Tara Smith posted Entry 2594 on September 23, 2006 12:00 PM.
Trackback URL: http://www.pandasthumb.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.fcgi/2588

Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon

Read the entire series.

The seventh chapter of Wells’s book could be summed up in a single sentence: “biology doesn’t need no steeekin’ evolution!” Wells argues that, because medicine and agriculture were already doing just fine prior to Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, clearly then, these fields (and others) haven’t benefited from an application of evolutionary principles in the time from 1859 to present day, and that Dobzhansky’s “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is one big joke.

Wells focuses on medicine and agriculture because these are two fields that we all benefit from and are more easily understood than biological disciplines that are a bit more removed from the common man. Animal and plant breeding and domestication is something that resonates more with middle America than the speciation events Wells describes in Chapter 5 (review of that yet to come), and certainly the great strides made in medicine are familiar even to those who don’t have much of an interest in the field. Wells claims that these fields have been “darwined”; that “Darwinists steal credit for scientific breakthroughs to which they contributed nothing,” and calls it a form of “intellectual larceny.” (pp. 80-81):

Generations of breeders have been darwined. Mendel has been darwined. Jenner and Semmelweis have been darwined. Fleming, Florey, Chain, and Waksman have been darwined. So have the real pioneers of modern biology. They’ve all been darwined.

(pp. 81)

Wells claims this because, as I noted in the first paragraph, it is his contention that modern biology owes nothing to evolution, but instead, evolution owes everything to other fields.

Yet most of the fundamental disciplines in modern biology were pioneered by scientists who lived before Darwin was born. These pioneers include the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, the sixteenth-century physiologist William Harvey, and the seventeenth-century botanist John Ray. They include the seventeenth-century founders of microbiology, Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek; the eighteenth-century founder of systematics, Carolus Linneaus; and the eighteenth-century founder of modern embryology, Caspar Friedrich Wolff. Even paleontology, which Darwinists now treat as theirs, was founded before Darwin’s birth by Georges Cuvier.

(pp. 81)

Did You Know?

  1. Evolution is the grand unifying concept of biology.
  2. Evolution is central to understanding the dynamics of infectious disease.
  3. Bioinformatics and the biotech industry are based on evolutionary biology.

Of course, no one is making the argument that Darwin discovered biology! Wells doesn’t once mention, however, another famous quote by Ernest Rutherford: “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” In the days before Darwin, biology was not united behind a common, unifying theory, and it was much like “stamp collecting:” figuring out knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but not having a puzzle upon which to place the pieces to form a more logical, coherent pattern. Evolution gives us this.

This is why some scientists are still dismayed that an understanding of evolution doesn’t guide some biology-dependent fields in the way that it should. Wells seizes on one such lamentation by quote-mining Harvard biologist Marc Kirschner:

“Over the last one hundred years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself.” Although he lamented this situation, Kirschner acknowledged: “Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all.”

(p. 80)

Of couse, as usual, putting the previous paragraph alongside Kirschner’s quote gives it the context needed to understand where Kirschner is coming from:

If anything, Kirschner and Gerhart hope their book will have an impact at least as substantial on their colleagues in biology. For too long, they say, researchers in its different domains-from evolutionists in the field to cell biologists in the lab-have remained isolated. ”I wouldn’t call it an antagonism as much as one not knowing anything about the other,” Gerhart offers.

(Dizikes (2005) Missing Links. The Boston Globe. Oct. 23)

So they’re calling for biologists to pay attention to disciplines outside their own niche a bit more, which makes a huge amount of sense and even moreso if one realizes that Dr. Kirschner leads a department of systems biology, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to investigating biological research. Additionally, this article was written in the midst of the Dover trial, where Michael Behe—a biochemist who clearly feels that evolution doesn’t benefit his own work—was testifying.

So, what of Wells’s specific claims about medicine and Darwinism? I will address three here in more detail: hospital pathogens, antibiotics, and influenza vaccination, all of which Wells claims owe nothing to evolution.

The Hygiene Hypothesis

As I noted above, Wells includes Ignaz Semmelweis (yep, that guy again) as a science pioneer who has been “darwined.” I’ve mentioned Semmelweis previously as a major contributor to my field. (Indeed, I put his observations about handwashing and disinfection at the top of my list.) Wells mentions him because he claims that public health measures such as personal hygiene, sewage systems, and safer water supplies have been responsible for the rise of modern medicine, rather than anything related to “Darwinism.” And as a public health professional, I agree that there is a grain of truth in there. Public health measures certainly represented a dramatic step forward in the reduction of communicable diseases, and even today, we see outbreaks of illness where these essential foundations of society break down.

However, basic hygiene can only go so far. A number of other factors have combined over the past century to make us healthier as well, including better nutrition, vaccination, and improved medical care. And while, as Kirschner laments, not all medical fields have embraced evolutionary thinking as much as biologists wish they had, it is certainly critical for my own field of microbiology.

Microbial Virulence and Evolution

Wells mentions the mortality within Viennese hospitals in the mid-nineteenth century due to infectious agents. Despite improvements in hygiene, we still see this today. Strains of bacteria and viruses isolated from hospitals tend to be nastier than those occurring out in the general population, for a number of reasons. Indeed, rather than being any kind of a challenge to evolutionary theory, these nosocomial (hospital-based) transmission events and their associated increase in virulence are an excellent case in point where the implementation of evolutionary biology provided the framework necessary to understand these infections. Paul Ewald addresses this phenomenon:

Without an evolutionary framework for understanding pathogen virulence, researchers would have no reason for expecting to find particularly virulent endemic pathogens in hospitals. The only serious attempts to explain the apparently high-level of pathogen virulence in hospitals involved the linking of virulence to another characteristic associated with hospitals: antibiotic resistance. The emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms in hospitals in concert with the use of the antibiotics led researchers to conclude that high levels of antibiotic use caused the emergence of resistant organisms and to speculate that antibiotic-resistant organisms might be inherently more virulent than their antibiotic-sensitive counterparts. Yet when infections caused by resistant nosocomial organisms are compared with sensitive (generally nosocomial) infections, the former are only sometimes found to be associated with more severe infections. Even when they are associated with more severe disease, any differences in inherent virulence tend to be confounded with other factors, such as increased severity due to lowered effectiveness of antibiotics…… . After virulence-enhancing mechanisms are well understood, pathogens can be assayed for their virulence directly. Thus Clostridium difficile pathogens isolated from prolonged nosocomial outbreaks are predicted to be more toxigenic than C. difficile isolated from the outside community. Similarly, nosocomial Escherichia coli are predicted to have virulence-enhancing characteristics (e.g., invasiveness, adherence) more often than community strains.

Additionally, evolution is at the core of the entire field of bioinformatics, as Sandy notes. Using genomic sequence comparisons (with the assumption of common ancestry) has been a huge benefit to biologists, allowing us to investigate the primate origin of HIV, trace the source of an HIV infection, track the spread of dangerous influenza viruses, and even study influenza viruses that disappeared around the time my grandparents were born. Wells may argue that really biochemistry and virology are the fields employed here to study these (after all, PCR isn’t dependent on evolutionary biology), but it’s the theory of evolution that allows us to make any sense of the data. And without that framwork to analyze it, what use is it?

Additionally, selection is at the heart of many biotechnology products. For instance, insulin for diabetics is now produced by bacteria that have been modified to carry the human insulin gene. This was made possible by using a marker to tell when the bacterial cells have taken up the human insulin gene. This is confirmed by inserting both the insulin gene and a gene encoding resistance to antibiotics into a plasmid. When the plasmid is taken up by a recipient cell, then, it can be distinguished from its relatives that didn’t take up the plasmid by its resistance to that particular antibiotic—meanwhile, those who didn’t take up the plasmid (and therefore, don’t produce insulin and aren’t resistant to antibiotics) will be killed—“survival of the fittest” at work. (In this case, where “the fittest” are resistant to antibiotics.)

Antibiotic Resistance

Wells and other creationists often dismiss antibiotic resistance as “just microevolution” and insignificant to the bigger picture of evolutionary biology. As Wells notes, the generation of antibiotic resistant organisms does not “involve the origin of a new species. Tuberculosis bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are still tuberculosis bacteria” (p. 77). This is the same argument we heard from Casey Luskin on avian influenza (“it’s still influenza!”), and while Answers in Genesis promotes the same idea, they claim it’s “natural selection, but not evolution”. Wells goes even farther than AiG, however, trying to argue against even “natural” selection in the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The clinical use of antibiotics creates a highly artificial situation. Antibiotic-producing microbes must be isolated from their natural surroundings and grown in pure culture with special nutrients. Then the antibiotic has to be purified and concentrated to a degree never seen in nature. When the antibiotic is finally administered to a patient, there is nothing “natural” about what follows. The greenhouses and livestock pens of domestic breeders are more natural than a hospital room or a doctor’s office.

It seems that what Wells is arguing here is that antibiotic resistance has little relevance to evolution because it’s not “natural” selection—it’s artificial. Of course, this is absurd, as evolution can occur whether it’s via man or via “mother Nature”. Wells and others, however, downplay “microevolution” and antibiotic resistance in particular as insignificant because they know that these offer powerful evidence for evolutionary theory and that even a layman can easily understand it. Indeed, Wells actually gets about a paragraph or so mostly right on pages seventy-eight and seventy-nine, describing factors which contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance. However, he blows it again by the middle of page seventy-eight, writing that antibiotic resistance “…spreads from microbe to microbe—mechanisms involving gene transfer among organisms rather than Darwinian descent with modification”. Yes, that is the sound of jaws dropping everywhere; isn’t the acquisition of genes and the passing of them on to progeny “descent with modification”? Additionally, while this horizontal gene transfer is one mechanism for the development of antibiotic resistance, it’s certainly not the only way bacteria become resistant. (Mike has more here.)

Wells also argues that evolution doesn’t provide any assistance in designing new antibiotics—that it’s more about the skill of the chemists than evolution. However, while certainly no one is underestimating the importance of chemists, an understanding of evolution can lead to better drugs, such as this example here, where the authors selected for novel enzymes with increased ability to detoxify target drugs. Evolution sometimes can be a better “designer” than even our best chemists, and increasingly this is finding applications in other fields as well.

Evolution and Influenza Vaccination

Wells says:

Darwinists claim that their theory is needed to deal with viruses such as influenza that “evolve” from year to year. But the preparation of flu vaccines depends on techniques from the fields of virology, immunology, and biochemistry—not evolutionary biology.

Again, I suppose if one takes a very narrow view of “preparation of flu vaccines”, Wells is a bit more on-target, but it’s clear from the rest of the chapter that he’s talking about vaccination in the broader context than just the physical manufacture of the vaccine. In fact, creating each year’s influenza vaccine is dependent on a huge number of people in many different fields, and an understanding of the evolution of the virus is critical.

Influenza vaccination starts with careful tracking of circulating influenza viruses, looking specifically for strains that may increase or decrease in frequency over time. This, in turn, is only understood in an evolutionary framework: strains may out-compete others (due, for example, to resistance to antiviral drugs), while others may become less common (due to a high level of host immunity, for example). These findings are then extrapolated and predictions are made about what strains will be most common in the coming year. It’s only at this point that the actual manufacture of the vaccine begins. But this isn’t the end of the story; there’s still more use for evolutionary biology. Even with a vaccine on hand, insights that come from the fusion of evolutionary biology with epidemiology and virology provide robust mathematical models that allow us to best plan how to use vaccines, especially if it’s a time when they may be scarce (for example, in a pandemic situation). Though we can’t easily predict the trajectory of influenza virus evolution, we certainly use information obtained from its study to help plan for future outbreaks.

The Pragmatic Fallacy

As I mentioned at the beginning, the finale of Wells’s chapter is just one big logical fallacy, suggesting evolution isn’t central to biology because 1) biology got along fine before Darwin and 2) it’s not very useful to many fields, anyway. This is somewhat the reverse of the pragmatic fallacy, where one argues that something is true because it provides results. Wells claims that evolution doesn’t provide results; therefore, its validity can be called into question. However, even if that were true—and I’ve given reasons above why it’s not—the validity of a theory doesn’t depend upon its applications. This is something that’s been addressed in both the scientific literature and the blogosphere in recent days, after Jerry Coyne’s recent article in Nature making a similar point following an encounter with the DI’s Casey Luskin. Coyne says:

In the end, the true value of evolutionary biology is not practical but explanatory. It answers, in the most exquisitely simple and parsimonious way, the age-old question: “How did we get here?” It gives us our family history writ large, connecting us with every other species, living or extinct, on Earth. It shows how everything from frogs to fleas got here via a few easily grasped biological processes. And that, after all, is quite an accomplishment.

The fact of the matter is that it wouldn’t be an issue even if evolution didn’t produce anything considered “useful” by Wells or the rest of the population. It doesn’t make evolution any less true even if it’s only brought in as “an interesting narrative gloss” following a “breakthrough”, as Wells quotes fellow creationist Phil Skell as saying. And while evolutionary biologists may never offer as many direct applications to medicine or other areas that use biology such as, say, immunologists or molecular biologists, that doesn’t mean that those fields are somehow more valid or correct than the study of evolution is. After all, if we judged correctness of an idea by its applications, where would something like intelligent design end up on that scale?

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Comment #133138

Posted by David B. Benson on September 23, 2006 4:23 PM (e)

Thank you, Tara. Nicely put.

Comment #133141

Posted by Steviepinhead on September 23, 2006 4:36 PM (e)

And why, exactly, would Wells’s version of the Creator have endowed the lowly fungus with anti-bacterial resistance, instead of us, the “lords” of Creation?

Evolution explains why the fungus can do it and we can’t…

The “Fall” may–if stretched hard enough–“explain” bacterial illnesses in the first place, but not why resistance to same was secreted away in a mold…!

How these wackos manage to type this stuff in the first place with all the brain-ooze leaking out their ears and clogging their keyboards is beyond me!

Comment #133152

Posted by mark on September 23, 2006 5:00 PM (e)

How can Wells and the other anti-evolutionists claim that when a microbe evolves to metabolize an entirely new compound, that’s just microevolution, and the bugs are still the same bugs they were; but if some other critter evolves into two lineages, similar in many ways, yet one co-stars with Ronald Reagan and the other writes Hamlet, those two are completely different beasts (oops, chimps are beasts but Man is not)?

Comment #133156

Posted by Andrew McClure on September 23, 2006 5:03 PM (e)

I’m not even entirely sure to what extent we can talk about genetics– or any medical or scientific field where genetics is relevant– without considering the work to be within the theory of evolution.

When I briefly worked for a college bioinformatics/genetics lab (as a code monkey), our big project at the time was that we were trying to sequence the genomes of several species of rice by comparing the genomes to other species of rice which had previously been fully sequenced by conventional means– we would chemically identify the locations of the differences between the genomes and then sequence only the portions that differed, allowing the genomes of the unsequenced species to be sequenced in a fraction of the time that it would have taken otherwise. The theory of evolution did not, as far as I know, come up in the day to day operation of this sequencing work. But in order to do such work in absence of the theory of evolution, we would be required to accept the idea that different species of rice to slightly varying degrees have almost entirely identical genomes, and pretend that we have no idea why. (The work that the lab has been doing since I left apparently has something to do with using the same sort of genome difference mapping to identify the specific genes responsible for certain observable features present in some forms of rice but not others; how a project like this this could be made to make sense at all in the absence of the theory of evolution is somewhat beyond me.)

Even in the examples of places where evolution is relevant to medical work that Tara has posted here, she’s talking about places where evolutionary theory has direct involvement in the work at hand (as makes sense for purposes of refuting Wells’ points). But I think that there are many, many places in biology, especially anywhere genetics shows up, where the theory of evolution doesn’t factor in directly, but the absence of the theory of evolution would mean pretending any number of key details just happened, for no reason whatsoever. People in biological fields at every scale from studying fossils to the protein structures inside cells would invariably identify and take note of the great and fundamental similarities between nearly all forms of life, with those similarities (readily linked, in those cases where we have such information, with similarities in genome), with gradients of differences that appear to group and progress with the branching steps one would expect of relatives on a family tree; but we would not be able, or would not be able with any degree of certainty, to draw conclusions from these similarities and differences or in general say we know why they’re there. (It is maybe ironic that one of the key creationist objections is that the theory of evolution, being at some level based on random processes, removes “meaning” from the universe. But on the other hand what the creationists are expecting us to do in shrugging off evolution is remove one of the key scientific principles which allows us to construe sense and meaning out of the random processes we do see!)

The theory of evolution did arise independently of the field of genetics– which I think is a testament to the scientific success of the theory, that early evolutionary theory roughly predicted an entire scientific field which later arose somewhat independently– but if Darwin and Wallace hadn’t ever lived, I personally more or less expect that the theory of evolution would have very well arisen on its own within the theory of genetics. Predicting common descent with gradual modification based on things like biogeography and the other information available in the 1850s is something of a conceptual leap and requires a good deal of forethought and insight, but once you get around the point of understanding what DNA is and how it works there are some things that I think would probably just become obvious. (Of course, I expect that had Darwin’s principles been discovered later than Darwin himself, a whole mess of the biological and genetic ideas that came later would have been delayed or at a disadvantage as well. Though Mendel worked alone, the people who popularized and generalized what Mendel had discovered were all familiar with the theory of evolution. I’m reading over articles on Wikipedia about the debate between Bateson and Pearson/Weldon over the direction of early genetic theory and how Mendel’s ideas were to be integrated into science, and trying to figure out whether either side, or both or neither, can be seen to have been working within a Darwinian framework. The history of that entire “biometricians vs Mendelians” thing might be a good subject for a Panda’s Thumb/T.O article someday if there’s anyone who’s familiar with it…)

Anyway, I guess what I’m getting at here is that the creationists have scored a minor rhetorical victory in getting all sides of the argument to look at the Theory of Evolution and Biology as if they were two different things. As far as I can tell you can’t really separate the two that way; as much as the creationists want to focus on Charles Darwin as if none of this would have been happening if not for him, the concepts would have been there in nature with or without Darwin’s surprisingly lucid early exploration of them, and what the creationists and IDers really have a problem with isn’t Charles Darwin himself but really more or less everyone since 1850 who’s ever tried to look at Biology as a unifiable concept. It doesn’t really matter how much Charles Darwin did himself, or whether the Theory of Evolution comes up in biological and medical research in a day to day sense, Evolution is a very foundational kind of thing and you can’t rip out evolution from either history or modern biology and biomedicine without taking a whole mess of critical ideas that build on that foundation with it.

But, of course, Wells is in the “intelligent design” camp, which works by accepting virtually all the premises of the theory of evolution while incoherently denying the theory of evolution itself…

Comment #133165

Posted by Henry J on September 23, 2006 5:40 PM (e)

Re “How these wackos manage to type this stuff in the first place with all the brain-ooze leaking out their ears and clogging their keyboards is beyond me!”

Maybe they use plastic covers over their keyboards? (Like the ones sometimes used on machines in chemical plants.)


Comment #133170

Posted by Steviepinhead on September 23, 2006 6:05 PM (e)

Plastic covers over keyboards?

I guess that could also use some variation of the little skoogy thing that suctions the swish-water out of your mouth at the dentist’s–but just plug it into their ears.

Maybe the brain-ooze could even be recycled, with a suction-to-shunt connection.

Odd, though, that you don’t see any of these brain-ooze hygiene devices advertised anywhere, even on the creationist sites, which you’d think would be rife with them…

Comment #133199

Posted by Michael J on September 23, 2006 8:08 PM (e)

Yeah, the difference between religion and science. Throw out a religious book and it disappears forever. Throw out evolution and it will get rediscovered because the evidence is still there.

The world didn’t need Darwin, there was already a lot of people noticing that the world looked older than 6000 years and that the same fossils are found in the same strata all over the world.

Comment #133450

Posted by Ron Okimoto on September 24, 2006 8:36 AM (e)

You make the statement that PCR is not dependent on biological evolution. The process is not, but how it is applied does depend on evolutionary inferences. Just look up CAT primers. Researchers produce PCR primer sequences that will amplify sequences from related species in a lineage. The CAT primers are a set of primers that work for mammals and can work for other vertebrates. As soon as you know some DNA sequence for a certain lineage and you know that it differs from other studied lineages, you would not use PCR primers that work for the other known lineages to amplify species of the variant lineage for which you do not have sequence information. Why?

The more sequence information from various species of a lineage you have the more predictive power you have over what primer sequences may work on species of that lineage for which you have no sequence data. This works because of descent with modification. Even creationists have to have such a model to make the data make sense and have as much predictive power as biological evolution. There had to be a sequential creation of genetic templates that mimic evolutionary models. PCR and molecular biology in general use this inference. Why would you use a soybean sequence as a probe to identify a gene in rye grass if you had the maize sequence probe? Sure in the early days we had to use whatever we could get our hands on, but when that wasn’t the case, why did we make the choices that we made and why did we expect them to make a difference?

Comment #133453

Posted by Ed Darrell on September 24, 2006 8:58 AM (e)

Great stuff – but I can’t get over the feeling that you’ve understated the case, Tara.

Randolph Nesse makes a good case, and has for years, that the proper practice of medicine today requires knowledge of how and why microbes might evolve in a local area, or in a patient. I am reminded of a paper I read some years back about how HIV mutates to an entirely new species in each victim, meaning that vaccines can’t cope, and even treatments can’t be counted on to work in an entire population of victims, or sometimes even in a significant portion. I am also reminded of a string of sinus infections I had some years back, and a conversation I had with my physician at the time who was not, I thought, sufficiently aware of the possibilities of evolution of microbes. He ordered several new lab tests, and fortified with the knowledge that my lingering infection was caused by a microbe not usually present, a switch to a different antibiotic took the infection out in a week.

Check the research universities in Kansas, Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, Pennsylvania, or any other place with creationism eruptions. You’ll see that a lot of the research is titled about the evolution of a plant to avoid a pest, or the pest – and the research is essential to the state’s economy.

Wells’ claim is tantamount to claiming that the physics and chemistry of gasoline combustion have nothing to do with modern transportation. It’s true only in the sense that, if we completely ignore the evidence, there’s a case to be made that minimizes the connection; but any fool could see it’s wrong. Wells is trying to wave his credentials so victims won’t see his fan dance. And frankly, he’s not good with the fans.

Comment #133494

Posted by Christopher O'Brien on September 24, 2006 11:49 AM (e)

Even natural resource management depends on evolutionary theory - all of our decisions to use prescribed fire, “thin from below”, selective harvest, etc. are dependent on principles that make sense only in the context of evolution. Peruse the latest journal issues for forestry management, species conservation, etc. and you’ll find repeated reference to evolutionary principles, even though the terms evolution and Darwin may not be used.
I’ve written more about it here: http://northstatescience.blogspot.com/2006/07/part-i-nature-of-problem.html

Comment #133529

Posted by GT(N)T on September 24, 2006 2:11 PM (e)

Is there a field of biology that is not a study of evolution? Is there a field which doesn’t require the “light of evolution” to make sense?

Comment #133595

Posted by Dunc on September 24, 2006 5:05 PM (e)

What does Wells say about animal crop breeding and artificial selection?

Comment #133624

Posted by Glen Davidson on September 24, 2006 6:03 PM (e)

In the time when even cancer is understood according to “Darwinian” evolution, Wells’ nonsense just falls flat.

Does he even read the journals? Very many papers refer to evolution, while the survey pieces in biology usually pay a good deal of attention to evolution. While there is some truth to the idea that evolution isn’t hugely important in the most practical discoveries, this owes much to the fact that the really important evolutionary information, DNA and molecular data, were not readily available until recently. Perhaps he wants to write how unimportant they are before the mass of evolutionary data overwhelms biology.

Turning to other matters, it’s the old, “well, it’s only microevolution” claptrap (the designations “microevolution” and “macroevolution” are not especially meaningful when prokaryotes are being discussed–doesn’t Dr. Wells know this?). Whatever. If he’s willing to grant that phylogenetic data tell us what is happening in the “microevolution” of HIV viruses, he has little or no reason to deny the phylogenetic data which show the separation of chimps and humans. Or of yeast and humans, for that matter.

Btw, does Wells think evolution is meaningless in the study, and genetic engineering, of yeast cells? Why is human-like glycosylation of proteins being engineered into yeasts? Why not into bacteria, if evolution is meaningless? Does he really think that the evolutionary relationship of humans and yeasts plays no role in research and genetic engineering, and that we may as well treat yeasts like prokaryotes, or as separate creations? Did he really get his doctorate without recognizing that evolutionary relationships are considered during the testing of animal subjects, as well as whenever genetic manipulation is effected?

Real biologists, you know, the ones that do biology, are guided by evolutionary considerations. They don’t typically mention these, since any competent biologist knows this already, just as physicists don’t bother invoking Newton much in classical physics.

Would biology really do fine if it lacked a whole class of causal mechanisms? If we couldn’t explain the patterns of inheritance either via microevolution or via macroevolution, would biology simply purr along nicely? What would we do, look for design, never finding it?

I’m not sure just how much practical value evolutionary theory does have, though I can see its value rising at this time. It has plenty even now, yet vis-a-vis all “design hypotheses” we may point out that almost certainly the greatest value in comparison to the pre-Darwinian past comes from the fact that we do not look for rational designs in organisms any more, and we have solid causal reasons not to do so.

Evolution gives us an explanation for the adaptation that we see which does not rely upon the kind of rational design that many pre-Darwinians looked for. Such rational design simply doesn’t exist in the form and function of biology, outside of our manipulations of biology (and any other evolved rationality (or computers), of course), and it is important for us to both recognize this and to understand the causes which have acted upon organisms.

Evolutionary theory killed off Paleyism, which is a prominent reason why biology has progressed so substantially in the past century or so. Form and function of biology can’t even be understood according to “design”. True, we could explain what happens in organisms using biochemistry and biophysics, but we could never explain why it is that bird wings are modified dinosaur forelegs without evolution. Indeed, why biological entities are as they are would not be understood in the least under a “design hypothesis” (without their fudged “evolutonary predictions”, none of which are entailed by their “theory”).

The continuity and non-exceptionalism of evolutionary theory is crucial to doing much biological science. We might, in fact, find out that chimps are the best models for human physiology without knowing about evolution. What we would not know without evolution is that chimps cannot be highly different from us in genetic material in some unexpected way, due to some design imperative.

Anyone who followed the “evolution” of CPUs would know better than to expect the continuities which are found between humans and chimps, indeed, between humans and yeasts. The reason is that CPUs are designed, hence have rather significant breaks in the copying and redesigning of these chips. 32-bit chips are suddenly replaced by 64-bit chips, with no intermediates in many of the features.

Fords borrow from Chevies, and Daimler engineering appears in Chrysler products.

That is to say, companies tell the truth when they proclaim “revolutionary changes”, at least compared with any evolutionary changes found in biology. Everything (well, really close) is derivation in vertebrate evolution, which is powerful knowledge for any researchers. They can go looking for “cognates” or homologies whenever they find something “new” in an organism, always being assured of considerable continuity between closely related organisms.

In other words, biologists know not to look for miracles from any “designer”. While this is rarely stated in science, given that one generally should not look for such miracles in any case, it marks a decided shift from the natural history recording “God’s wishes” that existed in the past. Evolution tells us that there is a reason for any feature in biology, which is a crucial factor in being able to do science at all.

Darwin merely allowed biology to recognize the continuity and causality which existed in the other sciences of his day. There would not be a fully rational biology without evolution, rather there would be causal understanding in biology based on physics and chemistry, while there would be a crucial class of causal factors which would lie outside of biology’s consideration.

Glen D

Comment #133811

Posted by Tim Hague on September 25, 2006 4:44 AM (e)

Something else which might be worth mentioning - and another excellent example of where evolution is the central concept - is the evolution of the first antibiotic producing organisms themselves.

Comment #133849

Posted by Engineer-Poet, FCD, ΔΠΓ on September 25, 2006 7:51 AM (e)

Darwin very nearly was irrelevant to biology; if he hadn’t published (which he would not have if he wasn’t selected to review the crucial paper), Wallace would have scooped him.  The evidence for natural selection as the engine of evolution was becoming irrefutable at the time, and if he’d died prematurely we’d have someone like Wells denouncing “Wallacism”.

Comment #133906

Posted by Anton Mates on September 25, 2006 10:58 AM (e)

Engineer-Poet, FCD wrote:

Darwin very nearly was irrelevant to biology; if he hadn’t published (which he would not have if he wasn’t selected to review the crucial paper), Wallace would have scooped him.

Well, that would hardly make Darwin irrelevant. Even if Wallace had published first, Darwin had an order of magnitude more evidence behind him and would have still been more crucial than Wallace in actually persuading the scientific world of the truth of evolutionary theory.

And of course Darwin made important discoveries in plenty of other (though related) areas as well. His work on worms, atolls, barnacle systematics, invasive species colonization, etc. would have still put him on the scientific map. Likewise, Wallace is a well-known scientist on his own merits, not just because he almost got there first on natural selection.

The evidence for natural selection as the engine of evolution was becoming irrefutable at the time, and if he’d died prematurely we’d have someone like Wells denouncing “Wallacism”.

Or praising it, perhaps, since Wallace supported theistic evolution. “Wallace, that great scientist, had hard evidence that the human mind is the result of divine intervention, but the atheist mainstream science establishment hushed this up after his death….”

Comment #133913

Posted by Tara Smith on September 25, 2006 11:31 AM (e)

Andrew wrote:

Even in the examples of places where evolution is relevant to medical work that Tara has posted here, she’s talking about places where evolutionary theory has direct involvement in the work at hand (as makes sense for purposes of refuting Wells’ points). But I think that there are many, many places in biology, especially anywhere genetics shows up, where the theory of evolution doesn’t factor in directly, but the absence of the theory of evolution would mean pretending any number of key details just happened, for no reason whatsoever.

I absolutely agree, but Wells kind of brushed that off from the beginning by separating genetics from evolutionary theory.

Ron wrote:

You make the statement that PCR is not dependent on biological evolution. The process is not, but how it is applied does depend on evolutionary inferences.

And again, I completely agree. I was kind of trying to encompass all of that under the bioinformatics umbrella. I’m a molecular epidemiologist myself, so I know how critically important these kinds of analyses and comparisons are.

Ed wrote:

Great stuff – but I can’t get over the feeling that you’ve understated the case, Tara.

Perhaps; I tried to pick a few things to focus on rather than discuss the entire field of evolutionary medicine (which I’ve written about previously, however).

Back with more later…was out of town when this got posted, sorry.

Comment #133921

Posted by KP on September 25, 2006 12:14 PM (e)

Thanks, Tara!

Comment #133957

Posted by flat-earth-society-news on September 25, 2006 2:08 PM (e)

The “discovery institute” claims to welcome honest questions. Here is an honest question:

Are they retarded or are they corrupt? which is it?

There is no third possibility. Faithfulness is neither necessary nor sufficient for wanting to peddle “intelligent design.”
But either stupidity or corruption is amply sufficient.

My guess: corruption. These folks are slick and well funded. Heck, they even bamboozled Bill Gates into paying 1/3 of the salary of their head honcho–or should that be, gluteus maximus honcho–sounds more honorific.

Comment #133964

Posted by Flint on September 25, 2006 2:48 PM (e)


You assume your choices are mutually exclusive, but of course being retarded is no shield against being corrupt. I think the DI people are wonderful examples of Mark Twain’s definition that “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” The DI people are the PR agency for what I often consider a genuine human tragedy - they know perfectly well that what they believe is arrant bullshit, yet their brains have become hardwired such that they can’t help believe it anyway! Kind of like recognizing intellectually that death is both unavoidable and permanent, yet being psychologically incapable of tolerating the knowledge. The DI people simply are not sane.

Comment #133984

Posted by Tony Whitson on September 25, 2006 4:28 PM (e)

Much of Tara’s excellent critique depends on her knowledge as a specialist. When the question concerns what should be taught in High School science classes, for people who will not go on to further education in the sciences, we need to think about what kind of science understanding people should be getting from the curriculum for non-specialists. I have argued (http://tonywhitson.edublogs.org/2006/09/15/promicuously-incorrect/) that statements like this from ch. 7 in the Promiscuously Incorrect Guide:

Owen and Agassiz did comparative biology, yet they rejected Darwin’s theory. … So comparative biology, like most other fields in biology, owes nothing to Darwinism. (79)

can serve as a test for how well we’re doing in science education for non-specialists. Someone who can’t see what’s wrong with that statement lacks understanding of science, and not just specific factual information about the specialized discipline in question.

Comment #133992

Posted by Henry J on September 25, 2006 4:59 PM (e)

Never mind what it owes to “Darwinism” (whatever that may be), what does it owe to the current theory that life* comes from ancestors.

(*excepting lifeforms much simpler than anything we see out there today.)


Comment #133996

Posted by Sounder on September 25, 2006 5:10 PM (e)


It almost seems to me that we’d be better off pushing Introduction to Logic courses: logic, and the scientific method, are fundamental concepts that even non-scientists should take from their science education. Teach them those, and the rest falls into place…including resistance to pseudoscience and its peddlers.

Comment #134020

Posted by Tony Whitson on September 25, 2006 6:27 PM (e)

Henry J, you write

Never mind what it owes to “Darwinism” (whatever that may be)

I take your point, but you seem to be without benefit of a copy of the book at hand to help you out.
On page 2 of the Promiscuously Incorrect Guide, Wells has a shaded box defining just what “Darwinism” is:

Darwin + ism =
Darwinism consists of the following claims: (1) all living things are modified descendents of a common ancestor; (2) the principal mechanism of modification has been natural selection acting on undirected variations that originate in DNA mutations; and (3) unguided processes are sufficient to explain all features of living things – so whatever may appear to be design is just an illusion.

Of course Darwin knew nothing about DNA. That gives me an idea: I think I’ll write a book denouncing DNA as a fraud, in which I’ll write that

Darwin did evolutionary biology, yet he knew nothing about DNA; so evolutionary biology, like most other fields in biology, owes nothing to DNA.

Comment #134050

Posted by Sounder on September 25, 2006 7:49 PM (e)

Darwin + ism =
Darwinism consists of the following claims: (1) all living things are modified descendents of a common ancestor; (2) the principal mechanism of modification has been natural selection acting on undirected variations that originate in DNA mutations; and (3) unguided processes are sufficient to explain all features of living things – so whatever may appear to be design is just an illusion.

I always get annoyed when I read this, because the word “designed” is one that could obviously apply to biological life, but the ID movement has hijacked the word and loaded it with so much metaphysical meaning as to be utterly useless.

Life forms are products of natural forces, and could be said to be “designed” by those pressures and influences. But now “designed” has to mean “designed by an ‘intelligent’ (another meaninglessly metaphysical word now) force or being”. It’s frustrating because ID hucksters can point to the obvious structure and order in natural systems and say “how could this NOT be designed?”, blurring the lines between the definitions and bringing naive readers to conflate them. I’d call it deception, but I can’t tell if the primary ID hucksters aren’t victims of this logical error themselves.

Comment #134430

Posted by Henry J on September 26, 2006 9:04 PM (e)

Re “I take your point, but you seem to be without benefit of a copy of the book at hand to help you out.”

That’s a “benefit” I can live without. :lol:

Re “I always get annoyed when I read this, because the word “designed” is one that could obviously apply to biological life, […]”

I’ll second that. A gene pool has at least two of the properties associated with intelligence - it tries different things, and keeps a record of past successes. All it lacks is foresight (i.e., ability to calculate results ahead of time and sometimes jump over large valleys in the fitness landscape).


Comment #135074

Posted by Thinker on September 28, 2006 7:35 AM (e)

This may seem far-fetched, but in a sense, I would see PCR as dependent on evolutionary biology, or at least that it would have been much more difficult without it. The process depends on having a polymerase that is heat resistant. If evolution is true, we would expect organisms living in very hot environments to have evolved polymerases which have precisely the properties we need, and indeed, T. aquaticus found in hot-water pools have this. Getting the enzyme we needed by relying on evolution through natural selection was a much faster route than trying to engineer intelligently design it …

Comment #143173

Posted by Jack Jones on November 7, 2006 7:33 PM (e)

You guys are all preaching to the choir. Go check out the reviews of this book on amazon.com and see how well you fare there.

Comment #150338

Posted by Sage on December 14, 2006 9:31 AM (e)

Why don’t you guys take this garbage to a more open forum such as the reviews for this book at amazon.com instead of burying your faces in each others butts. All you are doing is preaching to the choir. I give the theory of evolution 20 years at most before it succumbs to the truth of ID. You guys better start looking for new jobs now LMAO.

Comment #150345

Posted by Katarina on December 14, 2006 10:36 AM (e)

I give the theory of evolution 20 years at most before it succumbs to the truth of ID.

Twenty years, hmm. Is that when you predict the rapture will occur? And He will reveal to us why He has made earth and life on it tell the story of evolution? In other words, why He lied?

While you’re here, troll, I have a question for you. If complexity requires an intelligent source, what kind of source does intelligence require?

Comment #151914

Posted by M.A. on December 26, 2006 11:23 AM (e)

Personally, I have a “flair for the obvious”.
People lived, and worked, before Darwin. And we could have lived, and worked, after Darwin. We bred cattle, etc and could have continued farming techniques - even developed different hybrids. The existence of Mendel doesn’t demand the existence of Darwin.
However… Darwin, and his thoughts do shine a light from a different direction. I doubt if our respect for the Environment would be the same without the theory of evolution, making many people behave differently.
With new knowledge (free from religion), we are free to scrutinize, hypothesize, ignore, dispute, etc. without fear of persecution. Well… there are always disagreements, but now it is among piers, not before a religious court.
The Theory of Evolution has evolved, been discussed, disputed, etc. on it’s own merits - unencumbered by religious dogma.
To be fair, because scientists love and respect their disciplines. And Science is a religion to many… christian fundies should keep their noses out of things and respect the religion of Science just as they would other relig… Oops, oh ya, I forgot about the Crusades, the Inquisition, Franco in Spain, etc.