Feature Article - May 2003
by Do-While Jones
We can learn a lot about natural selection from reality television.

American Idol Survivor

You have probably heard the joke about the two backpackers who encounter an angry bear. The bear charges, and the backpackers run, but it is clear that the bear is running faster than they are, and there is no safe place to hide. The first backpacker says to the second backpacker, “It’s no use! We will never outrun that bear.” The second backpacker says, I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you!”

Does natural selection favor the best, or does it merely eliminate the worst? It is a question about which evolutionists are divided.

Most ideas explore some version of the notion that sex is maintained because it enhances the rate of evolution by natural selection, says evolutionary biologist Graham Bell at McGill University in Montreal, but there are dozens of variations on that general idea (see Review on p. 1986). Most of them fall into two camps: that sex brings beneficial mutations together into a single winning combination that can spread through the population, or that sex purges the genome of harmful mutations. 1

Actually, both camps are right to some extent, and both camps are partly wrong. Currently tens of millions of viewers are watching experiments in natural selection on several highly-rated reality TV programs (Survivor, Joe Millionaire, etc.). Just in case you missed the science in the entertainment, let’s analyze one of them.

Selection on American Idol

American Idol is a popular talent search program. Each week some contestants sing, and the audience is encouraged to vote for their favorites after the show.

The selection process changes slightly over the course of the series. Near the end of the series, the one contestant with the least number of votes is eliminated. In this phase of the program, you don’t have to be the best singer to advance. You just have to be better than the worst singer (at least, in the eyes of the audience that night). This isn’t survival of the fittest. It is elimination of the worst. Of course, the worst singer is very, very good. Even so, the selection process doesn’t reward the fittest--it merely punishes the least fit.

Things were different in the first few episodes. There were 32 semi-finalists who were divided into four groups. Each week one group of eight contestants performed, and the two with the most votes went on to the finals. In this phase, simply being better than the worst didn’t help. The fate of the third-best singer was the same as the worst. Only the two best advanced, so selection in this case really did favor the fittest.

Before the show began, roughly 70,000 people auditioned, and only 32 were chosen to be semi-finalists. Only those who were in the top 0.05% percent had a chance to be voted “American Idol” by the public.

With this background we can finally answer the question, “Does selection favor the fittest or eliminate the weakest?” The answer is, “It depends upon what portion of the population survives.” If most of the population survives, then selection eliminates the weakest. When a lion attacks a herd of 100 gazelles, the fastest gazelle doesn’t have any advantage over the 70th fastest gazelle. But the lion won’t necessarily get the slowest one. The 4th and 5th slowest gazelles are also in danger. When one out of a large group is eliminated, selection works against the weakest.

If three lions attack a group of four gazelles, then the fastest one is the one likely to survive. Whenever a small percentage of the population survives, selection favors the fittest.

Luck also plays a part. Suppose that the eight best singers aren’t evenly distributed in the four groups of semifinalists. Suppose that the eight best singers are all in one group. That means that the third best singer won’t even make it to the finals. In fact, singers 3 through 8 will all be eliminated, but singers 9 and 10 will advance because they were fortunate enough to be in a group that didn’t contain any of the the eight best singers.

American Idol also teaches us some other lessons related to evolution. One is that selection doesn’t create singing talent. The contestants who made it to the finals were all very talented before they got to the finals. During the course of the series, the performance of all the contestants did generally improve. One could truthfully say that they evolved into better singers. It is important to note that the selection process had nothing to do with their improvement. No singer got better because another singer got fewer votes and was eliminated. Contestants got better because the Fox television network brought in vocal coaches and image consultants to help them. They got better because they rehearsed long hours to develop the talent they already had.

In a sense, Fox “created” some new stars. There are interesting lessons to be learned about marketing, product tie-ins, symbiotic relationships, and audience involvement, which don’t directly relate to evolution, so we will leave the reader to ponder them in detail. Although the details of how Fox created some new stars are irrelevant to our discussion, it is still important to note that there are several singers who have millions of fans today, who were unknown a year ago. Were these new singing stars actually created, or did they evolve? And if so, exactly what do we mean by “created” and “evolved”?

One might say that the contestants “evolved” from ordinary people living ordinary lives into national celebrities with millions of fans. But random mutations and natural selection had nothing to do with it. The contestants had all the raw talent they needed before they auditioned for the show. Some intelligent producers, directors, makeup artists, marketing managers, etc., all directed conscious efforts toward making the show (and the contestants) successful. These young singers underwent a kind of evolution different from the evolution that supposedly created new kinds of life.

American Idol has what the theory of evolution doesn’t have--pre-existing raw material, a designer with a goal in mind, and the means to achieve that goal. American Idol started with some talented singers. The producers of the show packaged those singers in a way to make them attractive to a large audience. The producers had the skill and financial resources to present the package to the audience in such a way as to make a profit.

The theory of evolution, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of these things. One can certainly breed better varieties of corn, or roses, or horses, or dogs, but one has to have corn, roses, horses, or dogs to begin with. Shuffling of genetic material only works if you have genetic material to shuffle. The molecules-to-man hypothesis begins without genetic material. Furthermore, the theory of evolution doesn’t have any conscious desire to create more successful life forms, nor does it have any way to create them.

Imagine what would have happened if American Idol didn’t have talented contestants to begin with. Suppose they had just called 32 people at random out of the phone book and asked them to sing. That would have been much easier than auditioning tens of thousands of singers in several cities all over America. The producers went to the trouble to hold auditions because they knew they had to have talented singers to make the show successful.

Imagine what would have happened if American Idol had 32 excellent singers, divided them into four groups of eight, but the producers said to each group, “You have one hour on Tuesday night to put on a program. Do whatever you want.” The show would have flopped. The contestants had to be part of a program that was carefully orchestrated (in both senses of the word).

Finally, imagine what would have happened if the producers had 32 talented singers, the American Idol format in mind, but no theater, no network, and no toll-free numbers for the audience to call. The program never would have seen the light of day.

Selection is an important part of American Idol (and several other reality TV shows). But selection doesn’t create anything new. It merely selects from what already exists.

Selection is an obvious part of Survivor, American Idol, and several dating shows; but it also plays a less obvious, but equally important part in every show on TV. Some shows run many seasons. Others are canceled in mid-season. Only the successful shows survive. (Of course, “successful” means that they survived. Smiley)

If selection had the power to create great TV shows, why aren’t the shows on TV any better than they are? Smiley Some are pretty bad because they lack talented actors. Some are pretty bad because they lack talented writing or direction. Some low-budget shows are pretty bad because they don’t have the resources to adequately present the talent and vision of the show.

It may be true that television isn’t like real life, but real life is like television--at least when it comes to evolution. Successful and unsuccessful television programs alike demonstrate that it takes more than natural selection to create programs that are entertaining and profitable. It takes material, vision, and ability to create vibrant programming. If successful TV programs could be created by pointing TV cameras at random subjects (rocks, pigs, lumber, carpeting, etc.), letting the audience choose what they like best, one might be able to argue that evolution can create complex creatures out of amino acids. But you can’t create complex living creatures by putting things together randomly, and selecting the best, any more than you can create a successful TV show by broadcasting random sounds and images, letting the audience choose what they like best.

Reality TV demonstrates the flaws in the idea that random changes and natural selection can create complex life forms.

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1 Wuethrich, Science, Vol. 281, 25 Sep 1998, “EVOLUTION OF SEX: Putting Theory to the Test” pp. 1980-1982, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.281.5385.1980 (Ev)