The Questionable Authority

An ever-deepening Egnorance

By this point, the name Michael Egnor should be familiar to readers of this blog – but if you need a reminder, he’s the neurosurgeon who recently signed on to the staff of the Discovery Institute’s Media Complaints blog. Over the last week or two, Egnor has been trying to convince people that evolution is really not important in any way to medicine.

His last attempt, before today, came less than a week ago, with this spectacular piece of inane argumentation. I responded to the arguments that he made, Orac responded to the arguments he made, Afarensis responded to the arguments he made, Mark responded to the arguments he made, and many other people have also chimed in on the topic. A couple of hours ago, Egnor decided to take another swing at the argument.

When his post came up on my screen, I had high hopes for it. Egnor, after all, is a relative novice at the whole semi-professional anti-evolution thing. It is possible, at least in theory, that he might not have been infected by the intellectual dishonesty that typically characterizes the group. Maybe, just maybe, he’d have the moral courage necessary to make an honest attempt to address the challenges I made last time. Or the challenges that Orac made. Or the challenges that Afarensis made. Or . . .

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this is not to be. Egnor has, apparently, been sucked dry of any remaining vestiges of intellectual honesty that he might have had before he joined the DI flack crew. If there’s a difference between Egnor’s latest “argument” and a five-year-old jumping up and down, fingers in ears, chanting, “na na na na I can’t here you na na na na,” it’s only in Egnor’s ability to form complete sentences.

What does Darwinism add to the sciences of microbiology, molecular biology, molecular genetics, and pharmacology? Darwinism tells us that antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive exposure to antibiotics because of natural selection. That is, bacteria survive antibiotics that they’r e [sic] not sensitive to, so non-killed bacteria will eventually outnumber killed bacteria. That’s it.

OK. We will, for the moment, set aside Egnor’s rhetorical question about the contributions that evolution has made to various areas of the biological sciences and go on to the second asinine sentence in that paragraph. “Darwinism” – and I’ll take that to mean evolution by natural selection – does not “tell us that antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive exposure to antibiotics because of natural selection.” That particular claim is a pure strawman and purely dishonest.

Here’s the reality-based look at what evolution and natural selection tell us about antibiotic resistant bacteria:

Bacterial infections (such as the one that is currently raging in what remains of my top left wisdom tooth) are not created by an individual bacterium. They are created by a population of bacteria. If one or two of the bacteria in the population are (or become through mutation) resistant to a particular antibiotic and the population is placed in an environment that contains that antibiotic, the resistant bacteria will be much more likely to survive and reproduce than the non-resistant bacteria. This, in turn, can lead to the entire population becoming resistant to that antibiotic.

Our understanding of this process does inform the medical field, both when it comes to broad-scale public health decision making and at the level of patient care. Evolution by natural selection is connected, as I’ve said before, to decisions made by the FDA to permit or ban certain antibiotics that are useful in humans from being used in veterinary medicine. It’s also involved in guidelines that are given to patients when antibiotics are prescribed (both my dentist and my pharmacist reminded me to make sure that I take all of the penicillin that I’ve been prescribed for my abscessed tooth) and in deciding what antibiotics to prescribe in different circumstances, and which to try first (that’s why I was started on penicillin, and not Cefepime).

It would be nice if Egnor would stop erecting strawmen and start addressing reality, but that’s probably too much to hope for. For the record, though, you can add “stop using strawman versions of evolution” to the list of challenges that Egnor is ignoring.

Comments

  1. #1 BC
    March 22, 2007

    There’s an additional point as well: bacteria and viruses can develop resistance to selection pressures though new mutations. A population of organisms doesn’t need to start with the mutation already present in one of its members. Of course, most of the DI crowd would either deny this fact (Dembski and most others would deny this, Behe would probably accept it), or they would try to minimize it’s significance by calling it “microevolution”, and “therefore not important”.

  2. #2 SteveF
    March 22, 2007

    The good surgeon should probably also read this, in order to cure his Egnorance.

    Greaves, M. (2007) Darwinian medicine: a case for cancer. Nature Reviews Cancer, 7, 213-221.

    Epidemiological, genetic and molecular biological studies have collectively provided us with a rich source of data that underpins our current understanding of the aetiology and molecular pathogenesis of cancer. But this perspective focuses on proximate mechanisms, and does not provide an adequate explanation for the prevalence of tumours and cancer in animal species or what seems to be the striking vulnerability of Homo sapiens. The central precept of Darwinian medicine is that vulnerability to cancer, and other major diseases, arises at least in part as a consequence of the ‘design’ limitations, compromises and trade-offs that characterize evolutionary processes.

  3. #3 Orac
    March 22, 2007

    Yeah, I blogged on that particular article in the context of rebutting some of Dr. Egnor’s antievolution ignorance.

    Another article worth checking out was published three months earlier in the same journal:

    Lauren M.F. Merlo, John W. Pepper, Brian J. Reid and Carlo C. Maley. Cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process Nature Reviews Cancer 6, 924-935.

  4. #4 kemibe
    March 22, 2007

    “Microbiology tells us that bacterial populations are heterogeneous. Individual bacteria differ from one another.”

    Egnor, in stating the premise upon which his entire “argument” hinges, omits any mention of how this heterogeneity (within species, presumably) might have come about.

    At this point he’s just barking like a seal. Have you ever seen anything but sheer bullshit on that site? They’re shielded from direct challenge because comments aren’t enabled, so every one of the DI shills is at his worst there.

  5. #5 Raging Bee
    March 22, 2007

    I hope, soon, to find the time to compose a letter of protest to the SUNY faculty. This guy’s not just wrong — he’s either appallingly ignorant of important developments in his own field, or he’s deliberately lying about said developments. Isn’t that against some basic tenet of medical ethics? It really sounds like an engineer saying he doesn’t need to use a certain tool to verify that his calculations are correct. Would you want to drive on a bridge designed by such an engineer?

    I have no doubt that Egnor is a competent neurosurgeon; but this sort of dishonesty gives us good cause to fear for his patients’ safety.

  6. #6 Raging Bee
    March 22, 2007

    What has Darwinism added to these miracles?

    What has “intelligent design” added to our understanding of epidemiology? The last I heard from that crowd, was the assertion that AIDS was intelligently designed by God to punish gays for being gay (even though not all people who die of AIDS are gay); oh, and hurricanes are intelligently designed for the same purpose (even though Katrina did almost no damage to the gayest parts of New Orleans).

    Not exactly a promising line of inquiry…

  7. #7 slpage
    March 22, 2007

    I’m curious – it has been (rightly) asked What ID adds to our knowledge of the various sciences. Nothing is, of coutrse, the correct answer. But I have an Egnor-specific query – What has neurosurgery added to the sciences of microbiology, molecular biology, molecular genetics, and pharmacology?

  8. #8 SteveF
    March 22, 2007

    Thanks Orac, I wasn’t aware of that earlier paper. I’ll have a read.

  9. #9 _Arthur
    March 22, 2007

    One should mention to Egnor the seminal experiments that, starting with *clonal* bacteria, all bacteria descended from a single bacteria, developped the capacity to digest lactose, from, — you guessed it — mutations. The colonies that failed to luck into the proper mutation all died. And no, they couldn’t get that gene thru lateral transfer from another kind of bateria, those were pure, CLONAL, strains, at the begin of the experiment.

  10. #10 hooligans
    March 22, 2007

    At the DI website, if you look at the bottom of Egnor’s post, you will see the following sentence, “The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site.”

    Well, at least they are honest about something!

  11. #11 harold
    March 22, 2007

    I also posted what’s below at PT. Egnor’s comments actually amount to an admission that, underneath it all, he knows that the theory of evolution explains bacterial antibotic resistance…

    Fortunately, this battle is almost over. Dr Egnor completely concedes that the theory of evolution explains bacterial resistance.

    “Microbiology tells us that bacterial populations are heterogeneous. Individual bacteria differ from one another.”

    So far so good. And let’s add that due to imperfect genetic replication, heterogenaiety will be introduced every time bacterial cells reproduce (and not only then, for that matter).

    I’m sure Dr Egnor agrees with this clarification of his point. It would be absurd, and unexpected, for him to argue that bacterial reproduction is perfect, and that every unique bacterial genome was created by magic.

    “Molecular biology tells us that some bacteria have molecular mechanisms by which they can survive antibiotics. Molecular genetics tells us how these resistance mechanisms are passed to other bacteria and through generations of bacteria. Pharmacology helps us design new antibiotics that circumvent the bacterial defenses.”

    Correct again.

    “What does Darwinism add to the sciences of microbiology, molecular biology, molecular genetics, and pharmacology? Darwinism tells us that antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive exposure to antibiotics because of natural selection. That is, bacteria survive antibiotics that they’r e not sensitive to, so non-killed bacteria will eventually outnumber killed bacteria. That’s it.”

    Here we have a semantic issue. Dr Egnor uses the term “Darwinism”, a term I never use, in an eccentric way. He uses it to refer to natural selection due to selective resistance to an environmental toxin (from the bacterial perspective). That’s just a single, dramatic example of natural selection. If there were no antibiotics, and no “premature” bacterial deaths, but bacteria with a particular trait merely reproduced a bit faster, that, too would be an example of natural selection.

    But putting the issue of “Darwinism” aside, natural selection is one component of the theory of evolution – the other major component being genetic heterogenaiety of offspring relative to parents, as Dr Egnor discussed above.

    Others may nitpick, but in fact, Dr Egnor, you have correctly described exactly how the theory of evolution explains bacterial resistance to antibiotics. And not only does it explain it, it helps us to predict what type of resistance may arise, and what strategies may best head off resistance!

    The “intelligent design” explanation, which Dr Egnor makes no mention of, would be that a “designer” magically creates resistant bacteria.

  12. #12 Michael
    March 22, 2007

    The real problem with Egnor is not that his intelligence can’t grasp the obviousness of evolution through mutation and natural selection of advantageous traits. An ex-auto mechanic (of reasonable intelligence) can grasp that concept and see the truth in it (I admit to begin being a case in point). Egnor’s problem with evolution is an emotional one, and he rejects the influence of Darwin’s work on medicine for purely non-intellectual reasons.

    Because of this, no amount of evidence, no appeal to his intellectual side will break through his self-imposed blinders. All you can do is continue to refute his nonsense to the best of your abilities.

    However, for your efforts to be effective with regards to the general public you need to stop giving the creationists any appearance of holding the high ground. The sheer number of science blogs taking the “Egnorance” cheap shot makes scientists look petty or desperate to score points. Mike Dunsford has done an excellent job in his blog of clearly (even for us laymen) explaining why Egnor is wrong. There is nothing in his blog that can be challenged from an honest position. Guess what Egnor is going to focus on!

    Yes, it’s fun making your opponent look like a monkey…especially when that’s their biggest fear. After all, that is why they hate Darwin so much!

  13. #13 Skeptico
    March 22, 2007

    Raging Bee wrote:

    It really sounds like an engineer saying he doesn’t need to use a certain tool to verify that his calculations are correct. Would you want to drive on a bridge designed by such an engineer?

    This is already an issue. See Alternative Engineering

  14. #14 Norman Doering
    March 22, 2007

    Bacterial infections (such as the one that is currently raging in what remains of my top left wisdom tooth) are not created by an individual bacterium. They are created by a population of bacteria.

    And that population has another trick that’s not exactly “Darwinian” that makes this more complicated:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=1649425&dopt=Abstract

    Chromosomal mutations alone cannot account for the rapid emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance. It has been established that plasmids and transposons are particularly important in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plasmid- or transposon-mediated resistance provides the bacteria with pre-evolved genes refined to express high-level resistance. In particular, transposons can transfer these resistance determinants in diverse bacterial species, and nature provides in humans and animals large intestinal reservoirs in which such communications are facilitated.

    Here’s more:
    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=93080

    If Egnor were a really informed creationist he could spin that, but he hasn’t, so he might be more ignorant than we suspect.

    http://normdoering.blogspot.com/

  15. #15 Reed A. Cartwright
    March 22, 2007

    Resistance is rarely a simple boolean phenotype. It is often the case that in a population there are different resistance or tolerance phenotypes, each corresponding to a different genotype. These can be different alleles of the same gene or different genes. It is the later that Egnor really fails to understand when making his essentialist argument.

    It is not simply that resistant bacteria will become more numerous, but that two different types of resistant bacteria can swap DNA and produce completely resistant bacteria, with a novel phenotype. The first types can be killed if you use enough of a drug. The latter type are completely immune from the drug.

    Using antibiotics recklessly, not only encourages resistant bacteria to become more common—which means that the population evolves—but it also encourages the evolution of novel, super-resistant bacteria.

  16. #16 Norman Doering
    March 22, 2007

    Bacterial infections (such as the one that is currently raging in what remains of my top left wisdom tooth) are not created by an individual bacterium. They are created by a population of bacteria.

    And that population has another trick that’s not exactly “Darwinian” that makes this more complicated:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=1649425&dopt=Abstract

    Chromosomal mutations alone cannot account for the rapid emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance. It has been established that plasmids and transposons are particularly important in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plasmid- or transposon-mediated resistance provides the bacteria with pre-evolved genes refined to express high-level resistance. In particular, transposons can transfer these resistance determinants in diverse bacterial species, and nature provides in humans and animals large intestinal reservoirs in which such communications are facilitated.

    If Egnor were a really informed creationist he could spin that, but he hasn’t, so he might be more ignorant than we suspect.

  17. #17 TheBlackCat
    March 22, 2007

    One should mention to Egnor the seminal experiments that, starting with *clonal* bacteria, all bacteria descended from a single bacteria, developped the capacity to digest lactose, from, — you guessed it — mutations.

    Forget lactose, they did the same thing to reproduce the evolution of those “nylon-eating bacteria” that evolved to feed on byproducts of nylon production, chemicals that do not occur in nature. They were even able to figure out what mutations caused it (if I remember correctly it all stemmed from a frame-shift mutation). The result was an enzyme that was very specific to feeding on these totally synthetic chemicals. But Egnor doesn’t care about that, since it is not medically-related and thus he has no pretense of authority (not that this seems to stop anyone else at the DI).

    Plasmid- or transposon-mediated resistance provides the bacteria with pre-evolved genes refined to express high-level resistance. In particular, transposons can transfer these resistance determinants in diverse bacterial species, and nature provides in humans and animals large intestinal reservoirs in which such communications are facilitated.

    Horizontal gene transfer is a well-established evolutionary mechanism. ID can’t mention that because it would distract them from their attacks on “Darwinism”. It would require ceding the terminology issue and thus prevent them from using the semantic games they have been relying on up to this point. It also gives a powerful mechanism for the evolution and spread of “irreducibly complex” systems.

    By focusing exclusively on “Darwinism” it allows them to avoid dealing with the rich variety of evolutionary mechanisms that allowed for life we know today to develop. They can focus on one mechanism and point out all the limitations it has while conveniently ignoring other mechanisms that compensate for those limitations. It seems they can’t even win against a strawman, they have to cut off the strawman’s arms and legs before the fight.

  18. #18 Doc Bill
    March 22, 2007

    I see no reason to be polite to Dr. Egnor since he has embarked upon a campaign to slander scientists and evolutionary biologists in particular.

    That Dr. Egnor understands the broad scope and mechanics of evolution is evident by the bits and pieces of what he has written.

    What I find completely revolting about Dr. Egnor is his lack of ethics. It is simply wrong, in the sense of there being right and wrong, to use one’s professional standing to knowingly spread false information. That is lying and lying is wrong. A person with a grounding in ethics would know that.

    To complete my dive into revulsion is that Dr. Egnor, by his own admission, teaches medical ethics. How is that possible?

    So, here we have a medical doctor with an understanding of evolution who teaches ethics going out of his way to “destroy Darwinism” a la J. Wells by lying in public.

    It boggles the mind.

  19. #19 tristero
    March 22, 2007

    Michael is right. Egnor’s beef with evolution has nothing to do with the science. It has to do with what Egnor believes the moral implications of “Darwinism” are – namely loss of faith, materialism, and ultimately, That Which Invokes The Dreaded Law Of Godwin.

    In short, this isn’t a debate about science, no matter how many groovy words like “transposons” get floated about. “Intelligent Design” creationism simply doesn’t have the intellectual heft for science. Nope. This is a struggle with a group of genuinely malicious nutcases who want to tell the rest of us what’s good and what’s bad, what’s permitted and what’s not.

    The struggle with Discovery flacks is merely a proxy battle with the likes of Howard Ahmanson, ie, committed, wealthy theocrats whose weird goal has been clearly stated by them time and again: to transform the United States government from a democratic republic into a theocracy. For those who find this far-fetched paranoid, I strongly suggest reading Rushdoony (the real thing, not descriptions) and a small booklet by Joseph Morehouse called “With Liberty and Justice for All.”

  20. #20 Jason F
    March 22, 2007

    It’s important to remember that folks like Dr. Egnor are denialists, which puts them in the same mindset as Holocaust deniers.

    In both cases, the denialist is forced to ignore and/or wave away enormous amounts of data. That, by it’s very nature, requires them to argue dishonestly.

    IOW, it’s pretty much impossible for ID creationists to debate, argue, or defend their position in an honest manner. So we shouldn’t be surprised when Dr. Egnor follows the same path as Wells, Dembski, Behe, et al.

    He has to.

  21. #21 Freud Wore A Slip?
    March 22, 2007

    A poor surgeon hurts one person at a time. A poor teacher hurts 130. – Ernest Boyer

  22. #22 Michael
    March 22, 2007

    Jason makes a good point. These people are denialists, and as such are not entirely sane any longer! Much of what they have to deny and ignore is simply evident to a casual observer. The trick to dealing with these people may be to find the most blatently obvious thing that they must ignore to support their world view and bash them with it publicly and repeatedly until they either have to withdraw from public view, or reveal themselves for the blithering nutcases that they really are.

    Let them marginalize themselves to the point where the people them associate themselve with most closely (Conservatives, Christians, Republicans) won’t want to be seen in public with them.

    And yes, I do believe that these groups are not necessarily members of the same set. You CAN be a Christian and not be a Conservative or a Republican…for any fundies lurking out there.

  23. #23 JohnK
    March 22, 2007

    I’m surprised that Mike D. had hopes for honest behavior on Egnor’s part. Recall how this all began:
    Egnor appeared on Time’s science blog repeatedly demanding examples of “increasing information”. No trace of irony, nor hint of a rhetorical question.
    At PZ’s blog Egnor was introduced to Shannon information and it’s ease of increase, and that creationist “information” was a meaningless, undefined and undefinable term.
    At which point he unbelievably claimed he knew all that all along – he knew originally there could be no possible answer to his repeated question to Lemonick at Time.
    “Lying then, or lying now… which is it Alphonso?”

  24. #24 TheBlackCat
    March 22, 2007

    The trick to dealing with these people may be to find the most blatently obvious thing that they must ignore to support their world view and bash them with it publicly and repeatedly until they either have to withdraw from public view, or reveal themselves for the blithering nutcases that they really are.

    The hard part is pinning them to anything specific enough that you can argue against it. To quote the venerable SergeantBilco “it’s like trying to nail jello to a wall.” Even if they say something specific enough that it can expose fundamental flaws in their position they simply deny that they ever said it. And their followers believe it, if even it was said right in front of them.

  25. #25 Ex-drone
    March 22, 2007

    If bacteria do not mutate, then all antibiotic resistance must be pre-existing, according to Egnor’s reasoning. Perhaps the good doctor could advise us if his “Intelligent Designer” has already implemented resistance to all possible antibiotics, now and in the future. That would be hopeless. Or is it possible that, because the resistance “design” is now locked in, we might find at least one antibiotic that will kill all without fear of adaptation? Shouldn’t Egnor be championing this fantastic research goal? Perhaps Egnor’s “Designer” is an intrusive god who is in an ongoing retaliatory battle with our medical community and drug companies. How sadistic would that be?

    Egnor and the boys should show us how their theory can be used to improve the human condition. Orthodox science can take a breather while the IDers break trail for a while instead of just crabbing from the back of the pack. Oh wait, people will suffer and die if we rely on sterile dogma. Maybe not such a good idea.