Biology Darwinism Evolution Intelligent Design Science

The (non)Heuristic Value of Evolution

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Theodosius Dobzhansky once famously said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”   Except, of course, when biology doesn’t need to even consider evolution, which for practicle purposes is most of the time. 

Today, I had the privilege to have lunch with a research scientist who works in the area of bio-pharmaceuticals for a pharmaceutical company.  He told me about their research with proteins and genes that enable them to develop products that alleviate or cure a wide range of diseases at the cellular level.  Of great value to the research they do was the Human Genome Project because it made available the entire database to whoever needed it.  That information enabled them to move several projects forward.

He knew from our conversation that I had been involved in the Intelligent Design/Evolution debate, so I asked him

what role evolution played in all thier research.  Now, this is a research facility that is carrying on a huge number of projects across a number of areas in cellular biology, bio-chemistry, hemotology, oncology and other related areas. He said that evolution plays no role whatsoever in their research and that evolutionary theory doesn’t make one whit of difference to the outcome of any of their research projects and never has.  To clarify, I said, “so the heuristic value of evolutionary theory to your biological research is….” and he answered “Nil!”. 

Perhaps its time to reconsider Dobzhansky’s famous quote.  How about “Nearly everything in biology makes sense apart from evolution.”  At least, that seems to be the case for real scientists working in real labs doing all sorts of fruitful research.

22 Replies to “The (non)Heuristic Value of Evolution

  1. 1
    Apollos says:

    “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

    I happen to appreciate DaveScot’s modification of the quote:

    “Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of front loading.”

  2. 2
    Michael Tuite says:

    Hello DonaldM,
    As part of his argument, Dobzhansky offered:

    “Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.”

    I have no doubt that evolution does not seem particularly relevant to your friend’s sophisticated understanding of a narrow aspect of biology. Scientists are narrow specialists, experts on “sundry facts.” There are a lot of people, I’m sure you know many, who just aren’t interested in the “big picture” yet manage to do what they do very well. Evolution is the best explanation for countless “sundry facts.”

    Michael

  3. 3
    DonaldM says:

    Michael

    There are a lot of people, I’m sure you know many, who just aren’t interested in the “big picture” yet manage to do what they do very well. Evolution is the best explanation for countless “sundry facts.”

    Michael, that may be so, but my point is that the heuristic value of evolutionary explanations across a whole range of biological research is virtually nil. Apparently a whole range of sundry facts in biology make sense without considering evolution. And, given the fruitfulness and practical applications of the research my friend and his teams are doing, some very meaningful pictures have emerged without considering evolution.

    I also don’t agree that these are just “narrow specialists”. The fields of biological knowledge required to do the research being undertaken at these labs is vast…but evolution just isn’t necessary at all! That’s the point.

  4. 4
    jerry says:

    I have no doubt that micro evolution operates to some degree and am willing to accord it a fairly wide range of possible capabilities, though many are not yet proven. I am also adamant that there is no evidence that micro evolution even if it granted that it can have these capabilities, will ever be able to produce novel, complex capabilities which I dub “macro evolution.”

    But granting micro evolution a wide range of capabilities does not mean it will or will not be useful in various biological areas. Certainly for microbe changes over time or even in ecological situations it would seem to be useful to know the basic sources of new elements in the gene pool and how genetic elements are passed on and survive. So while it may not be useful in the medical applications of the research scientist you met with, it may have some benefits elsewhere.

    However, it is hard for me to imagine how any macro evolution understanding will be of use. It could be that there will be an intelligently designed macro evolution organism that will be developed in some future time for some unknown reason. But this development will not be based on an understanding of how such a thing could have developed naturally over millions of years but rather how a genome can be modified in a short time to get the desired results.

    So I don’t see any reason to not teach the basic micro evolution process. But it should be emphasized that however, macro evolution occurred in the past, it is unknown how it happened and the mechanism whatever it is will probably not have any practical use. This will not stop anyone from investigating it because even if it is fruitless, there may be interesting new information about life that is discovered in the process.

  5. 5
    Paul Giem says:

    Michael Tuite (#2),

    You are virtually conceding DonaldM’s point. The point is, Dobzhansky was grossly exaggerating when he made the statement. It simply isn’t true that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” There are lots of “sundry facts” that fit well with each other, and can be organized into coherent theories with heuristic value, which make good sense without considering the theory of evolution. Dobzhansky’s claim is simply false. If that fact were conceded, instead of Dobzhansky being mindlessly repeated by naturalistic evolutionists, people like DonaldM would stop writing posts like the one above.

    But there is another misconception that needs correction. You state,

    “There are a lot of people, I’m sure you know many, who just aren’t interested in the “big picture” yet manage to do what they do very well.”

    This statement seems to imply that the only reason that some people do not see the relation of the theory of evolution to their work in biology is that they just aren’t interested in the “big picture”. But if the “big picture”, or more properly your idea of the “big picture”, isn’t helpful, there is another reason why it could be unhelpful besides that it is irrelevant. It could simply be that it is wrong, and another version of the “big picture” is closer to the truth, and would be more helpful to what you call a “narrow aspect” of biology.

    I count myself among those looking to discover a coherent and accurate “big picture”. I definitely do not fall into the category of those “who just aren’t interested”. But I find the theory of design a much better heuristic than the theory of unguided evolution. It makes much more sense to me, if I find a protein in a bacterium, to ask, “What does it do?”, than to assume that it probably doesn’t do anything, as an unguided process would make a lot of useless junk. Thus even naturalistic evolutionists incorporate design theory as a heuristic, without realizing it.

    And your statement that “Evolution is the best explanation for countless “sundry facts” needs qualification. If you are talking about microevolution, there is no argument. If you are talking about species and in most cases genus differences, you will get no argument from me (although some argument from some on this forum). But if you are talking about evolution above the family level, what George Gaylord Simpson called Megaevolution, your statement could certainly be challenged. Is the Cambrian explosion, or that of birds, or mammals, or edicaran fauna, actually better explained by unguided evolution than by design? Unless you rule design out because you don’t like where the theory of design might lead you, design does a much better job of explaining those “sundry facts” than does unguided evolution. The same is true for apparently irreducibly complex systems, and for functionally specified complex information.

    If you wish to challenge those last assertions, show us your evidence. It should be an interesting discussion.

  6. 6
    jerry says:

    Paul,

    You and I disagree on some key things, but your post is outstanding. Thank you for the clarity.

  7. 7
    PaV says:

    Update on “microevolution”:

    Wouldn’t you expect that base transitions would be of equal probability if “chance” is involved? Of course. Well, what has been found? Depending on the phyla, you get different, non-random base transition values; that is, A->T is not the same as C->G, G->C is different from C->G, etc, and these values vary depending on the phyla. This is wildly opposite what “random” processes would produce.

    Additionally, in studying certain bacterial cultures in the lab, they have found that the allele frequency say, for example, glucose-to-galactose metabolism, never goes to zero. IOW, there is always some bacteria retaining the glucose metabolism allele even in an environment where only galactose is found. This completely negates population genetics wherein they say that in such a population the gene frequency will go to zero in 2N generations.

    Both these findings are possible because of cheaper methods of analyzing genomes. What other surprises are lurking?

    .

  8. 8
    allanius says:

    Another good post from Donald.

    And it’s not just drug research. There is a vast amount of basic medical research published every year, and evolution never makes an appearance of any kind in the endpoints of those studies. It is invoked very occasionally in the discussion section, as a sort of pro forma nod to the intelligentsia, but it plays no role in either the objective or the methods of the studies. Never.

    It’s worth noting that these studies involve applied biology, a very different thing from Dobzhansky’s theoretical biology. Evolution is ivory tower biology. It has nothing to do with real life.

    Basic medical research also happens to be a gold mine for ID, if anyone cared to take the time to look into it. Almost every one of the studies published in medical journals can be interpreted as an example of irreducible complexity and provides evidence of vital interrelations and redundancies in body systems.

  9. 9
    DonaldM says:

    Paul G: excellent post. Like Jerry I have some points of disagreement, but we’ll reserve those for another day. Well said as is!

    Allanius: Good points, in accord with my main point in the OP.

    Paul G is right, if the Dobzhansky quote wasn’t constantly invoked by Darwinists, there wouldn’t be a need for posts like this. But the mantra seems to be that we can’t even do biology without taking evolution into account, and that is simply false. A wide range of biological research is conducted and results reported in the relevant peer reviewed journals without needing to invoke evolutionary processes, perfunctory bows to Darwin notwithstanding.

  10. 10
    Joseph says:

    DonaldM,

    I am reading the January 2009 issue of “Scientific American”.

    There are several articles in it which tell us that “evolution” is very important to research and many venues thrive because of it.

    At least one article quotes Dobzhansky.

    If it is in “Scientific American” it must be true, right? 😉

    But I digress. I doubt that the theory of evolution can even muster a testable hypothesis.

    That is a hypothesis based on the proposed mechanisms- undirected processes.

    I haven’t seen one yet.

    Michael T-

    The “theory” of evolution is much too vague to be of any use.

    Evolutionists love to speak of variations but they never provide any specifics as to what is being varied.

    And without specifics- see Einsteins formula for the amount gravity will bend light- any theory is useless.

  11. 11
    DonaldM says:

    Joseph

    The “theory” of evolution is much too vague to be of any use.

    Evolutionists love to speak of variations but they never provide any specifics as to what is being varied.

    I’m not sure this is entirely true. One can certainly see changes that have taken place within a population after the fact. What evolutionary theory doesn’t seem to do very well is predict what variations will occur under what enviromental changes…at least not until we have some basis of comparison with similar organisms in similar environments…say finch beak size changes under different environmental conditions.

    WHat makes more sense (to me anyway) is to say that the main mechanism of evolution, natural selection, isn’t really a mechanism at all. Mechanisms are, by definition, things that do something. NS doesn’t fit that description. At best, it is a descriptive term applied to certain observations after the fact.

    The real question is, what is the actual mechanism of evolution? I’m not sure there really is one. But, perhaps we’re beginning to stray a bit from the OP.

  12. 12
    jerry says:

    “The real question is, what is the actual mechanism of evolution? I’m not sure there really is one. But, perhaps we’re beginning to stray a bit from the OP.”

    I am not so sure this is straying. Natural selection is a combination of a mechanism, reproductive method, environmental pressures and chance. There may be other things involved but these are the main ones I can think of. Now during Dobzhansky time when he made this statement, he was unaware of the structure of the genome and might have assumed like Darwin that within the genome, occasionally modified by mutations, there was the capability to produce anything over time.

    So Dobzhansky thought that over time these basic processes explain everything and all the variety in biology or life. We now know he was wrong mainly because of the necessity for building complex informational structures to build or guide the systems in the cell.

    It is the complex functionality of the cell and the systems of multi-celled organisms that prevents Dobzhansky’s statement from being true today. And this is something the Darwinists will not admit or give up even though they research alternatives that presuppose the falsity of Darwinian processes to explain all.

    While your researcher uses the cell division process and gene expression in multi-celled organisms as his basic theoretical background, there are lots of people out there who need genetics to do their work. It is in this area that knowledge of micro evolutionary processes is necessary. However, nowhere do they need to know macro evolutionary theory if there is such a thing.

  13. 13
    DonaldM says:

    Jerry

    While your researcher uses the cell division process and gene expression in multi-celled organisms as his basic theoretical background, there are lots of people out there who need genetics to do their work. It is in this area that knowledge of micro evolutionary processes is necessary. However, nowhere do they need to know macro evolutionary theory if there is such a thing.

    I think that would depend on what is meant by “micro-evolutionary processes”. Even that isn’t straightforwardly clear. Is it referring soley to mutations at the genetic level? Or simple adaptations at the cellular level? I’m not trying to split hairs here but it seems to me that it is precisely the variant meanings these terms can have that cause a lot of the problems that arise.

  14. 14
    jerry says:

    DonaldM,

    All these concepts are discussed in detail in genetics courses and are fairly clear. For example look at a genetics course you can purchase on line and the various topics

    http://www.rapidlearningcenter.....etics.html

    The natural selection process is a clear concept but as you read through each section of a genetics course one realizes the process can be very complicated and selection is the end result of a lot of factors. Is gene expression part of natural selection or is it an independent topic. Since gene expression can affect survival, it is part of the process of micro evolution. Hence your friend is involved in a narrow area of micro evolution.

    Just what happens as a result of these complicated interactions is often not very clear but rarely if ever is there any substantial change. But I would not say that knowledge of the micro evolutionary process is not useful for someone involved in genetics. (I am not sure just what the differences are between genetics and micro evolution.) Their actual work may be very narrow and may not depend on using the whole process in their work but some aspect of it is probably useful. Or it could just be taken for granted because it is so obvious or ingrained.

    So I would not make any blanket statements that evolutionary concepts are not used. It is just the concepts that are used are trivial and often in a very narrow area. And by trivial I mean those that are trivial in terms of the evolutionary debate not in terms of their usefulness to do research or one’s job or their value to society such as medical research.

  15. 15
    Khan says:

    Jerry,
    once again you have been asked (this time by a moderator) to define your terms. what, exactly, do you mean by microevolution and macroevolution?

  16. 16
    Paul Giem says:

    DonaldM and jerry (#9 and #6),

    Thank you for your comments.

    It looks like Michael Tuite has decided not to comment further. I was waiting for his reply, but perhaps he does not have one. In that case I am curious to know what you had in mind when you mentioned disagreements. Were you referring to my comment itself, or other points that were not mentioned? If the latter, it’s fine with me if they stay unmentioned for now. If the former, I’d be interested in discussing what the disagreement is. I suspect that we can reach agreement even on that.

  17. 17
    jerry says:

    “If the latter, it’s fine with me if they stay unmentioned for now”

    Nothing here on this thread. Our disagreements are over some other issues that have been discussed elsewhere. I am sure there would be other things if we explored them. But I was happy that you approved my basic understanding of ID even if you thought it was wordy.

  18. 18
    Paul Giem says:

    jerry (#16),

    In the interest of accuracy, I started #5 before I saw #3 and #4, so I was not expressing approval of your basic understanding of ID or trying to cut down on your word count (you may note that my response was longer than yours). That said, I do approve your basic understanding of ID.

    If some areas of disagreement come up later, I trust that the discussions can be as gentlemanly as they have been in the past.

  19. 19
    Joseph says:

    I’m not sure this is entirely true. One can certainly see changes that have taken place within a population after the fact.

    Right but what caused those changes?

    My point is no one can pinpoint the sorce of the variation.

    WHat makes more sense (to me anyway) is to say that the main mechanism of evolution, natural selection, isn’t really a mechanism at all.

    True NS is a result of three processes/ mechanisms- variation, inheritance and fecudity.

  20. 20
    jerry says:

    Paul,

    you said

    “But I was happy that you approved my basic understanding of ID even if you thought it was wordy.”

    I was referring to something a couple months ago about a disclaimer for ID and nothing on this thread. Here is your comment from late September

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-296186

    My disclaimer about ID is a little before this

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-296129

  21. 21
    jerry says:

    “True NS is a result of three processes/ mechanisms- variation, inheritance and fecundity.”

    It is also about environment. In fact this may be the strongest component. Now environment is not a process but it is a force acting on the population.

  22. 22
    DonaldM says:

    Jerry

    So I would not make any blanket statements that evolutionary concepts are not used. It is just the concepts that are used are trivial and often in a very narrow area. And by trivial I mean those that are trivial in terms of the evolutionary debate not in terms of their usefulness to do research or one’s job or their value to society such as medical research.

    Okay, I can see your point here. Perhaps we need a different term to describe this process.

    Paul: After re-reading your post, I think I do agree after all. I must have mis-read something originally, though what I can’t recall now.

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