New Scientist has an article about the Biologic Institute, the lab that the DI set up about a year ago in Redmond, Washington. I guess is where that unnamed research is going on under double-secret probation. It’s headed by Douglas Axe, author of a couple of ridiculously hyped “pro-ID” articles that turned out to be anything but that. The article is fairly amusing, as it begins with one of the directors of the institute, George Weber (also the head of the local chapter of the creationist group Reasons To Believe – remember, ID advocates are not creationists…except for those who are), tells the author that the lab is a wing of the Discovery Institute and that their goal is to “challenge the scientific community on naturalism.” That leads to him being fired from the board of the institute for failing to parrot the party line. Repeat after me: this has nothing to do with god; this has nothing to do with god; this has nothing to do with god. Learn it. Know it. Live it.
So what will they actually be doing at this lab? I mean, it appears to be an actual working lab; it has bunson burners and pipettes and everything. There is no actual ID theory from which one can derive hypotheses to be tested, and as Minnich admitted in the Dover trial, all of the hypothetical tests they can come up with are really tests (poorly designed ones at that) of evolution, not of ID. That’s because all of their positions rest first on the failure of evolution to set up the false dichotomy that if evolution is wrong, ID must be true. I think Jason Rosenhouse is correct on the kind of research the lab will produce:
One suspects that what will emerge from the lab is the sort of milquetoast, run-of-the-mill research that fills the back pages of second-tier journals. They’ll produce results like, “Point mutations in the obscurity gene, which codes for the protein esotericase, leads to a catastrophic loss of function.” Then the shills at the DI will shamelessly peddle this as cutting-edge research in support of ID. Such results clearly show that esotericase couldn’t possibly have evolved, right? The conscienceless lickspittles at the various ID blogs will wield it with comical indignation the next time a scientist points out that there is no research in support of ID.
This isn’t exactly a fisky prediction, of course, since we’ve already got a well established pattern of this happening. We all remember a few years ago as Dembski spoke breathlessly about how Behe and Snoke’s upcoming 2004 paper “may well be the nail in the coffin [and] the crumbling of the Berlin wall of Darwinian evolution.” In fact, that paper ended up as one of the nails in the ID coffin in the Kitzmiller trial, as Behe was forced to admit under oath that their computer simulation had in fact concluded that an irreducibly complex protein binding site could evolve in only 20,000 years even when the parameters of the experiment were purposely rigged to make it as unlikely as possible.
And we heard the same thing about Axe’s 2000 paper on perturbation in enzymes. Dembski hailed this research as proving the existence of biochemical systems “for which any slight modification does not merely destroy the system’s existing function, but also destroys the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever.” In fact, this was a wildly inaccurate claim about the nature of Axe’s research, as Matt Inlay documented in this post at the Panda’s Thumb. Axe’s paper was a classic “knockout” experiment, where greater and greater numbers of point mutations were induced and at each step, measurement of the ability of the enzyme to function was measured, in an attempt to find out how many such substitutions had to take place before all function was lost.
According to Dembski, the experiment showed that any slight modification of the sequence not only destroyed the enzyme’s function but also destroyed the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever. That claim could scarcely be less credible. Axe performed the knockouts in groups of 10 amino acid substitutions and found that none of the four substitutions, by themselves, seriously affected the enzyme’s function. It found that you had to combine three sets of substitutions to reduce function by 99%, and had to combine all 4 sets of substitutions to kill function completely. This means that you could substitute 10 or 20 amino acids at a time and only get a negligible decrease in function. If you substituted 30 amino acids all at once, you lost 99% of the function. And if you knocked out 40 at a time, you could kill all function. But this is a full 10% of all the amino acids in the entire protein, and 20% of the exterior residues, which is what the experiment was dealing with. As Inlay tells us:
As previously mentioned, at least 30 substitutions were required to reduce activity greater than 99%, and 40 mutations to completely abolish it. This amounts to about 20% of the exterior residues, or 10% of the total protein. This can hardly be considered “slight”, by any definition of the word. One substitution would be considered slight, not 30 to 40. This is not just a semantic quibble, as the changes that occur during the course of gradual, ‘Darwinian’ evolution occur one substitution at a time (except in cases of recombination and exon shuffling).
It should also be noted that, contrary to Dembski’s claim, Axe’s experiment made no attempt to study any other function other than the original function of the enzyme. But in fact, other functions do in fact increase with those changes:
I don’t know how Dembski can claim that the mutations destroyed other functions of the system, since Axe never tested for other functions. This is basically an appeal to ignorance. However, as it turns out, another group analyzed mutations in the active site of the exact same gene (TEM-1) and found that certain “slight modifications” drastically reduced the original function of the system (penicillin and ampicillin resistance), but increased a separate, distinct function (cephalosporin resistance).
The ID Clown Posse knows all of this, of course. Behe knows damn well that the paper he did with Snoke provides no support whatsoever for ID, and in fact argues against irreducible complexity, but that doesn’t stop him from promoting it as such anyway. Dembski knows damn well that Axe’s papers didn’t really say what he claimed they said. But that’s not the point.
Back in the 70s, when I was growing up, Ricardo Montalban was not only the infamous Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island, he also starred in a commercial for Chrysler where he tantalized potential buyers by telling them that the seats in the car were covered “with the finest Corinthian leather.” No one really knew what Corinthian leather was; indeed, it didn’t actually exist. Corinth, of course, exists, but they do not produce leather there. In reality, that “fine Corinthian leather” was produced in a factory in New Jersey. But the commercial illustrates just how easily people are fooled by a slogan that sounds vaguely exclusive and out of reach.
The same phenomenon is at work here. The ID crowd knows that 99% of their followers and supporters are not going to go and look up a paper in Protein Science; they also know that 99% of them wouldn’t be able to understand if even if they did. What matters is that you have a good slogan – this is a “nail in the coffin” of evolution – and some really fancy sounding terms – “made of the finest perturbation rates.” After all, perturbation sounds pretty darn scientific, doesn’t it? And when your’e dealing with a public that doesn’t know a point mutation from a point guard, covering that old creationist couch with the finest Corinthian leather makes it seem all shiny and new.