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Philip Skell Revisited

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We at Uncommon Descent have in the past talked about NAS scientist Philip Skell’s observation that evolutionary biology contributes little if anything to experimental biology. Just recently Professor Skell placed a phone call to Professor John A. Davison and they had a long conversation the details of which were not disclosed to me. John invited Philip to participate here at Uncommon Descent and I’d like to take this opportunity to say that all of us here would like to echo John’s invitation. Professor Skell, if you’re reading this, we’d love to hear from you.

To read Professor Skell’s article and response in The Scientist read on…

The Scientist, Aug. 29, 2005

Why do we invoke Darwin?
Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology

By Philip S. Skell

Darwin’s theory of evolution offers a sweeping explanation of the history of life, from the earliest microscopic organisms billions of years ago to all the plants and animals around us today. Much of the evidence that might have established the theory on an unshakable empirical foundation, however, remains lost in the distant past. For instance, Darwin hoped we would discover transitional precursors to the animal forms that appear abruptly in the Cambrian strata. Since then we have found many ancient fossils¬ – even exquisitely preserved soft-bodied creatures – but none are credible ancestors to the Cambrian animals.

Despite this and other difficulties, the modern form of Darwin’s theory has been raised to its present high status because it’s said to be the cornerstone of modern experimental biology. But is that correct? “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 2000.1 “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.

In the peer-reviewed literature, the word “evolution” often occurs as a sort of coda to academic papers in experimental biology. Is the term integral or superfluous to the substance of these papers? To find out, I substituted for “evolution” some other word – “Buddhism,” “Aztec cosmology,” or even “creationism.” I found that the substitution never touched the paper’s core. This did not surprise me. From my conversations with leading researchers it had became clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availability of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology.

When I recently suggested this disconnect publicly, I was vigorously challenged. One person recalled my use of Wilkins and charged me with quote mining. The proof, supposedly, was in Wilkins’s subsequent paragraph:

Yet, the marginality of evolutionary biology may be changing. More and more issues in biology, from diverse questions about human nature to the vulnerability of ecosystems, are increasingly seen as reflecting evolutionary events. A spate of popular books on evolution testifies to the development. If we are to fully understand these matters, however, we need to understand the processes of evolution that, ultimately, underlie them.

In reality, however, this passage illustrates my point. The efforts mentioned there are not experimental biology; they are attempts to explain already authenticated phenomena in Darwinian terms, things like human nature. Further, Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive – except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed¬ – except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.

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.

Philip Skell (tvk@psu.edu) is Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor, The Pennsylvania State University, member, National Academy of Sciences, research contributions to Reactive Intermediates in Chemistry: Triplet/Singlet Carbenes, Free-Atom Reactions, Bridged and Optically Active Free Radicals, Reactions of Free Carbonium Ions, etc.

1. A.S. Wilkins, BioEssays 22, 1051(2000).

From The Scientist, Sept. 26, 2005

Philip Skell responds: 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 sub-disciplines 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 by 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?

WHATDIDITELLYOU? For a verification of the predictions I made in message #5, please visit Der Fuhrer Herr Doktor Professor Esley Welsberry's (pronounced Velsberry) "Terminal Tomb and Bunker," aka "The Slippery Floors Bar and Grill," aka "After The Bar Closes" and there they are just like I said they would be. God but it is beautiful. It is hard to believe isn't it? I love it so! "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable." John A. Davison John A. Davison
Bebbo, Read The Andromeda Strain. It's nearly 40 years old. jerry
Oops, I meant "antibiotic resistant strains" bebbo
Dave, I know that most IDers think that RM&NS is not capable of creating new species. I was asking if people creating antibiotics anticipated the problem of antibiotic strains? bebbo
Dr. Skell is an inspiration and hope he does post here. UD maybe should think about utilizing his talents and others like Dr. Davison, Dr. Sanford, etc., to create timely articles for Overwhelming Evidence as well to draw in the kids, as well as artist, etc. Here's the thing. The secular world has the force of business and marketing behind them. And yet, Christians every day work for secular powerhouses. Thus Science, SciAm, NG, etc., control the market thought process which enters the youth's mindset thru mags and TV. There is a large untapped market for a Christian perspective and it should not be regulated to mail-order only subscriptions. The time is ripe for a Science Magazine which allows all perspectives into the fold, lively debate and critiques, good every day science as well as speculative theoretic discourse. From the list I've seen, there are easily qualified representations in all scientific fields for this to be a successful enterprise that could sell in all the bookstores as a weekly/or monthly publication. Right now it appears everyone is producing their own publications as mail-order. When Jesus walked this earth, he went into every house that accepted him in. Paul echoed this sentiment to became all things to all people. It seems to me at times, we are weakened by petty disagreements when in fact we should be united in one overwhelming evidence of truth. I have read with great enthusiasm wonderful insights from Creationist, IDist and Evolutionist. I would think that someone with enuf insight of their own, network connections, business acumen and financial backing could put this all together in a new science magazine that would allow open debate amongst all sides. And better our side do it now, than theirs. Michaels7
Antibiotic resistance, like insecticide resistance, is not evolution as proved by the fact that both are reversible and soon disappear when the challenging molecules are no longer present. Like ontogeny is now, evolution WAS never reversible. "At most, the environment plays a similar role with regard to organisms; IT CAN ONLY PROVOKE AND SET IN MOTION SOME POTENTIAL THAT IS ALREADY PRESENT." Otto Schindewolf, Basic Questions in Paleontolog, page 313, his emphasis. Hence the Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis. "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable." John A. Davison John A. Davison
John A. Davison: It will be very interesting to see how the Darwimps here as elsewhere will respond to these comments by a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Ask and you shall receive: Why do we invoke Darwin? It turns out that Dr Skell is a chemist and therefore is out of his field of expertise (NOT my words). Joseph
John Davison asks: It will be very interesting to see how the Darwimps here as elsewhere will respond to these comments by a member of the National Academy of Sciences. I posted Dr Skell's essays on my blog Intelligent Reasoning and you can read the responses HERE. A sample response: Skell is a chemist, not a biologist or even a biochemist. As such, he is speaking outside his field of expertise. All that want to drop by and leave a response are very welcome. Joseph
bebbo Random mutation and natural selection working to thwart the effectiveness of an antibiotic without changing anything essential about the mutated organism is quite different from proposing that the same mechanism of mutation and selection can eventually turn a bacteria into a babboon. An antibiotic resistant staph bacteria is still the same species of bacteria to say nothing of morphing into a different kingdom. Absent the axiomatic (sacred) presumption that mutations which occur within species not resulting in novel cell types, tissue types, organs, or body plans can accumulate into changes on the order of novel cell types, tissue types, organs, and body plans is unsubstantiated. It's a huge and completely uncorroborated leap of faith to say that lots of microevolution equals macroevolution. DaveScot
Talking of antibiotics, did any of the people who worked on them anticipate the problems of antibiotic resistant strains? It seems to me that even if Darwinian evolution doesn't influence the research into creating antibiotics it has something to contribute to understanding how to manage the use of antibiotics. bebbo
I see that the brownshirts over at Der Fuhrer's Bunker have finally responded to this thread by reprinting my comment# 5. It was posted by Bob O'H, whoever that is. Didn't he used to drool here? His conclusion, that I am bitter, is far from the mark I am afraid. Quite the contrary, as in all matters dealing with Darwimpianism - I love it so! It is hard to believe isn't it? "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable." John A. Davison John A. Davison
The doctor is "IN". Let me try to put things in perspective. Life is not about what you find through a telescope or microscope. Life is about family and home. Now repeat that three times a day. Each night take one asprin before bedtime and call me when you're well. Blessings Zero Zero
Evolution is proved by the fossil record. The alternative to Darwinism is not special creation except in the sense of first causes. Evolution WAS as real as mathematics is now. Both were created eons ago and had only to be discovered. Once it is realized that evolution is no longer in progress, everything will fall in place. "Facts which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty." Galileo "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable." John A. Davison John A. Davison
The reason why people invoke Darwin has been known for a long time:
“Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it only because the only alternative is special creation – which is unthinkable.” - Sir Authur Keith, famous British evolutionist
"Why do we invoke Darwin?" Philosophical sophomorism and ideological zeal? mike1962
Evolutionary theory is the ontological cornerstone of the evolutionist community. The evolutionist evangelical is always quick to tell us that it is the acceptance and guiding light of evolutionary theory which is needed in order to understand and create cures for diseases. But as Prof Skell points out that idea is simply false. The guiding beneficient light of evolution is a gloss used more to give a sense of importance to evolutionary ontology rathern then giving any actual objective aide. This points out what has been noted for years by many; evolutionary theory is an ontological centerpiece. It's a golden calf on the altar who all must supplicate to if they are to be trusted by members of the cult. Evolutionary theory's objective value lies solely in the realm of ontology. It is the cornerstone of the current materialistic ontological dogma. It is the foundational scripture, the central religious tenet, of the dogmatic materialist. It is not and has never been of any actual value for anything else. The battle by evolutionist evangelicals and those opposed to their neo-great awakening is really nothing more then a battle against blasphemy. When the evolutionist evangelical claims that the debate is not about science but instead about religious beliefs battling science, they are absolutely correct. Those who side with the blasphemers in any way are subject to trial by a kangaroo court and then excommunication. A swift and harsh punishment in social and academic circles awaits those who challenge the predominating religion of the materialists and their savior Charles Darwin . mentok
Phil? Are you reading this? You do SO have the time. The younger guys need to hear from you. I miss you too. - Denyse O'Leary
Skell's last line is "Why do we invoke Darwin?" We all know the reason and it has nothing to do with biology or science. jerry
It will be very interesting to see how the Darwimps here as elsewhere will respond to these comments by a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Here is my prediction. He will probably be accused of senility. After all that is what they have done with me. Or how about this one? "He used to be a decent scientist but something happened to him in the 1980s." It is especially significant that Skell saw through Dobzhansky's claim about how nothing makes sense in biology without evolution. The Darwinians conveniently forget that Dobzhansky is also the one that proved that the most intensive selection cannot exceed the species barrier and he did it with Drosophila, the favorite pet animal of the Darwinian geneticists, an animal which has not changed in millions of years. Yet Dobzhansky remained a staunch Darwinian. Is it any wonder that I often declare - It is hard to believe isn't it? It sure is! In any event Skell and I had a fine conversation and while we didn't agree about everything, we sure did on the failure of the Darwinian model. I love it so! "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable." John A. Davison John A. Davison
The fabulous advances in experimental biology over the past century have had a core dependence on the development of new methodologies and instruments I'm tellin' ya. It's all about engineering. Engineers are the ones creating those instruments and constantly improving their cost/performance. DaveScot
Note the Wilkins quote: More and more issues in biology, from diverse questions about human nature to the vulnerability of ecosystems, are increasingly seen as reflecting evolutionary events. What does "increasingly seen" mean? Does this mean increasingly explained by Darwinian principles or increasingly interpreted in Darwinian terms? I suggest that it is the latter. A phenomenon is observed, and then it is crammed into the Darwinian paradigm whether it fits or not. That's how science works (at least when it comes to neo-Darwinian theory). GilDodgen
Phil, welcome! - Denyse O'Leary
Great point. We are not harnessing, managing or exploiting macro-evolution because, as Dr. Davison has so eloquently beat into our heads, it ain't happening today. Ekstasis

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