Philosopher of Biology Paul Nelson has demonstrated scholarly patience with a hostile internet audience at biologist Jerry Coyne's website in the wake of a Nelson-Coyne exchange about a recent talk Nelson gave at Rick Warren's Saddleback church. Go here for all the relevant links (Paul's excellent Saddleback talk, Coyne's website, and commentary on both).
After reading through the entire (long) threaded discussion about Nelson (in which Nelson participates) on Coyne's "Why Evolution is True" (WEIT) website, I've reached four conclusions.
- The majority of comments against Nelson consist of name calling with little rational substance.
- Nelson patiently explains what he did and did not mean, but makes little progress with this audience.
- Evoluionist/biochemist Larry Moran (who is no friend of intelligent design) takes his own to task for being unfair to Nelson (though of course, Moran still rejects ID).
- When Coyne confronted the evolutionists Nelson quoted in his Saddleback talk (and elsewhere), they naturally responded (see Coyne's website) that the are not creationists and believe in basic neo-Darwinism. But Nelson documents how their own published research shows that in candid moments they admit serious problems with the foundations of today's textbook version of Darwinism.
Here are a few observations you will read if you follow the links provided through the link above:
Casey Luskin at ENV writes: "Read Coyne's post: There is hardly a scientific argument against Paul Nelson to be found, either in Coyne's comments or in the comments of the scientists he contacted who affirmed that they, indeed, are not "creationists." No surprise in that, but it hardly negates their criticisms of modern neo-Darwinian theory. Now watch Paul's talk. Paul didn't invent quotes from any of these evolutionary scientists, who published their own remarks in peer-reviewed scientific papers, explaining serious problems with standard textbook descriptions of neo-Darwinism."
Paul Nelson on Jerry Coyne's WEIT website writes: "Jerry, I’ll stand by what these authors (Davidson, Lynch, Gerhart, Kirschner, and Wagner) have published on the topic of the efficacy of natural selection. Below are representative passages from their books and articles. More from each author could be provided from the literature, if needed [what follows is Nelson quoting these authors]:
Michael Lynch:…the uncritical acceptance of natural selection as an explanatory force for all aspects of biodiversity (without any direct evidence) is not much different than invoking an intelligent designer (without any direct evidence). True, we have actually seen natural selection in action in a number of well-documented cases of phenotypic evolution (Endler 1986; Kingsolver et al. 2001), but it is a leap to assume that selection accounts for all evolutionary change, particularly at the molecular and cellular levels. The blind worship of natural selection is not evolutionary biology. It is arguably not even science. Natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms, and the failure to realize this is probably the most significant impediment to a fruitful integration of evolutionary theory with molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.
– Michael Lynch, The Origins of Genome Architecture (Sinauer, 2007, pp. 368-9)
Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart: There are limits on what selection can accomplish. We must remember that it merely acts as a sieve, preserving some variants and rejecting others; it does not create variation. If genetic change were random, what could ensure that enough favorable phenotypic variation had taken place for selection to have produced the exquisite adaptation and variety we see on the earth today? At various times, biologists thought that genetic change must be directed in some way to produce enough of the appropriate kinds of phenotypic variation. If selection were presented with a preselected subset of variants, that might greatly facilitate evolutionary change. Or if the organism generated just the right variants, selection might not be needed at all. Thus, the efficacy of selection would depend on the nature of phenotypic variation…Is genetic variation purely random, or is it in fact biased to facilitate evolutionary change?
– Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma (Yale, 2005, p. 13)
Eric Davidson: Of the first of these approaches (e.g., Hoekstra and Coyne, 2007), I shall have nothing to say, as mechanistic developmental biology has shown that its fundamental concepts are largely irrelevant to the process by which the body plan is formed in ontogeny. In addition it gives rise to lethal errors in respect to evolutionary process. Neo-Darwinian evolution is uniformitarian in that it assumes that all process works the same way, so that evolution of enzymes or flower colors can be used as current proxies for study of evolution of the body plan. It erroneously assumes that change in protein coding sequence is the basic cause of change in developmental program; and it erroneously assumes that evolutionary change in body plan morphology occurs by a continuous process. All of these assumptions are basically counterfac- tual. This cannot be surprising, since the neo-Darwinian synthesis from which these ideas stem was a pre-molecular biology concoction focused on population genetics and adaptation natural history, neither of which have any direct mechanistic import for the genomic regulatory systems that drive embryonic development of the body plan.
– Eric Davidson, “Evolutionary bioscience as regulatory systems biology,” Developmental Biology 357 (2011):35-40.
Andreas Wagner:…we know few of the principles that explain the ability of living things to innovate through a combination of natural selection and random genetic change. Random change by itself is not sufficient, because it does not necessarily bring forth beneficial phenotypes. For example, random change might not be suitable to improve most man-made, technological systems. Similarly, natural selection alone is not sufficient: As the geneticist Hugo de Vries already noted in 1905, ‘natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest’. Any principle of innovation needs to explain how novel, beneficial phenotypes can originate. In other words, principles of innovation are principles of phenotypic variability.
– Andreas Wagner, “The molecular origins of evolutionary innovations,” Trends in Genetics 27 (2011):397-410 [footnote numbers omitted]
I’d encourage your readers to watch my talk at Saddleback, which deals with issues of relevance to this website (in general), but to this issue (the role of natural selection) in particular; link is here: http://www.saddleback.com/mc/m/7ece8/
Watch this video. Nelson is a superb speaker and widely read in evolutionary biology.
David Klinghoffer at ENV writes: "Finally, none other than biochemist Larry Moran, very far from being an admirer of intelligent design, weighs in to say that Nelson in his presentation of the disputed authors' views it right!"
Larry Moran on Jerry Coyne's WEIT website writes (to which Klinghoffer refers): "I think this is basically correct. All of these authors question in some way or another the "centrality" of natural selection to evolutionary theory. We can quibble about the exact meaning of words and sentences but I, for one, don't think Nelson is way off base here. Perhaps Nelson shouldn't have said "expressed doubts about selection" because it could be taken to mean that the authors deny that positive natural selection exists. I don't think that's what Paul Nelson meant. And: I don't think Jerry's question is fair. Paul Nelson was not accusing these authors of denying a role for natural selection in "obvious adaptations."
David Klinghoffer at ENV writes about the above comment by Moran: "Look, you can never really know for certain what another person thinks and believes in his heart, his true motivations in saying or doing as he does. All you have is at what he says, the record of the words he selected, presumably to express his thoughts. That's all. The authors in question are not intelligent design advocates but in their previous writing they expressed strong doubts about ideas that are central to contemporary Darwinian thinking. When called on this by Coyne, and told they were being cited by an ID advocate, they assured Dr. Coyne of their fundamental evolutionary orthodoxy."
Again, go here for all the relevant links.