An Occasion to Recall Philip Skell's Classic Deconstruction Job on Darwinian Overenthusiasm
Writing at Slate the other day, astronomer Phil Plait got a bit carried away by enthusiasm for Darwinism as the basis for...well, let him tell it:
Evolution is the basis for all modern biology. It is the central tenet, the organizing theme, the trunk from which all branches grow. It has changed considerably since the early days when Darwin (and his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace) first proposed the idea that species change over time*. They didn't even have an idea behind the mechanism for it at the time, but that came eventually. We now have a far better understanding of genetics, and how random mutations can lead to gradual change for adaptation.Plait should go back and have a look at National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell's classic article in The Scientist, "Why Do We Invoke Darwin?," in which he poured some needed gallons of cold water on this idea:
For biology, Darwin is the founder in much the same way Newton or Galileo was for physics. Things have changed, improved, but the root idea is still there, and has grown -- you might even say evolved -- since.
[T]he 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. "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one."Go read the rest. The late Dr. Philip Skell was Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Phil Plait is a self-employed astronomer and blogger. Who are you going to believe?
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.