Is(n’t) all biology “evolutionary”?

On Panda’s Thumb, Matt Brauer comments on a news article by Sam Kean in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reports that the list of majors eligible for the SMART grant omits only the code for “evolutionary biology” among all the biological disciplines.

Does this reflect a way of thinking in which those in the other sub-disciplines of biology are regarded as working in a science that is not founded on evolutionary theory?

I am not a scientist, but from my general high school science education (where my teachers were all Sisters of Mercy working in the school system of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa), I thought that evolutionary theory is as fundamental to biology–all of biology–as, say, molecular theory is fundamental to chemistry, or relativity and quantum theory are fundamental to physics. What would chemistry be without molecular theory? Something like a bunch of recipes?

I thought biology was comparable to chemistry in that regard. On eBay I just bought a copy of the version of the BSCS (blue) biology textbook that we used in my high school class. Sure enough, evolutionary theory is the basis for understanding the material in every chapter. Yet, in the current controversy, I have heard some teachers quoted as saying that the issue doesn’t matter much to them, since they only spend one or two periods out of their year-long course on the “topic” of evolution, anyway. And even in the Dover, Pennsylvania high school, according to some accounts, the “Intelligent Design” statement was supposed to be read to the students at the beginning of the week when they would be learning about evolution.

The Moonie Rev. Wells takes this question on directly in his Politically Incorrect Guide™ to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. On p. 71 Wells quotes the title of the 1973 article by Dobzhansky, who explained that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”

Wells devotes his chapter seven to disputing that broad claim. But I have also read statements by others in biology who do not seem interested in challenging evolution, and presumably themselves believe in evolution, who say that their work, in their subdiscipline or specialization, does not depend at all on evolutionary theory.

So what is the truth about this? It seems like an important issue. People make strong assertions on both sides. It is still my expectation that evolutionary theory is what makes biology a science, much like molecular theory is what makes chemistry a science (rather than, say, just a collection of recipes). But I myself would not know how to support this view against a contrary assertion by a working biologist who takes the opposing view.

Is there a good treatment of this issue somewhere? How would those in biology make their case on this issue (rather than just asserting their conclusions)?

One Comment

  1. Matt
    Posted August 22, 2006 at 10:00 pm | Permalink


    The omission was certainly NOT because of an understanding by the Dept. of Education that evolution underlies all biology. No comparable decisions were made for any other fields.

    As to the fundamental nature of evolutionary theory in biology, it’s really a mixed bag. You don’t need to apply evolutionary theory to most of biology in order to get good results. Similarly, you don’t need to invoke quantum mechanics to study chemistry.

    But evolutionary biology is the only theory we have that unifies all of the disciplines. It’s what allows a botanist and microbiologist to have a discusssion and know they’re talking about the same thing. And in molecular biology (my field), we lean very heavily on evolutionary concepts in order to understand cellular function. No other body of theories encompasses all scales of living phenomena.

    (I guess that’s just another assertion. But much has been written about this already.)

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Wells uses statements such as this as supposedly disproving the position of Dobzhansky (1973) and others who say that nothing in modern biology makes sense without evolutionary theory. The senses in which that point should be understood might call for some elaboration by the specialists (see Matt Brauer, for example), but the logical fallacy and implicit factual inaccuracy of Wells’s claim about Agassiz and modern comparative biology are things that lay readers, with an adequate high-school science education, should be able to spot without such help. […]

  2. […] in which that point should be understood might call for some elaboration by the specialists (see Matt Brauer, for example), but the logical fallacy and implicit factual inaccuracy of Wells’s claim about […]

  3. […] Here I will just excerpt one point-counterpoint between McLeroy’s testimony and that of Professor Arturo De Lozanne. Throughout these hearings, McLeroy and other creationists have been flatly asserting that it is not true that evolutionary theory is necessary for an understanding of biology (as in Dobzhansky’s famous dictum that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”). […]

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