Selling Evolution: Does 21st Century Biology Need It? - Evolution News & Views

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Selling Evolution: Does 21st Century Biology Need It?

21st-century biology needs evolution like a tire needs a nail, yet a panel of evolutionists wants to spread nails all over the road.

A panel of 15 evolutionists published an open-access paper in PLoS Biology, "Evolutionary Biology for the 21st Century," based on a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation. The group touted evolution as the ground and the power for just about everything in society, from ecology to criminal justice. Does this reflect reality? Does biology need evolution?

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously proclaimed that "nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution." Though Dobzhansky's statement is sometimes dismissed by biologists in other fields as self-promotion, recent advances in many areas of biology have shown it to be prophetic. For example, genomics, which emerged mostly from molecular biology, is now steeped in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary theory helps to explain our origins, our history, and how we function as organisms and interact with other life forms, all of which are crucial to understanding our future. Evolutionary approaches have helped reconstruct the history of human culture, including, for example, the history of human populations and languages. And the impact of evolutionary biology is extending further and further into biomedical research and nonbiological fields such as engineering, computer sciences, and even the criminal justice system. (Emphasis added.)
From that opening salvo, the sales pitch only increases in frenzy. Society simply can't survive without evolution. You pretty much need evolutionary biologists like you need air:
It's hard to overstate evolutionary biology's power to explain the living world and our place in it. Many applications of evolutionary theory and methods -- from animal and plant breeding to vaccine development to management of biological reserves and endangered species -- affect society and promote human well-being. Much human activity, however, is changing Earth's climate and habitats, with uncertain but potentially severe environmental stresses on many other species and the solutions to the many resulting problems may well require understanding evolutionary interactions among species and their mutual dependencies.

Our ability to apply evolutionary concepts to a wide range of problems has never been greater.

Since the journals won't do their job of presenting controversial issues in a balanced fashion, we'll offer some needed counterbalance. It's always wise to define your terms up front. By Darwinian evolution, we mean (and we presume they mean by their promotion of the phrase "natural selection") a blind, unguided, purposeless process, with natural selection serving as the designer substitute. We're not talking about mere variation or descent; design advocates span a range of views about species variability, up to and including universal common descent. It's evolution of the Darwinian kind that is really at issue: no purpose, no design, no plan: just aimless mechanical processes in an essentially material universe. Darwinian evolution includes the views of deists and theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins whose distant "designer" has no active role to play in the unfolding of nature.

For starters, realize that evolution is not the only game in town. The infomercial may work well in a vacuum, but let other contenders share the stage. Remember the U.S. presidential primary debates, when ten candidates tried to convince voters to nominate them? Suppose you only got to hear one of them. That's what's happening here. The evolution team gets to define the terms and speak from their talking points, with no debate and no criticism.

So is evolution really the only game in town? Philosophically, theories are always under-determined by data. There are probably ten, a hundred, perhaps an infinite number of theories that could explain human culture, language, genomics and all the other things the evolution team cited as explainable only by Darwinian evolution. Keep those alternatives in mind as we watch them sell their product.

We live in an exciting time for biology. Technological advances have made data collection easier and cheaper than we could ever have imagined just 10 years ago. We can now synthesize and analyze large data sets containing genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, and multivariate phenotypes. At the same time, society's need for the results of biological research has never been greater. Solutions to many of the world's most pressing problems--feeding a global population, coping with climate change, preserving ecosystems and biodiversity, curing and preventing genetically based diseases -- will rely heavily on biologists, collaborating across disciplines.
Here's where a good lawyer would holler, "Objection: Irrelevant." What's any of this got to do with evolution? Granted, biologists might have something informative to say on these issues, but why must they be evolutionary biologists? If you were able to hear the intelligent-design candidates behind the one-way glass, they might have a lot to say about ID's value in these questions.
The pervasive relevance of evolution can be seen in the 2009 report commissioned by the National Research Council of the National Academies, A New Biology for the 21st Century, which identified four broad challenges for biology: develop better crops to feed the world, understand and sustain ecosystem function and biodiversity in a changing world, expand sustainable alternative energy sources, and understand individual health. In each of these areas, the report noted, evolutionary concepts and analyses have played--and will continue to play -- an integral role.
In addition to another "Objection: Irrelevant," our lawyer hollers, "Objection: Mischaracterizes the evidence." What has evolutionary theory done for any of these four broad challenges? More to the point, what does evolutionary theory have to do with them? Every one of these categories could just as well be approached from a design perspective, if not better. History shows that agriculture, conservation, energy and health each began as scientific disciplines or were developed significantly by natural philosophers and scientists who believed in intelligent design: for example, Carver, Ray, Maxwell, and Lister. Progress began in the Middle Ages in fact. Darwin cannot arrive as the latecomer claiming now to play the leadership role.

The infomercial continues with more posturing about evolution's value for global feeding, biodiversity, sustainability, and more. The same criticisms apply. But get this: they actually promote evolution's value in health and law with the catch-phrases "evolutionary medicine" and "evolution and justice." Be very afraid when a Darwinist tells you he's there to help you on such matters. Medicine and justice are best left to people who believe in the exceptional value of human life and take a stand for true moral standards -- standards that do not evolve over time.

"It's hard to overstate evolutionary biology's power to explain the living world and our place in it," they say. It's hard, but they did it anyway. Then they look into their crystal balls to discuss "Emerging Research and Future Challenges in Evolutionary Biology." Here's where their admissions of ignorance on the most basic evolutionary matters is quite astonishing:

We can already point to certain broad areas of evolutionary biology that will likely demand sustained theoretical work. These include the elaboration of more formal theories for evolutionary developmental biology (e.g., analysis of gene network evolution and modification); the more complete incorporation of the roles of epigenetics, behavior, and plasticity in models of trait evolution; analysis of units of selection; and attempts to construct a quantitative and predictive theory that describes the genetic basis of adaptation.
Has it really been over 150 years and Darwinians are still trying to come to grips with some of these things? If evolutionary theory is not quantitative and predictive, is it science? Other admissions in the report could be multiplied: "We now can also ask if evolution matters for ecosystem functioning." "In addition to documenting biodiversity, more research is needed on the processes that produce this diversity." Or this -- wasn't Darwin's book entitled On the Origin of Species?
Understanding the diversification of species and the origin of adaptations poses a number of challenges for evolutionary biologists, including integration of the fossil record with diversification inferred from the relationships among contemporary species; determining the relationship between lineage and phenotypic diversification; understanding the factors that lead to the replacement of clades over time; understanding the occupancy of ecological niche space through evolutionary diversification, adaptive radiation, and extinction; and assessing the role that evolving species interactions play in diversification.
Lest we belabor the point, this sales team just undermined in the last half of their presentation all the overhyped claims in the first half. Epigenetics, lateral gene transfer, the fossil record -- all these and more they admitted pose "challenges for evolutionary biologists," deflating their self-proclaimed power to explain all things.

NewMagicianCover_RGBampsm.jpgThe whole paper is irrelevant, though, because of a larger matter: they left themselves exposed to C. S. Lewis's "dangerous idea," the Argument from Reason.

It's safe to assume that the evolutionists who wrote this paper really believe, in their heart of hearts, that their arguments are more than the human equivalent of monkey screeches. They believe evolution is true. They believe evolution is good for society. Such beliefs rest on two necessary supports: rationality and ethics.

C. S. Lewis said, "Unless human reasoning is valid, no science can be true." His argument from reason is explicated in detail in The Magician's Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism and Society. The argument is stated and defended by various authors. Here's how Jay Richards puts it in Chapter 8:

The purpose of the argument is to show that naturalism and reason are incompatible, that believing in naturalism is self-defeating. That is, if naturalism is true, then we ought not to trust our capacity for reason, and so, ought not to trust arguments in favor of naturalism.
Charles Darwin himself recognized this problem, as Richards quotes him writing to a friend the year before he died:
With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
The Magician's Twin deals with the comeback arguments of evolutionists, including "evolutionary epistemology" (the idea that natural selection favored rationality) and other attempts to evade the argument from reason. There's no escape: assume Darwinian evolution, abandon rationality. The same goes for ethics. Those two pillars of human thought have a necessary dependence on concepts that do not evolve. To think otherwise, as Lewis quipped, "does not rise even to the dignity of error."

The paper in PNAS, thus imploded, actually becomes a back-handed commercial for intelligent design. These 15 Darwinian evolutionists just showed themselves to be unwitting advocates of rationality and ethics that are simply unsupportable in any naturalistic, Darwinian world.