The Intersection

One of the things I have tried to do, as a journalist who’s been cast in the role of a defender of science ever since the publication of The Republican War on Science, is to take on some of the attackers. That’s why I agreed to debate Jonathan Wells this coming Tuesday night, and it’s why I have debated a number of other folks as well, like Tom Bethell. I feel like it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Moreover, I can’t fairly criticize the scientific community for failing to engage, as I have done repeatedly, if I myself am not engaging.

So I want to thank everyone who posted comments to my last two posts about Wells; there’s truly a lot of food for thought there. It will be of immense help to me. Now with this post, in anticipation of the debate, I want to get a little deeper into the issues.

First of all, nobody yet linked this piece, by Kevin Padian and Alan Gishlick, which takes a fairly devastating look at how Wells’ last book Icons of Evolution distorted and misrepresented the science on evolution, specifically “misleading by the omission of important information.” Now that I myself have been through about half of Wells’ new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, the Padian/Gishlick critique really rings true to me. This in particular is priceless:

Wells reminds us of those kids who used to write to the letters page of Superman comics many years ago. “Dear Editor,” they would write, “you made a boo-boo! On page 6 you colored Superman’s cape green, but it should be red!” Okay, kid, mistakes happen, but did it really affect the story? Wells cannot hurt the story of evolution; like a petulant child, he can only throw tantrums.

I actually thought Wells’ first chapter, in which he laid out his definitions, was not all that bad. It had the polished style and carefully PR-tailored arguments that mark the Discovery Institute as by far the premiere hub of anti-evolutionism in this country. Sure, the chapter was misleading in places, but it was tightly argued–and I liked that Wells started out by defining his terms.

But once the actual debunking of evolution begins, Wells quickly falls into the kind of stuff that Padian and Gishlick were criticizing. Let me give you some quotes to react to for yourselves, so you can see how misleading they are:

1. Of course, one can assume that Darwin’s theory is true, and then try to fit the fossil evidence into the picture suggested by that theory. There’s nothing unreasonable about this–but let’s state the reasoning up front: Theory rules, even without evidence. Fossils cannot provide evidence for descent with modification even when they’re from the same species, much less when they’re from entirely different species. Any claim to the contrary is just “a pernicious illusion” or “a bedtime story.” (p. 22-23)

2. Darwinists argue that the remarkable similarity of developmental genes shared by different animals points to their common ancestry, though that doesn’t explain how a relatively simple ancestral organism would have acquired all the developmental genes that are now found in its various and complex descendants. Even if the similarity of developmental genes were evidence for common ancestry, it would still constitute a paradox for neo-Darwinism. If genes control development, and radically different animals have similar developmental genes, then why are the animals so different? (p. 33)

3. Darwinists claim that all species have descended from a common ancestor through variation and selection, but they can’t point to a single observed instance in which even one species has originated in this way. Never in the field of science have so many based so much on so little. (p. 59)

There is pages and pages and pages of this kind of stuff. And then the most staggering quote of them all:

4. Thousands of articles have been published in hundreds of science journals, but as evidence for Darwinism’s grand claim they are just one long bluff. (p. 65)

To me, this is tantamount to saying, let’s reject the entire scientific process. Wells, a scientist himself, is throwing out the entire literature. One of the reasons I published The Republican War on Science is that I felt these kinds of sweeping attacks simply had to be stood up to; reading The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design makes me surer than ever of that conviction.

In any case, I don’t think 4 needs any further refutation, but let’s hear your reactions to Wells’ quotes 1-3 above….

Comments

  1. #1 lee allison
    August 20, 2006

    It is important to not accept the Discovery Institute premise that science is on trial. In the political world, it is understood that when you’re explaining, you’re losing.

    Your opening statement ought to put ID on the defense, forcing them to defend their radical plan to overturn 500 years of scientific process and the beliefs of most mainstream religion to have government mandate their sect’s beliefs into our schools.

  2. #2 afarensis
    August 20, 2006

    Quote one is based, largely, on Wells’ critique of homology. Since he doesn’t think we can establish homology of a trait he is led to deny our ability to determine trait polarity and ancestor-descendent relationships. Undermine that and quote one will be easy to refute.

  3. #3 somnilista, FCD
    August 20, 2006

    How does it feel to know that, by debating an IDiot, you will be standing beside the illustrious Dr. Duh?

  4. #4 Jeb Baugh
    August 20, 2006

    If genes control development, and radically different animals have similar developmental genes, then why are the animals so different? (p. 33)

    This quote astounds me. Look at humans. We share the same genes and we’re all different (even indentical twins). He clearly has no clue about gene expression. Is he really this stupid, or is he evil?

  5. #5 Gerry L
    August 20, 2006

    “2. Darwinists argue that the remarkable similarity of developmental genes shared by different animals points to their common ancestry”

    It occurs to me that this statement (just as an example) is carefully written to appeal to people inclined to doubt evolution. It is vague enough that it can be understood to mean that there are a few scattered examples of the similarity that “Darwinists” latch on to. He can’t argue against the volume and consistency of the evidence, so he makes it sound like a fluke.

    I agreed with Allison. Put ID on the defensive from the get-go. Construct all your talking points to show the weakness of Wells’ arguments.

    Hope to see you in Portland in September. (Now I’m off to the library to pick up Michael Shermer’s new book.)

  6. #6 Josh
    August 20, 2006

    1: This is called “making predictions.” It’s how science is practiced. You say “If X is true, we should find Y.” You then find the Y which is least likely if X is not true, and see if Y happens. If so, you increase your confidence in the theory. If it isn’t true, it falsifies your theory, and you have to start over. That millions of fossils and millions of known modern species all fit into the predictions of evolutionary biology is a powerful statement of the theories’ strength.

    2: This again gets us to the predictions of the theory. If common descent were false, you’d expect that the developmental process would be as different as the end results. That it isn’t is a powerful affirmation of the theory’s prediction.

    3: Many instances of speciation actually have been observed. My personal favorite are the sticklebacks that Dolph Schluter works on in BC. Dozens of glacial lakes have one or two forms of oceanic sticklebacks. In larger lakes, there will be a form that lives in the middle of the lake, and another that lives in the shallows. In smaller lakes, only one form will be found. Genetic studies show that each lake represents an independent invasion and massive parallel evolution in each lake. Since we know when the glaciers receded, we know when it happened. And the same pattern exists in Japan and Scotland. Schluter dug an artificial lake and put hybridized offspring into them (hybridized to increase genetic variability). After a year, they were already producing a bimodal population, one group adapted to the shallows, the other to the deeper parts. The genetics of the changes are increasingly well developed, and the whole thing was in Science’s 2005 “Breakthrough of the Year”.

  7. #7 Corkscrew
    August 20, 2006

    IMO, the key point about those quotes that leaves Wells wide open to attack is the fact that they completely fail to address the concrete, testable, confirmed predictions that evolution has made.

    Evolutionary biologists could tell without looking that humans would have vitamin C pseudogenes in their genome. Evolutionary biologists could tell without looking that one human chromosome would bear a strong resemblance to two chimp chromosomes. Evolutionary biologists could guess Tiktaalik’s location, age and approximate anatomy without so much as sticking a shovel in the ground. And then they wemt away and confirmed that they were right anyway, because that’s how science works.

    That’s not how ID works. ID makes grand claims, it announces secret research programs, it organises PR campaigns and attempts to engineer local elections. It doesn’t make predictions. It doesn’t make any effort to test the validity of its claims against the real world. The one concrete, testable prediction the ID community has made – in twenty years! – was recently proven to be complete bull. That’s not exactly a glowing record.

  8. #8 Dark Tent
    August 20, 2006

    “Thousands of articles have been published in hundreds of science journals, but as evidence for Darwinism’s grand claim they are just one long bluff.” — Wells

    “To me, this is tantamount to saying, let’s reject the entire scientific process.” — Mooney

    Yes, indeed. Discovery Institute’s Michael Behe even admited as much in the Dover trial

    “Under cross examination, ID proponent Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, admitted his definition of “theory” was so broad it would also include astrology.”

    “Astrology is scientific theory, courtroom told” 19 October 2005 NewScientist.com news service, by Celeste Biever

    http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8178

    These people realize they can’t win playing by the accepted rules of science, so they attempt to change the rules to suit their fancy (or is it “fancy their suit”?) — half way through the game.

    If these people were poker players (“one long bluff”), they would have been run out of town (or worse) a long time ago.

  9. #9 Dark Tent
    August 20, 2006

    After statement number 4 above, it is patently absurd to argue the science of evolution with Mr. Wells.

    If Wells really wished to argue science, he has ample opportunity to do so in the scientific journals.

    So where are his peer-reviewed papers in the scientific journals discussing the issues in numbers 1-3 above?

    As you indicate, Wells’ statement indicates that he has rejected the scientific process.

    He (and others) have attempted to replace science with “The supernatural” (ID), plain and simple.

  10. #10 jay odenbaugh
    August 20, 2006

    1. Wells is being extraordinarily sloppy here. We can determine phylogenetic relationships from a variety of independent means (i.e., comparative anatomy, molecular data, etc.). We can then independently corroborate those hypotheses with fossil data. Similarly, in other instances, we can start with fossil data and then go to other independent types of data. When Wells writes, “Of course, one can assume that Darwin’s theory is true, and then try to fit the fossil evidence into the picture suggested by that theory”, he is just being childish.

    2. Wells writes, “If genes control development, and radically different animals have similar developmental genes, then why are the animals so different?” He knows better than this given his background. Suppose two organisms have exactly the same developmental genes and suppose they are morphologically different. How can this occur? One way this can occur is through when those genes are “turned on and off”; a basic mathematical point in effect.

    3. Wells is just wrong – there are plenty of observed instances of allopatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation.

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/speciation.html

    It is odd that he would say such a thing since evolutionists have claimed the opposite over and over. The only thing a respectable scholar could do is to challenge the many, many examples systematically which he never does.

    Also, suppose Wells was correct that there were no observed instances of speciation; in other words, we had never seen it occur in real-time. This would not challenge evolution since there is heaps of circumstantial evidence for speciation as well.

    When you read Well’s arguments it is kind of embarrassing…surely IDers can do better than this.

  11. #11 Brian S.
    August 20, 2006

    Quote #3 is a repeat of the false claim that speciation has never been observed. Refutation here:

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html

    I suggest that Chris be ready with examples of observed speciation both in the wild and in the lab.

    FWIW, I’ve been interested in petri-dish speciation of bacteria. I think it would be possible for high school students to experimentally demonstrate speciation in the course of several weeks, something that could be an effective participatory experience that refutes creationism. More info here:

    http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/2005/08/speciation-in-classroom-petri-dish.html

  12. #12 Karl
    August 20, 2006

    About 3):
    First, since most speciation takes place over a long time period during which time the intermediates disappear, he will dismiss all of those examples. The alternative is to explain about ring species for which an entire chain of variations exist.
    Second, all of the examples (sticklebacks, ring species, finches) will be dismissed as merely microevolution, or as just variation within species. So you must first make sure that you have agreement as to what exactly is the definition of “species”.

  13. #13 Michael Hopkins
    August 20, 2006

    Never in the field of science have so many based so much on so little.

    Wells ain’t good enough to shine Churchill’s shoes. Unlike Wells, Churchill was a man of integrity.

  14. #14 Dark Tent
    August 20, 2006

    2>
    Even if the similarity of developmental genes were evidence for common ancestry, it would still constitute a paradox for neo-Darwinism. If genes control development, and radically different animals have similar developmental genes, then why are the animals so different?” — Wells

    Here’s an explanation:

    Fossils, Genes, and Embryos
    David M. Kingsley, Ph.D. (Stanford U, Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher)
    http://www.hhmi.org/lectures/2005_summaries.html

    “Recent studies have identified important genes that direct embryonic development. Specific developmental regulators control the formation of particular tissues or help define larger body regions, such as heads and tails, backs and bellies, forelimbs and hindlimbs, or the left and right sides of the body.”

    “Many key developmental genes are conserved among animals that look very different. A diversity of body forms can emerge from changing where and when these shared developmental regulators are expressed. [emphasis added] For example, fins and limbs have been extensively modified in many different animals. Major changes in the fins of stickleback fish occur by altering the expression pattern of a major developmental control gene involved in hindlimb development. Intriguingly, fish evolving independently in widely separated waters have alterations in the same basic genetic and developmental elements. Fossils suggest that similar developmental mechanisms were used in animals that evolved millions of years ago.

    The great extent of shared developmental machinery reveals a deep common ancestry for living forms and makes it possible to discover general rules of evolution from highly detailed studies of diverse organisms.”
    [end Kinsley quote]

  15. #15 Dark Tent
    August 20, 2006

    1) Fossils cannot provide evidence for descent with modification even when they’re from the same species, much less when they’re from entirely different species. Any claim to the contrary is just “a pernicious illusion” or “a bedtime story.” — Wells

    Here’s one example of Descent with Modification, supported by evidence for an inetrmeiate form from the fossil record:

    From Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science by the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998).
    http://darwin.nap.edu/books/0309064066/html/28.html

    “scorpionflies (Mecoptera) and true flies (Diptera) have enough similarities that entomologists consider them to be closely related. Scorpionflies have four wings of about the same size, and true flies have a large front pair of wings but the back pair is replaced by small club-shaped structures. If two-winged flies evolved from scorpionfly-like ancestors, as comparative anatomy suggests, then an intermediate true fly with four wings should have existed–and in 1976 fossils of such a fly were discovered. Furthermore, geneticists have found that the number of wings in flies can be changed through mutations in a single gene.”
    [end NAS quote]

    The executive summary that was written to accompany the above reference includes the National Academy of Sciences definition of “scientific theory” which ID fails to meet (the one that Behe was confronted with in the Dover trial):

    “Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can
    incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

    “The contention that evolution should be taught as a “theory, not as a fact” confuses the common use of these
    words with the scientific use. In science, theories do not turn into facts through the accumulation of evidence.
    Rather, theories are the end points of science. They are understandings that develop from extensive observation,
    experimentation, and creative reflection. They incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested
    hypotheses, and logical inferences. In this sense, evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific
    theories we have.”
    [end NAS quote]

  16. #16 John Timmer
    August 20, 2006

    For 1: Science constantly evaluates theories against existing evidence. Evidence that is consistent with a theory is viewed as supporting it. The fossil record is thoroughly consistent with the theory of evolution, and so supports it. Any claim to the contrary is misrepresenting the process of science.

    For 2: I think this was handled well above: all humans share the same genes, yet are morphologically diverse. Clearly, differential regulation of genes produces different results. Many lines of evidence suggest that changes in gene regulation are critical to evolution – see, for example, this just released paper:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nature05113.html

    For 3: Again, this is just ignoring reality, such as the examples cited above. It’s also making unrealistic assumptions about how often speciation events should occur – it’s amazing that we’ve seen so many, given that we’ve only been looking for them for 150 years or so, and only within a small subset of the biosphere.

  17. #17 L
    August 20, 2006

    If genes control development, and radically different animals have similar developmental genes, then why are the animals so different?

    It may be pointed out that, grossly, similarity between genes correlates with morphological similarity of compared species: the more similar two species are from each other, the greater similarity there is between their DNA sequences compared to a third species (this is the power of phylogeny afterall). This is what similarity is all about, and not the proofs he asks for in #3 and #4…

  18. #18 Ick of the East
    August 20, 2006

    …..1. Of course, one can assume that Darwin’s theory is true, and then try to fit the fossil evidence into the picture suggested by that theory. There’s nothing unreasonable about this–but let’s state the reasoning up front:

    Why not ask Wells to state HIS reasoning up front?

    “Of course, one can assume that the Rev. Moon is the Messiah……”

    It works both ways. And might shock a number of good Christians in the audience into listening to your arguments more closely.
    .

  19. #19 Ed Darrell
    August 20, 2006

    I apologize for coming late. I have one thing that might be useful at some point.

    Have you read the chapter on moths in Icons? Did you notice that each person he footnotes has called him a liar (sometimes in about that many words) and said Wells mischaracterizes their research?

    When he submitted material to the Texas State Board of Education on that chapter, in 2003, he included an additional footnote, to Judith Hooper’s Of Moths and Men. When I pointed out that each footnoted person had denied his claims, he said he had new footnotes, and pointed to the one to Hooper. So I bought Hooper’s book and read it. She points out that every moth guy agrees that Kettlewell’s research shows natural selection in action, and she spends a couple of pages talking about how they all expressed fear that creationists would take her book and twist it to mean that there is disagreement over evolution. She noted that would be stupid.

    And Wells footnoted her, claiming she said the moth guys say there are problems with evolution theory.

    It’s a pretty bravura performance, if getting the stuff exactly ass backwards on every single footnoted source can be considered a goal.

    So I think you might detail this upfront — the letters from Coyne and Majerus are available on the web, I think — and ask why anyone should grant him any credence at all? Is this his normal practice, to say exactly the opposite in his book of what the people he footnotes said?

    You know, if he’d turned that in as a paper in one of my classes, I’d have flunked him.

  20. #20 Scott
    August 21, 2006

    Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but I’ve got a different take on this comment:

    “2. Darwinists argue that the remarkable similarity of developmental genes shared by different animals points to their common ancestry, though that doesn’t explain how a relatively simple ancestral organism would have acquired all the developmental genes that are now found in its various and complex descendants.”

    This seems to come from the IDist notion that no new information can be created by evolution. When a scientist says that “two different animals have genes related to a common ancestor”, we understand that to mean that today’s genes “evolved from” the genes of the common ancestor in two separate directions to give today’s two different (but related) animals. When the IDist hears those words, it means to him that the common ancestor had to *first* have had *all* the genes for *both* descendants, and then each descendent lost functionality (ie became specialized), since (d)evolution (if true) can only “lose” information. Since the “simple” ancestor couldn’t have both sets of genese, such a notion is obviously absurd, and therefore the notion of common decent must be absurd too.

    At least it sounds to me like that’s what he’s saying. I don’t have the context of “pg 33” to know if that’s where he’s headed with this.

  21. #21 Fred Bortz
    August 21, 2006

    I have found the arguments of Jeffrey Schwartz compelling. Here’s my review of his Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes, and the Emergence of Species (Wiley, 432 pages, $27.95, 1999).

    It was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and posted online at http://www.scienceshelf.com/SuddenOrigins.htm

    In Sudden Origins, University of Pittsburgh Anthropology Professor Jeffrey Schwartz has produced a book that will challenge — even overwhelm — its readers with a wealth of detail. Yet if they can stay the course, they will be rewarded with a thought-provoking new view of the history of life on Earth.

    “Evolution is not a theory,” argues Schwartz. “It is a phenomenon. What evolutionists … strive to understand are the processes that make evolution tick. This is not an easy task, because evolutionary events occur over greater periods of time than any scientist, or generations of scientists, could observe.”

    Without taking on so-called “creation science” directly, Schwartz demonstrates that evolutionary theory is itself evolving, as all good scientific theories do in the face of new knowledge. What creation scientists cite as the theory’s weaknesses, Schwartz presents as its strengths.

    With a thorough detailing of the history of this century-and-a-half-long quest, even including notations in Darwin’s original notebooks, he traces the development of our current understanding. That understanding emerges not as Darwinian doctrine, but rather as the result of a rich scientific conversation among colleagues and adversaries, all of whom share a common goal if not a common point of view: understanding the origin and development of, and relationships among, the diverse creatures that have lived on our planet.

    A recurring theme in that conversation is one that creation scientists often seize upon. If life evolves gradually, where are all the “missing links”? Although that term conjures images of “ape-men,” the challenge to the theory is much more serious than that. The fossil record is riddled with gaps.

    Life forms evolve, it seems, in a kind of punctuated equilibrium. Successful species change slowly and gradually over millions of years, then new species originate suddenly, arising in dramatically different forms with, in many cases, no intermediate examples.

    Scientists have proposed many explanations for the absence of transitional creatures, none of which have been totally plausible. They have tended to divide into two camps on that issue. One group has insisted that the intermediate examples will be found; the other has argued that geographic separation and environmental change drives rapid speciation.

    Schwartz sides with the latter group and tackles two important unanswered questions in his “New Evolution” as to the underlying cause of novel characteristics that lead quickly to new species: (1) “How will novelty look when it does appear?” and (2) “How does more than one individual come to have a novel structure?”

    The answer, he writes, lies in a class of genes called homeobox, whose importance was not fully appreciated until recently. These genes regulate the development of creatures from embryo through adult. Mutations in these genes propagate invisibly through the species as recessive and unexpressed, says Schwartz, until they are common enough that some individuals inherit them from both parents. That leads to fully developed novel features. Within a few generations, a new species emerges.

    To Schwartz, this is the origin of species: “(T)he same kinds of structural building blocks are found among a wildly diverse array of organisms — from yeasts to humans — that have fashioned the resultant structures differently,” thanks mainly to the differences between their developmental sequence. As a result, “seemingly distantly related and very dissimilar groups we call invertebrates and vertebrates are, in their genes, much closer than scientists even ten years ago could have imagined.” One developmental sequence leads to animals with skeletons inside their musculature; another leads to the opposite arrangement.

    “Given the potential of homeobox genes to be fully rather than partially expressed,” Schwartz concludes, “we can appreciate why ‘missing links’ are so elusive in the fossil record. They probably did not exist.”

  22. #22 Dark Tent
    August 21, 2006

    Arguing that “it is improbable that natural selection acting on random mutations could ever have produced higher organisms from single celled organisms” is one thing.

    But arguing that “no new information can be created by evolution” basically denies the reality of genetic mutation (which is an extremely well-documented fact).

    If this is what Wells believes, then all Chris needs to do is ask him what he thinks of genetic mutation.

  23. #23 pough
    August 21, 2006

    When creationists say “speciation”, they are never talking about species. At least, they might be using that word, but like Vizzini it does not mean what they think it means. It might be useful to give Wells (and all the creatiolisteners) a little lesson in taxonomy. Microevolution will pretty much always be speciation, won’t it? They expect a new species to be a new genus/family/order and then they’re surprised when a species is simply a species.

    That’s hardly a failing on the part of evolutionary theory.

  24. #24 GCT
    August 21, 2006

    Regarding #4, one of the current complaints of the ID crowd is this idea of literature bluffing. It has come up with their crying and gnashing of teeth over the Dover decision. Specifically, they claim that the papers presented to Behe on the evolution of the immune system were a literature bluff to try and discredit Behe on the stand. Just something to look out for.

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