Darwin's Tree of Common Descent is Useless to Applied Science


Please read post 18, regarding the title of this thread.

(Christy Hemphill) #23

The title is fixed now.


Oh thanks much for changing it. I was a bit cranky about the first title.

(Steve Schaffner) #25

They’re playing very large roles in untangling the molecular basis of disease, which is the main reason such studies are being done, and the only path toward being able to effectively treat many diseases. Probably the clearest path toward direct application is in age-related macular degeneration; genome-wide association studies have implicated complement activation in the cause of AMD, leading directly to numerous programs to develop therapies based on that pathway.

Studying evolution is one of the many things my research institution does, and they don’t do it for any theoretical interest. They do it in order to learn the biology needed to cure disease.

(Stephen Matheson) #26

I am reluctant to legitimize the presumed distinction between “practical” and “theoretical” science, which is not worthy of serious discussion. But let’s grant this, and then see how common descent has implications in “applied biology.” I think the main one is this: biology sees every component of a biological system—a genome, most notably, but all components in fact—as inherited from previous generations. From there, biology asks about how other influences have shaped the component—here we are talking about the environment affecting genes or growth or whatever.

So, when a biologist sees a pseudogene, and sees it in some lineages but not others, and sees that the mutation that renders the sequence non-functional is the same in all or most of those lineages, the biologist is not surprised or flummoxed, because s/he is thinking about inheritance. This isn’t odd thinking at all: if the biologist were looking at a genealogy of, say, European royals, they would do this and no good creationist would think twice. Common descent simply notes that genealogical thinking applies to essentially the whole tree of life. This is, in my opinion, of huge importance in scientific thinking, and it explains why Dobzhansky said what he did. Darwin said it differently, and perhaps better: “…all true classification is genealogical.”

It’s huge because of what it negates: once you know that everything in a genome is there because it was inherited from previous generations, you don’t assume that it has to be there for any other reason. In short, design-based arguments lose their punch. The pseudogene (just to take an obvious example) doesn’t have to do anything to make sense. Note that this doesn’t mean that design doesn’t matter, or that design arguments aren’t valuable in context. It means only that design can’t work as an overall explanatory principle. Inheritance is the framework, not purpose or design.

Practically, then, it should be clear how this matters in one big, big area of “applied” science: the mining of genomic data for information on the causes of diseases or of “beneficial” phenotypes. Big clues to the importance or irrelevance of a particular genomic feature can emerge from comparative genomics, by revealing whether that feature is conserved (or not) and, more importantly I think, by revealing whether that feature has been subject to selection. That latter question is unanswerable outside of common descent.

Of course, there’s also the practical benefit of not living in ignorance, which seems a potentially big problem for any scientist, “applied” or otherwise.


I want try and clarify what I mean by “Darwin’s tree of common descent”, a term which, due to my bumbling-amateur-ignorance of scientific parlance, may be misleading and causing some confusion:
It doesn’t refer to the theory of evolution - that mutations and natural selection determine inherited traits within a population. It refers to conclusions of ToE - that humans and chimps share a common ancestor/that all life on earth evolved from microbes.
It doesn’t refer to common descent within a species - eg, the wolf is the common ancestor of sheep dogs and German shepherds, Lenski’s 67,000 generations of E. Coli.

My contention is not that the theory of evolution is useless to applied science (because that is demonstrably false), but that the CONCLUSION from ToE that humans evolved from a hominid is useless information and irrelevant to applied science. I know of no practical scientific use for this conclusion/information and I suspect that no drug or vaccine depends on it, and that no medical procedure or treatment has ever benefited from it.

(Steve Schaffner) #28

I understood what you meant, and responded to the question you were asking. Everything I mentioned involved common ancestry of different species.

And I’ve told you that your contention is false. What are you going to do with that information?

(Phil) #29

Edgar, while I feel that there is utility in understanding human evolution as we look at gene therapy for various disease, let’s assume you are correct in saying it is of no practical use. Let me ask you a question: Does it matter if it is true?


No, it doesn’t matter. I’m just curious. If there is no practical scientifc use for the conclusion/information that humans evolved from hominids, this doesn’t prove that the information is false.

A biologist once told me that common descent had proven useful in developing a certain human vaccine (something to with pigs, from memory). But upon closer inspection, his claim was found to be spurious. It turned out that it wasn’t common descent that had proven useful in developing the vaccine, it was the facts/data that led to a conclusion of common descent that had proven useful. The conclusion itself was completely irrelevant. So his mistake was to conflate useful facts with an irrelevant (and useless) conclusion arrived at from those facts.

Then there are others biologists/scientists who claim human evolution is practically useful because it explains this and that, which is really just theorising and not a practical use at all.

There exist professors of biology who are YECs - ie, they completely reject the conclusion of human evolution. If human evolution has a practical use in applied biology, I can’t imagine how these people could work in the field of applied biology, let alone rise to the lofty station of professor - surely they become a laughing stock in their field and be discredited?

(Phil) #31

I do believe that truth matters, so whether human evolution is true is important to some extent in that it furthers understanding of creation and our place in it. Ultimately, we have to move beyond practical utility.
I agree that there are biology professors who are YEC, mostly working at schools who would fire them if they were not. I am sure there is a rare one or two at other schools, especially in Christian schools that are YEC leaning but not dogmatic, but very few. It is admittedly difficult to be a YEC professor in biology, I am sure as it would be to be a YEC professor of geology, or a YEC professor of paleontology.


Studying evolution helps cure disease, no doubt about it. May God bless your noble work.

Which applications of medical science has your research institute contributed to, exactly? Does it develop drugs or vaccines? Which cures, treatments or medical procedures has it contributed to?

Of these medical applications, vaccines, drugs, cures, treatments or procedures, which ones would not exist if no one believed humans and chimps share a common ancestor or in Darwin’s tree of common descent?

Can you think of any vaccines, drugs, cures, treatments or procedures in all of medical science that would not exist if no one believed humans and chimps share a common ancestor or in Darwin’s tree of common descent?


In that case, you might be able to name a vaccine, drug, cure, treatment or procedure in medical science that would not exist if no one believed humans and chimps share a common ancestor or in Darwin’s tree of common descent?


I agree that the Darwin’s tree of common descent is hugely important in scientific thinking. It dominates not only biology, but other spheres of science as well.

However, Dobzhansky’s proclamation - that nothing in biology makes sense without the D-tree - is patently false. Plenty of biology makes perfect sense without it - animal and plant breeding, drugs and vaccines, and other medical cures and treatments, for starters. In fact, it seems to me that the entirety of applied biology (ie, the practical stuff that makes a real difference to people’s lives) makes sense without Darwin’s tree.
In short, the D-tree needs biology, but biology doesn’t need the D-tree.

In my opinion, the D-tree is hugely important to some people - but only in their minds.

You’re missing the point: An “overall explanatory principle” doesn’t necessarily equate to a practical use. Of what practical use is a story about how whales evolved … or how feathers evolved? Whether observations are explained using a design argument or a Darwin’s-tree argument is irrelevant as far as applied biology is concerned, because applied biology relies on facts, not beliefs and stories.

Which vaccine, drug, cure, treatment or medical procedure wouldn’t exist if no one believed in Darwin’s tree of common descent? In other words, which practical application of genetic science in medical or biological science wouldn’t exist if no one believed in the D-tree?

It seems to me, that like a lot of professional evolutionists, you erroneously equate a useless explanation (based on theory) to a practical use (based on fact).

Please explain how a YEC biologist would be professionally/technically disadvantaged in the field of applied biology? Do you suppose the characteristics of mutations, natural selection and gene transfer, or the behaviour of organisms observed and exploited by a YEC biologist will be different to those observed and exploited by say, an atheist biologist?

(Randy) #35

I just noticed a bit of irony…a naturalist tells a YEC (like the physician above) that inheritance means something in biology (presumably not in morality) …while a YEC such as Ham denies that but claims that inheritance from Adam means everything in terms of both death and morality. There has got to be a paradoxical insight here somewhere.

But @glipsnort did say he relies on evolution (to predict?) His next field of work.


Indeed, truth does matter, but Darwin’s tree of common descent cannot be confirmed as truth - because a creator God is responsible for the history of life on earth. A purely materialistic explanation of this history - such as the theory of evolution - may be very far from the truth.

Not sure what you mean by that, but this thread is all about practical utility.

I would imagine being a YEC professor of geology or paleontology would be just about impossible! But being a YEC professor of biology should be no problem if one sticks to applied/empirical biology, as it seems that theories based on Darwin’s tree of common descent have no practical use.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #37

You mean like this comic?


I’m not talking about “predictions” or any other from of evolutionary THEORY. I talking about a PRACTICAL USE … in medical science or any other field of applied biology. Which drug, vaccine, cure, treatment or medical procedure would not exist if not for these theories or predictions?

(Randy) #39

Yes, but YEC would say that they recognize that type of evolution :).

@Edgar I think that @glipsnort can give more ideas, but it saves tons of time to aim at the right types of vaccines rather than, like Edison, randomly avoiding theory. Thus, it would save millions, if not billions, of dollars in his work with malaria, etc–something I’m grateful to God for, having grown up in subs Saharan Africa and seen many, many people die of that disease (which has no vaccine yet. In fact, I had it and one missionary’s son had irreversible brain damage from it). Thanks again for your good questions.

(Dillon) #40

I think that having an accurate and true picture of reality will eventually prove to be practically useful, even if it is not immediately apparent how.

In 16th century Europe it might have been hard for anyone to see what practical value could ever come from Galileo proving the heliocentric model of the solar system. How could a chiefly agrarian society benefit from the knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun (and not vice versa)?

But some time later, Newton used this model to discover gravity. He even said that (if he were given a cannon with enough power) he could shoot a cannonball into orbit and it would circle the Earth perpetually. Again, at the time Newton was saying all this, it would have been hard for the average person to see how humanity might make use of this knowledge. But Newton’s cannon precisely describes how we keep satellites in orbit.

Be patient. Seek truth for its own sake, not for practical benefits. And who knows? Maybe all of humanity will benefit from this knowledge in ways that we can’t even yet imagine.

(Stephen Matheson) #41

I guess you didn’t read my whole post.

Who said they would? What I wrote is clear enough. It wasn’t about whether anyone would be “disadvantaged.”