Monday, June 27, 2011

Orac and I chat about Darwinian Medicine

Orac takes note of my blog:

Dr. Egnor has his own blog now. Hilarity ensues about evolution and medicine.

Orac chats, raising the usual doubts about my competence and sanity, and he insults creationists, ID proponents, the Discovery Institute, etc. Cut and paste stuff, obligatory for a few paragraphs.

He finally gets to Darwinian Medicine:

While I now think that Darwinian medicine is a useful and intriguing discipline,

You know where this is going. 'I think that professional wrestling is for real, but...'

its practitioners must be careful not to fall into the same trap that's snared many evolutionary psychologists: uncritical and untestable storytelling.

The evidence that uncritical and untestable storytelling is peculiar to evolutionary psychology, as opposed to a characterization of Darwinian hypotheses generally, is difficult to find, presuming one is inclined to look for it.

Given that I've always been fairly skeptical of many pronouncements of evolutionary psychologists, some of which struck me as untestable hypotheses, I can't help but wholeheartedly agree with Coyne's caveat in his support of evolutionary medicine.

A synopsis of Coyne's caveat: 'Even I'm not gullible enough to believe Darwinian Medicine, but if I admit that it's batsh*t, someone will ask me why all other evolutionary speculation isn't batsh*t...' "


As a physician, I was particularly puzzled that anyone would propose that type I diabetes might provide an advantage because individuals with high levels of blood glucose (or so the story goes) were better able to avoid freezing to death.

No need to be "puzzled", Orac. They proposed it because they were crazy.

That's highly implausible on so many levels, given that type I diabetes typically strikes in childhood or young adulthood and would have a profound negative effect on reproductive success.

Diabetic ketoacidosis in H. habilis was fatal. Another pillar of Darwinian Medicine crashes to earth.

Dr. Egnor's response to Coyne's quite reasonable and educational summary of the state of knowledge regarding the application of evolution to medicine is...well, classic Egnor.
Let's see how well you all remember Dr. Egnor's repertoire of responses to evolution. What is the first complaint he makes whenever the topic of evolution in medicine comes up? That's right, eugenics:

Orac quotes me at length. Then:


I've lost count how many times I've dealt with this particular canard--and just from Dr. Egnor alone, such as when he tried the same nonsense with P.Z. Myers when he tried exactly the same nonsensical argument he made above, only four years ago, thus demonstrating that truly his cranium is impervious to science; and when he couldn't even get his story straight while coining the term "eugenics denial" to describe those who call his nonsense about eugenics and evolution for the nonsense that it is.

Orac manages to stay awake:

Of course, the whole canard about how "Darwinism" lead inevitably to eugenics and the Holocaust sounds convincing because there's a grain of truth in it. But just a grain. Does it really need to be said again that eugenics is basically selective breeding, which farmers have done for millennia, only applied to humans? True, "social Darwinists" did seize upon on Darwin's theory, as did racial hygienists like Alfred Ploetz, because it was convenient to do so to justify their view of who is "superior" and "inferior" in society, but it is not Darwin's fault that they applied his theory to areas where it was not scientifically appropriate to apply it. In essence, social Darwinists and eugenicists misused Darwin's theory to justify pre-existing racism and bigotry, just as scientific racists before Darwin used other reasoning to justify the "superiority" of their race over another or the "culling of the herd" to "improve the stock" of their people. This is a very different process from evolution, in which the selective pressures brought to bear on organisms by the environment plus random genetic variation, not the intentional selection of traits, determine which traits propagate in subsequent generations.

The exclusion of "the intentional selection of traits" from the category of Darwinian medicine would of course exclude all biological research, which is quite intentional endeavor. Yet Darwinists have breathlessly attributed all manner of experimental biology to Darwin's insights. Orac himself credits much of cancer research to Darwin's insights. Now he says he was just kidding. I'll accept that.

Nothing that is done by a scientist in biological research-- from microbiology to molecular genetics to oncology-- has anything to do with evolution, which applies only to natural processes free of man's intervention. Breeding man is not evolutionary biology. Breeding bacteria in a lab studying antibiotic resistance is not evolutionary biology. Breeding cancer cells in vitro to test chemotherapeutic drugs isn't evolutionary biology. Examining the clinical response of populations of cancer cells to chemotherapy isn't evolutionary biology.

Fair point.


Darwin's genius was to make the leap from how farmers bred animals to realize that forces other than human intellect could produce selective pressure that could result in enormous changes in organisms to the point of speciation.

Orac acknowledges that change by human selection isn't evolution. So much for the indispensability of evolutionary biology to experimental biology and medicine, all of which presuppose human-directed selection.


The "grain of truth" in the observation that eugenics is Darwinian is this:

Even if it were true that eugenicists used evolutionary theory to justify their vile activities in the early 20th century and the whole concept of "racial hygiene," it would be irrelevant to the argument over whether evolution is a good theory. Just because evil people put a scientific theory to evil use does not say anything whatsoever about whether that scientific theory is a valid one or not. One might just as well condemn Einstein, Niels Bohr, and all the physicists whose work formed the basis for the construction of the atomic bomb for the use to which their work was put. If we look at Hitler's Nazi Germany, the justification for "racial hygiene" was couched more in terms of natural law (that the strong should rule over the weak) and the sort of selective breeding that has been practiced by farmers for centuries. Once again, I suggest that Dr. Egnor read Robert Proctor's excellent treatment of the subject, Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis for more information.


Orac is right; the execrable consequences of a scientific theory don't mean the theory isn't true. But it does mean that if the theory isn't true, there's an uncommonly strong reason to tell the truth about it. To discredit it. Because lives depend on discrediting it. An example of a theory that isn't true and has execrable consequences and cries out for discreditation is Darwinism.

But Orac evades the real issue. My argument that Darwinism is indispensable to eugenics, which I stated quite clearly, is this:

Darwinism explains man as a product of natural selection. Man's compassion for his fellow men precludes the natural process of human adaptation by pitiless struggle for survival, which, unimpeded by compassion, would continue to strengthen the species. Eugenicists argued emphatically that man was being degraded as a species because we were not allowing the weak to be culled naturally. They insisted that they had to take 'evolution in hand', and do the culling themselves. Ergo, sterilize the unfit, euthanize the weak, etc.

Eugenics was the correction for errant evolution. It depended on the Darwinian understanding of man.

On the contrary, if you don't accept the evolutionary (materialistic) origin of man, then eugenics is not only unnecessary, but is an atrocity.

Eugenics is Darwinian because the rationale for eugenics is the Darwinian understanding of human origins.

More to follow...


  1. "Nothing that is done by a scientist in biological research-- from microbiology to molecular genetics to oncology-- has anything to do with evolution, which applies only to natural processes free of man's intervention."

    And then:

    "Eugenics is Darwinian because the rationale for eugenics is the Darwinian understanding of human origins. "

    It's always fun to see a circle being squared.

  2. Interesting Samphire,
    Am I to take away that you see Eugenics ad 'biological research'?
    Does that mean the hospitals were labs, the perpetrating doctors researchers, and the HUMAN victims of such a movement are 'subjects' in such experiments in your view? The same as say lab rats or guinea pigs? Maybe more along the lines of farm animals, say cattle, existing solely for the good of the 'farm'?
    Maybe I have misread your reasoning, but it seems to me you think legitimate research and eugenics are synonymous.
    Perhaps you could clarify?