Quotable Quotes archive

Darwinian explanations are too flexible to be useful (Skell)

Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming’s discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin’s theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No. … I found that Darwin’s theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss. …

The efforts mentioned there are not experimental biology; they are attempts to explain already authenticated phenomena in Darwinian terms, things like human nature. Further, Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive—except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed—except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.

Darwinian evolution—whatever its other virtues—does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology.

Update, 26 November 2010: sadly, Dr Skell, born 1918, died in November 2010; see this obituary that explains some of his major contributions to chemistry, which led to his election to the National Academy of Sciences, and his dissent from evolutionary dogma. he was known as the ‘father of carbene chemistry’; Skell, P.S. and Woodworth, R.C., Structure of Carbene CH2, J. American Chemical Society 78(17):4496–4497, 1956 | doi:10.1021/ja01598a087.


  1. Philip Skell, ‘Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology’, The Scientist 19(16):10, 29 August 2005. The whole article can be read here. There is a similar article at: Philip S. Skell, The Dangers Of Overselling Evolution: Focusing on Darwin and his theory doesn’t further scientific progress, Forbes magazine, 23 February 2009.