Irreducible perplexity

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Are molecular biologists under-equipped to defend evolution?

“You evolutionary biologists” Francis Crick is once reputed to have said to Stephen Jay Gould “You want to ask why before you understand how”. As soundbites go, it’s classic Crick – brash, assertive, confident, and dismissive of areas of endeavour which he felt were asking the wrong questions.

And he was broadly right too, although his disparaging tone was misjudged. Molecular biology, by and large, focuses on the “how” of things – how proteins and nucleic acids and sugars and lipids work, what they do, what they are up to in the here and now. “Why?” is a question usually subsumed into the delineation of the molecular mechanism and most molecular biologists will spend their careers not fully getting their answer to the “how” part to the level of resolution that they would like.

This focus on function and mechanism has been wildly successful at providing explanations for a wide range of natural phenomena, and has also resulted in an extraordinarily diverse research community consisting of chemists, physicists, computer scientists and many more, but it’s also led to a bit of an intellectual blind spot. Many molecular biologists know surprisingly little about evolution. 

Many have not read Darwin’s book, many (still) think that “conserved from yeast to humans” implies a vast evolutionary distance, and are unsure about the relatedness between eukaryotes. Crucially, and despite Dobzhansky’s maxim, many don’t spend much time thinking about things from an evolutionary perspective – or debating them.

It’s a worrisome gap, because it’s one area of public engagement that every scientist – or every biologist at least – ought to be conversant. Evolution is one of the few areas of science that touches everyone, scientists and non-scientists alike, and to which people are likely to have an emotional and an instinctive reaction. The debate over climate change may currently be hogging the attention of anti-science campaigners, but attacks on and misunderstanding of evolution are things that are unlikely to fully go away.

That gap probably explains why Intelligent Design (ID) made so much ground when it first hit the mainstream in the late 1990s. When creationism and creation science attacked evolution, they took aim at animals – the fossil record, mutation and speciation, variation. This is the same material that zoologists and evolutionary biologists live and breathe on a daily basis as part of their working routine, and they were intellectually and conversationally well-equipped to refute the claims being made. Consequently, creationism – while pervasive – became intellectually bankrupt quite early on and never came across as a threat to the scientific community.

ID was subtler. Whether deliberately or accidentally, it capitalised on the fact that while understanding organisms necessitates a close familiarity with these concepts and the supporting evidence for them, understanding how molecules work doesn’t. By often focusing on the molecular end of the spectrum – the structure of the bacterial flagellum, clotting cascades, the adaptive immune response – it invited a different set of biologists, namely the molecular biologists, to respond. But many of them simply weren’t used to thinking about things from that “why?” perspective, and as such the people that should have been rebutting ID’s pseudoscience, especially at a grassroots level, weren’t really as effective as they could have been. There was no sense of scientists’ individual convictions being shaken, but there was still a sense that refutations of “irreducible complexity” and other ID wedges weren’t coming as readily or as fluently as they should have been. ID created a great deal more ferment because the people who should have been taking it on at the rank-and-file level weren’t even used to thinking – much less debating – things from an evolutionary perspective.

In a way, it’s a shame there isn’t more debating – or rather discussion – going on now. In the 90s, the consensus stance of the academic community was not to engage with ID/pseudoscience proponents. The feeling was that by debating with them, by giving them a public platform, implicitly dignified their views and implied that there was a genuine scientific controversy to resolve (absolutely not the case, for the record). Debates, such as they were, usually happened in the courtroom over the content of school textbooks – it’s odd that it ultimately fell to the legal profession to denounce ID, although technically their job is arbitration after all.

It’s different now. The internet and the echo chambers it facilitates mean that engagement should actually be pursued, although only in a constructive way. The world’s ongoing political polarisation, exemplified in the USA, is a good example of how meaningful and illuminating discourse becomes difficult if not virtually impossible when things become too partisan and sides stop listening to each other. Shouting can end arguments, but it never resolves them, and the internet now provides the loudest megaphone of all time. Walking away doesn’t stop the shouting either – non-engagement simply amplifies the accusations of conspiracy and cover-up.

It’s worth remembering that ID/creationism and the various other anti-science threads in society’s fabric speak mostly of a sense of threat. The feeling of being threatened by the encroachment of science into people’s lives, the feeling that it attacks things/pillars which support their entire worldview and sense of self. Many people are undoubtedly feeling anxious and left behind by the march of technology, and it is still bafflingly acceptable to be scientifically illiterate even within highly-educated circles. Anybody raised in a creationist environment will have built their entire worldview around that belief, despite its factual inaccuracy, and that is a fact that needs to be remembered in any discussion. Accepting the fact of evolution may not be easy or trivial if it risks conflict with one’s friends, family, and community. 

While discourse is to be encouraged, it’s worth stressing that there are some areas not open to compromise. Religion was formerly a source of explanations for natural phenomena, but has been superseded by science in this domain. The Earth is not 6000 years old, creationism and ID are not scientific, and do not belong in science classes. It is also worth remembering that this is the view shared by a majority of Christians and a number of religious organisations, some of them highly influential; creationism remains a minority belief, but a persistent one. 

Productive and mutually respectful discussion can only occur if people have an open mind, and are willing to attempt to see things from the others’ perspective. For the religious-minded, this means accepting that science’s explanations of natural phenomena are not automatically an assault on religion; for scientists, this means remembering that while their work can explain how the world works, this does not automatically make them moral philosophers, or at least not in a professional context. 

Believers and non-believers alike are united in their awe of the natural world, something which both parties probably appreciate to a greater extent than the population at large – might it be best to focus first on that? In a sense, this approach would be much like the stem branch concept which itself resolved a thorny problem in evolutionary theory – to resolve a conflict, focus primarily on the similarities, not the differences.

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