Jerry Coyne has a review of the new book The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life, by David Mindell, in the current issue of Nature. The ID folks are crowing over this remark:
To some extent these excesses are not Mindell’s fault, for, 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. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of ‘like begets like’. Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.
Of course, for some reason they fail to mention Coyne’s next paragraph:
As far as I know, there have been only two genuine commercial applications of evolutionary theory. One is the use of ‘directed evolution’ to produce commercial products (such as enzymes to protect crop plants from herbicides). The other is the clever use of insecticide-free ‘pest refuges’ to stop herbivorous insects evolving resistance to herbicides containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins, a strategy derived from principles of population genetics. There will certainly be more of these to come. And evolutionary algorithms are used in designing computer programs, and may have uses in engineering and economics.
I agree with Coyne’s basic premise here. Studying evolution is not something you do in the hopes of achieving great practical or commercial benefits. But then, most scientific research is not undertaken with specific commerical applications in mind.
Howerver, I think Coyne has also overlooked something important. He seems to be considering only instances where evoluitionary theory has led directly to practical benefits. But this overlooks instances were evolution has indirectly led to important progress
The most obvious example is in genetics. As Ernst Mayr has written about at length, prior to Darwin people viewed variation within a species as a distraction from the Platonic essence the species was thought to represent. Consequently, the nature of variation, and the nature of heredity generally, were not viewed as important questions. Darwin changed all that. Testing Darwin’s theories required a solid understanding of heredity, and I would say we are all reaping the benefits of that change in focus.
Of course, the main reason for trying to unravel the course of natural history, just as with human history, is that any marginally curious person has to wonder how we got here. It is hard to imagine that a proper understanding of evolution would not have an effect on how you view the world. Indeed, that is precisely why the subject arouses such passion.