Is There Any Scientific Controversy Over Darwinian Evolution? Part 2

After writing part 1 of this blog post almost 3 years ago, I received several comments along the lines of, “Just because one scientist, James Shapiro, disagrees with the idea that natural selection acting on random mutations is the main engine of evolutionary change, does not mean there is a controversy.”

My goal in quoting Shapiro was not to state merely that Shapiro diverges from evolutionary orthodoxy, but to encourage the reader to go off and do some more reading to see that there are many more dissenting scientists, just like him. To help along that process, I’ve quoted from an article below that lists several more examples of the controversy. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but is meant to lead truly curious readers to do more reading themselves. For those of you who have already decided that there is no controversy, don’t waste your time reading any further. You’ll just get more upset.

Here is Casey Luskin in an article he wrote for the Christian Research Journal titled “The New Theistic Evolutionists.” Luskin notes that

highly credible scientists doubt the neo-Darwinian view that natural selection acting on random mutation was the driving force building the complexity of life. Lynn Margulis, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, explained that “neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism,” and admitted, “I believed it until I looked for evidence.”

In 2008, sixteen leading biologists convened in Altenberg, Austria, to discuss problems with the neo-Darwinian synthesis. When covering this conference, Nature quoted leading scientists saying things like “evolutionary theory has told us little about” important events like “the origin of wings and the invasion of the land.”

That same year, Cornell evolutionary biologist William Provine explained that “every assertion of the evolutionary synthesis below is false,” including: “natural selection was the primary mechanism at every level of the evolutionary process,” “macroevolution was a simple extension of microevolution,” and “evolution produces a tree of life.”

Luskin adds:

The following year, leading biologist Eugene Koonin wrote that breakdowns in core neo-Darwinian tenets such as the “traditional concept of the tree of life” or that “natural selection is the main driving force of evolution” indicate “the modem synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.” . . . Koonin mentioned growing skepticism over the “tree of life,” and the technical literature contains numerous examples of conflicting evolutionary trees, challenging universal common ancestry.

An article in Nature reported that “disparities between molecular and morphological trees” lead to “evolution wars” because “evolutionary trees constructed by studying biological molecules often don’t resemble those drawn up from morphology.” Another Nature paper reported that newly discovered genes “are tearing apart traditional ideas about the animal family tree,” since they “give a totally different tree from what everyone else wants.”

A 2009 article in New Scientist observes that “many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded.” So severe are problems that a 2012 paper in Annual Review of Genetics proposed “life might indeed have multiple origins.”

Again, if you want to argue that there is no controversy, you are simply ignorant of what’s going on. Instead of trying to shout down any one who says there is a controversy, your time would be better spent spend studying the differing views on evolution so that you can truly understand the issues involved.

  • Andrew R

    Bill, would you say there’s a controversy among historians over whether Jesus existed or not?

  • SlowCowboy

    I would think being honest you would have to say that yes, there is a dispute, but I don’t believe there is much doubt that a historical Jesus existed.

    But the author is saying that controversy exists as to evolution. That’s it, nothing more. What is controversial about that?

  • Andrew R

    Do the scientists quoted above count as ‘not much doubt’ in the same way? And it depends what kind of controversy you’re talking about. Controversy of the kind the Discovery Institute wants, such that intelligent design should be taught in schools? No. Discussions within the biology community? Sure. No-one ever said further discovery was ruled out – science works on continued discussion. Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould argued a lot about evolution, for example.

    Is every disagreement a controversy? People are welcome to have radical views. When they start demonstrating their views are supported by evidence then science moves on. At the monent, with regards to the people quoted in the above piece, I think we’re still waiting for their evidence.

  • SlowCowboy

    Is every disagreement controversy? Seems like the answer is by definition a yes. Of course, the extent of that controversy is important. I don’t know enough about the inner biological community’s view on this topic, so I can’t comment on it with great detail. However, it seems there are those who believe evolution is quite faulty.

  • Andrew R

    What do you mean ‘evolution is faulty’? There are several thousand sects of Christianity in America alone – they all disagree with the others on something. Does that mean Christianity is quite faulty?

    Seems you’ve got some people who who have an alternative view of Neo-Darwinism. That’s not the same as doubting evolution itself.

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  • When the consensus view changes, let me know. Until then, this is just spin to imagine a controversy where there is none.

    That it’s being driven by non-biologists makes clear the agenda.

  • Among academics who publish papers in peer reviewed journals focused on the historical Jesus, I would say there is no controversy (that is certainly Bart Ehrman’s contention).

    But, outside of those journals, is there controversy? Yes, there are a small number of scholars who dispute the existence of Jesus.

  • The term “evolution” is practically useless. It can mean 100 different things.

    The post above demonstrates that there is controversy over the specific claims that random mutation coupled with natural selection is the primary mechanism of biological speciation, and that biological history can be represented by a tree.

  • Andrew R

    Thanks for your reply Bill. So if I understand correctly, the distinction is this:
    1. Richard Carrier etc never publish in peer reviewed journals on the historical Jesus, while
    2. The scientists you quote above DO publish in peer reviewed journals focused on neo-Darwinism.

    Are both 1 and 2 true?

  • Andrew R

    “and that biological history can be represented by a tree”

    Is that really a problem? I thought the ‘tree of life’ was never more than a metaphor anyway.

    “It can mean 100 different things.”

    As I understand it, even the term ‘alive’ is fraught with difficulties. And find a Christians who can describe some central tenant of their faith that no other Christian doesn’t disagree on!

  • Yes, 1 and 2 are true.

    The issue is not ID or whether ID is true. I never stated anything in the blog post about this being an opening to teach ID to anybody. You made that leap.

    My general point is that to say that practicing evolutionary scientists (who publish in academic journals) do not disagree on the fundamental mechanisms of random and natural selection, and the existence of the tree of life, is false.

    They do. Yet many ignorant atheists love to claim that “evolution” is settled, that there is no controversy, that the neo-Darwinian paradigm is as true as the earth revolves around the sun.

    If we can’t get past these kind of factual errors, then there is no hope to make any progress in the broader discussion.

  • Andrew R

    It depends what you class as a controversy. I don’t know anyone who claims that there is no discussion to be had left in biology. If that was so, no-one would bother writing any papers on evolution as all the science would be settled. Obviously that’s not the case.

    I ‘made the leap’ to ID because you were quoting the Discovery Institute. When the DI talks about ‘controversy’ it’s in the context of ‘teach the controversy’, meaning that pupils should be taught ID alongside evolution so the children can ‘make their own mind up’.

    The Discovery Institute wants a controversy along the lines of ‘natural forces are insufficient to explain bio-diversity’. That’s not the kind of controversy the quotes above demonstrate. There’s no opening there for the DI, or indeed for ID.