Mike the Mad Biologist

Conservapedia Mistates Mutation

Some of my fellow ScienceBloglings have written about Conservapedia’s treatment of evolution. What has always puzzled me about creationists is the rather frequent denial of mutation. For example, in the section on macroevolution, titled “Is the theory of macroevolution true?“*–which should tell you what’s to come right away, the entry reads:

2. Differences between organisms can be explained by known mechanisms of genetic mutation.

* Counter: There has not been enough time for mutation to generate existing biological diversity.
* Counter: There has been enough time enough time to generate existing biological diversity.
* Counter: The time argument doesn’t help. Decay, scattering, extinction, defects, disasters, etc., all INCREASE over time. Besides, all mutations are harmful.–Aschlafly 23:54, 21 December 2006 (EST)

All the ‘counter’ stuff is kind of bizarre, but anyway, what’s false (or is it counter…) is that “all mutations are harmful.” The short counter: antibiotic resistance. It would be impossible to even begin to describe antibiotic resistance without raising mutation; here are three examples:

1) Ciprofloxacin resistance. Most resistance to ciprofloxacin (commonly known as ‘Cipro’) is due to mutations in gyrases or polymerases. In the presence of the antibiotic, these mutations are quite beneficial (the bacterium doesn’t die). And over time, other mutations evolve that reduce or eliminate the harmful effects of these mutations when there is no antibiotic present.

2) The ‘range expansion’ of beta-lactamases. Huh? OK, beta-lactamases are enzymes produced by many bacteria that destroy beta-lactam antibiotics such as penicillin, methicillin (the “M” in MRSA), and many others. We have actually observed the evolution of newer beta-lactamases that are effective against many different beta-lactam antibiotics from older beta-lactamases that were (and are–many of them are still found in current bacterial populations) effective against very few beta-lactams (or even just one–penicillin). We’ve also confirmed this with laboratory studies.

3) The evolution of efflux pumps. Many bacteria have efflux pumps, which export nasty things out of the bacterial cell. Many efflux pumps are active only against heavy metals (which are toxic), but others can pump out various other compounds…including antibiotics. Both the amount of exportation, the effectiveness of exportation, and the ability to export a particular compound at all can be altered by mutations.

Of course, the biological reality, as opposed to the creationist fantasy, is that genes can expand their function by mutation and then be transferred to other bacteria, they can be transferred to other bacteria and then undergo mutation, they can mutate and not transfer at all, or a given gene can be transferred and not change one bit. But I realize that’s complicated. Ick.

One group of creationists wants to deny that mutations generate antibiotic resistance, so they can claim that mutations don’t do anything useful. As a result, they always play up gene transfer–the Intelligent Designer created all those resistance genes and they’re just shuffled around. The other group claims that antibiotic resistance evolves only through mutations because resistance gene transfer would destroy their notion of the immutability of ‘kinds.’

You just can’t win with these morons.

* What the hell is a theory of macroevolution, and how is it distinct from the theory of evolution by common descent (it’s not). Someday, I’m going to have to write that post about macroevolution….


  1. #1 glenstein
    February 22, 2007

    Pile on! I’ve been enjoying these conservapedia posts and I hope you guys don’t start thinking of it as a dead horse. It strikes upon something that is going to be around for a while and that will probably never cease to be relevant, especially if the Conservapedia expands and becomes used by people.

  2. #2 Chuck C
    February 22, 2007

    What the hell is a theory of macroevolution, and how is it distinct from the theory of evolution by common descent (it’s not). Someday, I’m going to have to write that post about macroevolution

    What really gets me on the macro/micro evolution front is that some scientists have begun to use the terms. As is the case with terms like ‘Darwinism’, ‘junk DNA’, and ‘evolutionists’, some members of the science community seem to be helping the creationists frame evolutionary theory, and those who accept it as factual, in terms favorable to creationist arguments.

  3. #3 Barry
    February 22, 2007

    It’s like in Star Trek (TOG); at one point these guys hijack the Enterprise, and try to leave the galaxy. There’s an ‘energy barrier’ around the galaxy, which caused problems (killed the hijackers? can’t remember).

    Similarly, there’s an ‘information barrier’ between species.

  4. #4 utenzi
    February 22, 2007

    Christianity is a faith based religion. As such, I don’t see why the Creationists / IDers work so hard to try and force it to make sense. Maybe they don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘faith’?

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson
    February 22, 2007

    What really gets me on the macro/micro evolution front is that some scientists have begun to use the terms.

    I’m not a biologist, but it seems the terms were coined 1927, and after periods of disfavor (related to use by orthogenetics) has been revived by Gould et al. With different usages in different research cultures, it seems.

    Apparently the underlying question about mechanisms at different scales is still open. See http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/macroevolution.html for a review, and http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/01/what-is-evolution.html for a viewpoint from a follower of Gould.