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

From: Joel Moore <>
Date: Tue Sep 13 2005 - 16:39:15 EDT

My apologies for things getting cut off. Apparently gmail will either
cut-off emails after a certain length and/or occasionally hiccup and
lose content. So below is the end of what I sent earlier:

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

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

"The importance of comprehending the nature of evolutionary
processes, in order to make sense of the dynamic
properties of biological systems, is particularly well illustrated
by three articles in this issue. John Maynard Smith,
Edward J. Feil and Noel H. Smith describe the
population dynamics of pathogenic strains of bacteria and
how the intricate balance of recombination and explosive
clonal growth can affect the spread of bacterial pathogens in
human populations. Suzanne L. Rutherford describes the
phenomena of cryptic genetic variation and genetic buffering
and shows how these properties are related to human
population genetic structures and disease susceptibilities, as
well as to the evolution of new morphologies in complex
multicellular organisms. Andy Purvis, Kate E. Jones and
Georgina M. Mace describe the multiple factors that
influence how susceptible a given species is to the final
evolutionary process that all species experience: extinction.
Given the fact that a major wave of species extinction, caused
by growth in the human population and the multiple effects of
our species on the environment, is now taking place, this
subject is of the highest relevance to the future of the biosphere
and our own species."

Later Wilkins says: "Another debate is presented in this issue, as well. This
concerns the nature of sudden radiations, as seen in the fossil
record, and as exemplified in the most dramatic of all, the socalled
``Cambrian explosion''. The latter has long been seen as
the explosive dawn of animal life. Simon Conway Morris,
in a short review of a new analysis (Budd and Jensen, Biol.
Reviews 2000;75:253295), presents the evidence that the
phylogenetic pattern of diversification in the Cambrian explosion
is, in fact, muchcloser to mainstream evolutionary change
than previously thought. Matthew Wills and Richard
Fortey stress, however, that the temporal pattern of change
remains highly unusual and discuss its implications. They also,
more generally, discuss the special value of paleontological
studies in expanding our view of the evolution of developmental
processes; the material indicates how paleontological
data can be related to the kinds of experimental studies on
developmental stability, and its breakdown, discussed by
S. Rutherford in this issue."

Wilkins concludes with: "As this set of articles illustrate,
evolutionary biology is alive
and well and extending its domain, as biology enters the 21st
century. Covering these developments, and their relevance to
different fields of biology, will continue to be one of the major
goals of this journal."

I would be interested in hearing more details about the researchers
Dr. Skell talked to (eg, were they all biomedical researchers). I'd
also be interested in hearing Dr. Skell discuss more clear and congent
examples of how Darwinian evolution works (eg, the common genetic code
of all living organisms, the related-ness of organisms in isolated
areas such as islands, etc). He chose something of a strawman with his
example because human behavior is clearly heavily influenced by
culture and is not merely a function of genetics.

Received on Tue Sep 13 16:41:00 2005

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