Message from Phil Skell

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Tue Sep 20 2005 - 13:24:40 EDT

A couple of weeks ago I drew attention here to Phil Skell's op-ed piece from
"The Scientist," in which he raised questions about the practical value of
evolutionary theory for doing laboratory science. Phil was not aware of our
discussion of his essay until I told him about it. He asked me to forward
his comments below to the list, hoping thereby to "clear away some of the
fog" (his words to me). I am glad to help him do so.



The difference between historical and contemporary, experimental science is
most striking when we consider geology and biology. The ancient geological
artifacts have survived substantially unchanged in composition and location.
Modern biology is concerned with examining the structure and function of
tissues from presently living organisms, whereas historical biology is
primarily informed by stones--that is, fossils--not tissues. Consequently,
in the biological sciences there is a sharp line separating the historical
and the modern; the experimental data obtained by examining these disparate
materials is incommensurable. Beware historiscization of the fossil record
into Fact, and then Orthodoxy.

The evidential problems most apparent in the Cambrian explosion reappear
less dramatically throughout the fossil succession. This is apparent, for
instance, when we see the enormous work the Archaeopteryx was asked to do
for one corner of the theory, the idea of the dinosaurian origin of birds.
As Ernst Mayr noted in: What Evolution Is? (2001):
1. The dinosaurs structurally most similar to birds are very recent (80-110
million years ago), whereas Archaeopteryx is a great deal older (145 million
years ago) and no birdlike dinosaurs are known from the lower Jurassic or
Triassic that could qualify as ancestors of birds. 2. The three digits of
the hand of dinosaurs are 1,2,3, those of a bird are 2,3,4. It is quite
impossible to derive the avian digits from those of dinosaurs. 3.
Teeth--Theropods have recurved, flattened, serrated teeth, quite different
from the simple peglike, waisted, nonserrated teeth of Archaeopteryx and
other early birds. 4. The pectoral girdle and anterior extremities of the
late theropod dinosaurs are much too small and weak to have served as the
foundation of a powerful wing to lift an incipient bird from the ground. No
factors are known that could have caused a sudden drastic growth of the
anterior extremities. 5. The leading aerodynamic experts of bird flight
claim that an origin of flight from the ground up is a near impossibility.
(pg. 68).

There appears to be a general sentiment that explaining something, or
explaining it away, has strong precedence over the heuristic, which guides
research . An investigator may indulge the pleasing task of showing, after
the fact, how a discovery is accommodated within the Darwinian paradigm, as
do many of the ASA commentators, but where was the heuristic guidance for
the discovery? Many seem to imply that (1) without guidance from Darwin's
theory, modern experimental biology would not have developed, and (2) all
that did develop was covered by evolutionary theory. I reject both of these
implications. Consider, in addition to the examples listed in my essay, the
100 Nobels awarded in Physiology/Medicine. How many of them were dependent
on heuristic guidance from Darwin's theory? The biology that informed
Darwin included the widely held notions that the cell was a blob of gelatin,
that inheritance involved blending maternal and paternal characteristics
from all parts of the body, that species could be made to vary without
limit, that life generated spontaneously, etc. Where, exactly, did those
mistaken notions lead to the breakthroughs that so impressed the Nobel
committees? Were those who contributed to these developments mere
technicians manipulating their instruments?

Those engaged by historical biology can attain to minuscule amounts of
information about those early organisms when compared with the results from
studies of tissues from living organisms. The continuing efforts to
understand life from studies of living organisms will increase exponentially
over the twenty first century. Perhaps, with all this additional knowledge
one may be in a better position to assess the consilience with the relevant
metaphysical considerations, if ever.

Repeat from The Scientist: "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 breakthroughs."

What should be taught in high school biology classes? Teaching should focus
on the variety of living organisms in our biocosm and on two questions: How
do those organisms function so admirably over their lifetime; and how do
they interact with one

For students aspiring to benefit society through experimental biology,
Darwinism is very much beside the point.

--Phil Skell
Received on Tue Sep 20 13:26:12 2005

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