Professor Philip Skell is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry from Pennsylvania State University and is also a Member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). His review of the NAS booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism (2008) expresses serious concerns about the warfare thinking expressed in that booklet. At very least, one point can be made clearly: the publication does not communicate the collective view of NAS members.
This influential booklet raises more questions than it answers (source here)
The first point of discussion relates to the conflation of historical science with empirical science. The authors of the booklet pass seamlessly from advances in the study of fossils to advances in understanding of living organisms. This approach is problematical because it opens the door for people with philosophical and ideological agendas to promote their personal views in the name of science.
"This booklet [. . .] conflates the history of living organisms on Earth over the past 3.5 billion years with the advances of the last century made by experimental biologists." [. . .]
"To conflate contemporary scientific studies of existing organisms with those of the paleontologists serves mainly to misguide the public and teachers of the young."
The booklet argues that unless students have a solid grounding in the concepts of organic evolution, they will be ill-equipped to practise science as a profession. Evolutionary theory is regarded as the essential underpinning. Skell reports his own background research on this claim, actively gathering information about the extent to which evolutionary thinking actually influences and guides the research of biologists.
"Examining the major advances in biological knowledge, one fails to find any real connection between biological history and the experimental designs that have produced our cornucopia of knowledge of how the great variety of living organisms perform their functions. It is our knowledge of how organisms actually operate - not speculations about how they may have arisen millions of years ago - that is essential to doctors, veterinarians, farmers, and other practitioners of science today."
[. . .]
"I have queried biologists working in areas where one might have thought the Darwinian paradigm could guide research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I learned that the theory had provided no discernible guidance in choosing the experimental designs but was brought in, after the breakthrough discoveries, as an interesting narrative gloss."
What then is the ideology driving this? What metaphysical agenda does Skell find in the booklet?
"Yet, the Academy's new booklet posits that, without the study of ancient biological history, guided by a reductionist philosophical or theological position that we might call "Scientism", our students will not be prepared to engage in the great variety of modern experimental activities expected of them. The public should view with profound alarm the unnecessary and misguided reintroduction of speculative historical, philosophical, and religious ideas into the realms of experimental science, coming from various sources, including this current publication of the National Academy of Sciences. Are we perhaps setting the stage for a return to that earlier, worldviewbound, pre-modern type of science, only this time with the substitution of Scientism for the earlier worldviews?"
The booklet does attempt to set out evidence to support the claim that without evolutionary theory, nothing makes sense in biology. However, Skell is unimpressed:
"The Academy's new booklet has three inserts, highlighted in yellow, on pages 5, 6, and 9, which are offered as proof of the value of evolutionary theory for medicine, agriculture, and industry, that fail to support the claims: they totally neglect to address the matter of the essential experimental designs scientists require, offering instead vague statements about evolution. The essence of the evolution theory is the hypothesis that historical diversity is the consequence of natural selection acting on variations. Regardless the verity for explaining the biohistory, they provide no guidance to the experimenter, concerned for example, with the goal of finding, or synthesizing, a new antibiotic, or how it functions to disable a disease-producing organism, what dosages are required, and which individuals will not tolerate it. Studying biohistory is, at best, an entertaining distraction from the goals of a working biologist."
More positively, Skell traces out two ways to move beyond the agenda set by Scientism. He provides an overview of what he thinks students should know if they are to be successful participants in biological science. Not "immersion in historical biology", but:
"1. What living organisms inhabit our Earth; 2. How they reproduce their unique characteristics over time and maintain their coherent functions over their lifetimes; and 3. How they interact with one another."
Furthermore, these students need to considerably more savvy about matters of philosophy and worldviews, so that they are better able to recognise and evaluate scientism when it rears its head.
"Outside of biological science, it is certainly true that the education of our young in matters related to development of their worldviews is sadly neglected - to their and society's detriment, since such studies serve to define the matrix, structures, and evolution of our societies and cultures. This neglect speaks urgently for a significant restructuring of educational curricula as a whole to include introductions to philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology, history (including biological history), and comparative theologies. In this way, students could have a deeper understanding of the forces buffeting them and the nature of the damaging pestilential war currently infecting biological science."
It is the view of many of us that the rise of secularism in science, particularly since the Enlightenment, has not been at all healthy for the scientific enterprise. There is an intolerance of different approaches demonstrated by the promotion of consensus science, position statements from science organisations and the erosion of academic freedom. The NAS appears not to be without fault in these matters. It should be noted that The National Academy of Sciences was signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863. It is mandated to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.
"The misguided emphasis on biological history has produced an unremarked change in the mission of the Academy, which was chartered during President Lincoln's administration to advise on matters of science and technology, and for which, over the years, it has credibly maintained a membership of persons renowned in those fields."
Book Review: National Academy of Sciences, Science, Evolution, and Creationism (Washington, D.C.: NAS Press, 2008).
Philip S. Skell
Politics and the Life Sciences, October 2008, 27(2), 47-49.
First para: Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences released the latest version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism. This booklet is no doubt intended to inform the public - and teachers - of developments within biology. Like its earlier versions, however, it conflates the history of living organisms on Earth over the past 3.5 billion years with the advances of the last century made by experimental biologists.
Skell, P.S., Why do we invoke Darwin? The Scientist, Aug. 29, 2005, 19(16), 10.
Skell, P.S., The Dangers Of Overselling Evolution, Forbes (02/23/2009)
Tyler, D. Spreading the word about evolution, ARN Literature Blog (10 January 2008)
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