Posted by: cjobrien | 3 April 2008

Was Darwin Right? And Should Land Management Agencies Care?

 I posted this some time ago on my old blog, but I don’t think too many folks saw it. Basically, the argument is that Intelligent Design offers nothing in the way of research that would allow us to address issues of consequence in the modern world. If you are going to use intelligent design as your theoretical basis, then anything is possible and no real world applications of science can be generated. Natural resource management would come to a standstill if we did not have evolutionary theory upon which to hang management practices.

Part I: Nature of the Problem
The yellow pines and white firs of Lassen National Forest in northeastern California may seem removed from the debate over teaching Darwinian evolution or Intelligent Design Theory to high school students, but in fact they are inexorably linked. The popular struggle over which version of science should comprise the foundation of biological thought also directly impacts the foundations of natural resource management. At their core, methods of resource management, be they ecological restoration, fuels reduction, invasive species eradication, selective harvesting or a host of other techniques, are derived from assumptions about the way in which the natural world, specifically forest ecosystems, operate. To the extent that management techniques provide us with a desired result they are successful precisely because they have gotten the underlying assumptions correct.

The assumptions to which I refer, are of course the mechanisms for how species reproduce, compete, adapt and subsequently change through time. Not quite 150 years ago, Charles Darwin referred to this as “descent with modification” and proposed the mechanism of “natural selection” as an explanation for how these processes work. Although the terms have come to have different meanings in different contexts, the broader concept Darwin advanced is more popularly recognized today as evolution. Individuals vary in their characteristics (some are shorter, some are taller; some reproduce faster than others; some resist fire more effectively, etc.) and these are passed from generation to generation. However, because of these character differences, some individuals are better able to cope with changing conditions in the environment. In effect, some individuals are better adapted to their environments and as a result, tend to leave more offspring than those who are less adapted. Over time, characteristics providing better adaptations become more common and the make up of the population appears different. Because many of these adaptations are physically apparent, later generations actually begin to look different from earlier ones. The numerous transitional forms we see in the fossil record, which show accumulated change through millions of years, are best explained by the processes of natural selection.

The reader is probably familiar with the concept of evolution through natural selection (what I refer to as Darwinian evolution), at least on a general level. And unless you have been living in a cave for the last several years, you are probably also familiar with the growing controversy over whether Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) should be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes. The components of IDT vary, but are summarized largely as follows: First, IDT proponents claim there is evidence for design among living organism and that natural selection is not sufficient to account for that design. In effect, there must be a Designer that is responsible for species’ origins. Although such a position has significant religious implications, serious IDT proponents make no claims about who or what the designer might be, maintaining that this question is irrelevant to the methods of revealing design in nature, which they consider a legitimate pursuit. The second component follows directly: IDT proponents claim theirs is an idea fully consistent with the framework of science and is not religious creationism in disguise. Third, IDT proponents argue that Darwinian evolution is flawed and that IDT serves as an alternative explanation for how the natural world operates. Taken at face value, these arguments for IDT would appear sufficient to legitimize it as a theory worthy of discussion in high school biology classes. So what do these two, supposedly legitimate, theories have to do with contemporary natural resource management?

In science, theories are not “educated guesses”, although this is the popular perception. Theories are well-substantiated explanations of some aspect of the natural world. More importantly, theories comprise a body of knowledge against which scientists can test new ideas. In effect, theories should guide practical applications of scientific knowledge. When a significant number of observations repeatedly fail to be explained by the theory, then the theory itself is in need of revision, or outright rejection and replacement by a different theory that better explains the scientist’s observations.

Two questions arise from this line of reasoning. First, does natural resource management rely on an underlying body of theory at all? Are the principles of natural resource management dependent on assumptions derived from more general statements about how the natural systems of the world develop, interact and change? Second, if there is indeed a greater body of theory forming the foundations of day-to-day decisions in natural resource management, then what are the implications if we change that theory? If principles of Darwinian evolution currently form the bedrock of biological thought, then what are the implications for how we manage natural resources if IDT is a viable alternative?

Part II: How is Darwinian Evolution Connected to Natural Resource Management?

There can be no mistake that natural resource management is based on Darwinian evolution. Pick up any major scientific journal covering forestry ecology and management issues and it becomes readily apparent that the contents are imbued with Darwin’s ideas, although the connection may not be obvious to the lay reader. Terms like “natural selection” and “evolution” are likely to be absent, and even Darwin’s name will be missing from most articles. In several randomly picked articles from recent (2005 or in press) issues of Forest Ecology and Management, I noted that the terms “Darwin”, “evolution” or “natural selection” occur only three times. However, terms like “adaptation”, “competition”, “differential reproduction”, “variability”, “mutation”, “mortality” and “survival” are mentioned in abundance. These are principles of evolutionary biology and depend on the broader concepts of Darwinian evolution in order to make sense. “Adaptation”, for example, has no biological meaning outside of an evolutionary context. I found these evolutionary principles further codified in more colloquial management language that also frequents research articles on which agency officials depend: “shade tolerant”, “fire-dependent”, “historical trajectory”, “best fit to existing conditions”, “trajectory of forest types”, “selective harvesting”, “fires favor the largest trees with the thickest bark”. The list goes on. These are clearly describing management applications of variability, competition, differential survival and reproduction, all bedrock principles of evolutionary theory. The language of forest management belies its Darwinian framework.

In an effort to be fair to IDT advocates I limited my perusal of resource management articles to those that had clear management implications and did not already clearly invoke evolutionary principles in their titles or abstracts. In reality, it is difficult to find examples of forest management research that do not explicitly invoke evolutionary assumptions. My point is that research articles not explicitly stating their evolutionary framework are clearly still assuming Darwinian principles to discuss management practices that would give us healthier forest resources. The research and management arms of the USDA Forest Service and other agencies tasked with land and species management cannot escape Darwin’s legacy.

But what of IDT as an alternative to Darwinian evolution? If IDT is a scientifically valid theory on a par with evolution, as its advocates insist, then what implications would this idea have for forest management? What mechanisms does IDT purport to offer as replacements for evolutionary theory? The problem is divining what IDT really is. Even allowing IDT the benefit of the doubt as a scientific proposal this is no easy task. Amongst ID proponents there is no consistent definition as to what IDT looks like as a scientific endeavor. Components of IDT are often criticized as a “moving target”, and clearly with justification. IDT proponents seem to generally accept the idea that species have a history and have changed through time; however, this position is not always clear. Many IDT advocates accept this premise for some species but are uncomfortable applying it to others (there seems to be no problem that camels exhibit an evolutionary trajectory, but there appears to be some discourse over whether the same can be said for humans). Some reject it outright. There is also some suggestion that this component of IDT is largely a façade, made to make IDT more palatable as a scientific idea and to avoid entanglements with religious ideas of creationism that are rejected by the court system.

Assuming IDT accepts Darwin’s concept of “descent with modification”, what it probably does not accept is its mechanism, although here again IDT is a moving target. IDT proponents appear to largely reject natural selection as a mechanism driving species change, suggesting that life particularly at the cellular level is too complex to have been derived by “natural” mechanism such as Darwinian selection. Many biological structures are considered “irreducibly complex” in that if one component is removed the system completely stops functioning. Given the apparent complexity of some biological structures, natural selection would have had to create the entire sequence with all of its parts in a single event. Or so the argument assumes. Clearly, they argue, natural selection is incapable of such a feat. Instead they suggest creation of species is guided, at least at some level, by an undefined Designer, and not through Darwinian natural selection. If natural selection is inherently flawed, as IDT proponents suggest, then concepts of adaptation, competition, and variability have no useful application under IDT. Natural resource management strategies essentially become nothing more than “shot in the dark” efforts.

IDT advocates would probably counter that some combination of natural selection mechanisms and IDT principles is possible, but again they offer nothing more than another moving target, against which it is impossible to draw testable hypotheses. That still begs the question of exactly where in the natural system mechanisms are thwarted by intelligent design imposed from above. IDT may or may not accept a historical relationship between species and it may reject natural selection as a mechanism driving species change, but either way IDT cannot describe functional relationships among living organisms that exist in absence of natural selection. IDT proponents are not specific about the instances, locations and conditions under which Darwinian mechanisms are overridden by Designer intervention, because the idea is immune from testable propositions.

Instead, IDT’s main argument falls on criticism of evolutionary theory. They constantly repeat the mantra: many biological features are irreducibly complex and cannot be the product of natural selection; the Cambrian explosion indicates the sudden occurrence of major animal body plans that cannot be explained by Darwinian principles; and no transitional fossils exist in the paleontological record to indicate species change as the result of an accumulative process like natural selection. Irreducible complexity seemed to initially catch the evolutionary research community off-guard when it was proposed in the early 1990s, but only for a moment. Solid research has since demonstrated time and again that supposed irreducibly complex systems can be reduced further and easily explained by natural selection. Components of supposed irreducible biological systems are now found to function quite well without some parts of the system, find “short-cut” pathways to accomplish the same function, or simply serve other functions. IDT activists have covered up the paleontological reality of the Cambrian explosion to give the impression that birds, reptiles, mammals, fish and insects arose suddenly some 500 million years. Not only did the so-called “explosion” last for tens of millions of years, but new research in the Pre-Cambrian period is showing a steady rise of complex features in organisms. Further, IDT advocates purposefully (or ignorantly) misuse the term “body plan”: no birds, no mammals, no insects, no reptiles and no fish are to be found in the Cambrian. These “groups” as we know them today all arise much later in time, their fossil histories marked in many cases by clear transitional steps. The suite of transitional fossils familiar to paleontologists in all areas of research belies the claim made by IDT advocates that none exist. The pine tree forests managed by the Forest Service are just such an example. The fossil record shows transitional steps from their origin in the Jurassic some 150 million years ago. Their slow accumulations of characters adaptive to drier (and more fire prone) ecosystems is clear. The fact that managers today take advantage of those adaptive characteristics is testament to the fact that evolutionary theory offers practical applications for ecosystem restoration and restoration of “healthy” forests. In contrast, IDT offers resource management nothing of practical value.

I have attempted to give IDT the benefit of the doubt as a scientific endeavor on a par with evolutionary theory as its advocates would like. It is clear, however, that IDT proponents cannot answer basic questions about their supposed theory, because there is nothing about ID for which one can form testable hypotheses. It violates a primary requirement of theory: that it generate testable hypotheses to determine its ability to explain natural phenomena. Its proponents will cry foul and claim a bias against IDT bordering on abject prejudice, simply because it has religious connotations. But the reality is that IDT is not science. IDT exists not because it has advanced scientific knowledge but because its proponents have waged a successful public relations campaign (much like astrology). It has used popular dislike of evolution and manufactured “controversies” in evolutionary theory to camouflage its lack of a scientific approach and inability to offer anything of scientific value.

Part III: Conclusion

IDT has no practical application to the management of natural resources that supercede or replace Darwinian natural selection. We now realize that species change can occur very rapidly, and each year there are more and more studies documenting measurable physical differences between populations in no more than a few decades. This is documented for a host of species including salmon, cichlid fishes, squirrels, rats, guppies, mosquitofish, finches, and a host of plant species. We depend on these evolutionary principles of species variability, inheritance and adaptation to develop management techniques to reach a desired ecosystem condition. There are, however, serious philosophical implications for natural resource management and conservation if IDT is legitimized as scientific inquiry through no other mechanism than public appeal.

The fact that IDT proponents have convinced the broader public that a non-scientific idea merits discussion alongside serious scientifically backed theories does not bode well for biological conservation and management science. Christopher Mooney, in The Republican War on Science, has documented a concerted effort by the current administration to either limit (in some cases outright censor) scientific research or promote scientifically vacuous ideas as legitimate science. While this occurs under all political philosophies, attacks on science have been particularly egregious over the last five years. Biologists, ecologists, foresters and others who maintain scientific approaches are increasingly forced to defend their conclusions against non-professional administrators with the ability to elevate baseless conjecture to the status of alternative theory in the public arena. Whether it is outright dismissal of solid data on sage grouse distributions without appropriate countering data or warping collection of blind test data on lynx to promote a public perception of unethical behavior on the part of agency biologists, the methods mirror those of IDT advocates. Other agencies are affected as well. The current re-write of the National Park Service management rules to eliminate any reference to evolutionary biology is a clear attempt to remove scientific approaches to management.

If there is an implication for natural resource management that stems from ID, it’s that conservation biology is irrelevant. It is, after all, not much of a logical leap to go from “we don’t need an explanation, the Intelligent Designer just did it that way” to “we don’t need to worry about causes for species extinction, it’s just all part of God’s plan”.
If it is true, as some ID theorists suggest, that the only way a cell could make a flagellum (or the only way some conifer species are more fire resistant than others) is if the characteristics were already coded for in their DNA. If this pre-structural coding is the result of intelligent design, then why bother limiting competition through selective harvesting? Moreover, is genetic information necessary for implementing management methods that take advantage of the genetic make-up of populations? Under evolutionary theory, the answer is decidedly “yes”; under IDT the practical applications of genetic information are absent. In response, IDT proponents may suggest that some combination of natural selection mechanisms and IDT principles is possible (another moving target!). But IDT does not apparently accept the evolutionary premises on which genetic variability, inheritance, adaptation and selection are based, therefore IDT has nothing useful to say about natural resource management. IDT proponents are not specific about the instances, locations and conditions under which Darwinian mechanisms might be overridden by Designer intervention. So if ID proponents accept some Darwinian mechanisms such as adaptation, then why not all? What separates some principles from others? With IDT there is no way for managers to predict the outcome of their management strategies and adapt to new conditions.

Of course the ultimate goal of IDT is not to develop testable hypotheses and build applicable knowledge to real world problems. If there is any goal of IDT advocates, it is to justify their personal belief in an omnipotent, intelligent designer. However, considering the prevalence of extinction throughout life’s history, the presence of genetic anomalies like mutation, and more importantly, the inherent ability of the human species to manipulate and change the environment seemingly at will, the broader implication of IDT is not an omnipotent designer, but rather a significantly impotent designer.

Land management agencies rely on Darwinian principles to maintain species, restore forest health, develop genetically appropriate species for reforestation, combat invasive species, promote sustainable ecosystems, and help protect the environment in which we live. Unfortunately, most agency scientists do not understand the nature of the creation-evolution debate or the impacts it has on their own fields of expertise. Biologists, ecologists and other environmental scientists within land management would do well to pay attention and get involved in debates over evolution and science. They can start by checking up on their local school districts to ensure their children are getting a proper science education. They can volunteer to present good science in the classrooms. They can publicly support teachers who are being pressured to offer non-science alternatives or find it easier to just stop teaching science. They can be more vocal in identifying the evolutionary principles underlying management to a broader audience. They can include more evolutionary theory in interpretation and public outreach. Our public lands are too important to be managed on anything but the best available science.

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Responses

  1. “That still begs the question of exactly where in the natural system mechanisms are thwarted by intelligent design imposed from above.”

    Exactly. I’ve been wondering when the ID’ers would get around to a specific event. That would be a start.

    “The current re-write of the National Park Service management rules to eliminate any reference to evolutionary biology is a clear attempt to remove scientific approaches to management.

    That’s insane (but expected).

  2. Actually, the notion of a balanced eco-system combined with optimization theory basics – convergence rates for genetic optimization are typically much worse than n-squared, where n would be the number of genes in the entire eco-system – pretty much takes the hopelessness of evolutionary theory and takes it to hopeless-squared.

    But scientist will stick with the single variable/gene analyses, because everything works out that way.

  3. Looney, I really wish I knew what you were talking about and why that has anything to do with the relationship of evolutionary theory to managing natural resources. The fact remains that without evolutionary theory, there is absolutely no reason to manage timber, wildlife, ecosystems, etc. There’s no way to do it without assuming the very tenets of Darwinian evolution. No rhyme or reason to management at all…if creationism of any kind has any validity whatsoever, why bother to manage natural resources?

  4. Chris, I will also say that I see no logic to your reasoning at all. God created once a long time ago, so what we have is what we have and it can never evolve again. We must preserve it for future generations.

    BTW, I have spent a long time searching for the elusive “theory of evolution”. In science, a theory is a fixed formula involving measurable quantities. It is a sad fact that no one has yet identified a tangible, scientific theory of evolution. Dawkins in his books never identifies ones. Molecular biology texts? You will search in vain. Dobzynsky says that only in the light of evolution can biology be understood, yet he never worked with a scientific theory of evolution. Only hand waving. The theory of evolution doesn’t exist!

    (note, however, that there is a metanarrative of evolution, which is entirely different from a scientific theory.)

  5. Looney. you wrote, “God created once a long time ago, so what we have is what we have and it can never evolve again”. I think part of the point of the original post was to bring our attention to the fact that IDT is a moving target. To counter this proposal could you please tell us how long ago? And what was created? Were humans created at the same time as every other species? Come on looney. Prove the original post wrong. By the way I think the original post comes close to explaining how IDT is a politicla movement. It’s all about controlling the population.


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