Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Debunking a "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" - yet again

In 2001, the Discovery Institute, an advocate of the pseudoscience of intelligent design released A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism to which a small number of people of varying professional backgrounds had given their assent. [1] The statement, which professed scepticism of the ability of random mutation and natural selection was widely criticised in the mainstream scientific community on many points including its misleading phrasing, designed to make the layperson think criticism of a subject implied wholesale rejection, as well as its straw man presentation of modern evolutionary theory as simply random mutation and natural selection. Recently, this statement has been popping up across the Christian world due to the fact that this list has now managed to garner 1000 signatories. Despite the fact it has been ably demolished, [2] another ritual flogging would not go astray.

While there are many problems with this list as mentioned in the opening paragraph, the fundamental problem with it is that it is yet another creationist argument from authority. The truth of a scientific proposition is however not determined by who has the bigger list of names (though if the overwhelming majority of relevant professionals in a discipline attest to the truth of something germane to that subject then it is reasonable to take what they say seriously). To illustrate this point, the National Center for Science Education maintains Project Steve, a parody of such lists which maintains a list of scientists whose first name is Steve. The statement asserts
Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools. [3]
Currently, the list has 1438 signatories, which is greater than the 1049 who have signed the Dissent From Darwinism list. If truth is determined by numbers, then clearly evolution has won. Add to that the fact approximately 1% of scientists are named Steve, and the numbers become even greater. In 2010, historian of science Ronald Numbers noted
After more than a decade of effort the Discovery Institute proudly announced in 2007 that it had got some 700 doctoral-level scientists and engineers to sign “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” Though the number may have struck some observers as rather large, it represented less than 0.023 percent of the world’s scientists. On the scientific front of the much ballyhooed “Evolution Wars,” the Darwinists were winning handily. The ideological struggle between (methodological) naturalism and supernaturalism continued largely in the fantasies of the faithful and the hyperbole of the press. [4]
Again, this is not how scientific truth is determined, but is is not unreasonable to point out that those who signed do not even represent 0.1% of scientists worldwide. For the fundamentalist who touts the Dissent From Darwin list, it is reasonable to ask them why the Project Steve list is wrong, particularly when the fundamentalist does not have the scientific background to determine purely on scientific principles which side is right.

Leaving the issue of numbers aside, other fundamental problems with the list include the fact that it is deliberately constructed to mislead, misrepresents evolutionary biology, and includes scientists who are simply not in a position to offer an informed opinion on the subject. Given that the Discovery Institute is an advocacy group dedicated to promoting pseudoscience, this is hardly surprising.

The wording of the statement is carefully designed to be unremarkable on the surface:
“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”
The idea of "careful examination of the evidence' is hardly controversial, and some of those who have signed do in fact accept evolution. These include ID advocate Michael Behe who while rejecting the modern synthetic theory of evolution accepts common descent, including human-ape common ancestry. Other signatories did so because of the separate but related issue of abiogenesis or other unrelated reasons. [5] However, this will not be noted by the fundamentalist Christian who touts this list, thinking that it is a list of over 1000 "well-credentialed" scientists who reject evolution. If the list was constructed as an honest exercise, it would have made this point clear. However, as it is fundamentally a propaganda piece, this omission sadly is not unexpected.

The list becomes even more misleading with its implication that evolutionary biologists believe random mutation and natural selection alone are sufficient to explain the emergence of the diversity of life. This is to put it bluntly a straw man misrepresentation of modern evolutionary theory, which ignores the fact that at the molecular level, non-adaptive mechanisms are recognised as a major driving force for evolution, a point evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory makes:
Modern evolutionary theory represents a multifaceted set of explanations for patterns observed both in contemporary populations and in deep time as revealed by the fossil record. Natural selection is considered by many to be the prime component of evolutionary theory and is the only workable mechanism ever proposed that is capable of accounting for the adaptive features of organisms. At the molecular level, nonadaptive mechanisms are recognized as highly significant, and there is also an increasing emphasis on changes due to processes such as genetic drift that differ from natural selection by being due to chance. [6]
Gregory continues by pointing out that evolution very much remains a subject of lively debate and ongoing research [7], demonstrating that contrary to what the Dissent From Darwinism statement implies, careful examination of the evidence is pretty well much a given.

Finally, the reference to 'Darwinism' demonstrates a typical creationist tactic of trying to turn evolution into an ideology. While the terms has currency as a synonym for evolution via natural selection (though the reference to neo-Darwinism as a synonym for the modern synthetic theory of evolution that fused population genetics and insights from other branches of science with natural selection shows that strictly speaking it is a dated term), creationist usage of it is invariably pejorative. That aside, the reference to Darwinism betrays (whether by design or accident) a creationist ignorance of how far evolutionary theory has advanced in the ~160 years since Darwin's book was published.  As biochemist Larry Moran remarks:
I am not a Darwinist, just as most of my colleagues in the Department of Physics are not Newtonists, and most of my friends who study genetics are not Mendelists. All three of these terms refer to the ideas of famous men (Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel) who made enormous contributions to science. But in all three cases, the modern sciences have advanced well beyond anything envisaged by their founders. [8]

Even more distortions and misrepresentation of intent appear when you examine the list and the circumstances around its formation. At least one person who thought the Discovery Institute's intentions were noble changed their mind on further examination. One case in point is Bob Davidson, a Christian and former professor of nephrology at the University of Washington’s medical school who initially thought the Discovery Institute’s intentions were above board:
It was these twin devotions to science and religion that first attracted him to Seattle's Discovery Institute. That's the think tank that this summer has pushed "intelligent design" — a replacement theory for evolution — all the way to the lips of President Bush and into the national conversation.

Davidson says he was seeking a place where people "believe in a Creator and also believe in science. "I thought it was refreshing," he says.

Not anymore. He's concluded the institute is an affront to both science and religion. "When I joined I didn't think they were about bashing evolution. It's pseudo-science, at best ... What they're doing is instigating a conflict between science and religion."

Davidson, at 78 a UW professor emeritus, says he shouldn't be on the list because he believes "the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming....I'm kind of embarrassed that I ever got involved with this," Davidson says.

He was shocked, he says, when he saw the Discovery Institute was calling evolution a "theory in crisis."

"It's laughable: There have been millions of experiments over more than a century that support evolution," he says. "There's always questions being asked about parts of the theory, as there are with any theory, but there's no real scientific controversy about it." [9]
That alone is enough to flash a huge warning light about the credibility of the Discovery Institute and the integrity of the project.

Finally, the list of ~1000 includes those whose area of expertise or terminal degree is in areas not directly related to evolution such as engineering, medicine, organic chemistry, or philosophy. [10] When those are excluded, the list is much less impressive, dropping from 1047 to only 277, meaning that only ~26% of the signatories are potentially in a position to offer an informed, authoritative comment on evolutionary biology. This also included now-deceased signatories as well as emeritus scientists who are hardly at the cutting edge of science. When these are excluded, the numbers drop to 244 (around 23%), meaning that not even one quarter of the signatories are active researchers in areas directly of relevance to the subject in question. Fully three quarters of the signatories are simply not in a position either to provide an authoritative opinion, or one that is informed by cutting-edge research. Although a few years old, this video by "DonExodus" combs through an earlier version of the Dissent from Darwinism list and comes to the same conclusion.


The Dissent from Darwinism list was exposed years ago as yet another creationist argument from authority; its appearance yet again in the more fundamentalist parts of the Christian internet is simply due to the fact that the list has exceeded the symbolic 1000 mark. However, as I have pointed out, the list is misleading given that  just under 25% of the signatories have a background in the life sciences, and that some of these include those who accept the fact of common descent. Its reference to "Darwinism" is misleading given that evolutionary theory has progressed considerably since Darwin's time, and is misleading in that it encourages the perception that the signatories are opposed to evolution despite the fact that not all of the life scientists on the list are hard-core creationists. Those who continue to peddle this list should cease doing so if only to avoid bringing Christianity into even more disrepute.


2. The Wikipedia entry is an excellent summary of the reasons why the statement can be safely ignored.
4. Ronald Numbers "Creationism, intelligent design, and modern biology" in Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins (Eds D.R. Alexander and R.L Numbers) (2010: University of Chicago Press), p 328
6. T.R. Gregory "Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
7."Is evolution always gradual, or can it follow a more punctuated pattern? Are chance mechanisms such as genetic drift ever as important as the nonrandom process of natural selection? Does natural selection operate only among organisms (or genes) within populations, or can it occur at other levels such as among groups or species? Did mammals diversify as a consequence of the extinction of dinosaurs? Is the primary divide among groups of organisms between those with and those without nuclei, or are there deeper splits? Are wholescale genome duplications common in evolution, and if so, are they associated with major evolutionary changes? Can complex features ever be regained once they have been lost from a lineage? Is a substantial fraction of noncoding DNA functional, or is most of it simply “junk” or “parasitic”?" ibid, p 51
8. Larry Moran "Why I'm Not a Darwinist" Sandwalk Nov 17 2006
9. Seattle Times Staff "Evolving opinion of one man" Seattle Times Aug 24 2005
10. My list included disciplines that directly contribute to evolutionary theory such as cell and molecular biology, genetics, physiology, genetics, developmental biology, and palaeontology. I excluded medicine and veterinary science as I am including scientists only. If there was any ambiguity about the signatory's background then they were excluded.