Everybody’s favorite creationist neurosurgeon is back. Today, Michael Egnor brought forth yet another remarkably inept attempt to find a way to justify egnoring the relationship between natural selection and antibiotic resistance. This time, he’s apparently decided that there’s no hope in finding a substantive argument, so he’s resorting to nothing more than a childish rhetorical game. One of the authors of a recently published scientific paper that examined antibiotic resistance left a comment at The Panda’s Thumb noting that his research did in fact rely on Darwinian evolution. In a spectacular display of combined arrogance and ignorance (aka Egnorance), Egnor decided to inform the authors that they are mistaken if they think that natural selection was actually involved in any way:
Dr. Dardel is both candid and mistaken. His comment that the use of Darwin’s theory is “unusual in structural biology” is obviously true, and refreshingly candid. He is, however, mistaken about the application of Darwin’s theory to his recent work. His assertion that “…we selected bacteria…by plating…” is artificial selection, not natural selection. Artificial selection is breeding, in this case microbial breeding. The principles of breeding date back thousands of years, and owe nothing to Darwin. In fact, Darwin claimed that non-teleological processes in nature could produce changes in populations just as teleological processes like breeding could. Even Darwin didn’t claim that his theory explained the outcome of intentional breeding. It’s astonishing that a modern professional scientist like Dr. Dardel doesn’t recognize the difference between artificial selection and natural selection.
In Egnor’s world, it is impossible to study natural selection in the lab, because once you enter the lab, you’ve moved from natural selection to artificial selection. That’s the level of argument that he’s been reduced to – word games.
Dr. Dardel’s team obtained the resistant strains that they investigated through a very simple process. They took the bacteria, placed them in an environment that contained the antibiotic, and let the bacteria reproduce. The bacteria that survived to reproduce were (not surprisingly) the bacteria that were most resistant to the antibiotic.
The differences between what the scientists did in a lab and what happens in nature are small, and not incredibly significant. The scientists worked in a lab. They artificially replicated a set of conditions (an antibiotic-rich environment) that occur in nature. Finally, they placed the bacteria into this environment – something that happens spontaneously outside the lab. Strangely, I find that I’m not as impressed as Egnor is by these differences.
Still, let’s be nice and (purely for the sake of argument) grant Egnor his rhetorical fun. We’ll pretend that anything that happens in a lab must be artificial selection, and that it is totally and completely wrong to use the phrase “natural selection” when referring to these experiments. Even if we make those assumptions, Darwin’s work remains relevant to the experiments.
Darwin was the first to demonstrate that selective pressures caused by the natural environment have the same effects on a population as selective pressures created by humans. That discovery justifies the use of laboratory experiments (like the one Dr. Dardel’s team reported) to investigate phenomena (like antibiotic resistance) that occur spontaneously in nature.