Sunday, 20 July 2014

Chapter 17: Does biology need evolution?

On pages 308-9 of The Greatest Hoax on Earth Sarfati quotes three academics he claims have recently questioned the usefulness of evolution to biology.

The first is geneticist A S Wilkins, who was editor of the journal BioEssays from 1990 to 2008.  Sarfati quotes a single sentence written by Wilkins in 2000: "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one".

Sarfati's use of this quote immediately raises the suspicion of anyone familiar with Wilkins' work.  Under Wilkins' editorship BioEssays regularly published papers on evolution.  And Wilkins has also published his own books and papers on developmental evolution, including works written after 2000.[footnote1]

Wilkins' quote comes from his introduction to a special issue of BioEssays devoted entirely to evolutionary processes.  The issue is freely available online and the introduction is worth reading in full.[2]  In the sentences immediately following the one quoted by Sarfati, Wilkins states:
Yet, the marginality of evolutionary biology may be changing. More and more issues in biology, from diverse questions about human nature to the vulnerability of ecosystems, are increasingly seen as reflecting evolutionary events. A spate of popular books on evolution testifies to this development. If we are to fully understand these matters, however, we need to understand the processes of evolution that, ultimately, underlie them. This thematic issue of BioEssays is a survey of these processes and the ways they shape the properties of living things, from bacteria to humans.
And Wilkins' closing comments reinforce his view that evolution is becoming more useful to biology.
As this set of articles illustrate, evolutionary biology is alive and well and extending its domain, as biology enters the 21st century. Covering these developments, and their relevance to different fields of biology, will continue to be one of the major goals of this journal.
The second academic quoted by Sarfati is chemist Philip Skell, who was emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.  In this case, Sarfati is not being misleading in his use of the quote.  Skell was critical of evolution and his article argues against the usefulness of evolution for biological research.

It is worth noting, however, that in citing Skell, Sarfati is making a fallacious appeal to authority.  Sarfati has criticised non-creationists for committing such a fallacy, which occurs when a prominent individual is used to support an argument but that individual is not an expert on the disputed subject.[3]  Skell worked as a chemist and he is famous for his work on carbenes; evolutionary biology is outside his field of expertise.

The third academic Sarfati cites is cell biologist Marc Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, who said:
In fact, over the last 100 years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself. Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all.
As he did with Wilkins, Sarfati has carefully selected this quote so it appears Kirschner doubts the usefulness of evolution to biology.  This is clearly not the case – the quote comes from an article discussing Kirschner's book, The Plausibility of Life, which is about the genetic basis of evolution.[4]

The point Kirschner is actually making is that various branches of biology have failed to take an inter-disciplinary approach and recognize what they can learn from evolution.  This is clear when his quote is viewed in context:
If anything, Kirschner and Gerhart hope their book will have an impact at least as substantial on their colleagues in biology. For too long, they say, researchers in its different domains – from evolutionists in the field to cell biologists in the lab – have remained isolated. "I wouldn't call it an antagonism as much as one not knowing anything about the other," Gerhart offers.
Kirschner likes to invoke the much-quoted declaration of famed 20th-century biologist Theodesius Dobzhansky that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (the title of a 1973 essay). "In fact, over the last 100 years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself," Kirschner declares. "Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all."
As a result, scientists working on genetics, cells, and molecules – a background Kirschner and Gerhart share – have not always considered how components of an organism reveal both its physiological properties and evolutionary properties and provide a window into the history of the organism. Evolutionary science, argue Kirschner and Gerhart, will advance as more biologists place their lab research within this evolutionary framework....Kirschner is hopeful the current interdisciplinarity of biology will help the long-term public understanding of evolution.[5]
Nevertheless, Kirschner's statement that branches of biology have proceeded independent of evolution stands on its own and, unsurprisingly, it is used by Sarfati and other creationists to bolster their claim that biology does not need evolution.  While there have been some responses to this creationist claim[6], much of the debate comes down to disagreement over how to define concepts such as evolution, natural selection, speciation and so on (see chapters 2-4 of The Greatest Hoax on Earth and my posts about them).


[1] A S Wilkins, The Evolution of Developmental Pathways, Sunderland: Sinauer Associates (2001); Claudio Alonso and Adam Wilkins, 'The molecular elements that underlie developmental evolution', Nature Reviews Genetics, Vol 6 (2005), pp 709-15 

[2] A S Wilkins, 'Evolutionary processes: a special issue', BioEssays, Vol 22, Issue 12 (2000), pp 1051-2; available online at:;2-7/pdf Many of the papers in the special issue address matters raised by Sarfati in The Greatest Hoax on Earth, such as: mutation rates, limits to natural selection, speciation, the origin of cellular life, and the Cambrian explosion. 

[3] Jonathan Sarfati, 'The fallacy of arguing from authority' 

[4] Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 

[5] Peter Dizikes, 'Missing links', Boston Globe (23 October 2005); available free here: 

[6] See: and Jonathan Losos, et al, 'Evolutionary Biology for the 21st Century', PLOS Biology, Vol 11, No 1 (2013)