Some sciences are more scientific than others, or at least more prestigious. When the Nobel Prizes are awarded each year, the highest place of honor is always formally filled by the Physics Prize recipients. They receive their prize first, and at the banquet later, one of their wives’ is the King of Sweden’s dinner partner.¹ If a chemist wants to see his wife’s hand on that regal arm some day, he’ll have to come up with something of such significance that it can pass for physics.
Rutherford claimed that “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” The arrogance of physicists in trivializing the complexities of other sciences can be irritating. In my wife’s incoming class in the BCMB graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University,² there was another student with a physics bachelor’s degree. This student found the first year course work surprisingly difficult and felt there were unreasonable expectations. My wife’s unvoiced response was “No, the work isn’t too hard. You just don’t have the right preparation. Just because you can do physics doesn’t mean you can do molecular biology.”
Still, there’s a point to what Rutherford said. A physicist would generally also make an inexpert tailor as well as biochemist. Even so, the most fundamental concepts in the understanding of matter and energy (i.e., everything, well, physical) we call physics. Complex, messy fields like geology, for instance, use physics as a foundation to elaborate concepts that are in many ways grander but also more open to revision. In contrast with physics, there’s economics. Economics uses quantitative analysis and other methods of science. The best economists in the world, the Bank of Sweden Prize winners, are even allowed to attend the banquet with the Nobel Prize winners.³ When an economist presents us with his grand theory of all human interaction, however, no one treats it on a par with Boltzmann’s Law.
The above three paragraphs of prologue hopefully have filtered out those bored by such things. I’ve been curious about the difficult social relations of evolutionary biologists. A couple examples of what I mean come from Fred Reed (a Hunter S. Thompsonesque writer who lives in Mexico because he can’t stand life in America anymore):
“[E]volutionists are obsessed by Christianity and Creationism, with which they imagine themselves to be in mortal combat. This is peculiar to them. Note that other sciences, such as astronomy and geology, even archaeology, are equally threatened by the notion that the world was created in 4004 BC. Astronomers pay not the slightest attention to creationist ideas. Nobody does except evolutionists.” (link) â€œI have spent countless hours as a reporter talking to scientists, as distinct from zealots with a scientific background. Without exception that I can remember, they were rational, honest, and forthcoming. Yes, they were often trying to establish a pet theory. But they said, ‘I think this is so, and here’s the evidence, and I think it’s pretty solid, but I still need to show this or that, and no, we haven’t, but I hope we will.’ If I expressed doubts, they either showed me clearly and civilly why I was wrong, or said, ‘Good point. Here’s what we think.’” This polite, rational behavior he contrasts with the response of evolutionists when questioned. (link)
A few reasons for this state of affairs can be postulated. One is that evolution deals with an interface in nature that people take personally, the division separating men and animals. Upholding that there is no essential division could leave the evolutionary biologists feeling embattled. Another reason would be the heritage of the atheists who flocked to Darwin because they saw in his theory a good club for beating.
I suggest another reason for evolution’s social awkwardness: As a science, it’s quite a bit closer to economics than it is to physics. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most worthwhile things are closer to economics than they are to physics. Many are on the other side of economics. It means, though, that overarching explanations of all life everywhere are easier to group with the works of Marx and Milton Friedman than with those of Einstein and Maxwell. It may be hard to face up to the fact that neither your wife nor any of your colleagues’ will ever have a date with Carl XVI Gustaf. That would be above the station of stamp collectors.
¹ I suppose Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer were themselves the dinner partners of Oscar II and and Gustaf VI Adolf. [Curie, no; Mayer, yes: see comment 2.]
² Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology