Writing on his “Rationally Speaking” blog, internationally acclaimed evolutionary biologist turned philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has weighed in on a recent paper published by Addy Pross entitled “Toward a general theory of evolution: Extending Darwinian theory to inanimate matter.” What was of particular interest to me was Pigliucci’s comments on Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous statement that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” which originally formed the title of an essay (American Biology Teacher, v. 35, pp. 125-129).
As a biologist I’m much less intrigued by, and indeed tend to be somewhat guarded against, this sort of thing. Moreover, as a philosopher I simply don’t buy Dan Dennett’s idea that “Darwinism” (which of course is not a scientific theory, but an ideological-philosophical position) is a “universal acid,” as expressed most famously in his eminently readable Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.
Perhaps the trouble started with Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the fathers of modern evolutionary theory, who famously said that nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution (the phrase is, in fact, approvingly quoted by Pross). Problem is, Dobzhansky was writing for an audience of science high school teachers, and his statement is patently wrong, as an even cursory examination of the history of biology makes clear. For instance, developmental biologists had done a lot of highly fruitful research throughout the 19th and 20th centuries even as they ignored Darwin. And molecular biologists made spectacular progress from the 1950s though the onset of the 21st century, again pretty much completing [sic] ignoring evolution. This is not to say that evolutionary theory doesn’t help in understanding developmental and molecular systems, but it is a stretch of the record to make claims such as those of Dobzhansky. (It would be like saying, for instance, that nothing makes sense in physics except in the light of quantum mechanics. Plenty of things in physics make perfect sense even as one brackets quantum mechanics and considers it a background theory.) [emphasis added]
This is a point that has been made repeatedly by Darwin critics and proponents of ID, on this blog and elsewhere. The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (and even common descent itself) has very little heuristic value or practical application when it comes to most fields of biology. As Massimo Pigliucci himself affirms, the claim that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is “patently wrong.”