Is Darwin's Theory Essential to . . . Mathematical Statistics? - Evolution News & Views

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Is Darwin's Theory Essential to . . . Mathematical Statistics?

My Darwinist interlocutor Orac, the surgical oncologist who blogs anonymously to hide his professional identity, but who takes umbrage at my observation that his posts are sometimes unprofessional, repeated his claim recently that Darwin's theory is essential to medicine. That's an odd assertion, even at first glance, given that Darwin's theory isn't taught in medical school and there are no specific requirements that pre-medical students have any grounding in the theory. There are lots of things that medical school admissions and curriculum committees recognize as indispensable to medical practice and research--calculus, physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology and pathophysiology, to name a few--but Darwin's fundamental assertion--that all natural functional biological complexity arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection--isn't a part of the required curriculum. How can Darwin's actual theory of the non-purposeful origin of all life be indispensable to medicine, but not taught as a part of medical education, nor even required as a part of pre-medical education?

Yet Darwinists have insisted that Darwin's theory is indispensable to medicine in three ways:

  • 1) It is indispensable for our understanding of comparative medicine, which is the study of the similarity between humans and other species.
  • 2) It is essential to genetics
  • 3) It is indispensable to our understanding of population biology, particularly as regards bacterial resistance to antibiotics and the growth of cancer cells

As I have pointed out in several previous posts, the first two claims are nonsense. Darwin's theory isn't the basis for comparative medicine. Comparative medicine antedates Darwin by several millennia. Aristotle developed a system of comparative biology, and Galen, the father of classical medicine before the Enlightenment, used the principles of comparative biology in his dissection of Barbary apes and other animals as the basis for his system of human anatomy. The pioneers in seventeenth and eighteenth century anatomy and physiology, such as William Harvey and William Hunter, based nearly all of their research on extrapolation from animal to human biology, which of course is comparative biology. The father of modern comparative biology--the modern system of classification of species--was Carol Linnaeus, who worked a century before Darwin was born. Most of biological science before Darwin was comparative biology. Darwin offered one particular explanation for the similarities and differences between species, but the similarities and differences were known centuries before he lived. Darwin's theory depends on our understanding of species similarity (and differences), but the converse is not true. Our knowledge of these similarities and differences doesn't depend on Darwin's theory. Comparative medicine depends on the actual study of human and non-human biology, not theories as to how these similarities came about. Darwin's theory depends on the data, but the data for species similarity and differences is independent of Darwin's theory. And it is the data, not the conjecture, that is essential to modern comparative medicine.

Neither does our knowledge of genetics depend on Darwin's theory of non-teleological variation and natural selection. Our knowledge of genetics depends on physics, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, etc. The proposal that biological complexity is non-teleological, which is the cornerstone of Darwin's theory, contributes nothing to the study of genetics. In fact, by definition, virtually all experimental research in genetics involves genetic engineering (design) and artificial selection in the laboratory, both of which are quite purposeful and thus are examples of breeding, not of Darwinian evolution. Advocates for Darwin's theory of course use modern genetics in their work, but the converse is not true. Molecular geneticists gain little or nothing from the assertion that all biological complexity arose by "chance and necessity." Genetic engineering, which is the real basis for most of our progress in molecular genetics, is, in a very real sense, the antithesis of Darwin's theory.

Orac's assertion that Darwin's theory is essential to the understanding of bacterial antibiotic resistance and cancer growth is a bit more subtle, but is no less nonsense than the first two. Darwin's theory has been applied to bacterial antibiotic resistance and cancer growth in two ways:

  • 1) Darwin's theory asserts that in a population of cells the traits of surviving bacteria (or cancer cells) will eventually be more common than the traits of non-surviving cells. Colloquially, "survivors will eventually outnumber non-survivors." This trivial observation is obvious--it's essentially a tautology--and Darwin's exposition of this tautology is of no use to physicians or to medical researchers. It's like claiming that the observation that "heat is hot" is indispensable to physicists studying thermodynamics.
  • 2) The growth of bacteria and cancer cells can be modeled with mathematical techniques, most prominently, statistical methods and the application of non-linear dynamics (such as Van der Pol oscillations, which can also be used to explain several important phenomena ranging from insect infestations to irregular heartbeats and activity in neural networks). Indeed, several of the pioneers of the application of mathematical statistics to biology, such as Galton, Pearson, and Fisher, were Darwinists. But, obviously, the application of mathematical techniques to biology doesn't depend on Darwin's theory of the non-purposeful origin of all biological complexity. The techniques of mathematical statistics can be applied to many things--economics, sociology, psychology--that are obviously studies of purposeful variation and have nothing to do with Darwin's theory. Modern iterations of Darwin's theory certainly make use of mathematics. Yet mathematics, applied to biology, doesn't depend at all on Darwin's theory. The mathematical methods applied to biology, and spuriously credited to Darwin's theory, are routinely applied to designed systems and owe nothing to Darwin's actual theory. Darwin himself used no mathematics, and his theory contributes nothing to our mathematical understanding of biological systems. Mathematics is the source of our mathematical understanding of biology.

Orac misunderstands the genuinely inconsequential role of Darwin's theory of chance and necessity in medicine. Mathematical methods are certainly important in medicine, but Darwin's theory that all life arose without design contributes nothing to the mathematical methods actually used in research. And Darwinian tautologies (e.g., "unkilled bacterial eventually outnumber killed bacteria") are of no real value to researchers or to practicing physicians.

So I ask Orac: give me the specific examples of medical practices or advances in medical research in which Darwin's fundamental assertion--that all natural functional biological complexity arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection--has played an essential role, or any role.