Monday, October 15, 2007

Philip Skell's Opinion

In my last post, I shared a quote from A.S. Wilkins about how superfluous evolutionary theory is to the conducting of science. Wilkins was quoted by Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Science, in an opinion piece he wrote in the August 29, 2005 edition of The Scientist. Skell had polled 70 scientists about whether they would have approached their research any differently if they had thought that Darwinian theory was wrong. All said "No." Skell's conclusion?
From my conversations with leading researchers it had become clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availablity of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology [evolutionary theory].
Skell received (as you might imagine) a number of letters from fellow scientists critical of his claim. This induced him to write a response to these letters:
My essay about Darwinism and modern experimental biology has stirred up a lively discussion, but the responses still provide no evidence that evolutionary theory is the cornerstone of experimental biology. Comparative physiology and comparative genomics have certainly been fruitful, but comparative biology originated before Darwin and owes nothing to his theory. Before the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, comparative biology focused mainly on morphology because physiology and biochemistry were in their infancy and genomics lay in the future; but the extension of a comparative approach to these subdisciplines depended on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not on evolutionary theory and immersion in historical biology.

One letter mentions directed molecular evolution as a technique to discover antibodies, enzymes, and drugs. Like comparative biology, this has certainly been fruitful, but it is not an application of Darwinian evolution--it is the modern molecular equivalent of classical breeding. Long before Darwin, breeders used artificial selection to develop improved strains of crops and livestock. Darwin extrapolated this in an attempt to explain the origin of new species, but he did not invent the process of artificial selection itself.

It is noteworthy that not one of these critics has detailed an example where Darwin's Grand Paradigm Theory guided researchers to their goals. In fact, most innovations are not guided by grand paradigms but by far more modest, testable hypotheses. Recognizing this, neither medical schools nor pharmaceutical firms maintain divisions of evolutionary science. The fabulous advances in experimental biology over the past century have had a core dependence on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not on intensive immersion in historical biology and Darwin's theory, which attempted to historicize the meager documentation.

Evolution is not an observable characteristic of living organisms. What modern experimental biologists study are the mechanisms by which living organisms maintain their stability, without evolving. Organisms oscillate about a median state; and if they deviate significantly from that state, they die. It has been research on these mechanisms of stability, not research guided by Darwin's theory, which has produced the major fruits of modern biology and medicine. And so I ask again: Why do we invoke Darwin?

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