Re: Is evolution really the central theory for all of biology?

From: Joel Moore <redsoxfan1977@gmail.com>
Date: Tue Sep 13 2005 - 16:28:31 EDT

On 9/13/05, Ted Davis <tdavis@messiah.edu> wrote:
> 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.
>
> Ted
> ******
>

I too did not find it convincing. The keyword to focus on in his
article is "experimental." Dr. Skell is quite keen on experimental,
which is understandable given that he's a chemist, but he does not
seem to quite understand how science works when it is done at a scale
larger than the lab bench or petri dish.

During my interactions with him when he came and talked to a Christian
graduate group that I participate in here at Penn State, he conflated
science and technique/technology. For example, I asked him about the
prediction from evolution (as well as from Mendel) that genetic traits
must be passed on from ancestor to descendant and thus didn't
evolution play a role in the discovery of DNA. His response was that
finding DNA/the double helix was merely a matter of establishing and
refining the techniques with respect to the x-ray crystallography,
etc. In other words, he didn't seem to understand that science is a
method of and inquiry and that a crucial part of that inquiry is the
theories (such as evolution) that both explain phenomena and drive new
questions and research. Instead to Dr. Skell the scientific enterprise
seemed to be just a matter of getting your techniques right.

Back to experiment, Dr. Skell also did not seem to have a good idea of
how non-lab sciences worked. I have a friend here at Penn State (also
a Christian) who is an ecologist studying the distribution and
dispersion of large mammal populations. When I tried to explain how
evolutionary theory played a role in his work, Dr. Skell said that it
didn't and that counting animals didn't have anything to do with
evolutionary theory. Such a simplistic view of ecology as being merely
a matter of counting animals seems problematic and certainly doesn't
give me reason to give credence to his musings on evolution. Dr.
Skell's view of geology and the historical sciences seemed to be quite
similar (both from my interaction at the Christian grad group and from
listening to his questions at a talk by a geologist that was aimed at
a popular audience) wherein he had little understanding of why and how
geologists studied and reconstructed past events.

Below I respond to a couple of the points Dr. Skell made in his article.

> 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.

While others can speak the topic more expertly than myself, I think
Dr. Skell is wrong where he says no credible ancestor exist for
Cambrian organisms.

>
> 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
> one."
>
> [snip]
>
> 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
> paragraph:
>
> "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
> them."
>
> 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.
>

Some additional quotations from the article, which was an editor's
introduction to a special issue rather than a peer-reviewed scientifc
paper, seem to go against the point Dr. Skell was trying to make. For
example Wilkins writes in the third paragraph:

"
Received on Tue Sep 13 16:29:44 2005

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