Pharyngula

If one were asked who the very worst advocate for Intelligent Design creationism was, it would be a difficult decision—there are so many choices! Should we go back to first principles and pick PJ Johnson, the cunning lawyer who has the goal of undermining all of science? Smarmy and obtuse Sal Cordova? Pompous and vacuous William Dembski? I’m afraid my personal most loathed ID creationist has got to be Jonathan Wells.

The reason? The man claims to be a developmental biologist, my favorite field of science, and actually has some credentials in the discipline…but every time he speaks out on the subject, he stuns me with his ignorance. Here he is, trying to explain the Cambrian explosion.

How did it happen? We don’t have the foggiest idea how it happened. Assuming a jellyfish was the common ancestor* — I don’t believe that — but how do you turn a jellyfish into a trilobite? How do you turn a jellyfish into a fish with a backbone? How do you do it? I don’t just mean taking a scalpel and rearranging the parts like you’re doing a collage in third-grade art class. We’re talking about a living animal here, that reproduces itself and makes more things like itself. How do you do it? We don’t have the foggiest idea.

To try to explain this away by saying Darwin’s theory accounts for it is a science-stopper. It’s the biggest science-stopper of modern history. It stops your inquiry right there. You have no more questions. Oh, all these animals just appeared. That’s not science.

It’s as if the fool hasn’t even glanced at the evo-devo literature in the last 20 years. Identifying the molecular mechanisms that drove the divergence of the major metazoan phyla is one of the grand goals of the whole field—all the comparative molecular genetics being done on flies and nematodes and anemones and fish has been identifying the common molecular substrates of the body plan, and the differences; I don’t know why he even mentions this ‘scalpel’ nonsense, since it’s all about the subtle transformations of ancient rules for development, understanding the changes in the process in living animals that lead to evolutionary novelties.

We don’t know all the details, there are messy and confusing aspects to the story, but to claim “we don’t have the foggiest idea” is absolutely wrong…unless by “we” he means specifically he and his fellow creationist clowns at the Discovery Institute.

His second paragraph is one huge lie. The whole-hearted incorporation of evolutionary principles into the field of developmental biology has fueled an immensely productive new sub-discipline, evo-devo, that is bursting with great questions and new strategies for pursuing them. Stopping science? It jump-started classical developmental biology with exciting new avenues of research.

The irony of his dismissal of evolutionary biology as “Oh, all these animals just appeared” is deep. That’s not what evo-devo is about; part of it is specifically about the molecular details and mechanisms behind the transformation of the urbilaterian into modern forms by piecing together the changes in networks of genes. It’s the position of Intelligent Design creationism that “all these animals just appeared” by the unknowable actions of an unidentified and unidentifiable “designer” whose intent and mechanisms are off the table. The “just appeared” explanation is a science stopper, but it’s what Wells practices.

I should add that an even greater “science stopper” is ignorance. Wells is a master of that, too.

There’s more Wells to come, I’m afraid. He’s got another article that’s even more stupid than his quote above; I’ll get to that later.

*No one claims a jellyfish was the common ancestor of all animals. This is another clueless invention by someone who is utterly oblivious to the scientific literature, and apparently hasn’t even read any of the popular treatments of the subject.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    January 24, 2007

    It’s as if the fool hasn’t even glanced at the evo-devo literature in the last 20 years.

    Not to mention the paleontological literature. Exactly how many “missing links” between brachiopods, annelids, and mollusks do you want? Or between onychophores, tardigrades, and arthropods?