Dobzhansky, Evolution and Me at AAAS

At the AAAS meetings in Chicago two weeks ago, I was privileged to be on a panel with such luminaries as Olivia Judson, David Deamer, Neil Shubin, and this year’s winner of the AAAS Award for the Public Understanding of Science, Ken Miller. It was a great occasion, and afterward I got to shake hands with the original Tiktaalik fossil at Neil Shubin’s lab, conveniently located catty-corner to my old dorm at the University of Chicago.

I plan to make slidecasts of several of those talks to post on Youtube or Slideshare when I get the time.

Until then, we can anticipate a multi-part series from another graduate of the U. of C. Young earth creationist Paul Nelson, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, has posted a reply to my talk at the Disco. Inst. blog (which admirably strives to live up to its Actual Motto: “The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site”).

I describe Nelson’s post as a response rather than a description, despite his claim that “I was attending the session as a reporter.” His account of the action bears little resemblance with actual events during the panel, and have a great deal to do with what he apparently wishes we’d been talking about. Consider:

You won?t find any well-known intelligent design advocates among the speakers at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held recently in Chicago. But that does not mean ID was not there — quite the contrary. Like the social outcast left uninvited ? ID was on the lips of most of the speakers at [the session]. One could be forgiven for leaving the session thinking that evolutionary biology was defined largely by its opposition to ID.

Whether or not one is forgiven, one would be sorely wrong. Some of my fellow panelists mentioned that creationism could not explain certain phenomena, but focused (like Dobzhansky) on the fact that evolution makes sense of biology. That creationism does not make sense of biology is a notable fact, but hardly a defining fact of those talks, let alone the field of evolution. As for my talk, which Nelson purports to be reporting on, I only discussed creationism to observe that creationist attacks on science education continue to grow, and that this has dire effects on public understanding of science, as measured by polls of the US and in poor performance of American students on international science tests. I then exhorted the audience to help improve this situation by actively engaging their students, their institutions, and the general public, in a campaign to increase understanding of evolution. Paul seems to have missed most of this:

Rosenau took his theme from T.H. Dobzhansky?s famous (1973) aphorism, ?Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.? After showing data indicating that most Americans remain skeptical of Darwinian (undirected) evolution — a skepticism, he noted, that does not exist for other scientific theories or claims, such as continental drift or the uselessness of antibiotics against viruses — Rosenau gave examples of findings in a variety of fields that (he said) could only be understood via evolution. The development of the medicine Taxol? , for instance, or the engineering of General Electric jet turbines and radio antennae by evolutionary algorithms, or integrated pest management (IPM) methods, make sense only in the light of evolution. Evolution is for everyone, said Rosenau, flashing a slide with the cover of David Sloan Wilson’s book Evolution for Everyone (Delacorte, 2007).

I was attending the session as a reporter, and felt it would be out of place to engage Rosenau in an argument (we are friendly acquaintances). But his recommendations, both of Dobzhansky (1973) and Wilson (2007), show why NCSE policy and educational advice is doomed only to prolong the controversies Rosenau and his colleagues so earnestly wish to lay to rest.

At this point, having devoted barely a paragraph to the actual content of my talk, he launches into a disquisition on Dobzhansky’s excellent 1973 essay for The American Biology Teacher. That parenthetical “he said” inserted in passing is never explained. Nelson is free to disagree that an understanding of common ancestry was essential to producing enough Taxol to treat hundreds of thousands of patients, but he never explains why. He might dispute that evolutionary algorithms actually did improve the efficiency of everything from antennae on spacecraft to turbines on jets and down to the USB drive in your pocket, but he never explains why. He may dispute my claim that farmers’ application of evolutionary knowledge and principles through Integrated Pest Management has made farming more efficient and safer for the environment and consumers. He might even disagree with my claim that “Dobzhansky actually understated the case: evolution makes sense of sciences that Darwin and Dobzhansky could never have imagined.” Does he agree with my call to participate in Science Cafes, science blogs, Wikipedia, SciVee and Youtube, and to follow Jay Hosler’s example by drawing comics, all in service of a simple goal, to “make sense of evolution”? Does he think medical students, pre-meds, and biology majors need required courses in evolution? Does he disagree that introductory biology courses for nonmajors should use evolution as their organizing principle? Does he agree that the mediocrity of American students in science classes can be traced, at least in part, to a culture of evolution rejection? We don’t know, because Paul neither reports the details of what I said, nor does he address the details of anything at all that I said.

Rather than engage what I actually said, Nelson leaps to the claim that Dobzhansky’s “essay represents [a] passionately-argued theological case against intelligent design and for evolution as God?s method of creation.” (Emphasis added.) Let us set aside the anachronism of putting “intelligent design” into an essay written over a decade before the birth of ID creationism, simply applauding Nelson’s tacit acknowledgment that IDC is the same thing as the “creation science” prevalent in the 1970s, and move on. Given the energy that Disco. Inst. fainting dachshund Casey Luskin invests in denying that readily demonstrated bit of history, I’ll let Paul’s Disco. masters sort that out.

It is simply and demonstrably false, however, to claim that Dobzhansky’s essay is any sort of theological argument. To defend that claim, Paul quotes the second half of the concluding paragraph of the second section of the paper, which Dobzhansky begins by stating:

Anti-evolutionists fail to understand how natural selection operates. They fancy that all existing species were generated by supernatural fiat a few thousand years ago, pretty much as we find them today.

He then goes on to point out that this fails to explain important aspects of biology, aspects which, as he emphasizes throughout the essay, “make sense ? in the light of evolution.” His point is not theological, but pedagogical (which is why he wrote for ABT, rather than for a theology journal). Lots of things can explain optimality, goes his argument, but it is the non-optimal aspects of the biological world that evolution also illuminates. Thus, the passage that Nelson’s quotation introduces in mid-sentence begins: “The organic diversity becomes, however, reasonable and understandable if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice, but by evolution propelled by natural selection.” Dobzhansky may be talking about theology, but he is not talking theology. He is talking pedagogy.

Dobzhansky also mentions theology at the end of the essay, again denying a necessary conflict between science and religion. He quotes Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on this point, but emphasizes that “Of course, some scientists, as well as some philosophers and theologians, disagree with some parts of Teilhard’s teachings; the acceptance of his worldview falls short of universal.” Dobzhansky emphasizes that he is not writing to advocate for this theology, merely to make the point that it is not necessary to set Christian faith at odds with evolution. This is hardly a theological argument for or against Teilhard de Chardin, merely an empirical argument that such compatible views do exist in the world, with both theologians (Teilhard de Chardin) and scientists (Dobzhanky) sharing that view. Three paragraphs out of ~75 can hardly be claimed as proof that Dobzhansky is mounting a theological case for anything.

In any event, Nelson proceeds to discuss the views of David Sloan Wilson. He feels the warrant to do so in this context because I made fleeting reference to his Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives and to the Evolutionary Studies program he initiated at Binghamton in this paragraph (text as prepared, and I know I diverged from the precise phrasing, but not from the gist):

But as we enter a century where biology will be as politically and economically significant as physics was in the 20th, even non-scientists will be expected to have a firm grasp of the basic concepts in biology, and that means evolution has to be front and center. Students deserve introductory biology classes that present evolution, regardless of their major. Whether they’re applying IPM as farmers, advising a loved one with cancer, developing more efficient USB thumb drives, electing school boards, or voting on budgets for NSF and NIH, they need to know what evolution is, and why it matters. David Sloan Wilson and Binghamton University have been developing approaches that run evolution not just throughout the sciences, but through the whole curriculum. You can find out how to apply his approach from that web site.

From this text, Nelson somehow feels it necessary to launch into a discussion of what Wilson says about religion in the text of a book that I barely touched on in my talk. Paul Nelson notes that Wilson writes in his book that “Evolution and religion can no longer occupy opposite corners of human thought,” and concludes that, since I used a picture of a book to illustrate a point about the author’s program to introduce evolution throughout the curriculum, the logical conclusion to draw from my talk is that “a biology classroom is exactly the correct venue to raise theological issues, such as God?s method of creating, or the content and function of religious belief.” This logical trainwreck hardly deserves reply.

Nelson carries on,

Simultaneously telling people, however, that the science classroom is off limits to theology — except for this God-used-evolution-and-it?s-blasphemy-to-suggest-otherwise view, advocated by a leading neo-Darwinian biologist, and maybe a couple of other tolerable theologies — guarantees an ongoing controversy. A philosophical rule decreed by those holding institutional power (whether in the courts or national science and education organizations), but violated by those very same institutions in practice, is not a rule anyone else will follow — nor should they.

But what most belied the NCSE approach was the remainder of the symposium.

This is absurd, of course. Nowhere in my talk nor in Eugenie Scott’s remarks as organizer/moderator, did we discuss theology. I made reference to creationist attacks on science education, and emphasized that this was partly a legacy of poor science education in general, and of the Balkanized nature of the American educational system. Other speakers made the point that there are many aspects of biology that seem absurd if you treat the human body as if it were crafted de novo, but which make perfect sense when we consider the pattern of common descent which unifies all of life. Hardly an invitation to scrutinize pinheads in search of dancing angels.

In claiming that Dobzhansky’s essay, David Sloan Wilson’s book, or NCSE in general advocates for any particular theological view, however, Nelson is making a trivial error. NCSE does not take the view that theistic evolution is correct. Our Faith Project Director, a Catholic theologian, certainly holds that evolution and other natural laws are the tools God used to express his creative powers. Our Executive Director is an atheist, and in theological debate, would reject that and any other claim to God’s divine action. As an institution, however, we do not advocate for either of those theologies. Regardless of personal theology, one can certainly make the anthropological observation that there are a wide range of theological beliefs in the world, that most of them do not see any conflict with evolution at all, and that even within Christianity, many denominations argue against that conflict. Without arguing for the merits of any theological claim, one can make empirical claims about what sorts of religious beliefs exist, and what relationship they have to evolution; the conclusion from such a survey is unavoidable: Christianity need not be set in conflict with evolution. Christians are free to disagree on this and other points, and such disagreements are theological. But the observation that conflict between faith and science is not inherent to Christianity is not a theological observation. It is anthropological.

Similarly, Wilson’s claim “that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together” is not theological (Nelson’s essay notwithstanding). He is arguing that evolution can be used to explain why religion exists, and that religion, like many other fields outside of biology, can be illuminated by evolution. In an essay for Skeptic magazine, Wilson explains that his interest is “in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right.” Wilson is an atheist, which again makes his theology relatively trivial. As an observer of society, though, he knows that religion exists and plays an important role in human society. He argues that “evolutionary theory provides a powerful framework for studying religion,” both as a way of explaining its existence, and in terms of explaining its details.

Dobzhansky points to the examples of “superfluous creatures,” like “a species of the fungus family Laboulbeniaceae, which grows exclusively on the rear portion of the elytra of the beetle Aphenops cronei, which is found only in some limestone caves in southern France,” to illustrate his point that, while many things could explain optimal an necessary aspects of biology, only evolution allows us to make sense of the seemingly superfluous or dysfunctional aspects of biology. Similarly, Wilson observes that evolution makes sense of cultural phenomena which “appear[] obviously dysfunctional based on a little information.” Understanding biological and cultural evolution illuminates those otherwise nonsensical phenomena.

I went into none of this in my talk. I could have, but it would have been irrelevant and off-topic. It would have been relevant in a reception the day before, held by AAAS’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, where theologians and scientists discussed efforts to foster productive dialog across those disciplines, and where the relationship of science to religion actually was discussed.

If Paul Nelson wanted to participate in a discussion about science and religion, he should have known that a session called “Evolution Makes Sense of Biology” would only disappoint. And if he cares to report on that session, he might actually engage with the substance of the remarks there, and not drift off into conversations with himself.

Update: Fixed small typographic problems.


  1. #1 The Curmudgeon
    February 24, 2009

    Never mind all that. Tell us about Olivia Judson.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    February 24, 2009

    Olivia Judson is smart, gorgeous, and articulate. Her talk was from brief handwritten notes, without the need for PowerPoint or other technological geegaws. The audience was rapt as she described the ways in which understanding the evolutionary history of animals can help us understand the behaviors we see around us every day, whether in the wilds or in our family members. And I expect she will fillet Paul Nelson rather handily if he tries any nonsense with her.

  3. #3 The Curmudgeon
    February 24, 2009

    Thanks. That’s my kind of biologist! Okay, now back to you.

  4. #4 Nick (Matzke)
    February 24, 2009

    Type: “reason reason for this site”

    PS: Good post. Nelson does give it all up, doesn’t he? ID is creationism and the government should promote his religious views in biology classes.

  5. #5 Albatrossity
    February 25, 2009

    Thanks for the report, Josh.

    And for Paul, since we know that you will be reading this, how about your nearly two year-old promise to open up a “debate” site for your wretched “textbook” Explore Evolution? Why do you folks who want to TEACH THE CONTROVERSY and demand FREEDOM OF SPEECH never allow comments on any of the sites that you control?