Respectful Insolence

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgEvery so often, real life intrudes on blogging, preventing the creation of fresh Insolence, at least Insolence of the quality that you’ve come to expect. This is one of those times, and it doesn’t help that it’s a holiday week plus a week I was traveling. So I dug way back into the archives, back to five years ago, for a little gem that reminds me that I really should write about evolution more. As the AACR meeting showed me this year, it’s actually highly relevant to cancer research. Besides, if you haven’t been reading at least five years, it’s almost certainly new to you!

Well, well, well, well.

I hadn’t expected it. I really hadn’t. After just shy of three weeks since I first made my challenge to Dr. Egnor to put up or shut up regarding certain claims of his that the “design inference” has been “of great value” in medicine and results in “the best medical research,” I had pretty much given up trying to get an answer out of him. I had come to assume that either (1) Dr. Egnor had been either unaware of my challenge (although I tended to doubt it, given how many echoed it, or (2) he was simply ignoring it in favor of posting some amazingly bad reasoning. To refresh your memory, I will point out that, intrigued by Dr. Egnor’s assertions about how useful the “design inference” was to medicine and biology, I asked him on numerous occasions:

My first reaction after reading Dr. Egnor’s post was that he should have thought for three more weeks–or three more months–if this was the best that he could come up with. Indeed, my initial reaction jibed very well with that of Kevin over at Dr. Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge and Mark over at Denialism.com. The stupid, it burns. But, really, that was too snarky and not sufficiently Respectfully Insolent. Besides, Dr. Egnor actually refrained from whining about my blogging under a pseudonym and using that as an excuse to dismiss what I say entirely. That’s progress.Then I thought about it some more. Then I saw the light. Then I realized just how brilliant Dr. Egnor’s response was. After reading my post, hopefully you, too, will see the light and cast off all that atheistic Darwinistic baggage and join Dr. Egnor in the world where, when he says something, words mean exactly what he wants them to mean, nothing more, nothing less.

After repeating my challenge for his readers, Dr. Egnor begins:

It took me a while to answer, because there are so many examples of it that I was in the position of Buridan’s ass–I couldn’t decide what to pick first!

So I picked these guys. The natural place to start showing examples of the inference to design in medical research is the seminal biological discovery of the 20th Century–Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

My first thought, again, was that, if there were indeed so many great examples of the use of the “design inference” in biomedical research, why on earth did Dr. Egnor choose this one? But that’s just the Darwin-worshiping skeptic in me talking, almost certainly atheistic in Dr. Egnor’s eyes. Dr. Egnor is trying to show me a better way, so let’s hear him out:

Notice that Watson and Crick aren’t standing next to a pair of dice. To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function.

Let them speak for themselves, in their famous April 25, 1953 letter to Nature:

It is probably impossible to build this structure with a ribose sugar in place of the deoxyribose, as the extra oxygen atom would make too close a van der Waals contact.

Full details of the structure, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of coordinates for the atoms….

Furthermore, the design specifications revealed an elegantly simple method by which the genetic material could be copied:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

I’m certainly flattered that Dr. Egnor went to the trouble to look up Watson and Crick’s original report to find these little gems, but I have to admit that, upon reading them, I was still quite puzzled as to how these quotes meant that they had used any sort of “design inference” to elucidate the structure of DNA and how it might be copied and encode the structure of proteins based on its physical structure. After all, I don’t see Watson and Crick using the word “design” anywhere, and you know very well that if they had Dr. Egnor would have included the quote and put the word “design” in bold, underline, and italics, probably with flashing text added if he knows enough HTML to accomplish that. But, mere humble surgeon that I am (and not a BRAIN SURGEON, yet!) I hadn’t yet fathomed Dr. Egnor’s genius, which he revealed forthwith:

What exactly is reverse engineering? From Tarial cell computer that Orac is, he just can’t leave such genius alone. Sadly, I have to have the remaining temerity to point out to Dr. Egnor that he has put the cart before the horse, so to speak. He has assumed that biomolecules like DNA were “designed,” and that assumption leads him to conclude that Watson and Crick (and, apparently, every other biomedical researcher) used the “design inference” implicitly, whether they acknowledged it or not. Sticking to his specific example, I must sadly point out that Dr. Egnor failed to provide any evidence that DNA was “designed” in the first place. Indeed, he seems to be assuming that macromolecules can’t form regular structures without some sort of input from a “designer” without actually presenting any evidence that this is the case.

As I’ve alluded to before, when you boil it all down, Dr. Egnor seems to equate “order” and “complexity” (both of which biological structures have in abundance) with “design.” In fact, he seems to equate “structure” with “design” and assume that all design needs a designer. But there certainly is order in nature that doesn’t necessarily cry out “design.” The planets circle the sun in orbits that can be described with extreme mathematical precision; other examples include gravity, motion as described by Newton’s Laws, the speed of light, and the structure of crystals. There is also complexity in nature that doesn’t necessarily cry out “design,” including the orbitals of atoms, the behavior of waves, and relativistic effects that occur at velocities close to the speed of light. Of all the sciences, only in biology do creationists like Dr. Egnor automatically assume without good evidence that complexity must have been designed and could not have evolved through natural processes. They refuse to accept or grasp how many different lines of evidence converge from multiple different disciplines to support the validity and value of theory of evolution. When a theory is confirmed so elegantly through so many different disciplines, it’s hard to come up with more convincing evidence of the validity of that theory. It’s far easier to assume “design,” an assumption that, unfortunately, does not help science to progress.

Finally, Dr. Egnor decided to challenge me:

So, in reply to Orac’s challenge, I ask: Which inference played a greater role in the discovery of the structure and function of DNA: the inference to Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection, or the inference to design, applying the principles of reverse engineering?

The question is a nonsequitur, of course, for all the reasons I’ve explained above. Its premises are false. However, if I must answer, I would answer that Dr. Egnor’s version of “reverse-engineering” clearly played a role in elucidating the structure of DNA. However, without the background informed by evolution, scientists would not necessarily have realized that a molecule like DNA must exist to transfer information from organisms to progeny. They would have had a mechanism (natural selection) but would not know what the molecular basis for the traits that are subject to natural selection, which means that they would not know the smallest unit upon which selection operates. The discovery of DNA and the elucidation of the genetic code answered those questions. Similarly, evolutionary theory allows experimental techniques that would not be possible were it not for common descent, all the way from single-celled organisms all the way to humans and the existence of highly conserved proteins and genes (which are so conserved because they perform critical functions), techniques like the yeast two-hybrid screen, where it is possible to put the genes for human proteins into yeast, identify yeast proteins that bind to the human proteins, take that information, compare it to human gene sequences, and identify the human protein that binds to the protein of interest.

Sadly, I doubt that, even if Dr. Egnor had taken three more weeks, three more months, or even three more years to come up with his answer, he would have come up with a legitimate example of the “design inference” being “of great value” to biomedical research. Maybe my first impression of Dr. Egnor’s genius was incorrect, and perhaps Dr. Egnor should pick another example and see if he can do better next time.

I won’t hold my breath, though, as he appears to have moved on to abusing logic while whining about Mark Chu-Carroll again.

I’ll let Mark deal with that one. Orac’s work here is done–for now.