Published online July 6, 2017
Seth Shostak ’65 laments the public’s lack of complete confidence in science. For one example, a large minority of people “consider it laughable that undirected processes could produce something as wonderful and complex as themselves.” In this case we agree: Public skepticism about the theory of evolution is warranted. At a panel discussion also titled “Science Under Attack” at Reunions 2015, I attempted to explain why the standing explanation for macroevolutionary progress might be missing something. (On that occasion, panelists Shostak and Peter Brown ’70 did not discredit the misgivings I outlined by conflating them with creationism, but in the new article, Shostak makes no such distinction.)
Despite sustained effort, the ability to compose wholly new genetic programs in a quarantined system, by any Darwinian mechanism, has not been demonstrated. (A successful demonstration in a computer model was the object of a prize I attempted to establish, beginning in 2006.) Without a demonstration it makes sense to wonder, how does evolution come up with its apparent inventions? The question is entirely scientific; ignoring it is not. But Shostak wants to ignore it. So do most scientists.
Maybe that’s why “today, many in the public regard scientists as having motives that go beyond merely sussing out nature’s machinery.” Indeed, unscientific motives were a theme of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962). To bluntly rephrase Kuhn, if the pending paradigm shift is big enough, the whole department might be terminated. This time, the public may be right!