generation some flowers are born adapted with favorable characteristics for beauty, and others are born with unfavorable characteristics for beauty. This is descent with modification. Right?”

Certain nodded vigorously.

“And once two flowers spring up out of the soil and reach full bloom, the flower adapted with traits to be more beautiful—the prettiest—remains undisturbed by you to survive and freely reproduce while the other flower is killed. Right?”

“Right! You seem to be catching on now. It is survival of the prettiest!” Certain again leaned back with the confidence of supposed superiority. “It’s all very simple. I have not told you yet because I did not want to boast, but my process has become the consensus explanation for the evolution of flowers.”

“But, …” Curious hesitated, “you have yet to answer my question.”

“But I have! I have!” Certain gestured with his arms. “I have described to you exactly the two process steps of flower evolution, including my critical step of selection. How can you not see that I created this flower you see before you?”

Despite realizing that this conversation was going nowhere, Curious continued, “Bear with me a bit, then; it appears I am slow to understand. Again, let’s consider any new generation of flowers in which you observe one having favorable traits for beauty and the other having less favorable traits for beauty. How is the fate of the flower with the traits for greater beauty, as well as its descendents, changed by your action of killing of the less beautiful flower?”

Curious could see irritation creeping into Certain’s face, but he ventured more, “Whether you select or not, would not the more beautiful flower live and reproduce freely and identically independent of the fate of the less beautiful flower?”

“Don’t you see? Certain started with forced patience, “Your question makes no sense. The propagation of the more beautiful flower proceeds because I favor it over the less beautiful, which I reject by killing. It is the killing of the less beautiful that defines my favor and drives the process of flower evolution.”

“You still have not answered my question. What if you did nothing? What would be the evolutionary fate of the more beautiful flower? Would the more beautiful flower survive and reproduce just the same as if you had ‘favored’ it?”

“You are asking the wrong question! Evolution is a fact. It is the single unifying theory of all flower development. Every true flower grower in the world now agrees with me. You must also agree with me on this point.”

“But,” again Curious proceeded despite the obvious inability of Certain to answer his simple question, “I fail to see how your action to kill the less beautiful flower in any way affects the origin, development or continued existence of any of the more beautiful flowers.”

Certain replied, “Don’t you see that by rejecting, that is, killing off, the less beautiful flower the more beautiful flower survives to reproduce?”

“Yes, of course I see that,” Curious interjected, now trying not to show his impatience with Certain. “But the more beautiful flower blooms with each generation with adaptations that allowed it to survive to reproduce whether you kill the less beautiful or not, right? I’m asking in what way does killing the less beautiful flower with each generation cause any change in the more beautiful flower to produce even more beautiful flowers? After all, is not the flower before us the latest in an unbroken line of descent of the more beautiful flowers?”

“I don’t have time to indulge hypotheticals,” Certain stated dismissively. “The fact is that the line of descent is unbroken precisely because I favored the more beautiful flower with each generation. And that favoring manifests itself in my killing other flowers. It’s really very simple.”

Curious looked intently at Certain for a few seconds. “We are back to that term “favoring” again, I see. And I also see that the sun is high and the tea is cold. I have enjoyed your company and your conversation. If I could indulge your apparent irritation with me for a bit longer, I’m still having trouble discerning how you believe that you created the flower now sitting before us.”

“The irritation, my friend,” Certain interrupted, “stems from your inability to intuitively grasp the brilliance of my simple two-step process of flower evolution. It seems you are prevented from certainty by some ideology, rather than facts. Do you also believe in a flat earth?”

“No, I can assure you I do not,” Curiosity continued flatly as Certain quickly indicated he was being facetious, “You are telling me that this beautiful flower is the current descendant in a long line of flowers that propagated naturally in one continuous line of descent while you killed off flowers in other, completely unrelated lines of descent. It appears that to say you created this flower is to say you did nothing to affect its line of descent while killing off other flowers in other, completely separate lines of descent. What am I missing?”

“You are missing nothing! In fact, I believe you are beginning to understand!”

“I think I do understand. You created this immensely beautiful flower over many generations of flower propagation by doing nothing for the more beautiful flower with each generation. To say you created it is to say you stood by and did nothing to impact its continued existence and reproduction. Correct?”

Certain stated with growing frustration in his voice. “It remains that with each generation I favored the more beautiful flower by killing off the less beautiful flower. How many times must I repeat that?

“You need not repeat it again. Just explain one thing and we can depart as friends: In each generation of two flowers, how is your action of favoring the more beautiful flower different from doing nothing to or for the more beautiful flower?”

“Again, you misunderstand, I am selecting …”

“If I may, let me interrupt,” Curious demanded as he began to clear away the tea pot. “If you had not selected anything at any time in your flower bed, would not the beautiful flower you show me now exist nonetheless in its exact form and beauty? Because as you have related your process, despite your killing off other lines of flower descent, the line of descent associated with the flower before us continued each generation just as it would if you did not exist. Correct?”

“I must be moving on.”

A more rigorous treatment of this topic can be found at The Natural Selection Paradox.


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