Why Do We Invoke
Darwin? Phillip Skell Responds
September 26, 2005
Read Dr. Philip Skell's original essay in The Scientist here.
letters responding to Skell's original essay here.
Scientist, Editor's Note: Philip Skell's Opinion in the Aug. 29, 2005 issue,"Why
do we invoke Darwin?" (19 :10)generated a tremendous response from readers.
Here we present a selection of edited letters. Please continue the discussion in
our new forum on The Scientist website at http://media.the-scientist.com/talkingpoints/.
Skell responds: My essay about Darwinism and modern experimental biology has
stirred up a lively discussion, but the responses still provide no evidence that
evolutionary theory is the cornerstone of experimental biology. Comparative
physiology and comparative genomics have certainly been fruitful, but
comparative biology originated before Darwin and owes nothing to his theory.
Before the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, comparative biology
focused mainly on morphology, because physiology and biochemistry were in their
infancy and genomics lay in the future; but the extension of a comparative
approach to these sub-disciplines depended on the development of new
methodologies and instruments, not on evolutionary theory and immersion in
One letter mentions directed molecular evolution as
a technique to discover antibodies, enzymes and drugs. Like comparative biology,
this has certainly been fruitful, but it is not an application of Darwinian
evolution – it is the modern molecular equivalent of classical breeding. Long
before Darwin, breeders used artificial selection to develop improved strains of
crops and livestock. Darwin extrapolated this in an attempt to explain the
origin of new species, but he did not invent the process of artificial selection
It is noteworthy that not one of these critics has detailed an
example where Darwin's Grand Paradigm Theory guided researchers to their goals.
In fact, most innovations are not guided by grand paradigms, but by far more
modest, testable hypotheses. Recognizing this, neither medical schools nor
pharmaceutical firms maintain divisions of evolutionary science. The fabulous
advances in experimental biology over the past century have had a core
dependence on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not by
intensive immersion in historical biology and Darwin's theory, which attempted
to historicize the meager documentation.
Evolution is not an observable
characteristic of living organisms. What modern experimental biologists study
are the mechanisms by which living organisms maintain their stability, without
evolving. Organisms oscillate about a median state; and if they deviate
significantly from that state, they die. It has been research on these
mechanisms of stability, not research guided by Darwin's theory, which has
produced the major fruits of modern biology and medicine. And so I ask again:
Why do we invoke Darwin?
Fordham University Bronx, NY