The Loom

An Odious Mixture

Mark Twain once discovered to his horror that his story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” had been hideously translated into French. He went so far as to publish the original story, the translation, and his own retranslation of the French back to English to show just how badly it had been abused. “I claim that I never put together such an odious mixture of bad grammar and delirium tremens in my life,” he declared.

I was reminded of Twain’s experience when a reader drew my attention to a creationist attack published yeserday against an article I recently wrote for National Geographic. It is always a weirdly compelling experience to read such stuff. It’s as if my words were dragged through some creationist machine and chopped up into…well, into something, although it’s hard to quite see what it is.

What is clear is that my article–which explored recent research into the evolution of complex traits–has really gotten creationists worked up. In November, Casey Luskin from the Discovery Institute, the House of Intelligent Design, wrote a sprawling attack full of confusion and misleading claims. For me at least, it reached a climax of absurdity when Luskin posed the question, “Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?”

Now, the Internet makes it easy for anyone to publish something that they immediately regret typing. I’ve certainly done that a few times myself. But just Tuesday, Luskin approvingly quoted himself asking the Great Pinto Question. They’re sticking to it, believe it or not.

The next day came Answers in Genesis. Answers in Genesis is a more old-fashioned creationist organization than the Discovery Institute, the sort that claims that dinosaurs lived alongside people a couple thousand years ago. They’ve gone after me before, but the latest attack is unusual in its lurid intensity.

The author is one “Dr. Mark Blais, Liberty University.” Dr. Blais is a cipher. On the biology department web site, there is only a “Mark Blaise” listed, with no professional details. A search for either name along with Liberty University on Google scholar got me nowhere. What I do know is that Liberty University, run by Jerry Falwell, requires its biologists to be young-earth Creationists. (Any creationism-watchers recognize the name?)

The shadowy Dr. Blais is here to tell you that my goal in writing my article was not to describe interesting new research published in the world’s leading peer-reviewed biology journals, but instead “to take the concept of complexity and imply it is a result of the toolkit of nature rather than from the spoken Word of the Creator.”

Apparently, I did this by becoming a food stylist.

The subtleness with which this is packaged for public consumption rivals the restaurant and food industry. How delicious the food looks in the advertisement or on the commercial. Hours are spent to make the food appear pleasing to the sense of sight, that our sense of taste may be so stimulated as to cause us to go out and buy the product.

But beware of this elegantly prepared feast, dear reader! You may expect to bite into eternal truth–you know, “the truth of the origins of species, genetic diversity, and design in all living things in the book of Genesis,” as Dr. Blais(e) puts it. Instead, your meal is spiked with qualifications and uncertainties. “How factual are statements that have words such as ‘presumably,’ ‘may,’ ‘may have,’ ‘think,’ ‘kind of,’ ‘yet to determine,’ and ‘probably’?” asks Dr. Blais.

I can only wonder what sort of research Dr. Blais got his Ph.D. in. Is it one in which scientists intepret new results with nary a “may,” “may have” or “think”? In fact, that is what science–all science–is about: finding new evidence and pondering its significance, and then going out to find more evidence to test that pondering.

The further Dr. Blais wades into the article, the more of his ignorance he reveals. He refers, for example, to “Craig Venter of Celera Genomics.” Venter parted ways with Celera five years ago. I describe body-building genes shared by flies and humans in the article, which prompts Dr. Blais to write, “Zimmer has suggested the transition of fly larva to man with the only evidence being that we have nearly identical genes for some structures.” News flash: we are not descended from fly larva, just as we are not descended from chimpanzees.

Dr. Blais claims repeatedly that I don’t describe how simple ancestors could evolve complex traits such as heads or multicellular bodies. In fact, I did. Genes can duplicate and then diverge, for example. Groups of genes can be switched on in different places in the body. But Dr. Blais doesn’t even mention these processes. He also fails to mention the evidence that this occurred. The closest invertebrate relatives of vertebrates are headless, but the swollen tip of their nerve cord is built by genes that are related to the genes that build our heads in the same spaital pattern. That’s what you’d expect if gene duplication and redeployment build the vertebrate head.

After a while, things just get goofy. Dr. Blais quotes Neil Shubin, a paleontologist who discovered a transitional fish fossil called Tiktaalik with limb-like fins. “We knew that some fish in the Middle Devonian (375 million years ago) were experimenting with their fins in ways that would allow for the evolution of the weight bearing structure of tetrapod limbs.”

Shubin is speaking metaphorically here. A number of fossils of fish at the time show fins that had evolved into various limb-like anatomies. The process was like a series of experiments, many of which failed. But Dr. Blais seems to have gotten a picture in his head of fish in lab coats. “How do they know fish are capable of experimenting? What has science come to?”

I can do no better than to quote the great Mark Twain in his outrage at his French translation: “I think it is the worst I ever saw; and yet the French are called a polished nation. If I had a boy that put sentences together as they do, I would polish him to some purpose.”

Update 1/18: A couple people have commented and emailed to me that Twain’s retranslation was just a joke about chauvinism, a la Stephen Colbert. Any Twain scholars out there?


  1. #1 Thinker
    January 18, 2007

    This creationist screed, so like many of the others we have seen, reminds me of another Twain quote:

    “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

  2. #2 Richard Harris, FCD
    January 18, 2007

    What idiocy!

    I’ve been in a debate with the ‘head’ Creationist in the UK, Prof Andy MacIntosh (of Leeds U, & ‘Truth in Science’). I’m also in a debate about evolution & ethics with religionists in my local free newspaper, The Blackmore Vale Magazine.

    What I’ve noticed with these people is that they only seem to be able to deal in terms of certainty. I’ve been quoted, but they’ve left out the modifier ‘maybe’, thereby making my apparent statement foolish. At first, I thought it was a deliberate ploy to wear me out. Now I think that the religious mind can only think in terms of certainty.

  3. #3 Brett
    January 18, 2007

    Perhaps the Twain story was not the best choice as a point of comparison, for it is Twain who impishly makes a hash of the French in his “retranslation”. I would speculate that he may have even written all three versions himself.

  4. #4 CCP
    January 18, 2007

    …we are not descended from chimpanzees

    If we took the Wayback Machine way back to visit the population of apes that was the true common ancestor of modern humans and modern chimpanzees, wouldn’t we point and say “check out those chimpanzees”?

  5. #5 cleek
    January 18, 2007

    wouldn’t we point and say “check out those chimpanzees”?

    maybe. we might even say “wow, look at those crazy monkeys!” or “hey, check out the big brain on that lemur!” but that wouldn’t mean they actually were chimpanzees, or monkeys, or lemurs. conversational shorthand isn’t the same as taxonomy.

  6. #6 Jeff
    January 18, 2007

    I’ll have to agree with Brett that the Twain story is not a good example. Twain goes on about the difference in grammar, which would be just as easy for a frenchman to do to english speakers.

    Also, the version at: does not match the one that Twain uses, but that could be other reasons, like several versions published, etc… The linked version is a much closer translation of the original story.

  7. #7 Carl Zimmer
    January 18, 2007

    CCP: I don’t quite follow the question. Chimpanzees are a particular species, one that emerged sometime in the past couple million years. Our common ancestor with living chimpanzees lived roughly six million years ago. So if someone said, check out those chimpanzees, they’d be wrong. If you mean that our common ancestor looked like chimpanzees, I’d say that as far as scientists can tell, there would be some superficial similarities (brain size, for example), but also significant differences.

  8. #8 J.C.
    January 18, 2007

    Concerning the Neil Shubin quote, it seems to me that scientists do themselves a terrible disservice by using this form of “metaphorical shorthand” to describe evolution in action. The average person views this description as if it were some sort of conscious decision on the fish’s part to evolve. I’ve had many people come at me with utter disbelief because of that type of description. A more careful wording of their discoveries would help immensely in conveying the ideas of evolution to the masses.

  9. #9 CCP
    January 18, 2007

    OK. Sure, if we stipulate that “chimpanzee” = Pan troglodytes.
    I guess I think of it as a generic term (and not necessarily just the genus Pan), as in the title of Diamond’s book, and in this article about fossil teeth of, perhaps, an extinct species:

    Which goes to show that one person’s taxonomy is another’s conversational shorthand. This is exactly why Linnean binomials are still around.

    By the way, Carl, while I have the opportunity I’d like to say that I am a great admirer of your writing (I’m assigning some of your stuff in one of my courses this semester).

  10. #10 Dougman
    January 18, 2007

    A week or so ago a different critique of the National Geographic piece was published by a different creation science organization.

    BTW Carl what are your educational/scientific credentials (besides research for articles, books and interviews). You are always quick to identify and/or criticize the credentials of others, yet try as I might I’ve never been able to find yours.

  11. #11 Ross
    January 18, 2007

    >BTW Carl what are your educational/scientific credentials

    This is not important. Carl is not a scientific researcher but a journalist who explains complex things in a manner that is understandable to the ordinary person (well, except creationists). This is a very useful function, as scientific papers tend to be written just for other scientists, and assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader – Carl fills in those gaps. What IS important, and is always available, is the qualifications of the scientists whose work Carl writes about.

    The qualifications of Carl’s critics are important, as these people are claiming to have experience that enables them to make reasoned criticism and judgements about the scietific work Carl reports on. And, it apperas, they have no such credibility.

  12. #12 Mike
    January 18, 2007

    The attack on Carl’s article at AIG identifies its author as “Dr. Mark Blais, Liberty University” (and not simply as “Mark Blais”) as if the “Dr” and “Liberty University” are marks of credibility on the issue at hand (at this point you should be noting the not-coincidental similarity between “credentials” and “credibility”). Mark Blais is claiming credentials and thus it is appropriate to ask about the nature of those credentials.

  13. #13 Carl Zimmer
    January 18, 2007

    Dougman: I majored in English at Yale. I also took science classes such as physics, where the pre-meds and the engineers wondered what someone like me was doing there. That does not make me a scientist, but I am able to learn about scientific research and write about it.

    Do I do so accurately? Well, the fact-checkers at National Geographic and other magazines have not banned me. In fact, I’ve gotten prizes for my writing from scientific organizations, and my books have gotten some very nice reviews from scientists. I have not, to my knowledge, gotten a review along the lines of, “Carl Zimmer just makes stuff up.” You can judge for yourself by looking at the book section of my web site.

    Ultimately, however, this is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Someone attacked my article with arguments that are wrong, and I explained why. You have not explained why I was wrong. You also claim that I am quick to criticize the credentials of others, without giving an example. In this particular post, I wanted to give readers an idea of who this Dr. Mark Blais is, but when I used the regular research methods I use to learn about scientists, I found almost nothing. Saying that biologists at Liberty University are required to be young-earth creationists is a statement of fact, so it’s hard to see what’s wrong with pointing this fact out.

  14. #14 Matt
    January 18, 2007

    At first, I thought it was a deliberate ploy to wear me out. Now I think that the religious mind can only think in terms of certainty.

    I can say with almost total certainly that Richard Harris has it right. 🙂 I grew up taught (or at least told things that strongly implied) that a) evolution was a lie and b) it was a carefully packaged one at that, designed to lure people away from the truth of the Bible. Somehow I managed to choose a biophysics major while still in the grip of that thinking. Imagine my surprise when not a single professor mentioned this war on the Bible, or even paid notice to the creationist “point of view”. Ulitimately the evidence convinced me, but the tone it was delivered in – presenting support for theory, ignoring the objections of the ignorant, not getting dragged into a so-called war – was a big part of it, too.

    Belief in anti-evolution creationism I lost quickly on entering college. But the mindset of “certainty’ took me a much, much longer time to shake off. I think the humble attitude of uncertainty is science’s strongest weapon in this fight. Crap, there I go myself with the war metaphors.

  15. #15 GueSt
    January 18, 2007

    Carl, I admire your patientce. I was impressed by your mini series on the Mooney treatment. Now again 1000 carefully chosen words (wasted?) on some Dr. Blais only to start a discussion on Twain and be asked about your credentials!

    May time give you a thicker skin towards the Luskins and Blaisies so that you can make more rewarding use of your time.

  16. #16 Steviepinhead
    January 18, 2007

    Though communicating the findings of science in an accurate, readable, and engaging way is always your foremost purpose, Carl, one telling index of how “davastatingly” successful (from the creationist point of view) you are at doing this is the degree of reaction you elicit.

    CLearly, your Nat. Geo. article was a palpable hit!

    And such silliness affords us the extra pleasure of reading your calm but oh-so-droll rebuttals to their shrill tomfoolery.

    Maybe the cuisine metaphor had something going for it: Carl serves up a fetching full-course gastronomic delight.

    Then, creationist wait-bot comes stumbling in, flailing about, and glassware and flatware go clattering everywhere.

    Carl re-enters with aplomb, things are smoothly sorted out, and a superb flaming dessert appears.

    Everyone goes home replete with fresh memories of excellent dining. No one recalls the minor incident involving the kitchen troll.

    (There is a “spaital” for “spatial” in the vertebrate head paragraph, though…)

  17. #17 Brett
    January 19, 2007

    It appears that the French translation is genuine, but fully competent, even “admirable” and written in “faultless French”, according to the biography by Archibald Henderson . My French isn’t good enough to know if “faultless French” means that she sanitised the parole of the original, a possibility. Anyhow, she takes some shots at Twain and those who enjoy his humour, and his contrived retranslation is clearly in retribution.

    PS, hope I’m not distracting too much from the main point of the post, which strikes me as valid and well made.

  18. #18 Bojangles
    January 20, 2007

    Hi, this comment is not about the post (although I believe that ID people most of the time do what you described: distort science).

    I was just reading some books of statistics, and a question came to me: “What is the P value of evolutionary biology theory?” … I have no idea, and I guess I do not expect you to have it also… but if you could just take a guess, what would it be? The biologically acceptable of 0.05 or other?

    Congratulations for a great blog!

  19. #19 Russell
    January 20, 2007

    Bojangles asks, “What is the P value of evolutionary biology theory?”

    If you’re asking about I think you are, then it is a statistical measure that only makes sense with regard to certain kinds of experiments, and there’s simply no way to answer that with regard to a scientific theory like evolution or quantum mechanics. My own view is that those two are the theories of modern science that are on the surest ground, in the sense that they both have an overwhelming amount of observational test, and any future theory that replaces either very likely will incorporate much of its predecessor in such a way that they will be viewed as revisions rather than revolutions. I won’t be surprised in fifty years if general relativity gets replaced by something newer and better, though I am not at all positioned to say what. But evolution? Well, it will increase in breadth and depth. It still will be evolution. And the religious wingnuts still will complain about it.

    Just my two cents.

  20. #20 RAFH
    January 20, 2007

    Actually, there may be a mistake somewhere because when I used the Liberty University people finder, they did find Mark Blais and note association with the Biology Dept. However there is no indication of a Doctorate.

    As noted, the Biology Dept. does list a Mark Blaise bug with no data, one of only two with that distinction, the other being the Departmental Secretary.

    So, to be fair, Mr. Blais(e) may exist.

  21. #21 ben
    January 21, 2007

    Blais/Blaise wrote: “How do they know fish are capable of experimenting? What has science come to?”

    I simply can’t believe somebody could misunderstand so obvious a metaphor as to write such silliness.

    Kudos on your patience Carl.

  22. #22 Kent Northcote
    January 22, 2007

    You know, it’s almost deliciously ironic the mental inference systems responsible for the pervasive beliefs of creationism evolved as a result of natural selection. Owning a brain calibrated to deal with time frames of days and years ill prepares one to understand processes outside those time frames.

  23. #23 Les Lane
    January 25, 2007

    I worry little about credentials of those who interpret primary scientific literature insightfully. On the other hand my curiosity is piqued if I suspect credentials belong on Google moron rather than Google scholar.

  24. #24 Stephen
    February 1, 2007

    I used to think that Creationism was harmless. Now, i’ve found out, that my mother-in-law actually gives money to these IDiots. Know what happens if you feed the mice in your basement? You get more mice!

    Yes. My mother-in-law is one of those old widows you feel sorry for when they are taken in by flim-flam.

  25. #25 Mark Blais
    December 30, 2007

    I’m Mark Blais, not the one in question, no PHD, I drive a truck. If you expect me to believe that I may have evolved from a maggot, you should have no problem accepting my belief in God.

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