In a recent blog post on religious belief David Friedman wrote:
[U]nlike the (current) Catholics, a significant part of what [Protestant fundamentalists in the United States] reject is modern science, in particular the theory of evolution, which underlies quite a lot of modern biology.
You see that claim made a lot in the debates over evolution, but I wonder if it is a factoid rather than a fact.
Note that I am posting this on a weekday, rather than Sundays, because I am asking a purely scientific question: How much of modern biology really would collapse, if it turned out that “evolution” turned out to be wrong?
Well it obviously depends on what we mean by “evolution.” Michael Behe (in my understanding), one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement, is happy to concede that all modern organisms come from a single cell. His point however is that that cell couldn’t have arisen just by chance, that the information packed into it must have been consciously put there by an intelligent being. (The being could have engineered this by consciously structuring the inorganic environment such that it would give rise to the cell.)
If we take Behe’s views to be denying “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” then I submit just about nothing in modern biology depends on that particular issue.
Even if we broaden our definition of “evolution,” it’s still not obvious to me how much of biology would be vulnerable. For example, suppose there is a God and He created, de novo, the entire physical universe and all of the organisms on Earth, as they existed in the year 1500. Clearly, modern biology is consistent with that history, except for erroneous theories that extrapolated back before the year 1500 and assumed that there were ancestors to the creatures living in the year 1500, when in reality (in this thought experiment) all the millions of different lines started from scratch in the year 1500.
For an analogy, consider modern Austrian economics in the tradition of Mises and Rothbard. We are fond of stressing Mises’ regression theorem, which traces the purchasing power of fiat money back to the time it was convertible into precious metals, and then going all the way back to barter, when gold and silver were valued as regular goods.
But suppose it turns out that actually, some wise king really did invent money out of the clear blue sky, and got people to hold it through imposing taxation (as the MMTers suggest). How much of modern Austrian economics would collapse?
Not all that much, except of course for our views on the regression theorem. We would have to be a lot more agnostic about the limits of a ruler in imposing a “new equilibrium” etc., but those were really empirical claims. We could still believe in free markets, market-chosen money, Austrian business cycle theory, etc.
UPDATE: OK I shouldn’t have been so foolish as to suppose people would answer my question, rather than telling me why creationism is stupid. Let me give something more specific:
Suppose we are visited next week by aliens in advanced spacecraft. There is no doubt that they are the real deal; they do all kinds of crazy stuff like give us the cure for cancer, show us how to turn Mark Levin’s books into pure energy, and they give us the answers to three unsolved math problems from this list.
Then the aliens tell us, “Sorry to inform you guys, but your biologists went a little bit awry in the last two centuries. We visited your lifeless planet about 2 billion of your years ago, and we placed 18,000 different cells on it in various locations. We had designed each of these cells from scratch. Surveying your genetic material, we think we can still see remnants of about 3,500 of those original “seeds.””
So now my question: In this unlikely yet certainly possible scenario, how many modern biologists would say, “Oh crud, I really hope they are pulling our legs, because otherwise my career is done.” ? I submit that not even a single biologist would have to quit his job. All of a sudden they would “see” new patterns in the various hierarchies, and previously inexplicable problems would disappear (while new ones would emerge). All of the modern understanding of heredity, genetics, natural selection, and speciation would be intact. The only tweak is that we would no longer assume all modern organisms shared a common ancestor.
Does anybody disagree with me on this? If not, then it’s a bit sloppy when people say, “All of biology depends on the theory of evolution.” You can agree with me on this very modest point, and still think everything came from the same cell, which itself arose through pure chance interactions of inorganic molecules in the primordial soup.