Where history repeats itself: Tobacco, Global Warming and now Evolution

History has a tendency to repeat itself. In an effort to control the language of the debate, communications consultant Frank Luntz wrote a memo in 2001 advising Republicans how to control the language of climate change:

“The scientific debate remains open,” he wrote , “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field”

We observe a same lack of appreciation of science by voters on the topic of evolution. Let’s explore some of these similarities and see what we can learn from them.

As the Greenpeace FAQ explains

Those scientists and experts recommended by Luntz have been provided by the Washington think tanks funded by ExxonMobil along with other oil, coal, electric utilities and car companies.

This is a similar campaign strategy to that adopted by the Tobacco industry decades earlier. “Doubt is our product” was the famous comment of one tobacco lobbyist to a US Senator. Indeed, you’ll find that some of the key deniers and organizations named on ExxonSecrets were also paid by Big Tobacco to generate doubt about the hazards of smoking.

But Exxon says it’s just funding the groups to debate policy issues because it doesn’t like the Kyoto Protocol.

In the evolution debate we see a very similar pattern. Based on the public’s misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, creationists reinforce the flawed belief that evolutionary theory is the same as Darwinism and that Darwinism excludes the supernatural and is a materialistic explanation.

On Uncommon Descent Denyse O’Leary confuses the issue as follows

Denyse O'Leary wrote:

Miller was upset because he knows as well as anyone that this and other instances of Cardinalspeak and Popespeak are a polite way of saying that the Catholic Church does not support materialist theories of evolution like Darwinism, a point made in 1996 by John Paul II, but widely misrepresented ever since.

Not only does this misrepresent the scientific position but it also seems to spin the catholic position on evolutionary theory. Of course, the catholic church believes that there is something more than science, however the catholic church also seems to have accepted that from a scientific perspective, evolutionary theory is the best explanation.

In The Testimony of Reason (1903), Samuel Louis Phillips writes:

It may be admitted that it is probable species originated from a common ancestor by virtue of a law of the survival of the fittest to live, and the inheritance by its progeny of desirable acquired characteristics. But this law is one of God’s laws, and while the aforegoing analogy in pointing to the present mechanism of the eye, or ear, or heart as proof of the direct and immediate handiwork of an intelligent Creator, in the sense of a watch being the work of an intelligent man, is probably not perfect, yet if it was said the laws of evolution which have wrought these changes and improvements were the work of an intelligent Creator, the conclusion would be irrefutable. Granting the assertions of the most extreme evolutionists, it is no impeachment of the power and intelligence of God to admit all vertebrates had a common ancestor in the very remote past, rather it is an evidence of His power to be able to impress on all vegetable and animal life this ability to develop into differences and higher beings and evolve the harmonious and beautiful world we see before us.

There is nothing, therefore, in evolution antagonistic to the creation of nature by the all- wise and powerful God in whom we believe. The workman who produces screws by means of machinery he has constructed and put in operation is as much a maker of such screws as he who fashions them severally with his own hands.

So if Darwinism and (evolutionary) science in general presents no scientific threat to religion then why the objections? Historically, the objections involved the concept that humans evolved just like other animals, and the concept that science, by not requiring a supernatural influence, has made such an influence superfluous and worse denies the plausibility of such an influence.

In fact, this brings us to the ‘teach the controversy’ argument which appeals to fairness and yet ignores that there is no controversy. As the school boards in Florida are coming to realize, there are no alternative theories of evolution.

Even ID proponents like Phulip ‘Father of Intelligent Design’ Johnson laments that

I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world.

Source: Michelangelo D’Agostino, In the matter of Berkeley v. Berkeley Berkeley Science Review, 10, Spring 2006.

The early 21st century ‘arguments’ against evolutionary theory repeat the history of the 20th century. In the early 20th century, opposition to Darwinism focused on the argument that Darwinism relied on variation but Darwinian theory could not explain the arrival of said variation. Ever since then creationists have continued to repeat this flawed argument. It is true that Darwin did not have a theory of inheritance and genetics. In fact he proposed a flawed concept of Pangenesis of the gemules. However, by the early 20th century, people had rediscovered the work by Mendel.

To see how history repeats itself, and worse, how few have learned from history’s earlier failures, let’s have a look at some of the literature of those days. As early as 1907, Vernon Lyman Kellogg, an American zoologist, wrote in his book “Darwinism Today: a discussion of present-day scientific criticism of the Darwinian selection theories, together with a brief account of the principal other proposed auxiliary and alternative theories of species forming”:

Darwinism, then, is not synonymous with organic evolution, nor with the theory of descent (which two phases are used by the biologist practically synonymously). Therefore when one reads of the “death-bed of Darwinism,” it is not of the death-bed of organic evolution or of the theory of descent that one is reading. While many reputable biologists to-day strongly doubt the commonly reputed effectiveness of the Darwinian selection factors to explain descent—some, indeed, holding them to be of absolutely no species-forming value—practically no naturalists of position and recognised attainment doubt the theory of descent.’ Organic evolution, that is, the descent of species, is looked on by biologists to be as proved a part of their science as gravitation is in the science of physics or chemical affinity in that of chemistry. Doubts of Darwinism are not, then, doubts, of organic evolution. Darwinism might indeed be on its death-bed without shaking in any considerable degree the confidence of biologists and natural philosophers in the theory of descent.

In other words, while (aspects of) Darwinian theory may (have) be(en) in doubt, the fact of evolution remains unassailed.

And yet, even though Darwinian theory was meeting with some strong criticism (much of it was later found to be wrong), Kellogg observes that

The fair truth is that the Darwinian selection theories, considered with regard to their claimed capacity to be an independently sufficient mechanical explanation of descent, stand to-day seriously discredited in the biological world. On the other hand, it is also fair truth to say that no replacing hypothesis or theory of species-forming has been offered by the opponents of selection which has met with any general or even considerable acceptance by naturalists. Mutations seem to be too few and far between; for orthogenesis we can discover no satisfactory mechanism; and the same is true for the Lamarckian theories of modification by the cumulation, through inheritance, of acquired or ontogenic characters.

History repeating itself: While many doubt Darwinian theory, there are no scientifically viable alternatives.

Kellogg realizes the scientific and theologically impacts of the position of some of these critics in a section titled “intemperate anti-Darwinism”:

Says one of them:” “Darwinism now belongs to history, like that other curiosity of our century, the Hegelian philosophy; both are variations on the theme: how one manages to lead a whole generation by the nose.” The same writer also speaks of “the softening of the brain of the Darwinians.” Another one,” in similarly relegating Darwinism to the past, takes much pleasure in explaining that “we [anti-Darwinians] are now standing by the death-bed of Darwinism, and making ready to send the friends of the patient a little money to insure a decent burial of the remains.” No less intemperate and indecent is Wolff’s T reference to the “episode of Darwinism” and his suggestion that our attitude toward Darwin should be “as if he had never existed.” Such absurdity of expression might pass unnoticed in the mouth of a violent non-scientific debater—let us say an indignant theologian of Darwin’s own days—but in the mouth of a biologist of recognised achievement, of thorough scientific training and unusually keen mind—for this expression came from just such a man—it can only be referred to as a deplorable example of those things that make the judicious to grieve.

Kellogg continues to point out that science had already accepted the fact of common descent (fact of evolution) but that it was Darwin who provided a scientific explanation for the observed data.

Darwinism may be defined, then, as a certain rational, causo-mechanical (hence, non-teleologic) explanation of the origin of new species. The Darwinian explanation rests on certain observed facts, and certain inductions from these facts. The observed facts are: (i) the increase by multiplication in geometrical ratio of the individuals in every species, whatever the kind of reproduction which may be peculiar to each species, whether this be simple division, sporulation, budding, parthenogenesis, conjugation and subsequent division, or amphimixis (sexual reproduction) ; (2) the always apparent slight (to greater) variation in form and function existing among all individuals even though of the same generation or brood; and (3) the transmission, with these inevitable slight variations, by the parent to its offspring of a form and physiology essentially like the parental.

Kellogg then points out that the objections from theology are not with Darwinian theory per se but with the fact of evolution

But on the whole the Darwinian selection theories could be utterly done away with without making any appreciable change in the existing relation between theology and biology. Huxley said this to the theologian Darwinophobes many years ago.

In other words, there is the fact of evolution (common descent) and the theory of descent (Darwinism)

Biological science contains much that is proved and certain; but also much that is nothing more than working hypothesis, provisional theory, and anticipatory generalisation. As the proved part is largely of the nature of facts of observation, isolated and unrelated, and the unproved part is composed of the large and sweeping generalisations, the plausible, provisional explanations, such as the various theories of heredity, of the results of struggle, of the development of mutual aid, etc.,

concluding that

Biology is not yet come to that stage in its development where it can offer many solidly founded generalisations on which other sciences can build. The theory of descent is one such safe great generalisation; but perhaps Darwinism is not another. At least many scholars do not believe that it is.

Kellogg continues to provide a ‘fair and balanced’ overview of the criticisms as well as the Darwinian response to said criticisms and sets out to define Darwinian theory and Evolution.

Now all these millions of kinds of animals and plants can have had an origin in some one of but three ways; they have come into existence spontaneously, they have been specially created by some supernatural power, or they have descended one from the other in many-branching series by gradual transformation. There is absolutely no scientific evidence for either of the first two ways; there is much scientific evidence for the last way. There is left for the scientific man, then, solely the last; that is, the method of descent. The theory of descent (with which phrase organic evolution may be practically held as a synonym) is, then, simply the declaration that the various living as well as the now extinct species of— organisms are descended from one another and from common, ancestors. It is the explanation of the origin of species accepted in the science of biology. (The natural question about the first species or the first several, if they appeared simultaneously, will receive attention later; the theory of descent explains the origin of kinds of life, not the origin of life) If such a summary disposal of the theories of spontaneous generation and divine creation is too repugnant to my readers to meet with their toleration, then, as Delage has pertinently said in connection with a similar statement in his great tome on “Heredity,” my book and such readers had better immediately part company; we do not speak the same language.

Kellogg points out that the later theory of Pangenesis of gemules had been falsified and that the theory of sexual selection has received little support.

Kellogg reiterates his position

I hope now to have pointed out clearly in the preceding paragraphs the real distinction between the theory of descent and the theory of natural selection (Darwinism). The bases, consisting of observed facts and logical reasons, of the selection theory, have been given; perhaps it were well to state briefly the bases, or sources of the scientific evidence for the theory of descent. This evidence is derived from three chief sources; the study of the comparative anatomy and structural homologies of organisms, the study of the prehistoric animals and plants, that is, palaeontology or historical geology, and the study of ontogeny, or embryology, that is, the development of individual animals and plants. The homologies or structural correspondence, in gross and in detail, which the study of animal and plant comparative anatomy reveals to exist in varying degrees among living and extinct kinds of organisms have but one possible scientific explanation: an explanation which serves at once to account for the existence of this correspondence and for its varying degrees. Evidences for This explanation is community of ancestry, the blood-relationship of organisms, the theory of descent. Similarly the facts revealed by the study of palaeontology are explicable wholly satisfactorily by the theory of descent and in no single definitive instance do they contradict it. Finally, the facts and conditions relating to the embryology or ontogeny of animals and plants are similarly wholly in consonance with the theory of descent, although the brilliant positive evidence for the theory which the first revealing of the phenomena of ontogeny led biologists to expect and even to anticipate has confessedly not been forthcoming in that overwhelming measure hoped for. The evidence is excellent and positive and there is much of it, but the proof that man is descended from a fish because he has gill-slits at one period in his individual development is not of the sort to rely on too confidently. The recapitulation theory of Fritz Muller and Haeckel is chiefly conspicuous now as a skeleton on which to hang innumerable exceptions. But the scientific evidence for descent which embryology offers is neither weak nor slight; it is only less overwhelming and all-sufficient than its too sanguine early friends and sponsors attributed to it.

Kellogg presents the reader with an excellent overview of the Darwinian theory of evolution and the fact of common descent, and also shows that much skepticism existed on the arguments based on the recapitulation theory by Muller and Haeckel.

Even in its early days Darwinism was attacked

Attacks on Darwinism have been made, of course, ever since there was any Darwinism to attack. In those first days (and months and years) after the “Origin of on Darwinism. ‘ Early attacks species” was published there were the liveliest of times for Darwin and his supporters; or rather chiefly for the supporters. Darwin wisely kept aloof from the debates. But for the first band of followers with the indefatigable, the brilliant, and wholly competent Huxley at its head, there was no lack of opportunities for jousting. The issue was never doubtful; Huxley and his informed and equipped scientific companions against the scientifically ignorant, angry, incautious, and dogmatic Bishop Wilberforces had unfair odds. The victory came swiftly and brilliantly to the Darwinians. At this time there was little distinction made between Darwinism and Evolution. It was really a battle by the theologians against the theory of descent. And the theory of descent was, and is, invulnerable.

Kellogg points out that the increasing objections come from well established researchers in relevant sciences (compare this to the list of 700+ ‘Doubters of Darwinism’)

In the last few years, it has, as already mentioned in the preface and introductory chapter of this book, reached such proportions, such strength and extent, as to begin to make itself apparent outside of strictly biological and naturo-philosophical circles. Such older biologists and natural philosophers as von Baer, von Kolliker, Virchow, Nageli, Wigand, and Hartmann, and such others writing in the nineties and in the present century as - von Sachs, Eimer, Delage, Haacke, Kassowitz, Cope, Haberlandt, Henslow, Goette, Wolff, Driesch, Packard, Morgan, Jaeckel, Steinmann, Korschinsky, and de Vries, are examples which show the distinctly ponderable character of the anti-Darwinian ranks. Perhaps these names mean little to the general reader; let me translate them into the professors of zoology, of botany, of palaeontology, and of pathology, in the universities of Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Strassburg, Tubingen, Amsterdam, Columbia University, etc. Now without knowing the man personally, or even through his particular work, the general reader can safely attribute to men of such position a certain amount of scientific training, of proved capacity, and of special acquaintanceship with the subject of their discussion. One does not come to be a professor of biology in Berlin or Paris or Columbia solely by caprice of ministers of education or boards of trustees; one has proved one’s competency for the place. To working biologists the names—I have given, of course, only a selection, and one particularly made to show variety of interest (botany, zoology, palaeontology, pathology)—mean even more than the positions. They are mostly associated with recognised scientific attainment and general intellectual capacity.

These critics generally fall into two categories, a smaller category denies that selection can play any role in speciation while the larger, second category, argues that while Darwinian theory can explain what happens to variation, it cannot explain the origin of such variation. Or alternatively, there are two groups of critics, one group which is mostly interested in undermining Darwinian theory and another group interested in providing alternative explanations. The former group, also known as destructive criticism, is the larger of the two groups as there is a paucity of competing explanations.

Kellogg mentions a few competing explanations and how they have to compete against Darwinian theory which was used to explain the large amounts of known facts of its time

The situation illustrates admirably the varying worth of a few facts. A few stubborn facts of the wrong- complexion are fatal things for a theory; they are immensely effective offensive weapons. But these same few facts make a pitiable showing when they are called on to support a theory of their own. It was exactly the greatest part of Darwin’s greatness, it seems to me, that he launched his theory only after making the most remarkable collection of facts yet gathered together in biological science by any one man. Testing his theory by applying to it successively fact after fact, group after group and category after category of facts, he convinced himself of the theory’s consonance with all this vast array of observed biological actuality. Compare the grounding of any of the now offered replacing- theories with the preparation and founding of Darwinism. In 1864 von Kolliker, a great biologist, convinced of the incapacity of natural selection to do the work assigned it by its founders and friends, suggested a theory of the origin of species by considerable leaps; in 1899, Korschinsky,’ on the basis of some few personal observations and the compiling” of some others, definitely formulated a theory of species-forming by sudden considerable variations, namely, mutations;

in 1901 and 1903 appeared the two volumes of de Vries’s “Die Mutationstheorie,” in which are revealed the results of long years of careful personal observation, in truly Darwinian manner, directed toward the testing and better grounding of this mutations theorie of species-origin.

And even though some evidence seems to support the mutationtheorie of De Vries (evidence later found to be flawed), Kellogg observes how unable the alternative explanations are in explaining the known facts

But however effective de Vries’s facts are in proving the possibility of the occurrence of other variations than those fortuitous ones occurring in continuous series from mean to opposite extremes which Darwin recognised as the basis of species-forming, and however effective they are in proving the actual production of three or six or ten species by mutation, and however effective in both these capacities they are as weapons of attack on the dominance of the Darwinian theory of species-making, how really inadequate are they to serve as the basis of a great all-answering theory explaining, in a causo-mechanical way, the facts of descent, or even the primary facts of general species-forming

So if Intelligent Design provides no alternative to evolutionary theory then why the ‘teach the controversy’ and ‘teach alternative theories of evolution’? Simple, Intelligent Design is on the record as stating that ID can fully envelop evolutionary theory and adds a concept of the supernatural intelligence. Although the latter explains nothing and appears to be totally ad hoc and superfluous, it helps understand that ID is not an scientific alternative to evolutionary theory but rather a theological alternative.

The answer seems self evident: By appealing to a sense of fairness, the creationist movement hopes to be able to introduce creationism as a scientific alternative to evolutionary theory without having to say so. And while this may appease the confused public, it fails judicial review as shown in detail in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) and more recently in Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., Case No. 04cv2688.

In true Orwellian fashion, teaching science has become teaching ‘dogma’ and teaching creationism has become ‘academic freedom’.

So what about these ‘controversies’? Surely there are controversies in evolutionary theory?

The answer is straightforward: Yes, there are philosophical and scientific controversies. The former controversy is between those who insist that there exists a supernatural entity who has set in motion, or directed the evolutionary pathways, and those who argue that such a requirement is superfluous. So what about the latter? Are there scientific controversies in evolution and do they provide any credibility to (intelligent design) creationism? The answer again is not surprising: yes there are controversies as to mechanisms and no such controversies do not add credibility to the scientifically vacuous position of intelligent design creationism (IDC).

Even though Global Warming is a scientific fact, there are still many unknowns and uncertainties as to the relative impact of the various mechanisms and feedback mechanisms involved. The same applies to evolutionary theory which is a well established fact as explained in the excellent FAQ 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution The Scientific Case for Common Descent by Douglas Theobald, Ph.D.

As the National Academy of Sciences explains in Science, Evolution, and Creationism (2008)

The evidence for evolution comes not just from the biological sciences but also from both historical and modern research in anthropology, astrophysics, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics, and other scientific disciplines, including the behavioral and social sciences. Astrophysics and geology have demonstrated that the Earth is old enough for biological evolution to have resulted in the species seen today. Physics and chemistry have led to dating methods that have established the timing of key evolutionary events. Studies of other species have revealed not only the physical but also the behavioral continuities among species. Anthropology has provided new insights into human origins and the interactions between biology and cultural factors in shaping human behaviors and social systems.

As in every active area of science, many questions remain unanswered. Biologists continue to study the evolutionary relationships among organisms, he genetic changes that affect the form and function of organisms, the effects of organisms on Earth’s physical environment, the evolution of intelligence and social behaviors, and many other fascinating subjects. But in each case they are asking specific questions to learn more about how, not whether, evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. They are investigating and further elucidating the mechanisms that produce evolutionary change and the consequences of that change.

Biological evolution is part of a compelling historical narrative that scientists have constructed over the last few centuries. The narrative begins with the formation of the universe, the solar system, and the Earth, which resulted in the conditions necessary for life to evolve. While many questions remain about the origins of life on this planet, the appearance of life set in motion a process of biological evolution that continues to this day. Today, new chapters in the narrative are being uncovered through the study of the genetic processes responsible for evolutionary change.

Perhaps the best conclusion is that the best and only logical approach is to accept the creationist slogan and “Teach the controversy” and how better to do so by “Teaching evolutionary theory” ? The next time you hear poorly informed people object to evolution being the foundation of biology, explain to them why they have been misinformed.

For those interested in a good overview of the ‘controversies’ surrounding Global Warming, see the excellent lecture by Namoi Oreskes titled “The American Denial of Global Warming”