The Questionable Authority

Dr. Michael Egnor, creationist neurosurgeon and Discovery Institute blogger, has a problem. Either he hasn’t figured out that we’re way past April Fools Day, or he has just managed to produce what might just be the single dumbest anti-evolution argument that I have ever seen. We’re talking about a demonstration of absolute, rock-bottom, Kent-Hovind-eat-your-heart-out, triple-distilled essence of pure stupid.

The argument today – and I warn anyone who knows anything at all about evolution to put down all food and drinks right now – is that if evolution was right, we should see some brain tumors acting to make better brains.

No, I’m not joking. That’s his latest argument, in response to a thorough fisking delivered last month by Yale neuroscientist Steve Novella. Brain tumors mutate and are subject to natural selection, so if evolution is correct they should produce better brains:

Dr. Novella is missing a much better example of random mutation and natural selection that’s not metaphorical at all. Cancer is a test of Darwin’s theory. Cancer is real biological evolution by random mutation and natural selection, writ fast. There’s no reason to invoke encyclopedia typos or tractor engines in order to understand what “chance and necessity” can do to a living system. Brain tumors are perfect little Novellian “two-cycle engines” nestled inside the skull, “random mutations” coming out the ears, and “natural selection” like there’s no tomorrow (excuse the metaphors). Brain tumors are constantly generating new biological variation, and they are avatars of natural selection. They provide a tremendous spectrum of variation, from “variation jet-engines” like malignant glioblastoma multiforme to “variation tortoises” like benign pilocytic astrocytomas. Cancer wards are full of patients brimming with “two-stroke engines” of evolutionary change.

Not content to stop with a single bloody stupid argument, Dr. Egnor grabs his trusty shovel and keeps digging his hole:

The best real biological test of “shuffling around information, duplicating, and altering the information” is cancer. According to Dr. Novella’s reasoning, brain tumors ought to be generating quite a bit of “meaningful and even useful new information.” Better neuroanatomy and better neurophysiology ought to be popping up “easily.” Better frontal lobes and cognition, from cancer. Better temporal lobes and memory, from cancer. Better cerebellums and coordination, from cancer. If random mutations and natural selection–Dr. Novella’s “two stroke engine”–is the source of all functional integrated biological complexity, brain tumors ought to help our brains evolve in some way.

Perhaps Dr. Novella has data that show real evolutionary improvements in the brain caused by brain tumors. If he has, he should show us.

I’m just a rube, not a Darwinist from Yale. But I’ve never seen cancer make a brain better.

Excuse me for a second while I reboot my frozen-in-disbelief brain. OK. That’s better.

Let’s start with the remedial explanation of “natural selection.” Natural selection acts on heritable variation. That’s variation that can be passed on to subsequent generations. Any heritable variation that increases the survival in subsequent generations is selected for, and becomes more common in the population. Any variation which does not get passed down to subsequent generations cannot be acted on by natural selection. That’s a really, really, really basic concept in evolution.

The mutations within the tumors – the variation that Dr. Egnor is talking about – take place within cancerous cells in the brain. These mutations do not take place in egg or sperm cells. If the mutations don’t occur in eggs or sperm, they are not heritable within the human population, and are not subject to natural selection at that level.

The mutations within the tumors are heritable in a very, very limited sense – they can be passed on to subsequent generations of the tumor cells. Mutations which result in a tumor cell making more tumor cells do get passed on, and you get more tumor cells as a result. Mutations which don’t result in a tumor cell making more tumor cells aren’t selected for, and don’t get passed on as well.

Oh, and by the way, we do know that sometimes mutations within tumor cells do make those tumor cells start to produce more tumor cells, which then produce in turn more tumor cells, and so on. When that happens, the cancer gets worse for the person who is hosting the cancer. From the perspective of the cancer, things are getting a lot better – right up to the moment when it kills its host.

Comments

  1. #1 T. Bruce McNeely
    April 13, 2007

    Wow…
    When you think Egnor’s hit rock-bottom, he gets out the dynamite and starts blasting.

  2. #2 H. Humbert
    April 13, 2007

    Also, wasn’t there an article posted on the Thumb awhile back about some trait–in dogs, if I remember correctly–that turns out did originate from cancer cells? Anyone else know what I’m talking about? Bah, I’ll see if I can dig it up.

  3. #3 H. Humbert
    April 13, 2007

    Ah, here it is:

    http://tinyurl.com/oq4x7

    Turns out that I was thinking of a canine pathogen which evolved from cancer cells.

    Egnor’s got it backwards when he expects cancer cells to evolve to benefit the host. Cancer cells evolve to benefit themselves!

  4. #4 Bunjo
    April 13, 2007

    Sheesh! Dr. Egnor’s ‘arguments’ are so poor that I find myself wondering if there is some grand DI plan of provoking over the top responses from us ‘Darwinist-ism-isers’. Then I console myself with the thought that when there is a choice between the conspiracy theory and the cock-up theory, the cock-up theory is normally correct.

    I note that Dr. Egnor seems to be hooked on ‘evolution is alleged to make things better’ concept. Perhaps someone should take him to one side and explain to him that evolution is not about improvement, but about a more appropriate fit to the current environment?

  5. #5 TheBlackCat
    April 13, 2007

    There’s a similar contagious cancer decimating the Tazmanian devil population. It is a mouth cancer that is spread through bites (which is apparently a common form of social interaction for them).

    Cancer is cancer specifically because it evolved to be unconcerned with the rest of the organism. Making better brains don’t help cancer cells outcompete existing cells or other cancer cells, on the contrary they hinder them, and thus are selected against. Not that I have to explain that to anyone here.

  6. #6 Gerry L
    April 13, 2007

    Egnor boasts “I’m just a rube.” Some people take great pride in ignorance, and he seems to be working really, really hard NOT to understand basic evolution.
    I’m not a brain surgeon. Hell, I never even took a biology class after 9th grade, and I can understand it.

  7. #7 Anton Mates
    April 13, 2007

    Turns out that I was thinking of a canine pathogen which evolved from cancer cells.

    And in humans, the cancer-derived HeLa cell strain has turned out to be much better at growing in culture than ordinary human cells–so much better, in fact, that it frequently contaminates and overgrows other cultures.

  8. #8 Baratos
    April 13, 2007

    Thank god I took my meds before reading that. Otherwise the stupidity would have given me a stroke.

  9. #9 neocon police
    April 13, 2007

    ‘fisking’ makes you sound like a wingnut. get a real word.

  10. #10 Sophist
    April 13, 2007

    I’m just a rube…

    Yes, in the same way that the Rock of Gibraltar is “just a stone”.

  11. #11 afarensis
    April 13, 2007

    Ouch! His stuff should come equipped with a surgeon general’s warning. Or maybe a pop up that says “are you sure you want to read this?” followed by another that says “are you really sure”, followed by the surgeon general’s warning.

  12. #12 SmileyJoe
    April 13, 2007

    What does “fisking” mean?

  13. #13 Art
    April 13, 2007

    Apparently, neurosurgeons don’t need to learn reproductive biology or medicine in order to practice their craft.

    Well, at least ID-friendly neurosurgeons. Must be a culture war thing.

  14. #14 Elf Eye
    April 13, 2007

    fisking

    [blogosphere; very common] A point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or (especially) news story. A really stylish fisking is witty, logical, sarcastic and ruthlessly factual; flaming or handwaving is considered poor form. Named after Robert Fisk, a British journalist who was a frequent (and deserving) early target of such treatment. See also MiSTing, anti-idiotarianism

    from http://catb.org/esr/jargon/html/F/fisking.html

  15. #15 Eamon Knight
    April 13, 2007

    So Egnor’s decided to adopt the Dembski strategy in a big way?
    (I mean the “It helps if they think we’re morons” bit).

  16. #16 yiela
    April 14, 2007

    I was talking to a YEC friend of mine and it seems that she doubts just about everything coming from the media and science because she can’t tell if it’s absolutely true or not. Absolute truth is the only thing going so if it’s not absolute then it’s not true. Scientists, liberals, humans in general all have agenda’s that taint how they interpret evidence and that taints the evidence itself. So, you can’t use evidence to determine what is true or how things work. The fact that there are often many points of view that don’t perfectly agree is confusing and scary and shows that “they” don’t really know what they are talking about. You have no way of knowing what the evidence really is or how to interpret it. The world is a scary place full of lies and conflict and evil and it’s getting worse all the time!
    In effect, the person that believes this has no contact with reality and no way to check their thinking against reality. Since they can’t think for themselves they must rely on authority and they can and will believe anything they are told. The crazier the better.

  17. #17 Kapitano
    April 14, 2007

    You have to wonder what these creationist groups have to do to make them implode. There’s plenty of nutty political or religious sects that just fell apart when they reached some critical mass of desperate rationalisation – and surely Egnor and his followers are already way beyond that.

    Anyway, “Fisking” comes from what Robert Fisk does to his opponents, not what they try to do to him. He’s a journalist of the meticulous fact checking school, though he concentrates on taking apart powerful right-wingers, not fringe imbiciles like Egnor.

  18. #18 Steve-O
    April 14, 2007

    Um… actually Dr. Egnor makes some very good points, prompting me (a casual evolutionist) reconsider some things.

  19. #19 TomS
    April 14, 2007

    If we are going to consider evolution at the level of reproduction in a particular cell line, not only in reproduction of the whole organism …

    Then an excellent example of “random variation and selection” is the adaptive immune system in jawed vertebrates.

    A touch of irony in this, because, if the scope of evolution is so wide, then this is an
    undoubted example, one which should be known to every health professional, of “evolution” with highly important, everyday, medical consequences.

  20. #20 Michael
    April 14, 2007

    Steve-O, Your post would have made more sense on April 1st.

  21. #21 Bob Sie
    April 14, 2007

    First, I’m totally out of my field to say anything about the biology of cancer, I’m an economist and have enough detail to deal with already.

    But as simple an understanding I have with respect to cancer, it seems to me that it’s not the information generated by random mutation in a cancer that kills as Dr Egnor implies but the extreme rate of growth that quickly displaces, compresses and destroys vital tissues.

    I’m thinking Egnor could possibly be correct, beneficial new information possibly arising in the cancer but the cancer kills the patient before it could get applied. Besides only gonad cancer has the pathway to pass it on.

    Am I thinking wrong?

  22. #22 Daniel Morgan
    April 14, 2007

    It’s really rather amazing how elementary this man’s errors are. I guess he’s trying to destroy the implications of the statement, “Well, Mr. X is no brain surgeon, but he’s still a smart cat…” No longer can the tacit relation between brain surgery and brilliance be taken for granted.

  23. #23 trrll
    April 14, 2007

    Cancer cells, of course, do evolve within the environment of the brain. But the notion that anything that evolves must necessarily develop intelligence is stunningly stupid. After all, out of all of the organisms on earth, very few have evolved any form of intelligence.

    For a trait to evolve, it has to increase the number of descendants of those cells that carry the gene. For cancer cells, however, there are a lot of traits that enhance their reproduction that have nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence–traits like invasiveness, rapid replication, resistance to chemotherapeutic agents. In fact, it’s a pretty hard to think of anything that a cancer cell could do with intelligence to enhance its own number of descendants. Of course, replicating to the point of killing its host is not actually in the cancer cell’s long term best interest–but natural selection has no foresight–which is why so many species in nature are prone to over-reproduce and outrun their food supplies (which is essentially what cancer cells do in the body).

  24. #24 S E E Quine
    April 14, 2007

    ` How did he get his medical license?

  25. #25 Ex-drone
    April 14, 2007

    There are many IDiot mouthpieces, so Egnor faces a selection pressure for public attention. Egnor’s random thoughts allow him to formulate many creationist ideas that are unconstrained by logic or knowledge. The more outlandish his ideas are, the more he is rewarded with attention from his target audience. Therefore, Egnor’s prominence as an ID pitchman is an evolutionary outcome.

  26. #26 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 14, 2007

    “Going on the defensive” is perhaps the appropriate sum up of the latest egnorant. While I dislike information arguments, Novella makes it so clear that Egnor can’t answer but is forced to throw up a baseless deflection.

    (Information and complexity are interesting aspects of physics, but isn’t required for biological evolution theory to work. And while Novella’s explanation is appropriate for IDiots, definition and evidence of existence of ‘specified complexity’ is lacking.)

    A nitpick with the post is that Egnor doesn’t demand hereditary for brain improvements. But it is the lack of hereditary cancer-to-germline that makes it implausible that cancer evolves to benefit the characteristics of the host.

    Cancer-to-cancer hereditary makes cancer evolution interesting though. Seems cancer evolves to spread, which would among other things pit it against chemical treatments, and the hosts evolving immune system.

    And of the mentioned cancer pathogens, hasn’t the canine pathogen evolved to be balanced aggressive, so that it can spread by sexual contact before harming the host too much?

    That Egnor takes it upon himself to disregard science in his field is frankly scary.

    Steve-O:

    Perhaps you could describe which points Egnor makes that you find good so we could discuss them? If you are an evolutionary biologist (“evolutionist”) it could be something that have been missed here.

    I’m thinking Egnor could possibly be correct, beneficial new information possibly arising in the cancer but the cancer kills the patient before it could get applied.

    The salient points have been discussed above, hereditary information is arising in the cancer but not in the host.

    That a characteristic or its variation in the cancer can benefit the host is highly implausible. You are thinking of such effects akin to Travolta’s cancer induced telekinesis in Phenomenon. Well, it’s that likely. :-)

    Most often it throws a monkey wrench in the works. For example, cancers in the pituitary gland makes some people acromegalic or giants which later condition kills them early.

    Besides only gonad cancer has the pathway to pass it on.

    Germline cancer cells wouldn’t mature normally – they are busy being cancer cells.

  27. #27 Ex-drone
    April 14, 2007

    Steve-O wrote:

    Um… actually Dr. Egnor makes some very good points, prompting me (a casual evolutionist) [to] reconsider some things.

    I will claim to be an evolutionist. I will pretend to be swayed by the ID argument. I will hope to imply that people are rallying to creationism. I am ignorant of the transparency of my tactic.

  28. #28 Julie Stahlhut
    April 14, 2007

    Daniel wrote: “Well, Mr. X is no brain surgeon, but he’s still a smart cat…” No longer can the tacit relation between brain surgery and brilliance be taken for granted.

    Exactly. It takes an excellent capacity for learning to be admitted to medical school, to train as a physician or surgeon, and to become exceptionally skilled at your profession. I’d expect a neurosurgeon to be a person of considerable intelligence for that reason, but no more so than an attorney, a professor of history, a mechanical engineer, a top-notch novelist, a concert violinist, or a successful business executive. (That’s not even considering the millions of extremely intelligent people who lack either the means or the interest to pursue higher education.)

    And, of course, a person with tremendous expertise in one area can have little knowledge or understanding of another. The “smartest” ones acknowledge this possibility. Others revel in it.

  29. #29 _Arthur
    April 14, 2007

    Failure for a brain tumor to evolve permanently in the brain;
    Failure for a peanut butter jar to evolve new life
    Failure for the strawman scarecrow to evolve a brain
    Failure for Egnor to evolve a consisten theory…

  30. #30 impatientpatient
    April 14, 2007

    Thanks- I just blew hot coffee out of my nose after I reread the first bit to if see WTF I had read was in fact what I had read.

  31. #31 VJB
    April 14, 2007

    I’m really impressed…he’s like the Energizer Bunny. How about we suggest he goes speed dating.

  32. #32 Unsympathetic reader
    April 14, 2007

    HeLa cells are doing remarkably well…

    Nothing new under the sun with Egnor’s latest. His argument is essentially the same as the “Why don’t gamma-radiated fruit flies evolve into something else?” red herring that has been around since the ’50s. And once again we see that he still doesn’t have a realistic information metric.

  33. #33 Unsympathetic reader
    April 14, 2007

    Note that at the bottom of the “Evolution News and Views” page with Egnor’s article is the caption:

    The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site. Unfortunately, much of the news coverage has been sloppy, inaccurate, and in some cases, overtly biased. Evolution News & Views presents analysis of that coverage, as well as original reporting that accurately delivers information about the current state of the debate over Darwinian evolution. Click here to read more.

    I would say that the Doctor’s articles neither provide “accurate reporting” nor a current perspective of the debate over Darwinian Evolution. They do however, provide a good perspective of the current state of scientific understanding among many ID supporters.

  34. #34 steve_h
    April 14, 2007

    . I guess he’s trying to destroy the implications of the statement, “Well, Mr. X is no brain surgeon, but he’s still a smart cat…”

    Now on to the search to find the world’s stupidest rocket scientist…

  35. #35 Bob Sie
    April 14, 2007

    Dr Egnor strangness goes way back. He is one of the right wing doctors who diagnosed Terry Schiavo and alert but non-communicative via a news video. Example of top notch medicine there.

  36. #36 J-Dog
    April 14, 2007

    Bob Sie: Ah Ha! A Terry Schiavo link…I had not heard that before, so thanks. It explains a lot!

  37. #37 afarensis
    April 14, 2007

    J-Dog – you can find the full text of Egnor’s letter to the NY Times on Schiavo here

  38. #38 Cj
    April 14, 2007

    Egnor must be a spoof, nobody can be that ignorant…

  39. #39 Ginger Yellow
    April 15, 2007

    Even ignoring the germ line issue, if we were to pretend that some form of Lamarckism is operating we wouldn’t expect natural selection to cause brain tumours to have positive effects on the brain. Obviously having a tumour is reproductively disadvantageous.

  40. #40 John Marley
    April 15, 2007

    Wow.

    I mean..wow.

    I thought the “dogs don’t give birth to cats” argument was the worst possible misunderstanding of evolution, but this…

    just..wow.

  41. #41 greg
    April 16, 2007

    i raised a question directly relating to this idea on metafilter some time ago.

    the consensus seems to be that brain tumors DO EVOLVE, however the selective pressure distills the cancer cells to A) reproduce faster B) secure nutrition and C) fool the immune system.

    you can read the lovely answers here: http://ask.metafilter.com/38467/darwins-tumor

    Egnore must have been joking. Where would the selective pressure to produce a better brain through tumors come from??

  42. #42 John
    April 16, 2007

    “According to Dr. Novella’s reasoning, brain tumors ought to be generating quite a bit of “meaningful and even useful new information.” Better neuroanatomy and better neurophysiology ought to be popping up “easily.” Better frontal lobes and cognition, from cancer. Better temporal lobes and memory, from cancer. Better cerebellums and coordination, from cancer.”

    Then there’s Doc Brunder who discovered this phenomenon in George Malley in ’96.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomenon_(film)

    The word ‘flapdoodle’ was invented for such extraordinary nonsense.

  43. #43 Steven Novella
    April 16, 2007

    Mike, Thanks for the post. Here is my response to Dr. Egnor.

    http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/default.asp?Display=83

  44. #44 Kevin
    April 16, 2007

    “I wanted a measurement of biological complexity, with empirical verification, in a way that was meaningful to biology. ”

    and John McCain went to Iraq and wanted a pony.

    In the end, all he found was poop. He took that as a good sign.

  45. #45 Monado
    April 16, 2007

    The stupidest anti-evolution argument *I* ever heard was when someone told me that if we evolved from carbon (or rocks), we should be able to to stick our kid out in the garden to photosynthesize. Or something like that. I explained that no one had suggested that was a good metaphor for evolution, and he replied Yes, but he thought it showed the illogic of evolution. Ya can’t win.

  46. #46 Daniel
    April 23, 2007

    Mike Dunford
    “Any variation which does not get passed down to subsequent generations cannot be acted on by natural selection. That’s a really, really, really basic concept in evolution.”

    Um… natural selection is not evolution.

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