Calling evolution irrelevant is wrong
Calling evolution irrelevant is wrong
In his Feb. 12 guest viewpoint, Dr. Philip Skell suggests that “Darwin has been oversold,” arguing that the contributions of evolutionary theory are exaggerated, that it has no practical application, and that the scientific community is encouraging polarization by injecting itself into theological matters. Even a little research shows that these assertions are not only false, but are not about science at all.
By Stuart Faulk - Eugene OR Register-Guard - 3/2/2009 - original
The National Academy of Sciences states that evolutionary science has made major contributions “to human well-being, including its contributions to preventing and treating human disease, developing new agricultural products, and creating industrial innovations.”
Skell rebuts these claims with two arguments: First, that studying long-dead organisms preserved as fossils could not possibly contribute to our understanding the inner workings of living organisms. Hence, the claim that medical and agricultural advances arise from the study of fossils is absurd. Second, that progress in medicine and other fields does not now, and never has, depended on the results of evolutionary science. In short, it is neither useful nor used.
He supports these arguments by noting some scientific breakthroughs (e.g., the discovery of penicillin) that did not use evolutionary theory, and then asserting (based on a personal survey) that evolutionary science does not contribute anything except “narrative gloss” to current research.
The contention that evolutionary science is not useful is easily shown false by counter-example. The necessary research is accomplished by walking the five feet to my coffee table and picking up the March edition of Scientific American magazine, in which the article “New Tactics Against Tuberculosis” describes progress against the spread of drug-resistant TB. The authors (medical researchers, not evolutionary biologists) explicitly mention the role and contributions of evolutionary science:
1) Evolutionary science is critical to understanding the problem because it is precisely the mechanisms of evolution (adaptation and natural selection) that lead to drug-resistant TB strains in the first place.
Seeing how evolutionary science actually is applied in practice helps us understand why Skell’s other arguments do not hold water. That evolutionary science did not happen to be used for some particular discovery (such as penicillin or, for that matter, the light bulb) tells us nothing about research where it is used (such as TB). This is a red herring, as is the discussion of fossils.
2) Evolutionary science is critical to directing research toward an effective cure. Since the tuberculosis bacterium rapidly develops resistance to new antibiotics, current research is seeking ways to block the bacterium’s genetic mechanisms of adaptation.
3) Finally, evolutionary science yields new approaches to a cure. As the authors state of one promising approach, “It allows us to harness the power of natural selection in our quest to thwart (drug-resistant TB).”
As the research on TB shows, it is other facets of evolutionary science (e.g., natural selection, adaptation, genetics) that drive medical research. While the study of fossils is one facet of evolutionary biology, and evolutionary biology is used in medical research, it does not follow that fossil biology somehow drives medical research. This absurd idea is introduced by Skell, not evolutionary scientists. Similar errors in fact and inference attend Skell’s subsequent arguments, but this suffices to show the modus operandi.
Given how easily Skell’s arguments can be dismissed, it is reasonable to ask why he would make them in the first place. He is just as capable of reading Scientific American as I am, and probably more qualified.
The short answer is that this is not a debate about factual truth and science, but about public opinion and religion. What Skell neglects to mention (but any Web search will show) is that he has long supported creationist causes. His guest viewpoint is but one of many letters supporting “intelligent design” and opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools, which he equates to “indoctrination of students to a worldview of materialism and atheism.”
Since the courts have blocked teaching of creationist ideology in public schools (in the case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District), creationist strategy has focused on marginalizing evolutionary science: casting doubt on its validity, minimizing its usefulness, and discrediting its proponents. Skell’s assertions simply are repackaged versions of standard creationist arguments along these lines. They are made not because they are true, but because they have proven effective in casting doubt on evolutionary science.
Ultimately, such tactics are a disservice to everyone. In their zeal to discredit evolution, creationists have discredited science in general: confusing the public and our students about what science is, how it works and what it has accomplished. This damages our nation’s ability to teach science and fund scientific research at a time when both are desperately needed.
As Darwin himself remarked, “great is the power of steady misrepresentation.”
Stuart Faulk is a teacher and research affiliate of computer and information sciences at the University of Oregon, and also is Philip Skell’s son-in-law.