How Useful Is Evolution Theory?

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Posted on May 7, 2008 in Biomimetics

Is evolution good for anything?  There’s no question it keeps a lot of scientists busy, but has it helped the proverbial man on the street?  Here are two perspectives.
    Michael LePage hit the sales beat for evolution on New Scientist this week:

Evolution is a beautiful theory.  It explains everything from why some birds lose the ability to fly, to the bizarre meandering path of the vagus nerve in our bodies.
    Sure, evolution makes sense of the extraordinary diversity of life on Earth, but can it actually be put to practical use?
    The answer is: it can and it should.

His argument was that evolutionary theory can help explain the rise of “superbugs” that race right past our antibiotics.  The death toll, he said, provides “an example of what happens when we don’t apply evolutionary theory.”  He didn’t say just how a doctor or pharmacist would apply it, though.  Would it have changed FDA policies, even if doctors knew “it has only recently become clear just how fast evolution can produce change”?  LePage implied that evolution has application to a broad range of disciplines, “from cancer to conservation.”  This begs the question whether evolutionary theory is the only point of view with such a broad range.  Creationists might also want to throw their hat in that ring.
    LePage’s preface was the build-up to an announcement of a new journal called Evolutionary Applications.  He continued with more examples of how evolutionary theory might inform policy on HIV, bird flu and global warming.  He tied this to a theological issue.  Quoting journal editor Rudolph Nesse, he said, “many medics still think of the body as a machine designed by an engineer, when in fact it is a “bundle of compromises … designed to maximise reproduction, not health”.  LePage ended, “There is no question about the importance of applied evolution.”
    If this is so, why is Systems Biology the hottest new trend in the life sciences?  Systems Biology looks at the entire organism as a well-structured and interrelated system.  Technology Review interviewed Leroy Hood, a former Caltech professor, who left the prestigious university to co-found Applied Biosystems.

Traditional biology tends to study one gene or protein or process at a time.  Systems biology takes a cue from engineering and treats organisms as complex systems.  Systems biologists, often using computer models, try to understand how genes, proteins, cells, and tissues interact to create complex organisms.  By mapping out, rather than reducing, biological complexity, systems biologists hope to reach a new understanding of the fundamental processes of life, from embryonic development to normal metabolism to the emergence of diseases like cancer.

This approach, in other words, makes just as many claims to revolutionize biology and help mankind that evolutionary theory ever did, but it treats organic systems as if they had been engineered.  It is not necessary for the scientist to assume God is the engineer.  This is clear from Leroy Hood’s assertion on page 2:

Evolution has had four billion years to figure out really clever solutions for new materials, new chemistries, new types of molecular machines, even new approaches to computing.  I think by studying living organisms and deducing the mechanisms that underlie these evolutionarily sculpted solutions to complexity, those solutions can be applied to other fields.  A classic example is materials science.  The spectrum of different materials that organisms have evolved to make is enormous.

So what’s the difference?  Both LePage and Hood believe in evolution.  The difference is that LePage claims we need to focus on the evolutionary process, whereas Hood thinks we just need to understand the finished product.  The process of evolution, therefore, is incidental and inconsequential in systems biology.  One can believe evolution did the engineering, or that God did the engineering.  The approach one uses to do the work – to understand and apply the solutions – is an engineering approach.  Just like one would reverse-engineer an operating system to imitate it, systems biology reverse-engineers life to understand and apply it.  Darwin’s theory need not even enter the discussion.

Sure, evolutionary theory is good – good for nothing.  Its recklessness and death and chance are beautiful.  Just lovely, isn’t it?  Let’s turn loose the systems biologists and biomimetics engineers.  Let’s give them a chance to revolutionize biology and bring wonderful new technologies inspired by nature’s engineering.
    The last thing anyone should hope for is “applied evolution.”  Isn’t that exactly what Darwin’s disciples already tried?  They applied evolution, all right – eugenics, social Darwinism and Darwinian utopian regimes that murdered millions.  Scream and run when you hear a Darwinist wanting to apply evolution!  On what moral basis could LePage argue it will help people?  The ethics of Malthus?  of Marx?
    It might just be that if systems biology becomes the new paradigm, Darwin and his myths will just slip unnoticed into the history books while people enjoy longer, happier lives.  Slowly, without a war, scientists might warm up to the language of intelligent design.  It will be perfectly natural.  They will have been thinking like engineers instead of like selfish genes.  One can even imagine that Darwinian stories will eventually sound so, well, so last-century.

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