I have often wondered whether the loudness and aggressiveness of many culture-war defenders of neo-Darwinian evolution bears any relationship at all to the actual scientific contributions of those defenders to the field of evolutionary biology. As it happens, we have at hand some evidence, albeit of a rough and ready kind, relevant to that question.
From June 17 to June 21, 2011, at the University of Oklahoma (Norman) campus, the conference “Evolution 2011” was in session. It was co-sponsored by three scientific societies – The Society for the Study of Evolution, The Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists. It was billed by its promoters as “the premier annual international conference of evolutionary biologists on the planet.”
That billing may be somewhat hyperbolic, yet two things are clear: the conference was huge, with an expected turnout of 1400-1500 people; and many of the big names of evolutionary biology were to be there. Jerry Coyne was to give an address; H. Allen Orr was to chair a session; and Gunter Wagner and Sergey Gavrilets, cutting-edge biologists from the famed 2008 Altenberg conference, were to be there as well. Hundreds of papers were scheduled, and the research contributors to the various papers and presentations, according to the index for the conference, numbered something like 2,000.
It is interesting to make a mental list of the Darwin-defenders who have been most active in the culture wars, whether by publishing popular books defending Darwin, by appearing as witnesses against school boards in court cases, by working for the NCSE, by running pro-Darwinian blog sites, or by attacking Darwin critics throughout cyberspace, and to see which of them either read papers or at least contributed to the research and writing of papers for this premier conference.
Let’s start with those Darwin defenders who are actively anti-religious or show contempt for religion in their writings and internet remarks. Conspicuously absent from the list of conference contributors were evolutionary champions Richard Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, Larry Moran, and Eugenie Scott.
Among those who have not attacked religious belief, but have violently bashed ID and/or passionately upheld neo-Darwinian theory, Paul Gross (co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse) and plant scientist Arthur Hunt (who has debated ID people live and on the internet) were not listed as contributors to any of the papers.
Among those who were active in the Dover ID trial, as witnesses for the plaintiffs, the no-shows include Kevin Padian, Robert Pennock, and Brian Alters.
Among the prominent Christian Darwinists, i.e., theistic evolutionists/evolutionary creationists, only Ken Miller was going to be there, and not to read a scientific paper, but to issue a cultural manifesto on why evolution matters in America today. The leading figures of Biologos – Darrel Falk, Dennis Venema, Kathryn Applegate, David Ussery, David Kerk, Denis Lamoureux – who have so often been presented, explicitly or implicitly, as experts on evolutionary biology – produced no papers for this conference. British scientists Oliver Barclay and Denis Alexander, who have posted several guest columns on Biologos, are not mentioned. The frequent UD commenter and Quaker TE Allan MacNeill, who has penned hundreds of thousands of words on UD and on his own blogs, apparently couldn’t manage 5,000 or so words for an original research paper for the conference, nor could the belligerent Calvinist TE and almost as prolific anti-ID blogger Steve Matheson.
Now of course statistics of this sort don’t prove anything about the competence or incompetence of any particular individual. There are all kinds of good reasons why a competent evolutionary theorist might not contribute to a particular evolutionary conference. Maybe some of these people elected to attend another evolutionary conference later this year, or early next year, or maybe their travel budget was exhausted. Maybe personal matters prevented them from going. Maybe some of them attended the conference, to keep up with the field, even though they contributed no paper. But one wonders why such a large number of rabid pro-Darwinists would be non-contributors at the premier evolution conference in the world, if they are as competent in the field of evolutionary biology as they make out. Could it be that most of these people, though possessing degrees in the life sciences, are in fact not trained specifically in evolutionary biology, and therefore had no original work to contribute?
I would be interested in hearing from readers about this. Of the people I’ve named, how many have read a paper at, or at least co-written a technical paper for, any secular conference on evolutionary biology in the past ten years? Or published a peer-reviewed paper specifically on evolutionary biology in a secular scientific journal in the past ten years? Are many of the loudest defenders of neo-Darwinian orthodoxy in fact unqualified to talk at an expert level about the latest theoretical and experimental work in evolutionary biology? And if so, why do they set themselves up as the world’s teachers when it comes to evolution? Why do they write so many blogs, post so many comments, put up so many nasty book reviews on Amazon, participate in so many anti-ID debates on the Darwinist side, if they aren’t experts in the field? Why don’t they let the real experts in evolutionary biology – the Coynes and Orrs and Sean Carrolls – do the public cheerleading and debating for evolutionary biology, and stick quietly to their own specialties of cell biology, genetics, developmental biology, etc.?
In most scientific areas, non-experts don’t pretend to stand in for experts. You don’t see solid-state physicists rushing onto the blogosphere to defend the latest view on black holes from Stephen Hawking. They leave the defense of cosmology to the cosmologists. But for some reason every medical geneticist, soil scientist, biochemist, developmental biologist, cell biologist, anthropologist, part-time first-year biology instructor, undergrad biology teacher at a Christian college, etc., thinks himself or herself an expert on evolutionary theory, and competent to debate it with anyone, any time. Normal professional humility goes out the window when defending Darwinian theory is concerned. That’s why I think it’s important to ask the question: how many of the self-appointed defenders of Darwinian evolution have demonstrated competence, proved by research and publication, in the field of evolutionary biology?