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Recant! Pushing Creeds as Damage Control for Darwin (Update)

Biologist Thomas H. Huxley, the great defender of Darwin, once famously warned that “Science commits suicide when she adopts a creed.” Unfortunately, not all modern evolutionary biologists respect such wisdom.

Consider a January, 2011 op-ed at Christian Science Monitor by Steve Newton of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Mr. Newton boasts that biologist Eugene V. Koonin agrees with the famous Darwinian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who once declared, “Nothing biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

But what they have really done is put Dobzhansky’s creed before the evidence.

Newton charges that I misrepresented Koonin in my own December, 2010 op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor by quoting a scientific paper by Koonin where he challenged the sufficiency of natural selection and the tree of life hypothesis.

It’s usually a simple task to allege a quotemine. In the case of Steve Newton, all it took was calling up Koonin and saying something like, “Discovery Institute is quoting you as saying there are problems with ‘evolution.’ Do you agree with them or do you agree with us and Dobzhansky?” Of course I never claimed that Koonin denied “evolution,” but the good Dr. Koonin, who is a materialist and an evolutionist, replies “no,” and Newton gets to publish an op-ed suggesting that not only are his opponents wrong, but they’re immoral. It’s Darwin lobbyist nirvana.

What we’re actually witnessing is damage control.

A similar incident occurred recently when Forbes.com blogger John Farrell contacted Dartmouth biologist Mark McPeek to elicit a statement in response to me that his paper “does not make an ID argument for the Cambrian Explosion.” Farrell did not recognize that I had never claimed that McPeek’s paper argues for ID. But my original commentary did note that McPeek and his co-authors “give a witty nod to some observations and arguments made by ID proponents.” This seems pretty accurate in light of the paper’s comments about the Cambrian fossil record:

[A]s explained on an intelligent-design t-shirt.

Fact: Forty phyla of complex animals suddenly appear in the fossil record, no forerunners, no transitional forms leading to them; ”a major mystery,” a ”challenge.” The Theory of Evolution — exploded again (idofcourse.com).

Although we would dispute the numbers, and aside from the last line, there is not much here that we would disagree with. Indeed, many of Darwin’s contemporaries shared these sentiments, and we assume — if Victorian fashion dictated — that they would have worn this same t-shirt with pride.

(Kevin J. Peterson, Michael R. Dietrich and Mark A. McPeek, “MicroRNAs and metazoan macroevolution: insights into canalization, complexity, and the Cambrian explosion,” BioEssays, Vol. 31(7):736 (2009).)

The paper goes on to offer a very weak and inadequate materialistic explanation for the Cambrian explosion, but as soon as an ID proponent observes McPeek’s statement, we get castigated for allegedly misrepresenting the paper.

Getting back to Eugene Koonin, Steve Newtwon’s case for quote-mining equivocates over the meaning of “evolution.” The term “evolution” is generally in the scientific community to refer to three different concepts:

(1) Change over time
(2) A grand tree of life
(3) Natural selection acting on random mutations as primary driving force of adaptive change

Like virtually all scientists, I accept evolution #1, and was not intending to challenge it in my op-ed. When quoting Koonin, I correctly noted that his technical paper showed problems with what Koonin, in his own words, called the “traditional concept of the tree of life” and “natural selection is the main driving force of evolution.” According to Koonin’s technical paper, these “major tenets of the modern synthesis have been, if not outright overturned, replaced by a new and incomparably more complex vision of the key aspects of evolution.”

Putting Creeds Before the Evidence
When writing in technical journals, evolutionary biologists like McPeek or Koonin admit stark problems with neo-Darwinian evolution–i.e.:

“elucidating the materialistic basis of the Cambrian explosion has become more elusive, not less, the more we know about the event itself, and cannot be explained away by coupling extinction of intermediates with long stretches of geologic time, despite the contrary claims of some modern neo-Darwinists” (McPeek)

“The edifice of the modern synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair” (Koonin)

But when their criticisms are cited by a proponent of intelligent design, they quickly toe the materialist party line, designed to reassure the masses that the paradigm has everything in order. Thus, when called upon by the NCSE to publicly defend the paradigm, Koonin eagerly endorses Dobzhansky’s creed. As Newton eagerly boasted:

As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said – and as Eugene Koonin explicitly agreed – “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Since when do creeds take precedence over the evidence?

None of this, however, changes the fact that Koonin, McPeek, and many other scientists are writing technical papers stating that the neo-Darwinian model is flawed at its very core. Koonin undoubtedly believes Dobzhansky’s statement is true, but I doubt he would say “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of neo-Darwinism.” Why, then, must this model be taught to students as unadulterated fact?

Political Pressure, Not Conspiracy
None of this intends to suggest that evolutionary scientists are in on some conspiracy to hide problems with their evolutionary paradigm from the public. Hardly. What I am suggesting is that the public packaging of Darwinian theory has become intensely political, and that would-be critics face certain pressures.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what evolutionists themselves are saying.

Consider the words of philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in their book What Darwin Got Wrong:

We’ve been told by more than one of our colleagues that, even if Darwin was substantially wrong to claim that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, nonetheless we shouldn’t say so. Not, anyhow, in public. To do that is, however inadvertently, to align oneself with the Forces of Darkness, whose goal is to bring Science into disrepute.

(Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, p. xx (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

Likewise, theoretical biologist Günter Theißen wrote in Theory in Biosciences:

It is dangerous to raise attention to the fact that there is no satisfying explanation for macroevolution. One easily becomes a target of orthodox evolutionary biology and a false friend of proponents of non-scientific concepts.

(Günter Theißen, “The Proper Place of Hopeful Monsters in Evolutionary Biology,” Theory in Biosciences, Vol. 124: 349-369 (2006).)

Again, philosopher and biologist John Dupré writes in American Scientist:

The enduring debates with creationists have also undoubtedly tended to discourage admission that major conceptual issues about evolution remain unresolved.

(John Dupré, “The Conditions for Existence,” American Scientist)

Such words are not harbingers of some kind of a mass conspiracy to hide problems with evolution from the public. No such conspiracy exists. But they do show evidence of the hyper-political nature of this debate, where scientists feel political pressure to avoid lending credence to those they call “creationists.”

Now we understand why McPeek and Koonin are so quick to disavow any problems with “evolution” when their strong criticisms of neo-Darwinism in the technical literature are brought to light.

While phone calls from Steve Newton might have worked on Koonin, in the cases of Fodor, Piattelli-Palmarini, and Thie?en, such phone calls would fail. They are not willing to let the paradigm take precedence over the evidence.

If these respected academics are discouraged from criticizing Darwin, there seems no doubt that public school teachers need the protections of academic freedom legislation to allow intellectual objectivity in the science classroom.

Update: Larry Moran has responded to this post by calling me an “IDiot” somewhere around 5 or 6 times. Not bad for a post that was only 300 words! But he doesn’t explain why neo-Darwinism is taught as unadulterated fact when it’s being questioned by many leading scientists. Instead, Dr. Moran prefers to just call names. Sounds like more damage control to me.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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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