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Giving Thanks for Dr. Philip Skell


This past Sunday, science lost a bold and courageous voice for objectivity with the passing of Dr. Philip Skell. A member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) since 1977, “Phil” was Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and his research included work on reactive intermediates in chemistry such as carbene molecules, free-atom reactions, and reactions of free carbonium ions. A 1997 article in the journal Pure and Applied Chemistry described some of Skell’s significant scientific contributions as follows:

Another class of intermediates, containing divalent carbon atoms, were suggested by John Nef early in this century but his ideas were generally rejected. However, the concept was revived with vigor when Philip Skell showed that: CCl,, dichlorocarbone, was formed as a reaction intermediate. Carbene chemistry almost immediately became the subject of extensive physical organic research.

Penn State University describes Skell’s research thusly:

Philip S. Skell, sometimes called “the father of carbene chemistry,” is widely known for the “Skell Rule,” which was first applied to carbenes, the “fleeting species” of carbon. The rule, which predicts the most probable pathway through which certain chemical compounds will be formed, found use throughout the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

Later in his career, Phil became a skeptic of neo-Darwinian evolution. His main position was that Darwinism does not serve as the cornerstone of biological thought that many claim it does. In 2007, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Skell and doing three interviews with him for Discovery Institute’s ID the Future Podcast.

In the first interview, Skell explained that the NAS is an “exclusive club,” and that the election of NAS scientists is a generally secret process; the reasons for electing scientists are not always disclosed even to those who are elected. He speculated, however, that it was his research on carbene that got him elected. In this podcast, he maintained that many NAS members have a “bias in favor of” evolution–a bias he shared until he read the writings of fellow chemist Michael Polanyi.

In the second podcast, Skell elaborated on how Polanyi’s work influenced his own thinking. After reading Polanyi, Skell asked himself whether Darwinian evolution was truly vital to his own research developing antibiotic drugs. Skell then queried other bioscience researchers and learned that they too had made no reliance upon Darwinian evolution in their work. This led Skell to investigate the history of Nobel Prize awards, and he could not find a single one where Darwinian evolution had directly dictated the research that led to the award.

In a 2005 article published in The Scientist, Skell reported this survey of his peers–more than 70 scientists in fact–on whether Darwin’s theory directed their research. According to Skell, “The responses were all the same: No.” In an eloquent statement that has been referenced many times since, Skell recounted that in many areas of biological research “Darwin’s theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.” He further elaborated:

[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? … Darwinian evolution – whatever its other virtues – does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology. This becomes especially clear when we compare it with a heuristic framework such as the atomic model, which opens up structural chemistry and leads to advances in the synthesis of a multitude of new molecules of practical benefit. None of this demonstrates that Darwinism is false. It does, however, mean that 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.

(Phil Skell, “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology,” The Scientist Vol. 19(16):10 (August 29, 2005).)

The article generated some spirited rebuttals, leading to a vigorous response from Skell:

One letter mentions directed molecular evolution as a technique to discover antibodies, enzymes and drugs. Like comparative biology, this has certainly been fruitful, but it is not an application of Darwinian evolution — it is the modern molecular equivalent of classical breeding. Long before Darwin, breeders used artificial selection to develop improved strains of crops and livestock. Darwin extrapolated this in an attempt to explain the origin of new species, but he did not invent the process of artificial selection itself.

Before dismissing Skell’s position, the reader must understand that Skell should know whether Darwinian evolution provides guidance for producing antibiotics: some of own his early research helped pioneer the widespread use of antibiotics during World War II.

Thus Skell was a rare voice in the NAS who was willing to dissent from the majority neo-Darwinian viewpoint. In 2008 the NAS published a booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, declaring that “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution,” and asserting that evolution by natural selection is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter” it. Skell published a rebuttal to the NAS’s booklet in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, explaining that it did not speak for all NAS members, and that the NAS was guilty of “overselling of the theory of evolution.” He continued:

The public should view with profound alarm the unnecessary and misguided reintroduction of speculative historical, philosophical, and religious ideas into the realms of experimental science, coming from various sources, including this current publication of the National Academy of Sciences. Are we perhaps setting the stage for a return to that earlier, worldview-bound, pre-modern type of science, only this time with the substitution of Scientism for the earlier worldviews?

(Philip Skell, “Review of National Academy of Sciences, Science, Evolution, and Creationism (Washington, D.C.: NAS Press, 2008),” Politics and the Life Sciences, Vol. 27(2);47-49 (October 9, 2008).)

Phil also got involved with defending objectivity and academic freedom in evolution-education. He encouraged a middle-of-the-road approach, avoiding extremes that would force religion or dumbed-down evolutionary dogmatism into the science classroom. Instead, in a 2005 letter to the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, he recommended:

Both these extremes are mistaken. Evolution is an important theory and students need to know about it. But scientific journals now document many scientific problems and criticisms of evolutionary theory and students need to know about these as well.

As a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Skell had personal inside access to the thought and behavior patterns of many top scientists. This makes it all the more striking that his 2005 letter maintained that the claim that there are no scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinian evolution is a bluff promoted to the public. He wrote:

Many of the scientific criticisms of which I speak are well known by scientists in various disciplines, including the disciplines of chemistry and biochemistry, in which I have done my work. I have found that some of my scientific colleagues are very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of problems with evolutionary theory to the general public. They display an almost religious zeal for a strictly Darwinian view of biological origins.

In a third podcast interview, Dr. Skell offered advice to a hypothetical young scientist who was skeptical of Darwinian evolution. Here, he urged great caution:

The academic community is incredibly intolerant of anyone not paying loyalty to Darwinian ideas, and have no hesitation in railroading such an individual out of the community, having them fired, and making life generally miserable for such a person. So for a young person to let his professors know that he might be skeptical of Darwinism … even such a mild disowning of the Darwinian point of view is considered so dangerous among many of the professional biologists that such a person is railroaded out of the profession. The best advice I can give them is until this climate changes … that a young prospective scientist in the biosciences keep that entirely to themselves and make it something which is not known to the academic structure on which they depend both for their education for their degrees and for recommendation to positions in the future.

Dr. Skell further explained that that climate of academic freedom has “deteriorated” over the course of his career, and that although it is “not an easy matter to judge,” he believed that it is “more dangerous today for anyone to be declared a Darwinian skeptic of whatever color than it has been in the past.”

In keeping with his commitment to academic freedom, in 2005 Skell put his name as the first signer on an amicus brief submitted to the court during the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial stating “[i]t is crucial that advocates of new scientific theories be granted freedom of inquiry to question reigning scientific ideas if scientific progress is to be possible.”

On this Thanksgiving, I personally am very thankful for having been given the opportunity to get to know Phil Skell a little over the past few years. He was a real gentleman, and had a great sense of humor, and a big smile. It’s my understanding that he was quite athletic until just a couple years ago.

Dr. Skell will always have my most profound respect as someone who was willing to risk an impeccable scientific reputation for the sake of seeking scientific truth, vocally defending it whatever the personal cost. I have no doubt he will be missed by many.

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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