Mike the Mad Biologist

While I’m away, here’s something from the depths of the Mad Biologist’s Archives:

By way of ScienceBlogling Razib, I came across this Reason article by Ronald Bailey summarizing the presidential candidates views’ on evolution. Bailey highlights two reasons what lack of support for evolution says about a candidate:

  1. The candidate probably is weak on the separation of church and state.
  2. The candidate is unable to rationally assess evidence.

But I think this misses the point entirely: evolution matters because evolutionary biology matters.

Granted this sounds like something Yogi Berra would say, but I’m tired of the Coalition of the Sane, regardless of where individual members fall on the political spectrum, selling the importance of evolutionary biology short. Before get to that point, let me ask a question:

Did you really need to learn Huckabee’s views on evolution to realize that he is a nutty bonkers theocrat who lacks analytical skills?

Really? What, the wifely submission crap or the freeing of rapist Wayne Dumond because he thought Dumond was framed by Bill Clinton, didn’t convince you? His views on evolution opened your eyes?

Essentially, Bailey’s argument is just a slightly different permutation of the ‘critical thinking skills’ argument. But the case for evolution is much, much stronger than that.

When I’m not fighting the nefarious forces of evil as Mike the Mad Biologist, I work at one of the largest genome sequencing centers in the world (perhaps the largest, depending on how one measures these things). It is truly a technological marvel. The sequencing facility (aka “The Factory”) is, well, a massive factory-like facility with hundreds of people: DNA comes in and terabases (literally) of sequence pour out to address problems in human health and infectious disease.

And without evolutionary biology, nothing we do makes sense.

We are in the process of constructing the world’s largest SNP library to find the genetic underpinnings of Crohn’s disease, schizophrenia, and other diseases. But without the tools of population genetics, we simply could not do this. If there is a genetic component for any number of diseases, we will only find it with the theoretical edifice of population genetics, which is the cornerstone of modern evolutionary biology.

On ‘my side of the street’, infectious disease, we are using population genetics and phylogenetics to figure out how drug resistant TB evolves, to identify targets for malarial vaccines, and to better understand a host of other diseases including dengue fever, HIV, and herpes. We’re also looking at how bacteria manufacture antibiotics like vancomycin as part of a consortium to develop new antibiotics. And I’ve just spent the last week determining if phylogenetic (evolutionary historical) methods are appropriate to analyze the community structure of human-associated microbes linked to various diseases.

None of the work we do would be possible without evolutionary biology: the assembly and alignment of genomes, as well as figuring out what the actual genes are (‘annotation’) use tools and concepts (e.g., homology) were first developed by evolutionary biologists. That’s before one even considers the analysis of all of this sequence.

And I’ve just focused on one small area of biology, genomics. Evolution is obviously critical for other areas such as the evolution of antibiotic and pesticide resistance. I’m sure many readers can come up with other areas where evolution is a vital component of solving real-world problems. Despite this, creationists insist on arguing that evolution is false, or worse, that Vichy science–ascribing our current ignorance to an intelligent designer (The Great Pumpkin, no doubt), rather than working hard and solving the problem–is really science.

Meanwhile, biology with its application of evolutionary theory marches on. One only has to look at these journals, for instance, to see how many biologists now use evolutionary tools such as phylogenetic (evolutionary history) reconstruction and tests of selection to better understand molecular structure and function. Many biologists who do this aren’t even formally trained as evolutionary biologists, which should give you some idea just how deeply evolutionary biology is integrated into biology as a whole.

So we don’t have to make ‘critical thinking’ arguments on behalf of evolution. A president who denies the existence of evolution denies us a future with less disease and illness.

That is why we need a president who ‘believes’ in evolution.

Related post: Orac has some related thoughts.


  1. #1 abb3w
    March 28, 2010

    While there usually is other evidence as to whether a candidate is weak on the separation of church and state or is unable to rationally assess evidence, checking their position on evolution is a quick bellwether.

    And, frankly, those two generally have more immediate impacts on society than the long-term benefits of genomics and evolutionary biology.

  2. #2 Citizen K.
    February 26, 2011

    I asked myself recently, “Do you believe in evolution?” That sounded uncomfortably religious and dogmatic; I eventually explained to myself that I accepted Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection as proven science.

    Catholicism has its limits, Darwin knows, but the Church having been caught with its pants down by Galileo determined not to repeat its error in other aspects of science. So, I grew up in the Bible Belt learning that if God wanted to create the world via natural selection, it wasn’t for me or anyone else to question the wisdom or intent behind it. Definitely beats Huckabeeism.