Does evolutionary theory provide any useful scientific benefit?


#1

Does evolutionary theory provide any useful scientific benefit? Has it resulted in any practical breaththrough to benefit human health, food production, aesthetic beauty, animal health, that could not have been generated without it?

Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution? Dr Marc Kirschner, chair of the Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, stated: “In fact, over the last 100 years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself. Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all.”9 Dr Skell wrote, “It is our knowledge of how these organisms actually operate, not speculations about how they may have arisen millions of years ago, that is essential to doctors, veterinarians, farmers … .”10 Evolution actually hinders medical discovery.11 Then why do schools and universities teach evolution so dogmatically, stealing time from experimental biology that so benefits humankind?

It is important when answering this question, to distinguish between the atmosphere of evolutionary theory, and the logic of evolution without which such discoveries could not have happened. In addition, coincidence cannot be equated with “responsible for”. And, also, if such incidents exist, do they outweigh the opposite happenings, where evolutionary theory has hindered or misdirected practical applications of science to human and animal welfare?


(Connor Mooneyhan) #2

Hey John! Evolutionary theory has helped medicine in many ways. Even though we can’t see macro-evolution happen in the small timeframe we have as humans, viruses and other such very small things have very short lifetimes and therefore can evolve very quickly. For instance, we need a new flu vaccine every year because the flu evolves so rapidly that it has different traits year after year. Yes it’s not macro-evolution, but our understanding of micro-evolution can be extrapolated over long periods of time to achieve macro-evolutionary results.

A good article that I read while I was taking a course in evolution did a great job of explaining the modern health benefits of evolutionary theory is available here: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/amnh/human-evolutio/evolution-and-human-health/a/how-evolution-saves-lives-and-promotes-prosperity

Also, I am currently reading a book called The Story of The Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel E Lieberman that talks about how evolution affects how we understand how our bodies work today. In short, there are many ways that evolutionary theory helps us, especially in the field of medicine. It helps us know why things are where they are and why they do what they do.


#3

Thanks Connor. In order to know whether the theory has made a difference in daily practical applications, you have to ask whether the practical applications would be different without the theory. We know that there is no such simple thing as “the flu”. Any flu is made up of a large variety of viruses, with perhaps a dominant strain. This is why some flu vaccines only work on about half of the flu strains, and do not prevent flu symptoms in a large or significant percentage of the population. We know that mutations exist, and we know there are huge variations in viruses. But if we were to use evolutionary theory as a basis for disease alarm or prevention, then we would be concerned that viruses might evolve to harmful bacteria, or that bacteria would evolve to harmful viruses. Having viruses evolve into viruses does not seem to me to be an effect of the type of evolution that would impact disease prevention.

We know that some bacteria that are resistant to some modern anti-biotics, have been discovered from archaeological material (I believe sunken ships in the Artic from several centuries earlier), which would indicate not that they evolved, but that they always existed. One would assume this principle is also likely to apply to viruses. When one group or strain of viruses is decimated by vaccines (antibodies), then another strain has room to grow.

I have heard rather that evolutionary theory has created problems for medicine, especially in making assumptions about vestigial organs. The theory postulated that there must be vestigial organs. So it concluded that the appendix was vestigial, and that the tonsils were likely vestigial or unnecessary. And that the same applied to other organs in humans and animals. But this was found to be false. When the actual benefit of these organs was discovered, in spite of evolutionary theory, not because of it, then the practice of medicine began to reduce the removal of appendix and tonsils.

Evolutionary theory assumes you have to wait for viruses to evolve before you can do something about them. An alternate theory would assume that you don’t have to wait, because they are likely already there; you need merely to assume that eventually larger populations of the other viruses will develop. This provides an opportunity to anticipate outbreaks rather than merely respond to them.

Do you understand the significance of what Dr. Skell is saying below? Does it make sense to you?

Dr Skell wrote, “It is our knowledge of how these organisms actually operate, not speculations about how they may have arisen millions of years ago, that is essential to doctors, veterinarians, farmers … .”10 Evolution actually hinders medical discovery.


(Connor Mooneyhan) #4

Yes, that makes sense. I definitely see what he’s saying there. I think that, however, patterns usually arise in nature. Science has the ability to predict certain things about what might happen in the future. So, if we take evolutionary theory as science, we could say that the patterns that we see in the past are likely to repeat themselves in the future. In that way, evolution could help in other medical fields.

It is a very new field, having only been around (being seriously considered, that is) for just over 200 years. It makes sense that we wouldn’t have much to offer to anything yet. The way I see it, science can start as one of two things: it can start practically or theoretically. Mathematics, for example, started practically. People measured plots of land and found the area of them so they could ensure fair payment for the land, and other such every day uses. Now, we are still applying mathematics, but there is also an overwhelming amount of research into theoretical mathematics as well. Even things in millions of dimensions are being studied; this is not for practicality, but for the excitement of discovery. There are other things that start theoretically, being pursued at first only for the sake of discovery. These things, once we know enough about them, have the possibility of later being able to contribute to the real world.

Evolution, I think, started theoretically. Sure, it attempts to study the way things are, but really what we are doing is studying the way things seem to be now and extrapolating that backwards in time so that we can try to figure out the history of life. This, since it is not being applied (much) currently, is theoretical. When an idea is theoretical and hasn’t contributed much if any at all, there will certainly be controversy over it. After all, we haven’t seen it in action. However, I believe that evolution will expand to such a point where we will know enough about it to see what might happen with future events so that we can better understand the way things are now.

I don’t quite agree with Dr Skell when he says that “Evolution actually hinders medical discovery”. However, I might if we changed that statement a little bit to say “Making certain assumptions about evolution actually hinders medical discovery”. You pointed out the vestigial organ issue. We don’t yet know enough about evolution to safely assume that something we don’t know much about doesn’t have a use. That, I believe, is arrogance on the part of the scientific community. If we are attempting to be intellectually honest, we should assume that everything has a purpose, and then try to find what that purpose is. If, after comprehensive investigation, we don’t find any obvious functions, we could be forgiven for assuming that the object in question has no purpose. Though, it would be better to say it has no known purpose.

So yes, currently I think we should primarily stick to what we know about the way things are now. Later, we might be able to apply the patterns we see in history, but we just might not be ready for that yet. Also, we should make arrogant assumptions about things we don’t know. That is counter-intuitive to the entire scientific mindset, and it completely breaks down room for discovery in those areas.


#5

Good thoughts, Connor. I had not heard of millions of dimensions… wonder what that’s about?

You have said you don’t quite agree with Dr. Skell, but yet you seem to agree in your response, when you say, “If we are attempting to be intellectually honest, we should assume that everything has a purpose, and then try to find what that purpose is.” Evolutionary theory would say that things might have had a purpose at one time, or might not, since they are simply a useless error, because there are many errors, and some will be useless, so we should expect to find useless stuff. In fact we should expect to find quite a bit of useless stuff, provided it does not do any direct harm to the organism. The problem is that assumption, based on an honest deduction from the theory, tends to lead to the opposite of your assumption, which is that “everything likely has a purpose.” In that case, the theory of evolution hindered rather than helped the cause of medicine and understanding of human physiology and anatomy. We have other examples, including the so-called vestigial “legs” or claspers of the whale, which are not vesitigial actually but useful for mating. The evolutionary assumption hides the very real usefulness, and hinders its true discovery.

It is said then that (as you say) that it is not evolution, but certain assumptions within evolution that hinder medical discovery. However, we cannot deny that the theory itself led to these assumptions… they were the most natural assumptions to make within the theory. If we eventually discover that there are no useless vestigial organs or appendages, an entire branch theory of evolution, and the evidence for evolution based on this side theory, disappears.


(Gerard Willemsen) #6

I think we have to take into account that evolutionary theory (or rather evolutionary theories) have evolved themselves considerably over time - as all scientific theories and models do. Darwins theory was formulated on the basis of empirical knowledge at that time. Since then knowledge about geology, anatomy, ecology, paleontology and not the elast genetics have improved enormously, which of curse led to new forms of evolutionary theory.
The whole idea of vestigial organs was perhaps not unlogical when it was first formulated. No one could at that time really imagine what function an appendix possibly could have, so the idea gave a plausible explanation for its existence. When we now know that the appendix in fact is functional this explanation is no longer needed. But I would definitely not say that vestigal organs ever could be considered any proof for evolution. Personally I would expect that really useless structures would very quickly dissappear in the course of evolution so I would not expect to find them in a world created through evolution.


(Connor Mooneyhan) #7

Personally I would expect that really useless structures would very quickly dissappear in the course of evolution so I would not expect to find them in a world created through evolution.

I really like your point here Gerard. I often hear biologists say that there is a general rule in evolution: you use it or you lose it. This explains why the vestigial organs part of the theory is closing up as we find more and more uses for things.


(Connor Mooneyhan) #8

Evolutionary theory would say that things might have had a purpose at one time, or might not

I don’t believe I was clear. I didn’t necessarily mean that the theory should change to think this way (assuming that everything has a purpose), but that, for the sake of the furthering of science, we should assume that everything has a purpose. This is not because everything will have a purpose, but because we haven’t developed the theory enough to have a good way of determining whether something is vestigial or not.

Gerard did make a good point about vestigial organs. At most, we should say that there are very few vestigial organs because of the general rule “use it or lose it”. One thing that could very likely be vestigial, though, is the human coccyx. That’s what’s left over of the tail that we begin to develop when we are in the womb after it stops developing. So far, the only purpose we know of for the coccyx is to give us a jolt of lightning through our bodies when we sit on it wrong ;). At any rate, this is likely a vestigial… something. It’s not an organ but I guess we could call it a vestigial bone.

Nerd note about millions of dimensions: the study of topology is the study of surfaces and solids even in higher dimensions than our native three dimensions. I know of a professor at The Ohio State University, Jim Fowler, that studies highly symmetric geometric objects that are sometimes even in 16,777,216 dimensions! Theoretical math, especially topology, is super cool :smiley:


(Gerard Willemsen) #9

Connor, I am not sure the coccyx is without function. It might play a role in balancing, but apart from that several ligaments (the sacrococcygeal ligaments which stretch along the spine) and muscles (the levator ani and part of the gluteus maximus) are attached to it.


(Connor Mooneyhan) #10

The only reason I can see that the coccyx would help with balancing is if it still had the tail attached to it. Tails provide counterweight for balance in bipeds with tails, but I’m not so sure that the tiny leftover bone would have anything to do with it. Do you know of any studies that have been done to show that the coccyx provides a function to us?


(Brad Kramer) #11

@johnZ the value of science is not simply measured by practical benefit. Why spend gobs of money to look at distant stars with Hubble Space Telescope? Why put a man on the moon? Do these things provide practical benefits equal to their cost (at least in the short term)? Absolutely not. Yet you would have to be a Scrooge of the most curmudgeonly sort to insist that neither has value.

Understanding is an essential human desire, and science helps us gain knowledge about the world around us. I think a Christian vision of our calling as image-bearers of God supports and encourages this. Science, whether practical or “impractical”, tells us about our Creator. Also, a robust understanding of the natural processes that brought about the world we see today is hardly harmful.

It seems, though, that your critique is not simply that non-practical science is a waste of time, but that evolutionary theory is wrong, so therefore it is especially a waste. This is a separate point entirely, and I’m aware we differ in our opinions. Do you have specific examples of how evolutionary science has directly hurt the progress of medicine or other “practical” sciences? Can you show how these breakthroughs would have happened much faster without evolution? That seems like a hard point to prove.

Evolutionary science, whatever its merit, should not be judged on how may cancers it has cured, or so on. It should be judged on the evidence. I suspect we agree on that point.


#12

Connor, sure, we should suppose everything has a purpose. This is what you say, but in the next paragraph you already are leaning to thinking that the coccyx does not have a purpose. This mental process is the same for thinking the appendix had no purpose. This mental process is based on thinking that evolution results in useless stuff, instead of thinking that God created everything with a purpose. This is a fundamentally different approach to science, and it results in a different approach to examining nature, including the human body.

The problem with the assumption of “use it or lose it” is that it only applies when something has been determined to be useful. When an assumption is made that something (coccyx) is useless, then it does not apply. In other words, it is not a useful guiding principle, because it is ad hoc. It provides no real incentive for deciding whether something is more likely to have a purpose, or not. It would imply in fact, in the case of the coccyx, that the tail was useless, because we lost it. Yet in fact, we know that the tail can be very useful. And yet we have a coccyx, which seems to be useless (although I believe it has a purpose, even if I don’t know what the purpose is.). So it(use if or lose it) is a meaningless principle, which provides no use or guidance to us, and cannot be a scientific principle.


#13

Brad, I merely asked a question. I did not extrapolate too far from the impacts of the question itself. Obviously, even if evolutionary theory did not provide any useful practical scientific benefit, that does not mean that it is wrong. However, if the theory makes too many wrong predictions, which lead to wrong assumptions about science, health, vestigial organs, etc., then we ought to re-examine the reason for the wrong predictions. I already gave some examples, as Connor picked up on, such as the prediction or assumption that the appendix and tonsils were “vestigial”, and thus were too quickly and routinely removed. I noted that it was assumed that the whale clasper bones were called vestigial leg bones, and useless, when in fact they are necessarily for copulation for the whales. Sometimes it is merely harmless to call them vestigial, but in other cases, such as the appendix and tonsils, we end up unnecessarily causing other health problems by prematurely removing them.

Again, assuming that viruses continually mutate, even if true, from an evolutionary point of view seems to assume that new strains don’t appear until later, when actually they are already in existence. Just like discovering that anti-biotic resistance already existed in bacteria found in 200 year old frozen remnants of a ships crew trying the North/West passage (200 yrs before the anti-biotic was developed, and 200 yrs before we discovered anti-biotic resistant strains).


(Connor Mooneyhan) #14

John, I concede my previous assumption about the coccyx. That was an uncareful thought process on my part. When you say that the loss of the tail implies that we didn’t have a use for it is based on assuming that the converse of the “use it or lose it” statement is true. Namely, the assumption was that “if we lost it, we didn’t use it” is equally as valid as “if we don’t use it, we lose it”. There’s many possibilities for why we could lose something that we still used; one of these could be genetic drift. Granted, I think it would be fair to say that it is generally “harder” to lose a useful thing than it is a non-useful thing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I did not mean to portray the statement as a scientific principle, but as an observation made by many evolutionary biologists.

As for the predictability of evolutionary theory, it has predicted many extraordinary things about the fossil record that have been later affirmed by evidence. You note in your response to Brad that too many wrong predictions/assumptions about the theory can lead to it breaking down. This would make more sense in the context of a “hard science” such as physics or computational chemistry, since they utilize the exactness of mathematics in the majority of their work. However, biology is a very “soft” science: it has some mathematical roots, but the majority of it is not based on mathematical fact (besides, of course, computational neuroscience and other “computational” biology fields). This is completely okay, but it should make us step back and realize that the lack of much mathematical support does greatly increase the risk that we will be wrong. The problem is that scientists aren’t very good at recognizing that sometimes, and even I earlier with the coccyx made a similar assumption. We should be skeptical of all science, but we should also know that in the soft sciences, there is a greater margin of error.


(GJDS) #15

The practical benefits of any of the physical and bio-sciences are often related to the robust nature of the various theories that underpin the practical outcome considered. Practical outcomes (esp beneficial ones) are often the result of application from various disciplines, and a judgement would require an understanding of all of the theories adopted by them.

The history of these sciences is filled with theories which were derived from a reasonable set of data, and later work has shown the theory to be more of a fantasy than anything with a sound basis. My favourite example is the way chemists discussed acids and bases – this nowadays is so well understood, that if we come across the discussions a hundred or more years ago, we would wonder how scientist could possibly think this way (briefly, acids were described as minute substances with a sharp point, since one felt a stinging sensation when touching an acid, and bases were minute substances with a cavity that gave a slippery or soapy feeling. When they were combined, the sharp point entered the cavity and the result was a neutral substance – this theory had so much physical evidence chemists made up tables and proportions that covered almost all known acidic and basic substances).

The theory(s) of Darwinian evolution have suffered from a similar intellectual difficulty – they are semantic statements that appear to fit the physical data bio-scientists obtain. For an illuminating discussion on the way bio-scientists have had to struggle justifying the notion of adaptation and natural selection, I recommend T. Bataillon, et al., “Cost of Adaptation and Fitness Effects of Beneficial Mutations in Pseudomonas fluorescens”, Genetics, 189, 939–949 (2011). In their introduction these authors (who are clearly accepting evolution) give a brief outline of the difficulties encountered, and then report their experiments which are clearly artificial, closely controlled (not found in nature) to try and find data that would support beneficial mutation – and this experimentation when examined in detail, shows a response by the entities to an external perturbation; hardly the stuff of Darwinian evolution! I do not want to make remarks about anyone’s work, and my reading leaves me with the impression these workers are careful and diligent, so my remarks are intended to show the weakness of the theoretical basis they depend on, and not the quality of their work.


(James Stump) #16

This strikes me as a very odd question. Are you limiting “scientific benefit” to technological developments? I would say there are massive scientific benefits merely in understanding the history of life on the planet. The theory of evolution gives an elegant explanation for morphology, biogeography, genetics, and the fossil record. That is what science aims at–explaining observable evidence. As such, the theory of evolution has enormously illuminated what we observe. The examples you give do not depend very directly on the history of life. Are you using this as an argument against evolution? I’m not sure it has had much impact either on the stock market or the design of golf courses. Does that count against it?


(GJDS) #17

@jstump

The topic is focussed on scientific benefits derived from the theory (Darwinian) of evolution. If we confine our remarks to this, then it is clear that any scientific benefits are directly linked to how robust such a theory is to examination and general application by all of the sciences. By these criteria the evolutionary notions put by Darwin provide few tangible benefits.

Your remarks are more on the desirability of scientific enquiry and research. Within such a broad area, it is easy to argue that any collection of data and discussions of observations may have scientific benefits, but such reasoning is circular. I have given an example where a scientific theory was fanciful, yet science continued – so on these criteria, you may argue the odd theory of acids and bases had scientific merit since chemists continued to collect data, made observations, and probably obtained new insights. However, these matters in themselves did not justify such an odd theory, but it was the best they could do.

I note that supporters of Darwin have a tendency to make vast generalisations when arguing, or seem to insist for an uncritical approach to Darwin.


#18

The theory of gravity helps us to understand rotation of planets around the sun, and the moon’s impact on tides. It assists in developing protocols for space launches, extra populsion by a space ship nearing a large planet, etc. So there is more than a mere esoteric benefit of somewhat useless knowledge.

Scientific benefit could include something like the above, or a health benefit, or a technological benefit. Evolution has been around as a theory for quite awhile, so presumably it would have given a benefit of some type that could not be obtained otherwise.

The examples I gave were directly related to the theory of evolution, because the predictions were based on evolutionary assumptions, and were discovered to be incorrect. There are also predictions made within the theory, which have no real impact on anything outside of the theory, such as location of possible transitionals, but those do not hurt or help anything outside of the theory. While perhaps interesting, they do not really appear to be relevant to anything substantial.


(Dcscccc) #19

hi john.

the answer is very simple- even if the evolution is false, scientists will still continue to make medicine and so on. so evolution dont give us any useful scientific benefit. its actually an intelligent design.


#20

Evolution is a theory developed by science. Science is simply a systematic process of seeking and gaining new knowledge and the truth about the physical world. It does not necessarily have a goal of providing any practical benefit for society. Sometimes it does, most of the time it does not. The increasing of our body of knowledge is in itself a benefit in the eyes of most scientists.