Field of Science

Chemist disses evolution in Forbes

"Oh Hell," I found myself thinking with a heavy sigh when I read a reply to Jerry Coyne in Forbes Magazine by a member of The National Academy of Sciences.

Under the title The Dangers Of Overselling Evolution, emeritus Evan Pugh professor of chemistry at Penn State University, Philip S. Skell, argues that the study of fossils brings us no new knowledge:
But fossils fail to inform us of the nature of our ancient antecedents--because they have been transformed into stones that give us only a minuscule, often misleading impression of their former essences and thus are largely irrelevant to modern biology's experimentations with living organisms.
How, do you suppose, does he know that fossils give us a misleading impression of their former... essences? Erhm, is Skell not aware that essence is sort of a deprecated word, because one of the great insights from evolutionary biology is that organisms and species are superfluous and do not have an essentiality about them. There is no quintessential lion.
For instance, we cannot rely upon ruminations about the fossil record to lead us to a prediction of the evolution of the ambient flu virus so that we can prepare the vaccine today for next year's more virulent strain. That would be like depending upon our knowledge of ancient Hittite economics to understand 21st-century economics.
Nor can we reply on experiments about the flu virus to understand how and when extinctions happened.
In 1942, Nobel Laureate Ernst Chain wrote that his discovery of penicillin (with Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming) and the development of bacterial resistance to that antibiotic owed nothing to Darwin's and Alfred Russel Wallace's evolutionary theories.
The mere fact that Skell takes his quotes from time when he was himself a young man points to an embarrassing ignorance of present day biological theory. That he says "development of resistance" suggests that he might have an inherent bias (e.g. due to his religion) against evolution. Resistance is evolved, not developed. In fact, viruses don't really develop at all. And, how resistance evolves is only properly understood in an evolutionary context.

Skell apparently values utility over understanding, as when he says
Chemists have depended largely on geological sources, from which they have isolated the hundred or so elements on the periodic table and subsequently devised a great variety of schemes for synthesizing millions of new complex arrangements of these elements, giving to the public medicines, fertilizers, plastics, etc., of great utility.
I find it amazing that the NAS invites scientists who holds such views. But then, Skell has been a member since 1977. Hopefully things have changed since then.

Skell is also a signatory of A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, the Discovery Institute petition whose signatories attest to a statement which expresses skepticism about the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. He is, in other words, a creationist.

I wonder if the NAS members all get together once in a while over large glasses of cognac talking about the good old days, or even something sciency. Imagine Rich Lenski giving Skell a nice lecture about the current advances in biology, and a polite wink about keeping to chemistry next time around.

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