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Is Evolution Really So Central to Biology?

Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of March 2010

by Richard Peachey

A well-beloved mantra of the secular scientific establishment is: "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." This was the title of a classic article by geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973 [Mar.]. The American Biology Teacher 35[3]:125-129). But . . . how realistic is this oft-repeated slogan?

As A. S. Wilkins set out to introduce a special issue of BioEssays on the topic of "evolutionary processes," he wrote:

"The subject of evolution occupies a special, and paradoxical, place within biology as a whole. 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. 'Evolution' would appear to be the indispensible unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one." [Bold print in the quotes indicates emphasis added.]

"Yet," Wilkins suggested hopefully, "the marginality of evolutionary biology may be changing" (2000. BioEssays 22:1051).

After interviewing Colin Patterson (senior paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum, and author of that museum's general text on evolution), Tom Bethell wrote:

"Patterson told me that he regarded the theory of evolution as 'often unnecessary' in biology. 'In fact,' he said, 'they could do perfectly well without it.' Nevertheless, he said, it was presented in textbooks as though it were 'the unified field theory of biology,' holding the whole subject together—and binding the profession to it. 'Once something has that status,' he said, 'it becomes like a religion.' " (1985 [Feb.]. "Agnostic Evolutionists: The taxonomic case against Darwin." Harper's 270[1617]:52).

Nobel laureate Francis Crick, though an ardent evolutionist, wrote in his autobiography:

"Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved. It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large part in guiding biological research, but this is far from the case. It is difficult enough to study what is happening now. To try to figure out exactly what happened in evolution is even more difficult. Thus evolutionary arguments can usefully be used as hints to suggest possible lines of research, but it is highly dangerous to trust them too much. It is all too easy to make mistaken inferences unless the process involved is already very well understood" (1988. What Mad Pursuit. New York: Basic Books. pp. 138f.).

Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe, in his now-famous book Darwin's Black Box, showed that the day-to-day work of his fellow biochemists is carried out with virtually no mention of "evolution." As he observed,

"There is no publication in the scientific literature—in prestigious journals, specialty journals, or books—that describes how molecular evolution of any real, complex, biochemical system either did occur or even might have occurred. There are assertions that such evolution occurred, but absolutely none are supported by pertinent experiments or calculations" (1996. New York: The Free Press. p. 185).

A hostile reviewer of Behe's book felt obliged to agree:

"Most biochemists have only a meagre understanding of, or interest in, evolution. As Behe points out, for the thousand-plus scholarly articles on the biochemistry of cilia, he could find only a handful that seriously addressed evolution. This indifference is universal. Pick up any biochemistry textbook, and you will find perhaps two or three references to evolution" (Andrew Pomiankowski. 1996 [Sept. 14]. "The God of the tiny gaps." New Scientist 151[2047]:45).

While advertising a 2007 conference focusing on "Evolutionary Biology and Human Health," the American Institute of Biological Sciences claimed:

"Principles and methods of evolutionary biology are becoming increasingly important in many aspects of health science, among them understanding the human genome, the normal functions and malfunctions of human genes, and the origin and evolution of infectious diseases" (2007 [May]. BioScience 57[5]:456).

But biologist Peter Armbruster, while sympathetic, had to splash cold water on such enthusiasm:

"Evolution receives scant attention on the U.S. Medical College Admission Test (the MCAT) and almost no coverage in medical school curricula, a situation with a pervasive canalizing effect on undergraduate biology curricula in the United States. The status quo was challenged in 1991 when G.C. Williams and R.M. Nesse published a paper with the optimistic title 'The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine.' Seventeen years later, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the sun has been rising only slowly. . . . one of the central arguments of evolutionary medicine has always been that evolutionary concepts should be emphasized in the education of clinicians. Unfortunately, this proposition has not been well received by medical schools thus far, probably in part because evolutionary insights have led to relatively few clinical applications" (2008 [Aug.]. "The sun rises [slowly] on Darwinian medicine." Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23[8]:422).

Pennsylvania State University chemist Philip S. Skell, a member of the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences, wrote an article titled "Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology" (2005 [Aug. 29]. The Scientist 19[16]:10). After quoting A. S. Wilkins (see above), Skell stated:

"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."

Skell concluded:

"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 breakthroughs." (This article by Skell generated "a tremendous response from readers." For Skell's rejoinder to the critical letters, see <>.)

P.S.: The quote below forms a nice supplement to the article above.

Columbia University evolutionist Walter Bock, reviewing a book by Ernst Mayr (This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997), criticized Mayr as follows:

"Unfortunately, the book's discussion of functional biology—a major part of biological activity—is largely lacking. This is the result partly of Mayr's desire to cover what he considers to be the core of biology, namely that part of the biological sciences falling under the heading of organicism, and partly of considerations about the structure and length of this work. Functional biology is restricted mainly to the eighth chapter, "'How?' Questions: The Making of a New Individual," but even this chapter deals largely with evolutionary matters. Other material on functional explanations originally included in the manuscript was omitted at the last minute.

"Clearly no explanation in biology is complete in the absence of an evolutionary explanation that holds for all levels of biological organization including the molecular and cellular. Yet functional explanations are essential prerequisites for any evolutionary explanation, a fact that has been ignored by most evolutionary biologists. Moreover, the statement Mayr quotes from Theodosius Dobzhansky, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," is simply not true. Functional explanations in biology, even in the complete absence of any evolutionary consideration, make a great deal of sense, as is apparent every time you get a diagnosis from your doctor about what ails you. These diagnoses may not be complete biological explanations, but they do make sense and are of much concern to you, the patient." ["The Preeminent Value of Evolutionary Insight in Biological Science." American Scientist 86(2):1, 1998 (Mar/Apr)]

Additional note: Confirmation of Peter Armbruster's comment (cited in the main article above) appeared in a more recent piece by science reporter Elizabeth Pennisi, "Darwinian Medicine's Drawn-Out Dawn" (Science, Vol. 334 [Dec 16, 2011], pp. 1486f.). The appear to be some hopeful (for evolutionists) signs but the reality is — as the title indicates — that change is not happening quickly.

"In their 1991 paper in the Quarterly Review of Biology, Williams and Nesse urged medicine to embrace evolutionary thinking. . . .
  "Twenty years later, there are signs that Williams and Nesse's ideas are getting traction. . . . But it has been a long slog to get to this point, and proponents say there is still a long way to go. . . .
  ". . . even now, 'there are some people who think it's just a series of "just so" stories,' says Peter Gluckman of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who wrote the first medical textbook on evolutionary medicine. 'Evolution has been resisted fiercely' by the medical profession, says Gilbert Omenn, a physician and human geneticist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. . . .
  ". . . it's unlikely that medical schools will provide entire courses in evolutionary medicine, given the already-intense course load students face. And the idea that students would get a strong grounding in evolutionary medicine as pre-meds has recently taken a hit: The proposed 2015 Medical College Admission Test actually contains much less evolution than the 2009 report [by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute] recommended, [Yale University evolutionary biologist Stephen] Stearns says."

Leading evolutionist and atheist Jerry Coyne has acknowledged that evolution doesn't have a lot of practical value. In a review of David P. Mindell's The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life, Coyne writes:

  "Mindell's defence of evolution ends with two odd chapters: one on 'evolutionary metaphor in human culture', the other on 'the role of evolution in court and classroom'. There are broad parallels between biological evolution and the evolution of languages and religions, but little more. And his legal examples, notably forensic DNA and forensic entomology, have little to do with evolution, while speculation about the evolutionary basis of ethics is a notorious intellectual quagmire.
  "As a brief for the practical value of evolution, The Evolving World gets a mixed verdict. It is embellished with good examples, and anybody who has not been exposed to the role of evolution in human affairs will undoubtedly derive some benefit. But there are problems too. In his desire to show how useful evolution is, Mindell strives desperately to herd every stray area of biology, even those barely related to evolution [a noteworthy remark!], into the darwinian fold. The 'fruits of biodiversity' could yield useful compounds whether they were evolved or created. If our 'evolved capacity for learning and planning' helps us solve conservation problems, it also produces art and psychotherapy. Perhaps our public-health practices 'are dictated by the principles of evolutionary population genetics', but the Romans built their aqueducts for supplying fresh water without the benefit of reading R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright.
  "To some extent these excesses are not Mindell's fault, for, if truth be told, evolution hasn't yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn't evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvements in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of 'like begets like'. Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all. . . .
  "One reason why Mindell might fail to sell Darwin to the critics is that his examples all involve microevolution, which most modern creationists (including advocates of intelligent design) accept. It is macroevolution — the evolutionary transitions between very different kinds of organisms — that creationists claim does not occur. . . .
  "In the end, the true value of evolutionary biology is not practical but explanatory. It answers, in the most exquisitely simple and parsimonious way, the age-old question: 'How did we get here?' It gives us our family history writ large, connecting us with every other species, living or extinct, on Earth. It shows how everything from frogs to fleas got here via a few easily grasped biological processes. And that, after all, is quite an accomplishment." [Jerry A. Coyne, "Selling Darwin: Does it matter whether evolution has any commercial applications?" Nature, Vol. 442, pp. 983f., Aug 31, 2006.]

Comment: For evolution to have value as an explanation, it must be true. But that is greatly disputed. Coyne has admitted, though, that evolution has very little "practical or commercial" value. I would suggest that this (relatively small, alleged ) "beneficial" aspect of evolution (as an "explanation") is heavily overshadowed by the strong negative impact Darwinism has exerted on our culture, as seen, for example, in our summary article "How Darwinism Contributed to Modern Views on Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia".

See also:

• Jerry Bergman's article, "An Evaluation of the Myth That 'Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution' ” (Answers Research Journal, Vol. 5, 2012, pp. 1-12) <>

• Podcast: Casey Luskin interviewing immunologist Donald Ewert, "What Does Evolution Have to Do With Immunology? Not Much" (12:40 minutes) <>

• Kevin Hartnett, "Evolution in medical school: Do we need more of it?" <>

• Michael Egnor, " 'Why would I want my doctor to have studied evolution?' " <>

• Casey Luskin, "How the Darwinian View of Human 'Tails' Leads to Harmful Medical Practices" <>