Via Gene Expression I came across this post, at the Discovery Institute’s blog, from erstwhile ID lackey Casey Luskin. It’s title: Mathematicians and Evolution. Hmmmm. Sounds like something I should read.
As recently highlighted here, mathematics is an academic locale where scientific skepticism of Neo-Darwinism can survive the current political climate! Discovery Institute recently received an e-mail from someone commenting on the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List where over 600 Ph.D. scientists from various fields agree that they are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” This skeptic of evolutionary-skepticism e-mailer wrote “I’m a mathematician and certainly am NOT qualified to support such a statement. Only evolutionary biologists are qualified to respond here.” While the Dissent from Darwinism list does contain individuals trained in evolutionary biology, the question remains “Is the objection valid?”
See the original for links.
I will consider Luskin’s reply in Part Two. First, here is my answer to the question.
The Discovery Institute’s list of scientist’s skeptical of “Darwinism” is entirely an argument from authority. The criterion for placing your name on their list is that you hold a PhD in some branch of science. When reading the names on the list we are meant to say, “Gosh! This fellow says Darwinism is suspect, and he has a PhD in mathematics (or physics, or engineering, or some other branch of science other than biology).”
In that context, the criticism raised by Luskin’s e-mailer is entirely valid. There is absolutely nothing in a mathematician’s training or professional work that qualifies him to discuss evolution. Unless you are one of the very small percentage of mathematicians who actually work in mathematical biology, evolution is not something that ever arises in your graduate school courses or in your professional research. A PhD in mathematics by itself is, therefore, no more of a qualification than a degree in English for speaking intelligently about biology. Anyone perusing the DI’s list would be right to sneer at the large number of signatories with no training in biology.
But that doesn’t mean that a mathematician (or any non-biologist) is therefore forever excluded from discussing biology. It means simply that their professional training gives them no authority for doing so. Whether you should accord any weight to their pronouncements depends entirely on the specific arguments they make in defense of their views.
In my own case, my interest in evolution began as a fourth-year graduate student in mathematics, after reading a pro-creationist op-ed in the Dartmouth student newspaper. At that time I knew next to nothing about evolution (or any of its allied fields like paleontology or genetics). Having decided I wanted to learn more about the subject, I went to the library and picked up a book of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays. Why Gould? Because he was the only contemporary evolutionary biologist I knew about. When I started I had no idea that anything he said was controversial.
Over the next several years I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on (and since I have had access to several excellent university science libraries, that’s a considerable amount of material indeed). I started with the standard popular-level literature by people like Gould, Dawkins, Ruse, Wilson, Maynard Smith and countless other less famous people. From there I started working my way through the textbooks on the subject, notably the ones by Futuyma and Ridley. Eventually I worked my out to the periphery and learned about population genetics and geology. I finally got to the point where I could read actual research papers in evolutionary biology and generally get the gist of what they were saying. I also started participating in various e-mail discussion groups where I could discuss these issues with professional biologists. I spoke to my colleagues in the relevant departments at the various universities I worked at.
During this time I also devoured every scrap of creationist and ID literature I could get my hands on. Initially I was impressed by some of it. For example, I didn’t know enough about thermodynamics at that time to give a solid refutation of the second law argument, and I didn’t know enough paleontology to refute their claims about the lack of transitional forms. But after going back and forth for a while, reading creationist arguments and the responses from scientists, it quickly became clear that the creationists didn’t have the faintest idea what they were talking about.
It is now several years later. Despite the extensive amount of work I have done to educate myself about matters biological, the only claim I make on behalf of my expertise in the area is that I know enough to see why the creationist and ID arguments are utterly wrong. But when I read, say, P. Z. Myers, I am immediately reminded of how little I actually know about the subject. Through my hard work in this area, however, I have gained an appreciation of just how much evidence there actually is for evolution, and of just what a pathetic, ridiculous caricature of it you get from the ID folks. Even the large body of popular-level, pro-evolution literature barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. I have also gained a healthy contempt for the ignorant hacks who feel no shame in pontificating on subjects they don’t know the first thing about. By which I mean virtually all of the prominent ID advocates and bloggers.
The DI’s list is a propaganda stunt pure and simple. It is a club they use to browbeat the scientifically ignorant. They know that when they shamelessly claim that over 600 scientists have signed their vague, meaningless petition, most people are not going to make distinctions between biologists and non-biologists. They know that almost no one will take note of the fact that a large number of the signatories do not work in any branch of the life sciences, or were not active in their fields after obtaining a PhD, or do not have any sympathy for ID despite their naivete in lending their names to the list.
In fact, lists like this are one of the reasons ID folks find almost no knowledgeable people willing to take them seriously. You see, a serious scientist takes one look at the list and knows immediately that ID is a political and religious movement. Scientists promoting controversial views do not rely on blatant PR stunts in making their case.