The IDiots are crowing: they found a scientist who doesn’t understand evolution. One catch that they don’t think is very important: he’s a synthetic chemist. I think it’s fair to say that he’s as clueless about the issues in evolutionary biology as I am of those in synthetic chemistry, but at least I have the humility to recognize that my understanding of one discipline does not imply understanding of a completely different one. So the Uncommon Descent crowd is ridiculously enthusiastic about a scientist, James Tour, who doesn’t understand something, and they’ve got excerpts from a talk he gave, on “Jesus and Nanotechnology” (the title kind of clues you in, doesn’t it?) in which he professes his ignorance, as if that’s some sort of indictment of evolution.
… I will tell you as a scientist and a synthetic chemist: if anybody should be able to understand evolution, it is me, because I make molecules for a living, and I don’t just buy a kit, and mix this and mix this, and get that. I mean, ab initio, I make molecules. I understand how hard it is to make molecules. I understand that if I take Nature’s tool kit, it could be much easier, because all the tools are already there, and I just mix it in the proportions, and I do it under these conditions, but ab initio is very, very hard.
When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Why would you think that knowledge of synthetic chemistry should make you able to understand evolution? I agree that building molecules to a spec, as Tour does, is very very hard — but that’s not what evolution does, so that skill is not relevant. What’s clearly happening here is that Tour is totally incapable of recognizing a process that lacks a guiding hand, because his work involves acting as the guiding hand.
Evolutionary biology is not the same as synthetic chemistry, OK? That I understand evolutionary biology better than Tour does does not make me capable of building nanocars.
I don’t understand evolution, and I will confess that to you. Is that OK, for me to say, “I don’t understand this”? Is that all right? I know that there’s a lot of people out there that don’t understand anything about organic synthesis, but they understand evolution. I understand a lot about making molecules; I don’t understand evolution. And you would just say that, wow, I must be really unusual.
Of course it’s OK to say you don’t understand evolution — I encourage all ignorant people to first confess their ignorance as a step towards understanding. However, what’s not OK is to use your ignorance, combined with authority in other domains of science, to suggest that evolution is false. Learn some humility, guy; I don’t profess greater knowledge of a discipline outside my own, but instead defer to the experts in those fields.
Let me tell you what goes on in the back rooms of science – with National Academy members, with Nobel Prize winners. I have sat with them, and when I get them alone, not in public – because it’s a scary thing, if you say what I just said – I say, “Do you understand all of this, where all of this came from, and how this happens?” Every time that I have sat with people who are synthetic chemists, who understand this, they go “Uh-uh. Nope.” These people are just so far off, on how to believe this stuff came together. I’ve sat with National Academy members, with Nobel Prize winners. Sometimes I will say, “Do you understand this?”And if they’re afraid to say “Yes,” they say nothing. They just stare at me, because they can’t sincerely do it.
Right. He sat down with other prestigious synthetic chemists, and they don’t understand evolution, either. Therefore, there’s something wrong with evolution.
Next time you’re playing poker with your buddies, ask around the table if they understand synthetic chemistry. When they shrug, or look at you blankly, or admit they know nothing about the subject, you have ammunition to go public and condemn those phonies who make molecules. It’s all a lie because some people don’t know how it works!
I must also point out that if you sit down with any intelligent scientist, and ask them if they have all the answers to the big questions in their discipline, they’ll say no, and even better, they’ll bring up a whole series of difficult questions that you probably never even thought of. That’s the nature of science; every answer inspires a dozen new questions, and inquiry leads you ever deeper into harder problems. Only a dishonest hack would think that somehow brings the science into disrepute.
Macroevolution happens. It’s documented. We know it happens. We know some of the mechanisms, but there are legitimate questions about the relative importance of various mechanisms, about the details of specific lineages, about possible novel mechanisms—but not about the reality of the process. It is sleazy to imply otherwise.
Oh, and just a hint: when you confront a Nobel Prize winner with a stupid question, and they just stare at you, it’s not because they’re afraid to say the truth: it’s probably because they’re wondering why they’re having this conversation with this idiot.