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

From: David C Campbell <amblema@bama.ua.edu>
Date: Wed Sep 14 2005 - 18:15:43 EDT

More comments on the full article...

>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.

The observation that organisms pass on genetic information with some
possibility of change, a fundamental component of evolution, was also a
major impetus for trying to understand the structure of DNA as it
became clear that DNA was the major transmitter of genetic information.
 The nature of the information transmission was an important clue to
the structure of DNA, and Watson and Crick speculated on the way the
function and structure interacted. Although you don't need to know
anything about biology to map genomes (and some molecular biologists
know very little about biology), evolution tells us what other genomes
are likely to be of greatest relevance for understanding our own
biology, that of other taxa of particular interest, or likely to have
novel features. It tells us patterns to expect within and between
genomes. Evolution tells us that the ribosome is likely to be similar
in all organisms, and ribosomal DNA sequences have been extensively
sequenced in the quest to understand evolutionary patterns.

One might as well deny the relevance of relativity to physics, because
the vast majority of working physicists are focused on engineering
applications.

>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.

Um, the emergence of resistance is an example of evolution. Of course,
the principle described by Darwin that things evolve doesn't predict
exactly what mutation will occur in a given organism, but it tells us
that there is a strong incentive for organisms to evolve resistance.
Knowing that, we can perhaps find patterns in resistance that tell us
what sort of resistance is likely to evolve and what might be a more
resistance-proof control.

However, I'd think that people working in evolutionary biology would
have the greatest impact of evolution on their work.

>In the peer-reviewed literature, the word "evolution" often occurs as
>a sort of coda to academic papers in experimental biology.

True, but not always. Many people working in specialized subfields of
biology have very little knowledge about general evolution, which shows
up e.g., in many molecular clock claims.

>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.

Substituting such terms will work grammatically. It is unlikely,
however, that Buddhism or Aztec cosmology will be a very good
substitute, because they do not have a lot to say about biological
processes. Creationism, as a more equivalent term will probably work
better, just as "modified Newtonian model" would functionally
substitute for "relativistic model" in almost any case in physics.
However, whether the evidence is as good a match for creationism or a
modified Newtonian model as it is for evolution or relativity requires
defining a precise creation or Newtonian model.

Another problem here is how the paper's core is defined. Is it the
basic results, or the attempt to fit them into the general picture of
biology as a whole?

>Darwinian evolution - whatever its other virtues - does not provide a
>fruitful heuristic in experimental biology.

This is simply wrong. Even if one grants the ignoring of a general
principle when focusing on the details, there are plenty of experiments
dealing directly with evolution, e.g. in vitro evolution of viruses and
bacteria; direct competition between two species of beetle under
various conditions; comparison of DNA sequences between organisms using
an evolutionary model....

----------------------------------------
Dr. David Campbell
425 Scientific Collections
University of Alabama, Box 870345
Tuscaloosa AL 35487
"James gave the huffle of a snail in
danger But no one heard him at all" A.
A. Milne
Received on Wed Sep 14 18:18:00 2005

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