Is evolution really the central theory for all of biology?

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Tue Sep 13 2005 - 13:24:20 EDT

One of the people who attends some of the events we run here on science and
religion is Phil Skell. Phil is a retired professor of chemistry (he held
an endowed chair) at Penn State. He's also a member of the NAS, thus a
truly distinguished scientist.

A couple of years ago, he told me about a large number of conversations he
had had with scientists, esp biologists, concerning the role that
evolution--historical thinking in general--played in their actual laboratory
work. He kept hearing that it was either minimal or non-existent; in other
words, that evolution was largely or entirely irrelevant to them as
laboratory scientists. I urged Phil to publish his observations somewhere,
and this past month they did appear in "The Scientist" (29 August, p. 10),
under the title, "Why Do We Invoke Darwin?"

I am interested to hear what ASAers think of this provocative little piece.
 I've placed it below.


By: Philip S. Skell
The Scientist
August 29, 2005


Darwin's theory of evolution offers a sweeping explanation of the history
of life, from the earliest microscopic organisms billions of years ago to
all the plants and animals around us today. Much of the evidence that
might have established the theory on an unshakable empirical foundation,
however, remains lost in the distant past. For instance, Darwin hoped we
would discover transitional precursors to the animal forms that appear
abruptly in the Cambrian strata. Since then we have found many ancient
fossils - even exquisitely preserved soft-bodied creatures - but none are
credible ancestors to the Cambrian animals.

Despite this and other difficulties, the modern form of Darwin's theory
has been raised to its present high status because it's said to be the
cornerstone of modern experimental biology. But is that correct? "While
the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius
Dobzhansky's dictum that 'nothing in biology makes sense except in the
light of evolution,' most can conduct their work quite happily without
particular reference to evolutionary ideas," A.S. Wilkins, editor of the
journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000.1 "Evolution would appear to be the
indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous

I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during
World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian
evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming's discovery of bacterial inhibition
by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they
would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin's theory
was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the
discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the
mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions;
improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new
surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where
one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research,
such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here,
as elsewhere, I found that Darwin's theory had provided no discernible
guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting
narrative gloss.

In the peer-reviewed literature, the word "evolution" often occurs as a
sort of coda to academic papers in experimental biology. Is the term
integral or superfluous to the substance of these papers? To find out, I
substituted for "evolution" some other word - "Buddhism," "Aztec
cosmology," or even "creationism." I found that the substitution never
touched the paper's core. This did not surprise me. From my conversations
with leading researchers it had became clear that modern experimental
biology gains its strength from the availability of new instruments and
methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology.

When I recently suggested this disconnect publicly, I was vigorously
challenged. One person recalled my use of Wilkins and charged me with
quote mining. The proof, supposedly, was in Wilkins's subsequent

"Yet, the marginality of evolutionary biology may be changing. More and
more issues in biology, from diverse questions about human nature to the
vulnerability of ecosystems, are increasingly seen as reflecting
evolutionary events. A spate of popular books on evolution testifies to
the development. If we are to fully understand these matters, however, we
need to understand the processes of evolution that, ultimately, underlie

In reality, however, this passage illustrates my point. The efforts
mentioned there are not experimental biology; they are attempts to explain
already authenticated phenomena in Darwinian terms, things like human
nature. Further, Darwinian explanations for such things are often too
supple: Natural selection makes humans self- centered and aggressive -
except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection
produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed - except when it prefers
men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so
supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it
experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.

Darwinian evolution - whatever its other virtues - does not provide a
fruitful heuristic in experimental biology. This becomes especially clear
when we compare it with a heuristic framework such as the atomic model,
which opens up structural chemistry and leads to advances in the synthesis
of a multitude of new molecules of practical benefit. None of this
demonstrates that Darwinism is false. It does, however, mean that the
claim that it is the cornerstone of modern experimental biology will be
met with quiet skepticism from a growing number of scientists in fields
where theories actually do serve as cornerstones for tangible

Philip S. Skell is Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State
University, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His research
has included work on reactive intermediates in chemistry, free-atom
reactions, and reactions of free carbonium ions.


1. A.S. Wilkins, "Evolutionary processes: a special issue," BioEssays,
22:1051-2, 2000.
Received on Tue Sep 13 13:29:59 2005

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