Don’t many scientists question evolution?

It is often said that quite a few scientists, even some with Ph.D. degrees and significant credentials in the field, believe there are serious difficulties with modern evolutionary theory. Along this line, in 2001 the Discovery Institute, the principal sponsoring organization for the intelligent design movement, began to form a list of scientists who question evolution. Each of the scientists on this list, known as “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” affirmed the following statement [Dissent2010]:

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.

As of November 2010, this list had 816 names.

So what are the facts here? Is evolution truly a “theory in crisis”? Is there a tidal wave of defections from the “orthodoxy” of evolution?

First of all, it should be noted that the Discovery Institute statement above does not question the fact that the earth is very old, that living organisms have a common ancestry, and that at least some natural evolution has occurred. In other words, those looking to such a list to provide support for a young-earth creationist worldview will be sorely disappointed.

Partly in response to this list, in 2008 the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, California began what it called “Project Steve,” named in honor of the recent death of the eminent paleontologist Stephen J. Gould. In this project, NCSE announced an invitation for scientists whose first name is Steve (or Steven, Stephen or Estephan) to submit their names as affirming the following statement [NCSE2008]:

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.

As of November 2010, the NCSE list had 1147 names, compared with 816 on the Discovery Institute list. If we count only those persons on these two lists who had a Ph.D. degree and/or professorial position in a core field closely related to evolution (Anthropology, Biochemistry, Biological Sciences, Biology, Biophysics, Botany, Genetics, Geology, Microbiology, Paleontology or Zoology), who thus are particularly well-qualified to make such a declaration, then 575 (50.1%) of the names on the NCSE list were so qualified, compared with only 180 (22.1%) of the Discovery Institute list, according to a detailed check performed by the present author. If we then further limit the Discovery Institute list to those persons named Steve or one of the variants above, so that the size of the list can be directly compared with the NCSE list, then only two signers remain (in general agreement with the fact that persons named Steve or one of the above variants constitute roughly 1% of the U.S. population).

In short, no matter how one objectively compares these lists, it is a fair conclusion that several hundred times as many well-qualified professional scientists accept the main precepts of evolution as dissent from them. And, given that the number of signers of the Discovery Institute list has grown only modestly in the past two or three years, there is no indication that the number of dissenting scientists is sharply growing relative to those who have declared their support of evolution.

Francisco Ayala, a renowned evolutionary biologist, recipient of the National Medal of Science and the 2010 Templeton Prize (and a former Dominican priest), recently stated the consensus of the field in these terms [Ayala2010, pg. 49-50]:

The overwhelming majority of biologists accept evolution. Those who know professionally the evidence for evolution cannot deny it. Scientists agree that the evolutionary origin of animals and plants is a scientific conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. The evidence is compelling and all-encompassing because it comes from all biological disciplines including those that did not exist in Darwin’s time. … Since Darwin’s time, the evidence for evolution has become much stronger and more comprehensive, coming not only from traditional sources but also from recent disciplines such as genetics, biochemistry, ecology, ethology, neurobiology, and molecular biology. … Because the evidence is so overwhelming, … evidence for evolution no longer engages the interest of biologists except when explaining evolution to the public or arguing with those who refuse to accept evolution. Although not sought and no longer needed, the evidence for the fact of evolution continues to accumulate.

For additional details, see Scientists-evolution.

References

  1. [Ayala2010] Francisco J. Ayala, Am I a Monkey? Six Big Questions about Evolution, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD, 2010.
  2. [Dissent2010] [no author] “Dissent from Darwin,” not dated but viewed on 14 Nov 2010, available at Online article.
  3. [NCSE2008] [no author] “Project Steve,” 17 Oct 2008, available at Online article.
  4. [Skell2005] Philip S. Skell, “Dr. Philip Skell’s Open Letter to the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee,” 20 Jan 2005, available at Online article.

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