Monday, December 05, 2005

Evolutionary Biologists aren't Humanities Professors

The latest issue of The New Republic has a review (subscription required) by Gertrude Himmelfarb of two recent edited volumes on evolution (by Edward Wilson and by James Watson).

Not surprisingly, the article exudes a typical neocon attitude towards this whole issue - sympathetic towards Creationism without endorsing it, and scornful of evolutionists for their elitism and arrogance. The main problem with articles like this though, is that it makes evolutionary biology look like it was one of the humanities. I'm not knocking the humanities (I majored in music as an undergrad), but debates in the natural sciences are completely different.

Himmelfarb starts out the article with something supposedly said to her by Julian Huxley (a biologist and grandson of the famous T.H. Huxley): "There is nothing new to say about evolution. Everything that needs saying has already been said. The theory is incontrovertible."

This is something I hope no scientist would say about any field of science where there is actual research going on! Himmelfarb says that was 1958, 5 years after Watson and Crick's double helix, and at a time when scientists were already recognizing the potential that molecular studies had for the field of evolution. (A good place to read about it is in the phenomenal book The Eighth Day of Creation.) Himmelfarb rightly goes on to point out how much has changed in evolutionary biology since that statement, but she has already made a biologist look dogmatic within the first paragraph of the article. (OK, maybe Huxley really did make himself look dogmatic.) Himmelfarb also includes a few dubious statements: "Natural selection, then, not evolution, was Darwin's claim to fame, evolution having achieved scientific status, so to speak, only by virtue of the mechanism that brought it about." Maybe I'm misreading her, but this looks like Himmelfarb is claiming that scientists only accepted evolution because they found natural selection convincing. She uses this to set up the next section of her article: "And this is still the heart of the debate today." Natural selection was accepted only later, and scientists in the 1870's accepted evolution fairly quickly, because of the evidence Darwin and others presented that was independent of the idea of natural selection.

I can't understand why Himmelfarb made that statement anyway, because in the same paragraph she states: "many secularists had reservations not about evolution but about natural selection." Who does she use as an example though? John Stuart Mill - not exactly a scientist. Basically, Himmelfarb makes a statement about why evolution "achieved scientific status, so to speak," says "this is still the heart of the debate today," and then completely ignores the science and writes about people who debated the issue's theological, philosophical and ethical issues. The moral and theological debate is interesting in itself, but it should not be confused with the scientific debate - evolutionary biology is not a discipline in the humanities. And because humanities debates, however interesting and valuable and relevant, are rarely ever decisively settled, Himmelfarb states that "Notwithstanding Julian Huxley, nothing has been settled." Even though I am appalled at the statement credited to Huxley ("it's all incontrovertible!"), that statement was about the science of evolution, and in that area, a hell of a lot has been settled. Professional evolutionary biology is one of the major foundations of modern biological research (the other foundations being, in my opinion, biochemistry [life is based in physics and chemistry], genetics [the transmission of biological traits], and molecular biology [the Central Dogma DNA -> RNA -> Protein]).

Himmelfarb hits the end of her piece with some incredibly hypocritical advice for scientists:

"A non-scientist may well stand in awe of the enormous achievements that they [Wilson and Watson] as individuals, and science in general, have to their credit. They have learned a great deal, and we have learned a great deal from them. But what they have evidently not learned is humility--an appreciation of the limits of science, of what science does not know and cannot know."

One could say the same about the critics of evolution - they are rarely humble enough to acknowledge the limits of their own non-technical knowledge when it comes to today's modern, technical, professional field of evolutionary biology.

There's another interesting article that came out this weekend. In the NY Times Week In Review section, there is an article that discusses ID's lack of acceptance in academia, even among those who would be considered the movement's natural allies. People are concluding what religious and non-religious scientists have been saying all along - ID is intellectually shoddy.


Anthony West said...

Himmelfarb may be an acclaimed historian, but her ignorance of science is truly astonishing. After reading quotes from her book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, John Derbyshire wrote at NRO's corner that:

"If her grasp of biology is as presented, she ought to be forbidden by law from using the word "Darwinism" in a sentence."

The account of Himmelfarb's ignorance made its way onto several blogs:

Mike said...

Great links - PZ Myers always seems to have the goods on stuff like this.