Evolution

Larry Arnhart, an honest evolutionist, gives us this:

Oddly enough, it really is true that many biologists have no great interest in evolution, and they certainly don’t see evolution as a bridge across all of the intellectual disciplines.

This point comes up in the first issue of the EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium. One of the articles is by Neil Blackstone. Neil is a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University. He’s an evolutionary biologist in the biology department. We have team-taught a course on evolutionary topics that is cross-listed in the political science and biology departments. He has complained to me that his fellow biologists often show little interest in evolutionary reasoning.

Why don’t more biologists believe that evolution is important for their research? Have they been bought off by the creationist Illuminati? Blackstone notes the following:

As one of the most cited scientific journals in the world, the contents of Science thus provide an excellent barometer for the role of evolutionary theory in modern biology. Certainly, first inspection of this celebration of Darwin suggests a large role: the cover, the editorial, book reviews, and a special section of scientific reviews all suggest a congratulatory “Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin.” Closer examination, however, reveals that the articles focusing on evolution primarily deal with only a limited range of the biological hierarchy—particularly organisms and genes. Here as elsewhere, articles that describe the intricate workings of molecular cell biology rarely mention evolution. Two explanations are possible: either evolutionary theory has no relevance to molecular cell biology, or this relevance is being ignored.

Blackstone goes on to survey recent research in a particular area of molecular biology, concluding as follows:

All of this groundbreaking work on STAT3 was apparently carried out and reported without any reference to the evolutionary history of eukaryotic cells. One might surmise from reading this literature that such an evolutionary view could not possibly add any insight to the still on-going investigation of the curious case of STAT3.

Then Blackstone presents his argument for why evolutionary theory should be considered in this area of research. However, he only gives an outline for how to think about the issue, rather than a research program, noting that his objective was “merely to point out that there is a robust evolutionary context for the molecular crosstalk between modern mitochondria and the cell nucleus.” Too bad all the folks doing the actual research never figured this out. Blackstone is quite frustrated by their ignorance and insensitivity, so he whines:

Rather than being ignored by molecular cell biology, this context can and should be the starting point of any investigation.

It should be, we learn, not because the other approach was unsuccessful, but just because it is really mean to ignore evolutionary theory. This is apparently a common complaint:

Biology departments are often divided (e.g., ecology and evolutionary biology [EEB] and molecular cell biology [MCB]). Members of EEB and MCB typically apply for support to different funding agencies, publish in different journals, and teach different courses. Evolutionary biology is typically taught by EEB faculty, and such a course tends to reflect evolutionary research, i.e., organisms and genes. Most other biology courses might never mention the possibility of using evolutionary theory as a predictive tool to explore the particular subject matter.

Huh! Imagine that! Science professors who don’t think they should waste time teaching their students about evolution, since they don’t believe it has predictive value! How do evolutionists address this issue?

Our unique cognitive abilities are an “emergent acquisition based on the history of brain evolution, but not predicted by that history,” says Ian Tattersall. What a delicate history it is; littered with accidents, defined by contingencies. [Existential vertigo over human origins]

As I wrote previously, the practical inadequacy of evolutionary theory has long been known at medical schools, where evolution is rarely taught:

Perhaps part of the problem in convincing medical practitioners to embrace evolution is the nature of the science. Evolutionary hypotheses about human physiology are notoriously hard to investigate, given humans’ long generation times.

Add to this the fact that the field has failed so far to provide clinically useful findings and you see why medical schools lack interest, says Lewis. “There is much about explanation and understanding but little about treating and curing,” he says.

And most biology educators have not traditionally had much use for evolutionary theory:

What do biochemistry, developmental biology, molecular biology, and neurobiology have in common? Evolutionary concepts related to these topics have not traditionally played a prominent role in an educator’s toolbox. But that needn’t be the case any longer. In October 2008, four prominent scientists presented examples from current research that can help educators incorporate evolutionary theory into each of these biological subdisciplines. [Illuminating Biology: An Evolutionary Perspective]

Yet, Blackstone goes on to criticize molecular cell biology for lacking “predictive direction,” even while he admits that it has (without any help from evolutionary theory) had “many outstanding successes.”

Blackstone finishes up with this astounding admission about the unscientific approach of evolutionary theory:

Ultimately, a complete evolutionary synthesis will balance the value of both holistic evolutionary thinking and reductionist molecular approaches.

Darn those reductionists! They’re always so focused on observable “empirical results” and analytical methods, always trying to “understand” things!

Is this part of a creationist plot to entice scientists to focus on definable, specific, material causes instead of doing holistic thinking?

Blackstone is merely echoing part of the editorial statement for the EvoS Journal:

Another important objective of EvoS Journal is to provide an outlet for poetry, fiction, photographs, graphic art, cartoons, music, videos and other arts productions inspired by evolution. A strong argument can be made that evolution will never become accepted by the general public until it is communicated in ways that go beyond dry intellectual discourse. While we’re at it, even intellectuals should go beyond dry intellectual discourse in their exploration and celebration of evolutionary themes!

Oh my, it’s a celebration of evolutionary themes! Who knew that the observance  of Darwin’s birthday could lead to such exciting cultural expressions of piety and rapture!

The ‘man’ effigy is the centre of the festival, both figuratively and literally. This year, the 12-metre human shape hovered over a thorny forest — a tangled bank — atop a giant double helix. The DNA molecule provided a powerful artistic meme, representing both life’s capacity to evolve through genetics, and perhaps something that needs to be overcome through non-genetic evolutionary paths. Viewed from a different angle, the man seemed to float above a field of sea lilies, placing this celebration of human consciousness in an ancient evolutionary context.

The most striking image at this year’s Burning Man, expressed in various ways across the city, was the famous “ascent of man” progression from great ape through to modern human, with the Burning Man icon representing the next step. This sequence resonated with the advance in human culture realized in Burning Man. One vision was the Fishbug, Chimera sententia, a creature rising out of the playa with an arthropod tail, amphibian body, mammalian trunk and oversized primate brain.

Well, there was another time when evolutionists were very excited about cultural expressions of evolutionary theory and they went far beyond dry intellectual discourse in their attempts to communicate with the general public. How did that work out?

It was obvious to everyone in Darwin’s day that, if true, his theory would have momentous consequences for our understanding of humanity. Yet, by the early 20th century, evolutionary theory was largely restricted to the biological sciences and avoided for most human-related subjects. The use of evolutionary theory to justify social inequality, which became labeled Social Darwinism, was part of the problem (Dickens, 2000). Another problem was the allure of minimalistic theories, such as behaviorism in psychology (Lemov, 2005). As a result of this legacy, it is possible and even likely that college students in human-related subjects will not receive any evolutionary training whatsoever during their higher education.

So, the whole Social Darwinism experiment was a public relations disaster, even though it was wildly popular with liberals and Nazis in the twentieth century.  Behaviorism never really caught on with anyone who had a moral conscience, and will probably be remembered mostly as the theoretical background for A Clockwork Orange. The key is to identify some popular superstitions and show how they are supported by evolutionary “science.” This is the method of evolutionary psychology.

The other article cited by Arnhart describes the trials of some young evolutionary psychologists. One, Aaron Goetz, had long had a “passion for evolution.” Unfortunately, he didn’t like science:

Evolution grabbed my interest in high school, but the “particulate” nature of most of the biology courses I had taken discouraged me from pursuing evolutionary biology. I was (and still am) fascinated by whole organism biology and absorbed in macroevolution but turned off when zooming in to the cellular level. Golgi bodies and ATP transport systems (whatever those are) never excited me.

All those big words are scary! But salvation awaited Goetz from a predictably nonscientific  source:

In the summer of 1999, I borrowed from the bookshelf of my friend’s grandparents a copy of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. While reading about skyhooks, cranes, and natural selection as universal acid, I was introduced to EP. It immediately made sense to me.

Another EP convert was Sarah Hill. She assumed early on that all scientific inquiry was tied to evolution, and so was shocked to find out that some academics are not convinced:

I quickly came to the painful realization that cultural anthropology is not the study of the evolutionary foundations of cultural variation. In fact, the mere mention of “evolution” or “biology” was met with hostility and suspicion by my fellow graduate students and professors. I was accused of being racist, misogynist, and nothing more than another fool brainwashed by the patriarchy. This experience can be neatly summarized in the succinct reply given to me by my advisor to a teary-eyed inquiry about why others were responding to me the way that they were in class. He said “But, Sarah, those are all just-so stories.” I was devastated.

What’s going on here? More crypto-creationists, even in the hallowed halls of liberal academia? What a massive conspiracy against The One True Faith!

Karol Osipowicz was also blindsided:

I decided to pursue a graduate degree in neuroscience, a field based in biology, where I assumed evolutionary theory is rigorously adhered to. Unfortunately, even though most of my colleagues are well versed in Darwin, Dawkins, etc. and happy to apply the principles of evolution to any biological problem, most of them still refuse to apply it to cognition.

Steven Platek encountered even more prejudice from real scientists:

While I initially was enthused about working in a biology department, I soon came to realize (to my surprise) that many biologists do not accept the tenets of an evolutionary psychology. It was an eye opener for me.

The sufferings of the EP crowd are summed up as follows:

Common in each of our accounts is some experience with others’ hostility toward EP. Whether coming from a colleague, a reviewer, or student, those who take an evolutionary perspective will likely experience hostility, sometimes spilling into belligerence. Space limits us from articulating and responding to all of the sources of this hostility (see Confer et al., 2009 for a full discussion), so we will just mention one general source here. EP is truly iconoclastic.

They’re just rebels challenging the entrenched powers of creationism, which are bafflingly disguised as liberal humanities departments and experimental science departments. However, there is hope for their salvation:

The illumination of evolutionary theory will foster growth in those who seek the light, as well as attract those who fumble like moths against brilliance beyond their comprehension.

Seek the light, even as some fumble like moths against brilliance beyond their comprehension! Oh rapture! Oh joy! Oh Darwin! Gaia is calling you to a life of superstitious worship and piety:

Gaia calls to you!

Any “Christian” who is afraid of the Earth, Cosmos, Nature, and Life goddesses is definitely a loser.

If only we could extend evolutionary reasoning across all areas of biology, maybe then we could start making advances in biotechnology. We could stumble forth from the dark ages of the twentieth century, that sad legacy of stagnation in technological and scientific progress. All this time, since the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws and the development of genetics in the twentieth century, we could have been making wondrous advances in genomics, bioengineering, bioinformatics, gene splicing, genetically modified crops, molecular biology, medical science, and numerous other life sciences, if only more biologists had believed really really hard in evolutionary theory and sprinkled lots of fairy dust on their lab coats.

Advertisements

Instigate some pointless rambling

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s