The Loom

Of Bacteria and Throw Pillows

i-5a5292c321cd03e1b47410c634fff7c3-throw pillow.jpgThe strange thing about E. coli, as I explain in my book Microcosm, is that it has played a central part not just in the modern science of life, but in the political conflicts over life. It may come as a surprise that a humble gut germ could get involved in culture wars. But you need only consider how much attention creationists have been lavishing on E. coli in recent years, hoping to use it as evidence that life did not evolve–that it was created or designed instead.

Originally, creationists claimed that structures in E. coli showed clear evidence of being created–they were complex, made up of lots of parts, and seemed to work like manmade machines. The flagellum–the tail E. coli spins hundreds of times a second–was one of their favorite examples. It reminded them of car engines, of outboard motors. This sort of thinking reached its climax a couple years back in the Dover Trial, in which parents claimed their school board was introducing religion into school in the guise of “intelligent design.” One lawyer joked that it should have been called the Flagellum Trial. In journalist Lauri Lebo’s excellent new account of the trial, The Devil in Dover, she recounts how one of the plaintiff parents came dressed as a flagellum, with a little tail poking out of her pants.

The school board lost, and in the scientific arena–where scientists publish their experiments in peer-reviewed journals–so have the advocates of a designed flagellum. The evolutionary history of the flagellum is becoming increasingly clear as scientists discover related copies of flagellar genes in other structures. But there are still people ready to sell you an intelligently designed flagellum throw pillow (or beer stein or apron).

Now E. coli poses a new quandary for creationists. As I wrote earlier this month, scientists at Michigan State University have been tracking the evolution of E. coli in their lab for 20 years. They’ve been experiencing natural selection as they’ve adapted to this environment, and in one of the twelve lines of these microbes, the bacteria evolved the ability to digest citrate. The lack of citrate metabolism has been, till now, a hallmark of E. coli as a species. The scientists don’t know precisely how the bacteria evolved this capacity, but it appears to have involved a series of mutations that happened over several thousand generations.

This new paper has apparently touched a creationist nerve. There have been two sorts of responses. One has been to downplay the finding. Unless E. coli actually evolves into a human being in front of someone’s eyes, then its evolution is insignificant. “It’s important for us all to remember that when we read science news that seems to ‘confirm’ evolution, it’s never a true threat to the biblical worldview and the creation account because God’s Word never changes but man’s fallible ideas do,” Answers in Genesis consoles us.

Some have responded by suggesting there must be some mistake in the experiment, perhaps even fraud. Perhaps there was some contaminating DNA that endowed the bacteria with the ability to feed on citrate, for example. Andrew Schlafly, who runs a site called Conservapedia that’s supposed to be a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, wrote a letter to the senior author on the E. coli, Richard Lenski. He demanded that Lenski “post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it.”

Lenski responded politely at first that as far as he could tell, the relevant data Schlafly wanted was in the paper, which Schlafly had not bothered to read closely. When Schlafly repeated his demands–and as the discussions on the Conservapedia site veered to accusations of Piltdown-Man-level fraud–Lenski wrote a barbed reply that’s definitely worth reading in full. You can see the whole correspondence at Panda’s Thumb or Bad Science.

It is surreal to watch people with Conservapedia claim to be champions of science. Conservapedia has a densely detailed entry for Young Earth creationism, and another for Flood Geology. But their entry for Big Bang Theory is tiny–and taken up in large part by the objections of creationists. The entry for parasites informs us of the young Earth view that parasites are the result of Adam’s sin. What’s not surreal is to see E. coli at the eye of the storm. It’s business as usual for the little bug.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen
    June 25, 2008

    One of ID’s ideas on the Flagellum that hasn’t gotten much press is that irreducible complexity is a feature of human intelligent designs. It isn’t.

    Take a car. Remove the radio, the air conditioning and the seat heaters and it still gets you to work. These things weren’t in the original designs. They were added later. You could say that the car’s design evolved. But you can also remove the spare tire, half the oil, half the gas. It will still get you to work. Cars are designed with redundancy and overcapacity for reliability.

    I have a pair of headphones. It has a male/female connector set in the middle of the cord. If you connect it to your computer and stand up, instead of breaking the connector pops free. So, you then have a length of cord, and a headphone. Are these bits of any value on their own? Well, the connectors are standard mini jacks. So the headphone part still works as a headphone. The remaining cord is long enough to reach my shirt pocket, so is convenient with an mp3 player.

    But how about the cord? Well, i have a shirt pocket sized computer, a Nokia N800. It has speakers, a headphone jack, and a built in FM radio. It turns out that you can play the FM radio, but you need an antenna. The unit is designed to use the cord of your headphones for this. You don’t need the headphones, per se. Just the cord works fine. So the cord without the headphones can be used to play FM radio over the N800’s speakers.

    And that’s the way things are designed by humans. Irreducible complexity is uncommon, and often undesirable. Especially when there is little environmental pressure to reduce the design to the absolute minimum. Of course, organisms often have such pressure, so minimalist designs pop up in nature with reasonable frequency, though not always.

    Other examples are easy to spot. Does your house have more than one bathroom? More than one door to the outside?

  2. #2 Bishop Pontoppodan
    June 25, 2008

    “Originally, creationists claimed that structures in E. coli showed clear evidence of being created–they were complex, made up of lots of parts, and seemed to work like manmade machines. The flagellum–the tail E. coli spins hundreds of times a second–was one of their favorite examples. It reminded them of car engines, of outboard motors.”

    The problem is not evolution, it is darwinism.

    Only a fool would deny evolution.

    Only a greater fool would embrace darwinism as the mechanism.

    There is not one shred of empirical evidence, either observational or experimental, that establishes a plausible or credible nexus between random mutation and natural selection and the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes and systems that exist in bacteria and other living organisms

  3. #3 carolyn
    June 25, 2008

    I see random mutation and natural selection linked everywhere! that is the point! An albino or white rabbit is born, a mutated gene. Snow comes, maybe a lot in a region that never had snow before (global warming-style shift?)…all the brown rabbits get picked off by predators, but the white one is perfectly camoflauged and thus he and all his offspring that inherited his mutation have a survival advantage.
    I was born without hip sockets…me and my offspring that inherited this mutation are very fast, but can also “juke” (move side to side, change direction quickly) well, so we are have an advantage on soccer, rugby, and football fields, as well as basketball courts. Neat, huh?
    In other words, what the heck are you talking about? Maybe I am not understanding you.

  4. #4 Christophe Thill
    June 26, 2008

    “But there are still people ready to sell you an intelligently designed flagellum throw pillow (or beer stein…”

    I’d never buy such a thing; but if I did, I’d call it Ben…

  5. #5 Bishop Pontoppodan
    June 26, 2008

    An albino or white rabbit is born, a mutated gene. Snow comes, maybe a lot in a region that never had snow before (global warming-style shift?)…all the brown rabbits get picked off by predators, but the white one is perfectly camoflauged and thus he and all his offspring that inherited his mutation have a survival advantage.

    The operative term is “the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes and systems that exist in bacteria and other living organisms”

    Changes in fur color do not meet this criterea.

  6. #6 Jasper
    June 26, 2008

    Along with that throw pillow, there is also a fashionable line of intelligently-designed shams.

  7. #7 Owlmirror
    June 26, 2008

    The operative term for “Bishop Pontoppodan” is “crackpot”. His real name is Charlie Wagner. Many people have tried to argue with him, including real scientists.

    He ignores them all, and has for many years.

  8. #8 jj
    June 26, 2008

    One of the things that I always find IDer’s can’t explain is the presence of vestigial organs. If The great designer put all this effort into making all these extremely complex systems, then why does s/he leave some useless structures behind? I mean, I do have a tail bone, but I don’t have a tail to require balance. I have an appendix, but it doesn’t have any function (thats arguable), and I’ve got a plica semilunaris, but I sure as hell don’t need it (in fact I hate it, damn crusty eyelids). I think that’s a point thats overlooked by many ID proponents, and if you bring it up, they normally don’t have a response.

  9. #9 jj
    June 26, 2008

    One of the things that I always find IDer’s can’t explain is the presence of vestigial organs. If The great designer put all this effort into making all these extremely complex systems, then why does s/he leave some useless structures behind? I mean, I do have a tail bone, but I don’t have a tail to require balance. I have an appendix, but it doesn’t have any function (thats arguable), and I’ve got a plica semilunaris, but I sure as hell don’t need it (in fact I hate it, damn crusty eyelids). I think that’s a point thats overlooked by many ID proponents, and if you bring it up, they normally don’t have a response.

  10. #10 Cooper
    June 26, 2008

    Wow, that’s the new ID slogan, huh: “If it looks designed, maybe it is.” At least their appeal to naive intuition is right out there in the open.

  11. #11 Bishop Pontoppodan
    June 27, 2008

    The operative term for “Bishop Pontoppodan” is “crackpot”. His real name is Charlie Wagner. Many people have tried to argue with him, including real scientists.

    He ignores them all, and has for many years.

    There is one way to shut me up:

    Answer the question!

    Provide empirical evidence, either observational or experimental, that establishes a plausible or credible nexus between random mutation and natural selection and the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes and systems that exist in bacteria and other living organisms

    No one has yet answered this challenge so I slog on….

    Charlie Wagner

  12. #12 Owlmirror
    June 27, 2008

    Provide empirical evidence, either observational or experimental, that establishes a plausible or credible nexus between random mutation and natural selection and the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes and systems that exist in bacteria and other living organisms

    Charlie, I know that I, and possibly others, have tried to suggest that you open up the textbooks and read about evolution, cellular biology, genetics, biochemistry, and so on.

    Have you ever done so?

    If you can browse the web, you can read Carl’s Evolution, At the Water’s Edge, Parasite Rex, and now, Microcosm.

    Have you read any of them?

    If you really think that all of the scientists who have been researching biology and biochemistry and genetics and developmental biology and so on are all wrong, you need to familiarize yourself with all of their fields, and figure out how to actually falsify all of their findings scientifically — that is, provide evidence that something about biology that is widely understood to be correct, is in fact false, based upon something that you can show clearly and unambiguously.

  13. #13 Bishop Pontoppodan
    June 28, 2008

    Charlie, I know that I, and possibly others, have tried to suggest that you open up the textbooks and read about evolution, cellular biology, genetics, biochemistry, and so on.

    Have you ever done so?

    If you can browse the web, you can read Carl’s Evolution, At the Water’s Edge, Parasite Rex, and now, Microcosm.

    Have you read any of them?

    Irrelevant.

    Answer the question. The ball is in your court…

  14. #14 Owlmirror
    June 28, 2008

    [When asked if he had read any science textbooks or popular science books, Charlie Wagner replied:]

    Irrelevant.

    In other words, “no”.

    Answer the question.

    Sigh. What do you want? The science books describe the empirical evidence that you demand. If you need more detail, many of the papers are available for free download on the web. What, do you want a personal hand-held tour of every single laboratory, with the exact genetic sequences explained to you personally in the simplest language possible?

    The ball is in your court…

    No. Science has built up its consensus over the past few hundred years by having scientists who educated themselves in what was known up until that point. They then did their own work; they made the actual effort to find and describe additional evidence, which either confirmed and extended the existing knowledge, or sometimes, rarely, led to a new scientific paradigm.

    But they always educated themselves first, and always bolstered their arguments with evidence.

    The ball has always been in the court of the contrarians and denialists and crackpots to make their case from actual evidence.

  15. #15 Bishop Pontoppodan
    June 29, 2008

    Sigh. What do you want? The science books describe the empirical evidence that you demand. If you need more detail, many of the papers are available for free download on the web.

    So basically you cannot address the question in a plausible or coherent way. Don’t feel bad. No “real scientists” that I’ve asked this question can either.

    The notion that random mutation and natural selection can generate the highly organized structures, processes and systems found in living organisms is the greatest hoax in the history of science.

  16. #16 Pteryxx
    June 29, 2008

    …Does Bishop Charlie Wagner believe in air? Why? Has he ever seen it? How about earthquakes? Or gravity? Or the Estonian language?

    Does he believe in denial?

    “If it is important to someone in denial that fish not swim, then they can look you straight in the eye and tell you that fish don’t swim and believe it themselves. It is difficult to over-estimate the power this kind of denial has…

    “One way of telling about this is when the idea is about an area that you are unwilling to research because you fear finding out you are wrong.”

    http://blainn.com/abuse/denial.html

    -Peace, Pteryxx

  17. #17 Bishop Pontoppodan
    June 29, 2008

    “It is difficult to over-estimate the power this kind of denial has…”

    True.

    It is this denial that has allowed darwinism to dishonor science and the scientific method for almost 150 years.

    Charlie Wagner
    http://www.charliewagner.com

  18. #18 Owlmirror
    June 29, 2008

    …Does Bishop Charlie Wagner believe in air? Why? Has he ever seen it?

    *snort*

    Charlie believes in lots of things that he’s never seen, including a steady-state universe, an eternal regression of life, preprogrammed genetic front-loading, and all sorts of other hoaxes.

    Like all crackpots, he believes most in what he imagines to be true.

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