Friday, December 12, 2014

Central but Superfluous: Physics Envy

From ID-hater Jerry Coyne's "Of Vice and Men":
In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to tube B and noting the color of the mixture.
But wait, hasn't the academic priesthood community averred loudly and proudly that doubting "evolution" (presuming the equivocal term includes the historical narrative) is like doubting gravity?  (Look up discussions about whether or not evolution is "just a theory.")  Eugenie Scott, former head of the Darwinist lobby think-tank NCSE, would say so.

How much of physics could you do without at least the Newtonian concept of gravity?  There's a lot of experiment that can't be done without the Einsteinian conception of gravity.  Yet Coyne was implying that as far as he knew in 2000, his field was largely irrelevant to experimental biology.  Is the historical science of evolution central to biology in a very different way than gravity being central to physical theory?

Let's review Philip Skell's statement in "The Scientist":
"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," A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000. "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one." 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.
I also examined 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. 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.
Re-read Coyne's "Vice" piece and Gould's famous Dr. Pangloss piece, and then think of what an "interesting narrative gloss" might mean.

Now, remember all those teachers in Texas who signed a petition because they were terrified that without a firm belief in the evolutionary narrative and the established power of selection, students would not be prepared for careers in biology.  These teachers apparently were privy to something Jerry Coyne didn't know in 2000.  I think Jerry has since doubted the superfluousness of evolution to medicine, but his supposed examples hinge on directed evolution and informational genetics.  Ask yourself how directed evolution is different from artificial selection, the technology that inspired and long preceded Darwin.  And Coyne wonders why biochemists and molecular biologists are turning on the evolutionary narrative?

I'm reminded of Jeffrey Shallit's comments (filed under "science stopper"?) that knowing that life is designed would turn out to be a completely uninteresting fact.  (Just think about that statement on its own terms, and then think about how hard textbook writers have tried to ingrain the "central" idea that lifeforms are engineered by processes that are undirected, nonteleological, and purposeless.)

I can think of a way in which Shallit's statement could be construed as true.  It could be true to the extent that modern biology already has a Designer.  To some extent biology already treats lifeforms as engineered by a "watchmaker," if a "blind" one.  But I can't rule out.  Currently, it would seem the main reason that Jonathan Wells has had trouble getting visibility on his centrosome hypothesis, is that journals are afraid of giving any credibility to someone who doubts the central tenets of the priesthood profession.

See more interesting quotes at "Darwinism Is Pseudo-Science."

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