I must admit, before reading Massimo Pigliucci’s interesting article on Science 2.0, I was unaware of John Dupre’s so-called scholarship. My curiosity first led to Wikipedia which refers to him as a critic of evolutionary biology. With amazing tools such as Google and YouTube, I was able to watch Dupre debate Alex Rosenberg of Duke University, someone whom I had many exchanges with in his first philosophy of genomics class in 2004. After watching the video, in a matter of minutes it was apparent that Dupre is a philosopher, not an expert in evolution.  

A clearer picture of his profile may help explain the puzzled comments by posters on PigIiucci’s blog. It may also explain Dupre’s two assertions in his title, Evolutionary Theory’s Welcome Crisis. But, is evolution actually a theory and is it in crisis? When one looks at the historical facts in the debate between creationism, a belief system based on vitalism, and evolutionary biology, a knowledge system based on peer review, what does it tell us about which position is a theory and which one is in a crisis?

For faith based creationists, a struggle for credibility began when the U.S. Supreme Court  overturned the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial decision based on the Establishment Clause, a provision of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents the establishment of a state religion. Then, in 1950 Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani generis that the account of biblical creationism in Genesis is not literal; rather it is a metaphorical source of human origins. These setbacks would understandably have placed anti-evolutionists in crisis mode and explain what would eventually occur.

In response, the Discovery Institute, a religious think tank, orchestrated a series of state to state lawsuits attempting to force public school curriculums to teach intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to evolution. In one of those cases, Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), a judge ruled against a Louisiana law requiring this practice was unconstitutional because it was specifically intended to advance a particular religion. The court discovered that in one anti-evolution publication the author had crossed out creation 150 times and replaced it with intelligent design.

From Dupre‘s article, it appears that he is the British equivalent of Michael Behe. Behe is an American biochemist who represented the Discovery Institute in their unsuccessful spin campaigns. In paragraph 3 of his article, Dupre defines a so-called crisis in evolutionary biology in the context of heredity. He claims, “For the last 70 years the dominant paradigm in evolutionary science has been the so-called new synthesis.” For a critic of evolution this may be the version of reality that they would like to convey. But for practitioners of evolutionary biology, microevolution, which explains heredity at the individual level, has two competing schools of thought, genetic determinism and those that recognize the importance of developmental biology.

Furthermore, his statement does not address the second component of evolution dealing with speciation, referred to as macroevolution. Since the present understanding of evolution transcends what Darwin knew, it is false logic to conclude that if exceptions exist to slow random mutations then evolution is wrong. Darwin never heard of DNA, much less of genes and scientifically did very little to advance our understanding of evolution. The more recent advances in macroevolution supplement the understanding of the modern synthesis which explains microevolution.

Thomas Kuhn developed the basic model that scholars use for understanding revolutions in science. Kuhn was a physicist, so Peter Bowler adapted Kuhn’s model for evolutionary biology. Bowler argues evolutionary biology experienced a series of mini-revolutions including the findings from the fields of paleontology, geology, and taxonomy in the 1700-1800s which laid the foundation for evolution as an alternative to creation.

First, creationism and vitalism took an intellectual tail-kicking from Galileo (1610) and Pasteur (1859). Then Darwin made evolution a credible alternative to creationism. The actual paradigm shift brought about by Galileo, Pasteur, and Darwin was from the belief system based on vitalism to knowledge systems.

After losing all of its law suits and in the process leaving hefty bills for tax payers, the ID movement has subsequently developed a campaign to make evolution controversial. One of their tactics is to cast doubts on the believability of evolution due to inconclusive fossil evidence. They allege that if natural selection, through a progressive series of random mutations over time were accurate, the fossil record would present the representative evidence verifying the intermediate steps.

Evo-devo explains the gaps in the fossil record. Through regulatory DNA, a network of switches determines the dosage for anatomical and physiological features manifesting in the variety of forms seen in nature. Although evo-devo is an advance in science that informs mechanisms of evolution, ironically Dupre claims it is a source for a crisis in the field that it further advances.

Mysteriously, in paragraph 4 of his article, Dupre stumbles into the truth when he discusses how evolutionary biology is in the process of reorganizing knowledge and correctly states “without undermining the fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory.”