Religiously Motivated Incredulity

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Nobel Nominated?

In an ARN report on the recent ID conference at Biola University (formerly known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles), the following caught my attention.

Featured speakers included Dr. Henry Schaefer, University of Georgia and five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, and Dr. Michael Behe, Professor of Biochemist [sic] at Lehigh University.

The description of Dr. Henry Fritz Schaefer III as a “five-time nominee for the Novel Prize” is common amongst anti-evolutionists. In fact he often leads their lists of scientists who “challenge Darwinism.” However, there is no official record of Dr. Schaefer’s nominations because the Nobel Foundation doesn’t release nominations.

According to the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation, information about the nominations is not to be disclosed, publicly or privately, for a period of fifty years. The restriction not only concerns the nominees and nominators, but also investigations and opinions in the awarding of a prize.

From Nobel.se.

The idea that Dr. Schaefer has been nominated five-times is speculation in the December 23, 1991 U.S. News and World Report. That’s right; the source for Dr. Schaefer’s near-Nobel-laureate credentials is the speculation of a weekly news magazine.–Not what I’d consider ironclad enough to state as a sure thing.–The Nobel Prize is not like the Academy Awards, where it is a great honor to be nominated. Nominators may invite recommendations from many sources before making their final nominations. Because the nomination process is secretive, we have no way of knowing how serious a nomination is taken, even if we happen to know that someone was nominated. If Schaefer was indeed a frequent Nobel nominee, his best chance to actually win the Prize came in 1998, when the Nobel Committee awarded it for the development of theoretical and computational methods to study the behavior of molecules (Dr. Schaefer’s own field of study). However, Drs. Kohn and Pope won the Prize for that work.

Credential Inflation

It is very interesting to watch the evolution of the description of Schaefer’s credentials, as anyone can do through some Googling. To his credit, Dr. Schaefer appears to be honest about the source of the five-nomination claim. The biographical sketches on his websites (here, here, and here) include a statement that the “U.S. News and World Report cover story of December 23, 1991 speculated that Professor Schaefer is a ‘five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize’.” However, similar information is not available at a multitude of anti-evolution sites that refer to him. The speculated existence of five Nobel nominations has become an actual existence for creationist activists, who are desperate to obtain any sort of indirect scientific legitimacy for their pseudo-scientific pronouncements of evolution. (And they complain that we confuse a theory as a fact.) In fact, credential inflating is modus operandi of such activists who rely on misplaced appeals to authority to support their anti-scientific agendas.

Incredulity

I am a doctoral student in evolutionary biology at the same university at which Dr. Schaefer is the Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry. Our university has the honor of having a world class evolutionary biology program. Given his support for the anti-evolution movement, one might assume that Dr. Schaefer must have some interest in the science of evolution. However, I have never seen him at any of our evolutionary biology seminars, which do involve major scientists of the discipline. As far as I can tell, he takes no advantage of the resources the campus has to offer in the science of evolution yet is a vocal supporter of anti-evolution movement.

If his interest in evolution is not scientific in nature, what is it then? Dr. Schaefer is a devoutly religious man, and I suspect, based on past experience, that Dr. Schaefer’s interest is religious in nature. At UGA he was a founder of the Christian Faculty Forum, which is responsible for organizing the anti-evolution lectures that have occured on campus in recent years. As far as I can tell, Dr. Schaefer is a devoutly religious and conservative chemistry professor who has little or no experience with the science of evolutionary biology, and thus his objections to evolution amount to little more than religiously motivated incredulity.

“What are his objections?” you might ask. Well he lists them (circa 2002):

My first concern is that, with the collapse of the Miller-Urey model, there is no plausible scientific mechanism for the origin of life, i.e., the appearance of the first self-replicating biochemical system. The staggeringly high information content of the simplest living thing is not readily explained by evolutionists.

Second, the time frame for speciation events seems all wrong to me. The major feature of the fossil record is stasis, long periods in which new species do not appear. When new developments occur, they come rapidly, not gradually.

My third area of reservation is that I find no satisfactory mechanism for macroevolutionary changes. Analogies between a few inches of change in the beaks of a Galapagos finch species and a purported transition from dinosaur to bird (or vice versa) appear to me inappropriate.

From an AJC editorial.

Addressing the First Concern

His first concern defiantly shows that he is arguing against a straw man. What he is concerned about is not part of “the standard evolutionary model.” Evolutionary biology does not explain where the first self-replicating system came from, due to the simple fact that evolution cannot happen until after the first self-replicator comes into existence. Being concerned by evolutionary biology’s inability to explain the origin of life is like being concerned that music theory can’t explain the origin of mankind.

However, with that being said, it is important to point out that the significance of the Miller-Urey experiment of 1953 was not that it explained the origin of life, but that it was the first demonstration of the production of amino acids from abiotic conditions. It was a piece of the puzzle. Since then, experiments with different abiotic conditions have also generated a wide array of organic compounds. It is clearly a false dichotomy to think Miller-Urey 1953 or no explanation. For more information, read this interview with Dr. Stanley L. Miller.

Addressing the Second Concern

Dr. Schaefer’s second concern is another one based on incredulity and ignorance. Stasis in the fossil record refers to the observation that species will vary in a certain range of morphology and that range is static for a significant period of time. The rapid turnover that Dr. Schaefer is referring to is the fact that in the fossil record species often abruptly disappear and are replaced without any recorded species to species transitions between them. However, he is guilty of equivocation by confusing what is considered gradual and rapid in biological time (evolution) with what is considered gradual and rapid in geologic time (fossilization).

Dr. Schaefer is not a paleontologist, and thus I cannot imagine that he has much first-hand exposure to the fossil record. So the question is “where did he get his information on it?” Probably not from Gould and Eldredge who first described the broad pattern of species stasis and abrupt replacement in the fossil record (punctuated equilibrium) and who also demonstrated how it was logically the result of “the standard evolutionary model.” Dr. Schaefer probably encountered the bastard versions of punctuated equilibrium that are popular in anti-evolution literature, whose authors misconstrue the work of Gould and Eldredge to support their agendas. Simply put, he was had.

Gould and Eldredge explained how evolution, which is biologically gradual, coupled with the rare event of fossilization would produce stasis and abrupt replacement in the fossil record. Because fossilization is rare, the species most likely to be represented in the fossil record are ones that have body parts able to be fossilized, die in areas and in ways prone to cause fossilization, and are numerous. Now assume we have a species complex that reasonably satisfies the first two conditions. The species in this complex most likely to be represented in the fossil record are the most populous ones. However, large populations also evolve slower than small populations. Thus fossilization most likely will preserve species that evolve slowly, explaining the observed stasis.

Because large populations evolve slowly, “the standard evolutionary model” predicts that most speciation events will happen in the periphery of the population range where there can exist small subpopulations and, more than likely, different habitats. It is in these locations that gradual evolution will lead to speciation. However, fossilization is unlikely to preserve the event. From ecology and demography we know that population replacement can be relatively rapid (over a few thousand years). One example would be a pathogen wiping out the parent species, and a daughter species, which before was on periphery invading the newly open central habitat.

Together, the evolutionary, demographic, ecological, geographic, and geological forces would produce a fossil record showing a species with a stable range of morphology existing for–say–100,000 years disappearing and being replaced by another species in less than–say–5,000 years. The interesting thing in all of this is that “the standard evolutionary model” was already elucidated before Gould and Eldredge describe and explained punctuated equilibrium using it. Punctuated equilibrium is not an application of the fossil record to evolution as is commonly claimed by anti-evolutionists, but rather an application of standard evolutionary theory to the fossil record. For more information on punctuated equilibrium see Gould (2002), ch 9.

Addressing the Third Concern

Dr. Schaefer’s third concern is similar to his second. He says he can’t “find a satisfactory mechanism for macroevolutionary changes,” but I have to wonder how hard he is looking. There was much debate in the early part of the twentieth century about whether microevolutionary changes could lead to macroevolutionary changes. Many scientists thought that they were different processes, but since the middle of that century biological data has demonstrated that they are not.

One of the most important tenets of the theory forged during the Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s was that “macroevolutionary” differences among organisms–those that distinguish higher taxa–arise from the accumulation of the same kinds of genetic differences that are found within species. Opponents of this point of view believed that “macroevolution” is qualitatively different from “microevolution” within a species, and is based on a totally different kind of genetic and developmental repatterning. The iconoclastic geneticist Richard Goldschmidt (1940), who held this opinion, believed that the evolution of species marks the break between “microevolution” and “macroevolution”–that there is a “bridgeless gap” between species that cannot be understood in terms of the genetic variation within species. Genetic studies of species differences have decisively disproved Goldschmidt’s claim. Differences between species in morphology, behavior, and the process that underlie reproductive isolation all have the same genetic properties as variation within species: they occupy consistent chromosomal positions, they may be polygenic or based on few genes, they may display additive, dominant, or epistatic effects, and they can in some instances be traced to specifiable differences in proteins or DNA nucleotide differences. The degree of reproductive isolation between populations, whether prezygotic or postzygotic, varies from little or none to complete. Thus, reproductive isolation, like the divergence of any other character, evolves in most cases by the gradual substitution of alleles in populations.

Futuyma 1998 pp 477-478

Or to put it another way, differences between individuals of different species (macroevolutionary changes) are no different than differences between individuals of the same species (microevolutionary changes); they just have had longer to accumulate. Dr. Schaefer’s third concern is a view of biology that the evidence dismissed over fifty years ago.

Conclusion

Although Dr. Schaefer is a very good computational chemist, he is a lousy when it comes to biology. His concerns are not informed by biology, but rather by anti-evolution propaganda in which all three are popular. His name might initially look good in a press release for critics of modern biology, but upon further examination his support lacks the authority they want it to have.

References

  • Futuyma D (1998) Evolutionary Biology, 3rd ed. Sinauer Associates, Inc.
  • Gould SJ (2002) Structure of Evolutionary Theory Harvard Univ Press

Note

An earlier version of this post can be found on my personal blog.

2 TrackBacks

Schaefer Remix from De Rerum Natura on May 4, 2004 10:25 PM

An updated version of my piece on Dr. Fritz Schaefer is available on the Panda’s Thumb. Religiously Motivated Incredulity... Read More

Hey, Minnesotans—anyone want to tune in to KKMS Christian radio right now? I'm about to be tied up in class stuff for a while, so I'll say more later—it seems we have a new creationist group mobilizing in the state.... Read More

10 Comments

I am working for Jim Newberry ( http://www.newberryforcongress.com ) and I will point out that it isn’t just in academia that you have the “teach the controversy” meme spreading. Our opponent in this race, Roy Blunt, House Majority Whip, and probable next Majority Leader, pushes it - even in short interviews.

When, as the New York Times reports, the US is losing its lead in basic sciences, this should frighten people.

And don’t tell me about “oh, that’s just people from out there”. Edwin Hubble was born in Marshfield Missouri - just up the road. The inventor of the X-Ray Microscope was born in Springfield Missouri. You’ll find that many people who go on to do basic science come, not from cities, but from growing up in nature and rural areas.

If you want to stem the tide of pseudo-science, then you are going to have to look at where their money, support and air cover comes from.

Since I am not familiar with Dr. Schaefer’s scientific work (not my field of interest), I can’t judge the quality of his data and of their interpretation. I am prepared to happily accept that he is a great chemist and fully deserves a nomination for the Nobel prize. However, as I looked at his enormous list of publication, it made me pause. It looks like during about ten recent years he produced, on the average, a paper every week, without hiata for vacations, conferences, and administrative work as a lab director. The total of over 1000 titles - it is beyond the reach of even the most diligent research scientist. In those cases when some other chemists had similar enormous lists of publications, it was known for fact that it was due to their official position - they often did not even read most of the papers whose bylines included their names. One such example was Nesmeyanov who was the President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and a director of an institute. He also had a list of over 1000 publications, but it only invoked jokes and derision: everybody knew he had not even seen many of those books and articles listed among his credentials. Schaefer seems to have done even better than Nesmeyanov - while Nesmeyanov published, on the average, a paper every 12 days, Shaefer did it, on the average, every 7 to 10 days for years in a row. I would call it Nesmeyanov’s syndrom. To my mind to make public such a list of publications is obscene. Nobody can do it unless one has a team of slaves toiling in the lab and putting the boss’s name in the byline of every paper they produce, regardless of the boss’s actual contribution.

The non-disclosure restrictions on Nobel Prize nominators aren’t always taken too seriously. e.g.

Jan Simonsen’s nomination of Bush and Blair for the Nobel Peace Prize was disclosed: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/s1035353.htm

If the B&B WoMD team can be nominated for a peace prize, then nominating Dr. Schaefer for a science prize seems apt. Nomination in itself means nothing.

Virge,

The Peace Prize is administered differently from the other prizes.

http://www.nobel.se/peace/nominatio[…]inators.html

Not only are the Peace Prizes administered differently, there is no indication that it was the Nobel Committee which disclosed the nomination. It appears it was a Norwegian legislator who dropped the names.

When I was in charge of making the nominations for a Member of Congress, part of the exercise was a press release to announce that the nomination had been made. Why do something so noble unless one gets credit for it? [mild satire mode off]

Including politicians in the mix guarentees that rules will not be followed.

On a blog that spends a great deal of time complaining about stereotypes of science and scientists, spreading others about other professions is, well, tasteless.

Stirling Newberry Wrote:

On a blog that spends a great deal of time complaining about stereotypes of science and scientists, spreading others about other professions is, well, tasteless.

What stereotype are you refering to?

Good effects: On May 25 the Discovery Institute put out a press release on Dr. Henry Schaefer’s having been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).

The press release failed to mention anything at all about Schaeffer’s “Nobel nominations.” http://www.discovery.org/scripts/vi[…]ram=News-CSC

The journey to the truth, though a thousand miles long, begins with a single step, Chairman Mao might have said.

Wow, the Discovery Institute is slow.

UGA ‘s press release came out almost three weeks ago. Note the errie similiarities.

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on May 3, 2004 12:00 AM.

Update on Kansas was the previous entry in this blog.

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