Skell, a professor emeritus at Penn State University known as the “father of carbene chemistry,” is writing to defend Forbes magazine for including both pro- and anti-Darwin commentators to mark Darwin’s birthday earlier in the month. (Biologist Jerry Coyne, author of a recent book defending Darwinism, had attacked the publication within its own pages.)
"I don’t think science has anything to fear from a free exchange of ideas."
I don’t think science has anything to fear from a free exchange of ideas between thoughtful proponents of different views. Moreover, there are a number of us in the scientific community who, while we appreciate Darwin’s contributions, think that the rhetorical approach of scientists such as Coyne unnecessarily polarizes public discussions and . . . overstates both the evidence for Darwin’s theory of historical biology and the benefits of Darwin’s theory to the actual practice of experimental science.
Coyne seems to believe the major importance of biological science is its speculations about matters which cannot be observed, tested and verified, such as origin of life, speciation, the essences of our fossilized ancestors, the ultimate causes of their changes, etc. . . .
Examining the major advances in biological knowledge, one fails to find any real connection between biological history and the experimental designs that have produced today’s cornucopia of knowledge of how the great variety of living organisms perform their functions. 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 and other practitioners of biological science.
Skell eventually concludes:
It is unseemly and scientifically unfruitful that a major focus in biology should have turned into a war—between those who hold that the history of those unique organisms is purely a matter of chance aggregation from the inorganic world and those who hold that the aggregation must have been designed for a purpose.
It is surely not a matter that must or can be settled within the provenance of experimental biology. Above all, declaiming orthodoxy to either of those propositions promotes incivility and draws energy and resources away from the real goal—advances in experimental biological science. These studies, if not derailed, indicate that further advances of great utility can be expected during the 21st century.
We’ve certainly come to the same conclusions as Skell, and it’s encouraging to read the conclusions of yet another qualified scientist who sees things as they are. However, elsewhere Skell notes, “It is more crucial to consider history in the fields of astrophysics and geology than in biology . . . electromagnetic radiations arriving at our detectors inform us of the ongoing events that occurred billions of years ago . . . [a]nd the rock formations of concern to geologists have resided largely undisturbed since their formations.” We hope he realizes that presuppositions—and the difference between origins science and operational science—matters as much in astrophysics and geology as in biology.
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