March 11, 2007 - March 17, 2007 Archives

The Michael Egnor article that I blogged about earlier today was a response to an article written by Scienceblogger Mark Chu-Carroll. Mark has has written his own response to Egnor’s latest post (Pigheaded Egnorance, Antibiotic Resistance, and Tautologies). It’s absolutely worth going over there and giving it a read.

While you’re there, you might also want to take a look at this post by Afarensis and this one by Orac, both of which address the Egnorance of yesterday.

Comments may be left at the home blog for each of those posts.

Dr. Michael Egnor is, once again, trying to explain why evolution isn’t important to medicine. This time he’s responding to Mark Chu-Carroll’s post on Tautology. In his latest post, Egnor continues to challenge the conventional wisdom that an understanding of evolution in general and natural selection in particular is essential to understanding and dealing with the phenomenon of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Here’s his latest statement along those lines:

Mark, your dad’s illness didn’t happen because his doctor didn’t know enough about random mutation and natural selection. Our battle against bacterial resistance to antibiotics depends on the study of the intricate molecular strategies bacteria use to fight antibiotics, and our development of new antibiotics is a process of designing drugs to counter the bacterial strategies. We use molecular biology, microbiology, and pharmacology. We understand that bacteria aren’t killed by antibiotics that they’re resistant to. We understand tautologies. Darwin isn’t a big help here.

Thus far, Dr. Egnor has only discussed the phenomenon of bacterial resistance in general. I’m going to present a pair of real, specific, and relatively recent scenarios where I think an understanding of evolution by natural selection has played an important role in public health debates involving appropriate uses of specific antibiotics. My question - and challenge - to Dr. Egnor is this: can you explain why an understanding of evolution by natural selection was really not important in these specific cases? If you cannot, can you please explain why you still believe that an understanding of evolution by natural selection is irrelevant to medicine?

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, the insignificant, minute information Adams has on evolution must be exceedingly risky—it's like the atom bomb of ignorance. In this case, it's not entirely his fault, though. He read the recent Newsweek cover story on evolution, which fed his biases and readily led him smack into the epicenter of his own blind spots, and kerblooiee, he exploded.

This is a case where the flaws in a popular science article neatly synergize with an evolution-denialist's misconceptions to produce a perfect storm of stupidity.

Continue reading "Scott Adams reads Newsweek. Uh-oh." (on Pharyngula)

On Uncommon Descent we learn why global warming deniers share so much with evolution deniers and why people should be wary of Intelligent Design:

Gildodgen Wrote:

Computer simulations of global warming and Darwinian mechanisms in biology should not be trusted, because they can’t be subjected to empirical verification. In these two areas, computer simulations and models can degenerate into nothing more than digital just-so stories — in one category about the future, and in the other about the past. The programmer can produce whatever outcome he desires, by choosing initial assumptions and algorithms, and weighting various factors to produce a desired output.

First of all GilDodgen explains why one should be critical about Intelligent Design when he ‘argues’ “Don’t Trust Computer Simulations And Models That Can’t Be Tested Against Reality”. In other words, the scientific vacuity of ID should be a major source of concern. But there is more and I will address this in my second installment.

Neurosurgeon and recent addition to the Discovery Institute’s Media Complaints Division blog Dr. Michael Egnor is at it again. He’s responded to Burt’s latest response to his prior response to Burt’s earlier response to his - you get the drift. Burt’s been doing a great job of responding to Egnor, and I don’t want to step on his toes, but Egnor says a couple of things this time that I think would benefit from the perspective of someone who is studying evolutionary biology.

First, though, I’d like to address this delightful bit of less-than-honest rhetoric:

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):


The latest Nature reveals a new primitive mammal fossil collected in the Mesozoic strata of the Yan mountains of China. It's small and unprepossessing, but it has at least two noteworthy novelties, and first among them is that it represents another step in the transition from the reptilian to the mammalian jaw and ear.

Continue reading "Yanoconodon, a transitional fossil" (on Pharyngula)

A new species of leopard has been described from Borneo and Sumatra. Read more over at Stranger Fruit.

When we think of the spread of antibiotic resistance between animals and humans, we tend to think of it going from Them to Us. For example, much of the research over the past 20 years on the sub-clinical use of antibiotics in animal feed has looked how this use of antibiotics as a growth promotant breeds resistant organisms in animals, which can then enter the human population via the food we eat. Along a similar line, I just mentioned Burt’s post post on cephalosporin use in cattle and the evolution of antibiotic resistance, where the worry is that use of these broad-spectrum antibiotics in animals will select for resistance that can then spread to humans. However, spread of resistant organisms is not a one-way street. For example, it has been suggested that transmission of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been transmitted both from horses to humans and vice-versa (see, for example, this Emerging Infectious Diseases paper). A new paper suggests that this phenomenon can happen even in animals that aren’t in such close contact with humans: chimpanzees.

(Continued at Aetiology)

Sphyrocephala beccarii

Here is a spectacularly pretty and weird animal: stalk-eyed flies of the family Diopsidae. There are about 160 species in this group that exhibit this extreme morphology, with the eyes and the antennae displaced laterally on stalks. They often (but not always) are sexually dimorphic, with males having more exaggerated stalks—the longer stalks also make them clumsy in flight, so this is a pattern with considerable cost, and is thought to be the product of sexual selection. The Sphyrocephala to the right is not even an extreme example. Read on to see some genuinely bizarre flies and a little bit about the development of this structure.

Continue reading "The lovely stalk-eyed fly" (on Pharyngula)

A week or so ago, I spent a fascinating weekend attending the 2007 Symposium, “Inscribed in Stone: Evolution and the Fossil Record,” of the Western Interior Paleontological Society [1]. At the keynote address by Donald Prothero of Occidental College, I learned that stasis was more important than I had thought, at least according to paleontologists, and that there was somewhat more friction between paleontologists and evolutionary biologists than I had realized. The next few talks were tutorial, as was Professor Prothero’s, and, I thought, fascinating. Not surprisingly, by Saturday afternoon, the talks became far too narrow for a nonpaleontologist, so I lay low for a while and waited for Judy Scotchmoor’s workshop on “Teaching Evolution” Sunday morning at what seemed like the crack of dawn.

Scarecrow2.jpgOver at the Discovery Institute’s Ministry of Media Complaints, to which he has recently become a contributor, SUNY neurosurgeon Michael Egnor responds to my criticism of his post, “Why Would I Want My Doctor to have Studied Evolution?” Dr. Egnor couldn’t think of much to say in response to my criticism because he never responded to my criticism; rather, he responded to a version of my criticism that he invented just for his essay. In other words, he’s responding to a straw man version of my argument, and straw men (wearing the jerseys of the opposing team, say) are a lot easier to defeat than the actual opposing team.

Let’s start simply. Dr. Egnor, in his original post, wrote:

Doctors don’t study evolution. Doctors never study it in medical school, and they never use evolutionary biology in their practice. There are no courses in medical school on evolution. There are no ‘professors of evolution’ in medical schools. There are no departments of evolutionary biology in medical schools. No Nobel prize in medicine has ever been awarded for work in evolutionary biology. [Therefore, evolutionary] biology isn’t important to modern medicine. (Quotes are excerpted.)

Medical schools think evolution is pretty important so they’ve made the MCAT, in part, to test the student’s understanding of evolution. Dr. Egnor hasn’t explained how he could have what he did in his essay in the light of what the MCAT evaluates.

Some of the most brilliant insights in evolutionary biology and some of the worst scientific defeats for creationist arguments have come from professors that teach primarily at medical schools or are charged with teaching medical students. Dr. Egnor hasn’t explained how he could have written what he did in his essay in the light of those faculty appointments.

I suspect it could be said accurately that no recent Nobel prize could have been won without the insights and assumptions afforded by evolutionary biology. In any case, I did show in my essay several Nobel prizes that had been awarded on the basis of or strongly appealing to evolutionary biology concepts. Dr. Egnor hasn’t explained how he could have written what he did in his essay in the light of the research that has earned those Nobel prizes.

Dr. Egnor did respond, however, to the criticism of his thesis that “random heritable variation and natural selection is responsible for all biological complexity” is an unsound statement. His objection would have been an perfectly straightforward inclusion had he ever made it or had I ever objected to it. But he didn’t make that argument and I wouldn’t have objected to it if he did.

More on the flipside.

How does Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly respond when asked on NPR about the poor quality of its entries?

Carl Zimmer has transcribed the response.

Tangled Bank #75

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Just a reminder that there will be a symposium this weekend discussing evolution and intelligent design at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa (and featuring PT-er Wes Elsberry). The event is geared toward those interested in matters of faith or science; teachers; principals; college students majoring in education, science and religion/philosophy; clergy; and parish educators. Scholarships are available for the first 200 K-12 educators, board of education members, school administrators, etc. who apply–still plenty of those left, so if you know anyone who’d be interested, point them in our direction. I’m including the text of one press release below the jump; all the information (including registration and hotel) can be found at the symposium website.

PZ has done a splendid job of disemboweling Casey Luskin’s silly screed about my op-ed from yesterday’s Albuquerque Tribune.

Speaking of me, Luskin complains

He says that the “creationists” are getting “sneakier,”…

But, readers of the Thumb already know this is exactly what’s happening. This is a totally inappropriate use of scare quotes, and I’m calling Luskin on it.

This post’s sole author is Peter Olofsson. I am posting it as a courtesy to Peter and have not contributed a single word to it. Here starts Peter’s text:

When confronted with Ms. Ann Coulter’s diatribe against evolutionary biology in her 2006 book Godless, many educated readers will be upset, annoyed, outraged. However, if one instead assumes that Ms. Coulter is only joking, in fact providing a faux criticism of evolution in order to expose the ID movement in a Sokalian fashion, her writing suddenly becomes a brilliant satire.

Continue reading The Coulter Hoax at Talk Reason

Dave Thomas has written an op-ed opposing a bill in New Mexico that would promote Intelligent Design creationism in the classroom under the guise of academic freedom. This is a standard ID game; carefully word the bills so that they refer vaguely to some evidence that doesn't exist, so that they can pretend they are asking for equal time for the same category of scientific story when it is actually a case of promoting the guesswork, handwaving, and religiously-motivated biases of the creationists to have equivalent status with the evidence of scientists.

Casey Luskin is on the job, though, and he tears into Thomas's op-ed … or rather, he tears it into little pieces and rearranges the words until he's got a pastiche he can criticize. It's a shameful performance that puts the dishonesty of the Discovery Institute on display.

Continue reading "Luskin and the New Mexico creationists" (on Pharyngula)

A common attack upon evolutionary biology, from ranking clerics in the Catholic church to the meanest creationist blogger, is that it implies that life arose and came to result in us by accident. We are asked to believe, they say, that three billion years led to us as a series of accidents. No matter how often evolutionary biologists and informed respondents try to point out that the sense of “accident” in biology is based on the lack of correlation between the future needs of organisms, the trope is repeated ad nauseum.


Read on at Evolving Thoughts

While The Thumb is primarily interested in the Intelligent Design movement in its current manifestation (infestation?) as exemplified by the Disco Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, let it not be thought that the old-time YECs are out of the game. After all, YECs compose the majority of the ID movement’s foot soldiers in the culture wars (not to mention some of its officers). Answers In Genesis is a ubiquitous (iniquitous?) player in the anti-evolution battles, and publishes nonsense that’s right up to (down to?) Disco Institute standards. A recent article on AiG’s site on Tiktaalik roseae was written by creationist anatomist David Menton. Not surprisingly, Menton gets everything wrong. Martin Brazeau (a student of Per Ahlberg at Uppsala) has a lovely takedown on The Lancelet. A sample:

In the article, Menton’s only claims about the anatomy of Tiktaalik relate to the pelvic fins and girdles (i.e. the hips and legs) of Tiktaalik. There is no disucssion of the skull or shoulder girdle, and only tacit reference to the fin skeleton. Menton explains in relation to fishes and tetrapods that:

[t]he hind limbs [of tetrapods] in particular have a robust pelvic girdle securely attached to the vertebral column. This differs radically from that of any fish including Tiktaalik. Essentially all fish (including Tiktaalik) have small pelvic fins relative to their pectoral fins.

Menton is a liar. He cannot possibly know anything about the pelvic fins of Tiktaalik. The two papers describing Tiktaalik offer absolutely no descriptions of the pelvic fin skeletons or girdle. I’ve seen the material first-hand and there are no such details of the pelvic fin.

Menton’s article is in the best Disco Institute tradition of “research” along the lines of, say, Jonathan Wells. I commend Martin’s post to PT readers’ attention.


Last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education had several letters responding to J. Scott Turner’s January 19 piece that rhetorically asked, “Why Can’t We Discuss Intelligent Design?” One of them was actually from me. I sent it back in January and figured it had been forgotten about, but I guess not. It is cut down a bit, but has the essential points. See also good replies from David Barash and Gred Laden.

The letters are freely available at the CHE website not freely available, so I will post the text of my original submission below the fold.

As an addendum to Burt’s excellent take-down of Dr. Egnor’s latest nonsense, I’d like to address one of Egnor’s claims that I’ve touched on before, which is the following:

Doctors know that, from the intricate structure of the human brain to the genetic code, our bodies show astonishing evidence of design. That’s why most doctors—nearly two-thirds according to national polls—don’t believe that human beings arose merely by chance and natural selection. Most doctors don’t accept evolutionary biology as an adequate explanation for life. Doctors see, first-hand, the design of life.

Egnor claims that two thirds of doctors don’t accept evolution, and that this is because doctors have some sort of special insight into living things. He is not the first to make this claim; his new handlers at the Discovery Institute have said this before, based on a survey published by the Louis Finkelstein Institute, going so far as to claim that “a majority of doctors favor intelligent design over Neo-Darwinism.”

Would you be surprised to learn that the survey doesn’t say these things at all, that in fact it says the exact opposite? More below.

A researcher at the University of Florida and his colleagues have used game theory, which is important to evolution and economics, to show that net neutrality encourages internet service providers (ISPs), companies that offer dial-up, cable modem, DSL, or similar access to the internet, to increase their bandwidth. The ISP industry is currently pressing congress to pass legislation ending net neutrality.

Under the current, net neutrality law, ISPs are required to partition their bandwidth based on the size of a site and how much their customers access a site. However, if net neutrality is ended then ISPs will be allowed to partition their bandwidth based not on their customers needs but on which websites can pay the most money. If net neutrality is ended, then ISPs will be able to extort money from content providers like Yahoo, Google, or even small fry like us, by offering to increase (or threatening to decrease) the speed at which the customers of said ISP can access the content provider’s sites.

According to an article in ScienceDaily, the researchers showed that customers lose out if net neutrality is ended, for the simple fact that ending net neutrality encourages ISPs to decrease the bandwidth available to their customers.

More important, the researchers found that the incentive for broadband service providers to expand and upgrade their service actually declines if net neutrality ends. Improving the infrastructure reduces the need for online content providers to pay for preferential treatment, Bandyopadhyay said.

”The whole purpose of charging for preferential treatment to content providers is that one content provider gains some edge over the other,” he said. “But when the capacity is expanded, this advantage becomes negligible.”

He gave the analogy of the expansion of a two-lane highway where drivers willing to pay a toll to subsidize road improvements are rewarded with exclusive use of a faster lane.

”If the road is upgraded from two to four lanes, with one express lane, these drivers might say ‘Three lanes are good enough for me. I don’t want to have to pay a toll any longer,’” he said. “So the desire to pay a toll when the road is expanded gets lesser.”

The experience of other countries also suggests that better service – up to three times faster – results when there is greater competition, Cheng said.

”In Japan and Korea, where there is net neutrality and much greater competition among broadband providers than in the United States, there are also higher broadband speeds,” he said.”

Hat Tip: Cortunix.

As a followup to my recent fisking of Egnor, I wanted everyone to know that T-shirts are still available. (Do an in-article find for “ambulocetus” and check out the links.) I just bought mine today and it should arrive by the end of the week.

Get your T-shirts here.

Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this is totally awesome way to show your support for evolution, seem ostensibly athletic, and needle Behe* all at the same time, but that’s okay. (I don’t get out much.)


*To understand the reference, Behe liked to drop the lack of whale transitional fossils (search for “whale” in that link) as a problem for evolution wink wink nudge nudge must have been ID. That was before a dude named Thewissen, who later became head football coach at NEOUCOM got a grant to dig in the Indus Valley. (Behe doesn’t mention whale evolution any more, for some reason. But you should.)

Lynn Margulis has sent the opening statement for her blog tour to Pharyngula. You should feel free to come on over and respond to it, raise other questions of any relevant sort, or say whatever you want in the comments; she'll be along later today to respond to those that interest her. I will be policing the comments, so trolls, please don't bother; serious comments only, and keep in mind that she's only going to respond to a limited subset, so make 'em good.

In addition, she'll be available later today in the Pharyngula chat room (channel #pharyngula on; if you don't have an IRC client, that link will let you use your browser to join in) from 12:00-1:30pm ET. Dive in there for a more interactive give-and-take with Dr Margulis.

Lynn Margulis is in the house right now—join the chat room if you have anything to say, or just want to eavesdrop.

The chat is now over, but you can still read the transcript.

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