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Francis Collins and the Overselling of Evolution

In two recent posts (here and here), I discussed the continuing misrepresentations of intelligent design by Francis Collins, whose confirmation as head of the National Institutes of Health in the Obama administration was announced on August 7.

Today I would like to shift the focus to Dr. Collins’ misrepresentation of evolutionary biology–or more precisely, to his misrepresentation of the scientific usefulness of evolution to biology. Collins has every right to endorse neo-Darwinian evolution if he wishes, but his view of evolution’s value to scientific research is pretty much over-the-top. In a recent interview, he claimed:

Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics.

There is no doubt that modern neo-Darwinian theory has had an important influence on biology, but Collins’ grandiose claim says more about the political nature of Darwin-advocacy than it does about evolution itself.

A number of leading scientists feel very differently from Collins. As National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell has written, the hyping of neo-Darwinism’s importance to science goes well beyond reality:

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. … Darwinian evolution — whatever its other virtues — does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology. … the claim that it is the cornerstone of modern experimental biology will be met with quiet skepticism from a growing number of scientists in fields where theories actually do serve as cornerstones for tangible breakthroughs.

(Philip Skell, “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology,” The Scientist (August 29, 2005).)

In another essay, Dr. Skell added that he had

queried biologists working in areas where one might have thought the Darwinian paradigm could guide research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I learned that the theory had provided no discernible guidance in choosing the experimental designs but was brought in, after the breakthrough discoveries, as an interesting narrative gloss.

(Philip Skell, Politics and the Life Sciences, Vol. 27(2):47-49 (October 9, 2008).

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne likewise admitted in Nature that “if truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say.”

When testifying before the Texas State Board of Education this past March, Dr. Ray Bohlin said the following when asked about the utility of evolution for biological research. He answered:

I’d be willing to say that virtually 90, 95% of all molecular and cell biology, which is where my Ph.D. is in, does not require evolution whatsoever.

Similarly, Don Ewert, who holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and has been a biology researcher for over 30 years (including 20 years at the Wistar Institute), was asked to “address the notion that very little in biology is testable except for in the light of evolution.” Ewert answered:

If you look at scientific textbooks and ask the question, if the theory of evolution were not in that textbook, what material would not make sense? And I would say that very little, if any, would not make sense. In fact, I think that anybody who learned the material apart from Darwin in those textbooks could go on to be successful scientists, veterinarians, and medical doctors. … I would say that there is very little that you cannot fully understand apart from the theory of evolution.

Clearly evolution is important to some research, but Collins’ claim that “[t]rying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics” says more about Collins’ hardline devotion to neo-Darwinism than it says about modern evolutionary biology itself. Fortunately, there remain highly credible scientists who do not feel the need to uphold Darwinism as the alpha and omega of biology.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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