A chemist who doesn't understand evolution

Source:  A chemist who doesn't understand evolution    Tag:  chimpanzee karyotype
James Tour is an organic chemist. He is a Professor of Chemistry and Professor, Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, and Professor of Computer Science at Rice University (Houston, United States). James Tour is attracting a lot of attention on the Intelligent Design Creationist websites because he is sympathetic to their main claim; namely, that evolution is wrong [see A world-famous chemist tells the truth: there’s no scientist alive today who understands macroevolution].

Tour is one of the few genuine scientists who signed the Discovery Institute’s "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" (2001) that stated, "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." (There are very,very, few biologists who signed.)

What exactly, does Jame Tour mean? He wrote an article on his website that explains his position: Layman’s Reflections on Evolution and Creation. An Insider’s View of the Academy. I think it's interesting to discuss what he said.

He begins with ...
Assuming that I have something significant to contribute to the evolution vs. creation debate, many ask me to speak and write concerning my thoughts on the topic. However, I do not have anything substantive to say about it. I am a layman on the subject. Although I have read about a half dozen books on the debate, maybe a dozen, and though I can speak authoritatively on complex chemical synthesis, I am not qualified to enter the public discussion on evolution vs. creation. So please don’t ask me to be the speaker or debater at your event, and think carefully about asking me for an interview because I will probably not give you the profound quotations that you seek. You are of course free to quote me from what is written here, but do me the kindness of placing my statements in a fair context.
I suppose that just about all of us could write something similar on subjects that are outside of our field of expertise. For example, I could put up a blog post saying that I have nothing substantive to say about cosmology or organic synthesis. Why would anyone care about that?

So what does James Tour have to say about evolution that attracts so much attention? He begins by saying that he is not a supporter of Intelligent Design Creationism because science cannot prove intelligent design. He believes that "God seems to have set nature as a clue, not a solution, to keep us yearning for him."

Then he goes on to describe his lack of knowledge of evolutionary biology.
Where does Jim Tour stand on the evolution vs. creation debate? I do have scientific problems understanding macroevolution as it is usually presented. I simply can not accept it as unreservedly as many of my scientist colleagues do, although I sincerely respect them as scientists. Some of them seem to have little trouble embracing many of evolution’s proposals based upon (or in spite of) archeological, mathematical, biochemical and astrophysical suggestions and evidence, and yet few are experts in all of those areas, or even just two of them. Although most scientists leave few stones unturned in their quest to discern mechanisms before wholeheartedly accepting them, when it comes to the often gross extrapolations between observations and conclusions on macroevolution, scientists, it seems to me, permit unhealthy leeway. When hearing such extrapolations in the academy, when will we cry out, "The emperor has no clothes!"?
Normally you'd have to be an expert on evolution in order to claim that all other experts are wrong. I wonder why an organic chemist thinks that he is qualified to make such a claim? It seems a bit strange, don't you think?
From what I can see, microevolution is a fact; we see it all around us regarding small changes within a species, and biologists demonstrate this procedure in their labs on a daily basis. Hence, there is no argument regarding microevolution. The core of the debate for me, therefore, is the extrapolation of microevolution to macroevolution. Here is what some supporters of Darwinism have written regarding this point in respected journals, and it is apparent that they struggle with the same difficulty.
  • Stern, David L. "Perspective: Evolutionary Developmental Biology and the Problem of Variation," Evolution 2000, 54, 1079-1091. A contribution from the University of Cambridge. "One of the oldest problems in evolutionary biology remains largely unsolved; Historically, the neo-Darwinian synthesizers stressed the predominance of micromutations in evolution, whereas others noted the similarities between some dramatic mutations and evolutionary transitions to argue for macromutationism."
  • Simons, Andrew M. "The Continuity of Microevolution and Macroevolution," Journal of Evolutionary Biology 2002, 15, 688-701. A contribution from Carleton University."A persistent debate in evolutionary biology is one over the continuity of microevolution and macroevolution — whether macroevolutionary trends are governed by the principles of microevolution."
So the debate between the validity of extending microevolutionary trends to macroevolutionary projections is indeed persistent in evolutionary biology.
I'm not an expert on macroevolution but I think I understand the issues and the debate over whether macroevolution can be fully explained by population genetics (and/or natural selection). [see Macroevolution].

I don't think it's all that difficult to understand if you make a bit of an effort. It has nothing to do with any doubts about whether evolution explains the history of life. It has to do with whether there are additional mechanisms and events that are required in order to account for macroevolutionary change. Events like asteroid impacts, continental drift, speciation, and perhaps species sorting. I don't understand why an organic chemist couldn't figure this out if he really wanted to.
Some are disconcerted or even angered that I signed a statement back in 2001 along with over 700 other scientists: "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." Do not the texts written by the two authors above underscore what I signed, namely, "Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged”"? And these "oldest problems in evolutionary biology" lead me and many others to our being "skeptical."
Here's where it gets a bit complicated. There are many excellent evolutionary biologists who could have signed the statement published by the Discovery Institute. They are not Darwinists and they believe that there is more to evolution than natural selection. Furthermore, all scientists believe that careful examination of evidence is necessary.

That's not how James Tour interprets the statement. He adopts the meaning that the Discovery Institute wants you accept. Tour seems to think that anyone who questions the naive creationist understanding of evolution must be questioning whether evolution occurred. That's what happens when you don't understand the discipline you are criticizing.
It is not a matter of politics. I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me?
The short answer is "no." Just because you don't understand something is no reason to call yourself a "skeptic" and imply that an entire field of study is wrong.
Furthermore, when I, a non-conformist, ask proponents for clarification, they get flustered in public and confessional in private wherein they sheepishly confess that they really don’t understand either. Well, that is all I am saying: I do not understand. But I am saying it publicly as opposed to privately. Does anyone understand the chemical details behind macroevolution? If so, I would like to sit with that person and be taught, so I invite them to meet with me. Lunch will be my treat. Until then, I will maintain that no chemist understands, hence we are collectively bewildered.
Does he really mean to imply that all chemists are "bewildered" about evolution? Does he really think that evolutionary biologists are obliged to supply "chemical details" proving that whales evolved from land animals or that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor? Are all chemists this stupid?

I wonder if he is equally skeptical about whether the Earth goes around the sun given that we can't supply chemical details? I wonder what he thinks about plate tectonics?
And I have not even addressed origin of first life issues. For me, that is even more scientifically mysterious than evolution. Darwin never addressed origin of life, and I can see why he did not; he was far too smart for that. Present day scientists that expose their thoughts on this become ever so timid when they talk with me privately. I simply can not understand the source of their confidence when addressing their positions publicly.
We don't understand how life originated. Any scientist who is confident about their understanding of the origin of life is wrong. I strongly doubt that James Tour has ever met a scientist working on the origin of life who claims that he/she knows the answer. On the other hand, if you only read creationist literature should could easily be fooled.
Furthermore, most of my scientist colleagues do not discuss macroevolution very often because they are too busy with their own fields of interest to be sidetracked by such tangential matters. Though the acceptance of macroevolution is rather implicit within their core understandings, most science professors are simply too harried to take much notice of the details. Pondering and thoughtfulness has been pounded and distilled out of many of us; there’s another meeting to attend, another proposal to write, another manuscript to proof, yet another lecture to deliver, 100 more emails to answer, and the anxieties about our futures must be allayed. "The peace which passeth all understanding," is beyond reach, nay beyond understanding.
Ignorance is curable. If that's the only problem facing James Tour then he could do no better than read Stephen Jay Gould if he really wants to understand macroevolution. He will get a heavy dose of "pondering and thoughtfulness." I don't think he's up to it. I don't think he really wants to learn.

Here's why I don't think he really wants to learn about evolution.
What a comfort it must be to be pleasantly settled in one camp or the other, but I can not be so settled, and hence I have few tent-fellows. Based upon my faith in the Scriptures, I do believe (yes, faith and belief go beyond scientific evidence for this scientist) that God created the heavens and the earth and all that dwell therein, including a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. As for many of the details and the time-spans, I personally become less clear. Some may ask, What’s “less clear” about the text that reads, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth”? That is a fair question, and I wish I had an answer that would satisfy them. But I do not because I remain less clear.

I hope that’s satisfactory; I mean for me, a scientist and a Christian, to be unsure of a few things in both science and Christianity. The question is not fundamental to my salvation as a Christian which is based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ, my confession in him as Savior and my belief in his resurrection from the dead. And I used to think that my outward confession of skepticism regarding Darwinian Theory was also of little consequence to my career as a scientist. Specifically, in the past, I wrote that my standing as a scientist was “based primarily upon my scholarly peer-reviewed publications.” I no longer believe that, however.

In the last few years I have seen a saddening progression at several institutions. I have witnessed unfair treatment upon scientists that do not accept macroevolutionary arguments and for their having signed the above-referenced statement regarding the examination of Darwinism. (I will comment no further regarding the specifics of the actions taken upon the skeptics; I love and honor my colleagues too much for that.) I never thought that science would have evolved like this....

Hence, by my observation, the unfair treatment upon the skeptics of macroevolution has not come from the administration level. But my recent advice to my graduate students has been direct and revealing: If you disagree with Darwinian Theory, keep it to yourselves if you value your careers, unless, of course, you’re one of those champions for proclamation; I know that that fire exists in some, so be ready for lead-ridden limbs. But if the scientific community has taken these shots at senior faculty, it will not be comfortable for the young non-conformist. When the power-holders permit no contrary discussion, can a vibrant academy be maintained? Is there a University (unity in diversity)? For the United States, I pray that the scientific community and the National Academy in particular will investigate the disenfranchisement that is manifest upon some of their own, and thereby address the inequity.
I suppose I'm going to be labeled as one of those evil "Darwinists" who won't tolerate anyone who disagrees with me about evolution.1

I'm actually not. I just don't like stupid people who think they are experts in evolution when they have never bothered to learn about it. Here's my advice to graduate students in organic chemistry: if you want to know about evolution then take a course or read a textbook. And remember, there's nothing wrong with admitting that you don't understand a subject. Just don't assume your own ignorance means that all the experts in the subject are wrong too.

1. I'm not an expert on ancient history and mythology but I'm skeptical about this "Savior" who was "resurrected from the dead." Does that make me a hypocrite? Does anyone know the chemical details of this resurrection?