Hey Dr. Egnor: At Least Galen Dissected Animals, Not Straw Men

Scarecrow2.jpgOver at the Discovery Institute’s Ministry of Media Complaints, to which he has recently become a contributor, SUNY neurosurgeon Michael Egnor responds to my criticism of his post, “Why Would I Want My Doctor to have Studied Evolution?” Dr. Egnor couldn’t think of much to say in response to my criticism because he never responded to my criticism; rather, he responded to a version of my criticism that he invented just for his essay. In other words, he’s responding to a straw man version of my argument, and straw men (wearing the jerseys of the opposing team, say) are a lot easier to defeat than the actual opposing team.

Let’s start simply. Dr. Egnor, in his original post, wrote:

Doctors don’t study evolution. Doctors never study it in medical school, and they never use evolutionary biology in their practice. There are no courses in medical school on evolution. There are no ‘professors of evolution’ in medical schools. There are no departments of evolutionary biology in medical schools. No Nobel prize in medicine has ever been awarded for work in evolutionary biology. [Therefore, evolutionary] biology isn’t important to modern medicine. (Quotes are excerpted.)

Medical schools think evolution is pretty important so they’ve made the MCAT, in part, to test the student’s understanding of evolution. Dr. Egnor hasn’t explained how he could have what he did in his essay in the light of what the MCAT evaluates.

Some of the most brilliant insights in evolutionary biology and some of the worst scientific defeats for creationist arguments have come from professors that teach primarily at medical schools or are charged with teaching medical students. Dr. Egnor hasn’t explained how he could have written what he did in his essay in the light of those faculty appointments.

I suspect it could be said accurately that no recent Nobel prize could have been won without the insights and assumptions afforded by evolutionary biology. In any case, I did show in my essay several Nobel prizes that had been awarded on the basis of or strongly appealing to evolutionary biology concepts. Dr. Egnor hasn’t explained how he could have written what he did in his essay in the light of the research that has earned those Nobel prizes.

Dr. Egnor did respond, however, to the criticism of his thesis that “random heritable variation and natural selection is responsible for all biological complexity” is an unsound statement. His objection would have been an perfectly straightforward inclusion had he ever made it or had I ever objected to it. But he didn’t make that argument and I wouldn’t have objected to it if he did.

More on the flipside.

Seriously, check for yourselves. Go to his original essay and do a search for “heritable,” “variation,” “responsible,” or “complexity.” The words just aren’t in the essay. And he can’t say that he was arguing that idea implicitly without using those particular words because he actually quotes that phrase.

He goes on to say, “It does seem fairly obvious. Doctors don’t use Darwinism[.]” Does Egnor use the word Darwinism even once in his essay? (Go ahead and check, I’ll wait.)

Here’s the craziest thing about it: his invented language, had he actually written those phrases, is unobjectionable. Random heritable variation and natural selection may very well be responsible for all of biological complexity, but I doubt any scientist - even an atheist - would attest to that particular phrasing. (You don’t know what you don’t know and it is entirely possible that something else amenable to scientific investigation is responsible.) Further, there exist people who fully support evolution and yet also think that some non-natural agent is involved somehow, whether through a mechanism scrutable to science or not. Arguing in favor of the idea that all biological complexity arose only due to random heritable variation and natural selection would needlessly alienate those theists who also support evolution and would make statements that would be potentially rebutted by whatever is discovered to create complexity that isn’t evolution. (The data don’t demand it, it would be needlessly divisive: who else but a creationist would suggest that such language be used?)

As for his specific claim that “Doctors don’t use Darwinism,” which again is an invention from his latest essay and not the one that started this exchange off in the first place, I’ll be the first to admit it, nay proclaim it. No doctor or scientist ever uses Darwinism today, unless one is placed into the rare circumstance of trying to frame an idea into the understanding of evolution that Darwin was limited to: an understanding absent genetics, population biology, the framework of modern synthesis, and almost all of post-Darwinian evolutionary research (cladistics, Archaea, biochemical evidence all go away). It would be appropriate to use “Darwinism” in that context because that is the proper definition of Darwinism: the understanding of evolution that Darwin and his contemporaries had. This is in contradistinction to Darwinism as creationists define the phrase: everything about evolution to which the creationist objects.

Doctors do, however, use Neodarwinism, which itself is needlessly cryptic. It is far simpler, and less ambiguous, to say that doctors use evolution. Employing “Darwinism” or it’s cognates/declensions invokes ambiguity, and strategically ambiguous phrasings are a staple of creationists and their ilk. We at the Thumb strongly recommend people to avoid playing into the creationist’s strategy in this fashion: call it evolution only, please, Michael Ruse.

Egnor’s straw men inventions don’t stop there. Maybe his offense at my essay got him too riled to see this but I never questioned his competence, ever. In fact, I was at pains to say that it is possible to practice medicine brilliantly and still not have a clue about any of the basic sciences at all. Were Egnor ignorant of all science but could practice to the standards of care as they change without fail, he could still be an excellent neurosurgeon. (There are other things, like collegiality, which factor in, so one cannot be definite knowing only that he practiced to set standards.) I want to make it clear that I retreat from any formulation of my argument in which I claim him to be incompetent of neurosurgery. I never said it and I’d be apologizing right now if I did. But I didn’t, so it’s another straw man argument.

Now, as regards intellectual integrity, or being honest with yourself, I would leave it for the reader to decide whether Dr. Egnor has much of it when he appears to accept the utility of animal testing but settles for an intellectual vacuum rather than pushing through to evolution when it comes to the question of why animal research is applicable to humans.

Apropos, Egnor talks about Galen, using him as the centerpiece of a rebuttal that one can indeed do animal research without knowing about evolution. Properly answering his argument would involve knowing what intellectual model Galen was using to apply the results from his research in animals to humans. Was Galen a creationist and thought that a common designer led to common design? Did he settle for an intellectual vacuum when it came to making his extrapolations to humans? I’m not a historian and the limited resources I have at my disposal today aren’t sufficient to answer that question.

But what the devil is Egnor’s point? The Greeks did a decent job modeling the motion of the stars by appeal to understandings of celestial spheres, all but the last of which were transparent, so one could conceivably say that it is possible to understand astronomy without knowing gravity or Newtonian mechanics and at least draw some modestly true conclusions. But they were quite wrong about other things and astronomy has moved on since the ancient Greek understanding of spheres and all that business. If there were some factional equivalent of creationists to astronomy, say a group that had a white-knuckled, wide-eyed fear of gravity, would an Egnor from that group honestly expect the citation of the ancient Greek understanding of celestial spheres to be a rebuttal to the idea that celestial mechanics can’t be comprehended without an understanding of gravity and Newtonian mechanics?

So Egnor’s playing a weak game of intellectual gotcha. Let’s drop the word games. Yes, it is possible to make sense of certain things in biology even if evolution is not correct. However, our understanding of the interrelationships between organisms, and especially the conclusions we draw regarding humans based on research in animals, only make sense in the light of evolution. Furthermore, given that Galen was wrong about a great many things in his medical pronouncements (circulation being but one), it seems odd for Egnor to appeal to the ancient understandings provided by Galen as a rebuttal to modern understandings of biology, cherry picking what Galen got essentially correct and disavowing what Galen got wrong. Modern understandings are superior and have supplanted Galenic understandings; an ancient and wrong understanding is no rebuttal to a modern and right one, if one is arguing that it is possible to make sense of something without a modern understanding.

In closing, Egnor’s new station at the Discovery Institute’s media complaints blog means that we’ll be hearing a lot about creationist understandings of medicine. And despite the fact that I’m the resident physician (figuratively, as well as literally, at least for the next year and a half) at the Thumb, and therefore as well-placed as anyone to rebut his pronouncements, I have to say I’m not enthusiastic about it. This was a weak rebuttal: he didn’t or couldn’t respond to the arguments I did make and he railed against straw men arguments I didn’t make.

At least Galen dissected animals, not straw men, Dr. Egnor.