Friday, November 13, 2009

Of Evolution and Population Migration

An article by Riazat Butt in the Guardian relays an interview with Michael Reiss who, if you will recall, was the Director of Education at the Royal Society before he, innocently enough, suggested that creationism should be explained in the public schools as an unscientific alternative to real science rather than not discussed at all. Reiss argues that creationism is marching across Europe, the product of migration. Butt writes:
"These things can no longer be thought of as occurring in other countries. In London, where I work, there are increasingly quite large numbers of highly intelligent 16, 17 and 18-year-olds doing Advanced Level biology who do not accept evolution. That's either because they come from a fundamentalist Christian background or from Muslim backgrounds."

This rejection of evolution even extended to young people training for the medical profession. "Around 10% of UK undergraduates in some medical schools are creationists. Some people think this is unacceptable and that such students are not worthy to become doctors."

But when asked if their patients should be concerned, he said: "I am quite comfortable with people being first-rate doctors but not accepting evolution."
Here, I think that Dr. Reiss is wrong. I am not sure you can be both. One needs only recall the tragic circumstances of Baby Fae, recounted by Donald Prothero:
A more concrete example [of scientific illiteracy] happened in 1984, when a surgeon at Loma Linda University in California attempted to replace the defective heart of “Baby Fae” with the heart of a baboon. Not surprisingly, the poor baby died a few days later due to immune rejection. An Australian radio crew interviewed the surgeon, Dr. Leonard Bailey, and asked him why he didn’t use a more closely related primate, such as a chimpanzee, and avoid the possibility of immune rejection, given the baboon’s great evolutionary distance from humans. Bailey said, “Er, I find that difficult to answer. You see, I don’t believe in evolution.” If Bailey had performed the same experiment in any other medical institution except Loma Linda (which is run by the creationist Seventh-Day Adventist Church), his experiments would be labeled dangerous and unethical, and he would have been sued for malpractice and his medical license revoked. But under the cover of religion, his unscientific beliefs caused an innocent baby to die of immune rejection, when other alternatives might have been available.1
Read the Whole Thing.

1Prothero, D. (2007) Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. New York: Columbia University Press. P. 356.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - 1984 Part 2
via FoxyTunes


  1. The 27th Comrade6:31 AM

    This is all tragic, bad, and so on.

    And of course rejection can happen intraspecifically. Humans can reject human hearts. (And I think some folklore talks of them taking pigs' hearts.)

    I agree with the Dr. Weiss that one can be a first-rate doctor without being an evolutionist. First-rate doctors, like Hippocrates, aren't a 150-year-old phenomenon. :-) Medicine is much wider than the few areas where "descent with modification" has urgent pertinence.

    Then again, most creationist accounts I know of - certainly not that doctor's perhaps - would urge (or at least not discourage) the choice of the chimp heart over the baboon heart.
    Creationists doctors, of course, are more than the few unfortunate ones who become the face of the creationist doctor. And the huge majority of them are not like that doctor; some of them are even quite amazing.

  2. The chances of rejection would have been considerably less, though. There was literally no chance that the baboon heart was going to be accepted, given the genetic dissimilarities. Dr. Bailey should have known that. The difference between Hippocrates and Dr. Bailey is that we now know quite a bit more about comparative anatomy and physiology based on our understanding of common descent and evolutionary theory. It is this knowledge that Dr. Bailey chooses to reject. As a medical doctor, he does not have that luxury. Additionally, I don't think anyone would advocate practicing the medicine that hippocrates practiced, given that he knew nothing about antiobiotics (based on evolution research) or much else that is standard today.

    Thank you for the link about Dr. Carson. I do not know much other than what was said and I have heard good things about him. I suppose that it is possible that you could understand genetic similarities without accepting that they likely result from common descent. That, in and of itself, might be okay but it would limit your sphere of knowledge. I posted on some of the advances in evolutionary medicine here. We cannot hope to understand things like ERVs and their effects on humans unless we understand their evolutionary trajectories.

  3. The 27th Comrade11:40 AM

    If Hippocrates had the choice between chimp heart and baboon heart, he would have chosen the chimp heart. But he was no Darwinist.
    My point is that Dr. Weiss being a wrong (some would say "dumb") creationist neither validates Darwinism nor invalidates creationism.

    And I think that doctors have the luxury to reject the nonsense that makes up the huge majority of Darwinism, because it is silly ideology and confirmation bias, not science.
    And as I said before, medicine is much wider than the few areas where "descent with modification" has urgent pertinence.

    (In this case, anyway, we could draw evolutionary relatedness by looking at organ rejection rates. That's valid in evolution, and can make for an interesting paper. Especially when done on non-human recipients. ;-) So, it is less-correct to say "evolution informs organ transplant", since the opposite is just as true. That's evolution for you. We could have had, for example, a paper saying "Baboons are closer to humans than previously-thought!" if the rejection had not happened.)

    Antibiotics have nearly nothing to do with Darwinian natural selection. Neither with their discovery, nor with their application. By the way, I think you'd enjoy the latest debate between Prof. William Lane Craig and Prof. Francisco Ayala very, very much. I was thinking "Jimpithecus!!!" in many places when I listened to the MP3.

    You link to results in medicine that are also just being interpreted in light of a heavily evolutionist language, even though they wouldn't have baffled most non-Darwinist people before our times. I mean, when we see breeders today, we see Darwinism. But breeders existed for eons and eons without knowing (even, due to being breeders, being constantly aware of the implausibility) of Darwinism.
    Same for practitioners of medicine.