Woodward closed by gushing about Ralph Seelke, who is a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. His web page carries a large disclaimer that his views do not represent the views of the university. That’s never a good sign. The site also has various pro-ID articles and links. He mentions three of his favorite books: Reason in the Balance and Darwin on Trial, both by Phillip Johnson, and The Creator and the Cosmos by Hugh Ross. Get the idea?
Woodward was very excited about Seelke’s work on tryptophan, which he described as an experimental test of evolution. It was a bright spot, an harbinger of things to come, in the evolution ID wars. As it happens, Seelke has a power point presentation related to this work available on his website (see: Why I Am A Doubter of Evolution). So why don’t we look at that, instead of at Woodward’s inept paraphrase?
Seelke asks us to consider the following question: Is it possible for natural selection to craft a complex structure when several mutations are required before any selective advantage can be obtained? He linked this question explicitly to the idea of irreduible complexity. From this I conclude he is repeating Behe’s error of thinking that irreducible complexity in the present suggests the extreme implausibility of functional precursors in the past.
He then has a slide containing two points:
We can actually test whether evolution is able to work, when the evolutionary task requires multiple independent steps
When you ask natural selection to actually DO something involving multiple events- it can’t.
Perhaps you already have a sinking feeling about where this is going. What does it mean to ask natural selection to DO something?
To establish the importance of this question, Seelke now provides the following quote from biologist Barry Hall:
A very general problem in…evolution: how is an advantageous phenotype selected when it requires multiple mutations, none of which are advantageous until all are present?…[this presents] a barrier that would appear to be difficult when two independent random mutations are required to improve fitness and insuperable when more than two are required
If you’re bothered by those ellipses, those brackets, or the fact that the first sentence above isn’t really a sentence, here’s the full quote:
The prediction that multiple mutations could be recovered from cells exposed to prolonged intense selection led me to wonder whether it might be possible, under similar conditions, to recover mutants in which two mutations were required to produce the advantegous phenotype. This is a specific case of a very general problem of molecular adaptive evolution: How is an advantageous phenotype selected when it requires multiple mutations, none of which are advantgeous until all are present (i.e. only the last mutation to occur is actually selected). If cells had a means of specifically increasing the rate of advantageous multiple mutations, they might be able to circumvent a barrier that would appear to be difficult when two independent random mutations are required to improve fitness, and insuperable when more than two are required. Here I present evidence that Escherichia coli cells do, indeed, possess such a mechanism.
Now, I have a few questions even about this full quote. It is not clear to me how you could be certain that a particular mutation provides no selective advantage until several other mutations are already in place. To ascertian such a fact you would need to know all of the phenotypic effects of a particular gene, and that information is not so easy to come by. And even if you could be certain you were aware of every function a gene performs, that would still only tell you what the gene does in modern organisms. It might have had different effects in some ancestral organism. Leaving that aside, what I found interesting about the quote was its emphasis on “intense selection” as a key ingredient in the evolution of the traits under consideration.
Barry Hall, incidentally, also featured prominently in Finding Darwin’s God. Miller describes some work carried out by Hall’s lab, as follows:
The bacterium pulls this feat off by combining highly sensitive control genes with the structural genes that actually specify the amino acids in the galactosidase enzyme. The control gene keeps the enzyme gene switched off except when it needs to produce enough of the enzyme to metabolize lactose. Could evolution have produced such a lovely, two-part system? Barry Hall tested this possibility in 1982 by deleting the structural gene for galactosidase. He then “challenged” cells with the deletion to grow on lactose. At first, ofc ourse, they couldn’t. Before long, however, mutant strains appeared that could handle lactose nearly as well as the originals.
This quote is especially interesting in light of what is to come.
Back to Seelke. According to his Power Point presentation, he studied a population of E. coli. He introduced one, two, three or four inactivation mutations in the gene trpA, which is required for the production of tryptophan. After doing this, the next step in the experiment is to, “Let the gene evolve under highly selective conditions.”
I realize this is a Power Point presentation from which I am quoting. The fact remains, however, that I have no idea what that last statement means. Presumably he means that his hobbled bacteria were placed in an environment where an ability to produce tryptophan would be highly beneficial. The results: when only one mutation was necessary for the bacteria to become trp+, there was no problem at all. But when two mutations were required, no such bacteria evolved.
Wondering what this is meant to prove? Me too. It looks like Seelke was interested specifically in whether his E. coli samples could recover the original tryptophan producing gene. In a another document form his web page (See: What Can Evolution Really DO) he writes, for example:
Now if a microbe does not have a working version of this gene, then it won’t grow unless you provide it with tryptophan. But what happens if it evolves- regains a functional trpA gene? Then it will have an ENORMOUS advantage- it will keep growing, even after the medium has been depleted of tryptophan. Pretty soon, it will completely dominate the culture in which it is growing
Now let’s say that my bacteria has TWO mutations in its trpA gene. Now my problem has grown immensely. BOTH changes have to be restored by random processes. In order to have, on average one evolved bacteria, now I’ll need 100 trillion bacteria- to grow this many bacteria, I’d need about 100 liters of medium- a fair amount, but I should be able to find it.
So Seelke made two changes to a particular gene, and watched to see if the bacteria would undo those mutations. They didn’t. So what?
On the other hand, as Seelke informs us in his PP presentation, it’s not as if the bacteria did nothing at all. He presents a graph that shows that the bacteria evolved to do quite well in their tryptophan limited environment. So evolution occurred, it just didn’t follow the specific trajectory for which Seelke was looking.
And how is any of this a model of evolution, anyway? Did the trpA gene evolve from a functionless precursor that was missing two of its amino acids, which then appeared simultaneously in some ancient population of bacteria? Seelke, fiddled with a genome, and the resulting critters evolved to do quite well in their environment. What’s the news here?
The irony here is that Seelke, in the “What Can Evolution Really Do” paper listed above, discusses Miller’s use of Barry Hall’s experiment. He criticizes the example on the grounds that Hall had tinkered with the environment to create a situation conducive to the evolution of the lactose metabolization system described before. Now, Miller has responded to such criticisms. Effectively, what the Hall experiment shows is that you can not declare a system to be unevolvable or irreducibly complex simply because every part is required for the system to function. In the correct environment, such systems can evolve. That was Miler’s point, and it is an effective counter to Behe’s nonsense.
Seelke’s point, by contrast, seems to be that something significant has been learned by fiddling with an E. coli gene, and then not having that precise gene reevolve in one particular enivronment. This is his basis for saying, “So at this point, evolution is an observation without a plausible natural explanation.”
Forgive me for not being impressed.
Woodward explained that this work will be published shortly, so perhaps there is more to it. He also mentioned that the work was carried out in conjunction with, “a medical professor at Stanford University.” The most interesting part of Woodward’s description here was his statement that Seelke was testing ID theory. He was doing no such thing, of course. Whatever it is he is testing here falls square into the rubric of perfectly naturalistic biology.
Woodward closed by setting the date for the end of Darwinism’s reign as the dominant paradigm at …wait for it…2025. Later he suggested that it might be within ten years that evolution as we know it suffers a decisive failure. And then he predicted a severe nosedive for evolution in the next six to twelve months as Behe’s book soaks into the public consciousness.
Next came the Q and A. Here’s how it went:
Q: David Berlinski is brilliant! He should have been mentioned on your list. Something about panspermia.
A: I don’t think there was a question there. Berlinski is brilliant, but I was only listing books. He’s not even religious! He went over well at the Turkey ID conference.
Q: How would Darwin react to ID? I think he’d be listening!
A: It’s hard to say, but he did write that scientific disputes can be resolved only when both sides are given a fiar hearing, so I think he would want more civility in this debate. Darwin was a brilliant rhetorician and a great scientist. He did the best job that could be done in presenting a theory that was little more than a grand extrapolation from very little evidence.
I was up next. Rather than provide a paraphrase of what happened, allow me simply to provide a transcript. I’ll just mention that all the questioners were asked to introduce themselves before asking their question, and my introduction was comparable to what the previous questioners said. I have omitted the uhms and the ohs from both of our remarks.
ROSENHOUSE: I’m Jason Rosenhouse, I’m a mathematician at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. At the start of your talk you made much of the fact that intelligent design has no religious premise, that it’s science —
WOODWARD: I said it didn’t depend on a religious premise —
R: –that it didn’t depend on a religious premise. It was science, it should be categorized with astronomy as opposed to astrology. I’d be curious to know how you would treat Young-Earth Creationism. Do you regard that as science, or —
W: I’m not here to discuss Young-Earth Creationism.
R: Well, the reason I bring it up is that, I go to presentations by people like Ken Ham and Duane Gish, people like that, and they start their talks exactly the same way you did. They say, you know, they keep saying ours is a religious view, but that’s not true. Actually it’s all scientific. The fact that it so well compliments what the Bible says is certainly very nice for people that are theologically inclined, but that’s not essential to the theory. I think it’s relevant in this case. Do you think they’re characterizing that correctly? Do you think they’re being sincere and honest when they say, no no, this is purely a scientific argument, we want to keep it on the level of science, we don’t want to cite the Bible at all? Do you think they’re being sincere?
W: Well, I’m not going to impugn their sincerity. To me, there is a core of their — when you talk about creation science, or any, let’s say, Answers in Genesis or ICR, any such organization which is characterized by that genre, you’re dealing with an organization, which are a group of scientists who are committed to showing explicitly the fit of scientific evidence with a specific Judeo-Christian scriptural set of statements. The book of Genesis, plus, plus, plus whatever passages in the Bible they want to tack on and add to that list. So, by their very approach, and I’m not impugning their approach in any given context, I’m just saying that they’re explicitly lining up their understanding of the data with certain Scriptural assertions, statements, accounts. So I think that there is within that realm, within that orbit, there is an intent to show this fit, and the attempt to show the fit means that’s the assumed goal of that organization, or that movement. I think I’ve answered your question.
R: You haven’t really, but one quick follow-up, which is when critics of Young-Earth Creationism say, no, this is religion and not science, usually while addressing the scientific claims, but saying ultimately this comes from a religious motive, and the reason for promoting it is religious, are the critics wrong there too? Should Young-Earth Creationism be right alongside ID and astronomy on that dichotomy you set up, or do you make an exception for Young-Earth Creationism? Ultimately my point is simply that the fact that people say that they are motivated completely by science … there’s a lot more to the story than that. Intelligent Design is promoted by the Discovery Institute which talks about the pernicious influence of materialism, it sure looks like it’s Christian groups primarily that promote Intelligent Design, there seems to be an awful lot of interest in getting Intelligent Design pushed into science curricula, the Discovery Institute, for example —
W: That would be a very mis —
R: Really, so what was the Dover trial all about?
W: Can I comment on that? The Dover trial was an attempt of an organization, in this case the Dover School Board, to have Intelligent Design included at some level, it wound up being just a short statement. The Intelligent Design complement was the mentioning of the existence of a book in the library. So the disclaimer, or you will, the pro-ID statement was fairly innocuous, in my view. Still, I think it was an unwise move, and the Discovery Institute has made it abundantly clear, and I think you probably are aware of this, that they did not support the actions of the Dover School Board. They felt that they were going way beyond the recommendation of Discovery Institute. And so the Discovery Institute has never sought to ask local school boards anywhere to include Intelligent Design material in the curriculum, but merely a critique of the supposed evidences for macroevolution, along the lines of Icons of Evolution, by Jonathan Wells. So I think that any idea —
R: So why do they produce textbooks for use in schools, if that’s the case? I mean, usually a scientific theory gains acceptance in the scientific community before you write textbooks for school children about it. It sure looks like —
W: I am not aware of any textbooks that Discovery has produced for school use.
R: Well, that they support. Like the new one is Explore Evolution, or Of Pandas and People which you conveniently left off your list, by the way, of important creationist books, excuse me, important Intelligent Design books —
W: I was dealing with scientific texts that were produced by scientists, that are —
R: Of Pandas and People was written by scientists —
W: It was written for a high school audience is what I’m saying.
R: It was a very influential book —
I had actually already passed the microphone on to the next questioner a few points back in that exchange, and so was not inclined to push things farther. I should point out that early in the exchange the Discovery Institute’s Logan Gage tapped me on the shoulder in a polite suggestion that I relinquish the microphone. (There was a hand held microphone being passed around to the questioners. Actually, the room and the audience was so small that a microphone really wasn’t necessary). I shooed his hand away. That was rude of me, but since the audience seemed to be in a sycophantic mood and uninclined to ask anything challenging, I felt I deserved a little latitude.
I won’t comment on the above exchange, except to clarify what I meant in saying that Woodward had conveniently left Pandas off the list of important ID books. As I started to say, Pandas was an influential ID textbook published I believe in the late eighties or early nineties. It became a major embarrassment for the ID folks at the Dover trial, when the Plaintiff’s where able to show that it was merely an old creationist book in which the word “creation” and its cognates were removed and replaced with “design” and its cognates. This was powerful evidence that ID was nothing more that warmed over creationism. The Judge mentioned this fact specifically in his decision.
Acknowledging the existence of Pandas would make it nearly impossible for Woodward to maintain the fiction that ID is distinct from creationisam in any important way.
Oh, and the bit about Discovery never having supported teaching ID in science classes? Leaving aside the sophistry that Teach the Controversy is somehow different from Teach ID (The latter is just the former plus the statement, “Also, God did it.”), I would point out that The Wedge Document contains the following as one of its five-year objectives:
Ten states begin to rectify ideological imbalance in their science curricula & include design theory.
The document also includes this statement:
We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula.
Gosh, Woodward being caught saying something that’s false. Who’d have thought it possible?
There were two questioners after me. The first suggested to me that I read Dembski’s No Free Lunch and The Design Inference. When I replied that I had read both he informed me that then I should know what the basis for ID really is. I was not inclined to argue with him, having just pushed the limits of good etiquette in my exchange with Woodward. I’ll simply point out, however, that the questioner completely missed my point. I am perfectly aware that the ID folks claim to be motivated entirely by science. But the Young-Earthers make exactly the same claim. The point of my question was that sometimes people are less than truthful about their motives.
At any rate, things started getting interesting. The new questioner turned his attention to Woodward. He pointed out that ID has been linked to a specific set of theological claims, namely classical theism. But in the opinion of most thinkers, the questioner continued, the problem of evil has “completely demolished” classical theism. He then specifically mentioned Quentin Smith, an atheist philosopher of some prominence in support of this view.
Gosh! There’s something I didn’t expect to hear at a Discovery Institute function. I happen to agree that the problem of evil and suffering makes the Chrisitan conception of God all but untenable, in my more florid moments I have even described it as a decisive refutaion, but “completely demolished” is a bit far even for me.
To be honest, I didn’t quite follow what his question actually was. I think his point was that people cling to Darwinism because, with the demolition of classical theism, a somewhat malicious designer would be the consequence of ID. Better no God at all than that, and that is why there is so much rhetorical blowback (his term) against ID.
Woodward replied that he thinks the main source of the blowback is simple ignorance. Apparently a lot of the people who speak against ID on college campusses have not done even minimal homework. He also argued that while theism is dominant among Americans generally, it is not dominant among the upper echelons of media and educational institutions. He described America, quoting a sociologist, as “A nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” The idea is that Sweden represents the most secular nation on Earth while India represents the most religious.
I kind of like the idea of America being ruled by educational institutions. Woud that they were as powerful as Woodward seems to think.
After throwing out some more vague references to all the behind closed doors action on ID, this time referring to unnamed Princeton University faculty who are aware of the difficulties with evolution presented by ID folks, he now declared that in the next six to twelve months, Darwinism will go into a steep nose dive as the result of Behe’s new book. Yes, he actually said that.
There was some more back and forth with the questioner, and then came the final question of the night. A young man in the row behind me pointed out that most of the ID books listed by Woodward were simply critiques of evolution, but that there seemed little effort to actually build up an ID model.
Woodward replied by saying that Behe’s new book represented a serious attempt at model building. Behe’s work is “startling, seminal, creative, model-building.” This from the man who criticized Ken Miller for making sweeping pronouncements about the merits of ID arguments. He also described Dembski’s work as model-building.
Unimpressed, the questioner came back with the observation that Woodward’s best examples of ID model-building were still just critiques of evolution, and that while he agrees that evolutionists can’t explain where new genetic information comes from, ID will find itself perpetually in the minority unless they can do better than that.
Who was this questioner? None other than Marcus Ross, now at Liberty University. Ross made news a few months ago as the Young-Earth Creationist who earned a PhD in geology from URI, even though he did not believe the ancient dates included in his research. This was quite a sensation in the blogosphere for a while.
The subtext of Ross’ question, I believe, is that one of the main criticisms levelled at ID folks by YEC’s is that the former do not do anything to bring people to Christ. They are so circumspect about drawing any connection between ID and religion, and their rhetoric is so God-free, that they are basically leading people to deism. More than that, by not mentioning the role of human sin in the many evil aspects of nature, they are left without any coherent explanation of why a designing God would design so many vile things.
This brings to light a tension between the YEC’s and ID’s which was one of the points I was getting at in my exchange with Woodward. YEC’s view ID’s as useful for their relative effectiveness in challenging evolution, but ultimately as compromisers for their near universal endorsement of an old Earth and their unwillingness to link their science with their religion. From the other side, ID folks view YEC’s as little more than useful idiots. On the one hand, they need the YEC”s so that their numbers will look impressive. On the other, it is perfectly clear to most ID folks that the most prominent YEC writers are hopeless amateurs who don’t actually know very much about science.
That was why Woodward had so much trouble with my question. If he said, “YEC is science,” then he would look like a fool. If he said “YEC is not science,” then he would alienate a lot of important supporters. So instead he hemmed and hawed and tried to walk the tightrope, and then declared that he had answered my question when he plainly hadn’t.
And with that, the evening was at an end. Most of the food available consisted of wine and cheese, which happen to be two of my least favorite allegedly edible substances on Earth. I had some interesting conversations with some of the audience members (it turns out I had more support than I thought!), but enough already.
Michael Behe will be speaking there this coming Wednesday, and I must prepare myself psychologically for that!