Pharyngula

Yesterday, I pointed out that Jonathan Wells was grossly ignorant of basic ideas in evo-devo. This isn’t too surprising; he’s a creationist, he has an agenda to destroy evolutionary biology, and he’s going to rail against evolution…same ol’, same ol’. That’s nothing, though. Wells and his fellows at the Discovery Institute have an even more radical goal of fighting natural, material explanations of many other phenomena, and his latest screed at the DI house organ is against natural explanations of development. Not evolution, not evo-devo, just plain basic developmental biology—apparently, he wants to imply that the development of the embryo requires the intervention of a Designer, or as he refers to that busy being in this essay, a postmaster.

He starts off by setting up a problem in a reasonable way—I actually say something very much like this on the first day of my development class.

The many different kinds of cells in an animal or plant develop from a single fertilized egg cell. Humans, for example, consist of cells that form bone, skin, muscle, digestive organs, nerves and many other tissues. Such cells are so different from each other in form and function that an untrained observer might conclude that they represent different species.

Yet all of these cells contain the same DNA, a fact long known to embryologists as “genomic equivalence.” As the fertilized egg divides, it bequeaths a complete set of DNA (its “genome”) to all of its descendants – with a few minor exceptions, such as red blood cells, which have no DNA at all. But if bone, skin, muscle, digestive and nerve cells all have the same DNA, why are they so different? Why don’t nerve cells secrete juices that digest the brain? Part of the answer is that although brain cells have the genes for digestive juices, those genes are turned off in nerves. As an embryo develops, its cells go through a phase called “differentiation” that turns some genes on and leaves others turned off.

But this does not solve the problem, since it begs the question of why two cells with the same DNA would differentiate in two distinct ways.

This is developmental biology 101. We describe this central issue, and then, basically, the rest of the term is spent explaining exactly how this works: we tell the students about maternal factors, environmental effects, cell signaling, single transduction, gene repression and activation, all this wonderfully fun stuff that explains how cells with the same DNA would differentiate in many distinct ways.

Wells does not do that. He raises this introductory question that just about all of us developmental biologists use in our courses, and then falls flat and acts as if it is a complete mystery how this problem is resolved. It’s as if he signed up for a development course in his academic career, caught the first few sentences by the instructor, and then fell asleep for the rest of the term. The closest example I know of to this performance is the infamous Darwin quote-mine, in which Darwin rhetorically poses an interesting question…

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

…and then proceeds to answer it in detail. The creationists are fond of quoting the problem and leaving out the answer, and Wells has done exactly the same thing, mentioning a basic problem in the field and then omitting the fact that molecular genetics not only has the answer in principle, but has also worked out the details in many systems.

Here’s a brief primer in the answer.

Let’s imagine a very simple developmental system in which we have only two genes: a black gene and a red gene. When the black gene is expressed, it makes a gene product, the black protein, that binds and shuts off the red gene. Similarly, if the red gene is expressed, it makes a protein that binds and shuts off the black gene. Furthermore, let’s say that in the absence of these proteins, both genes will be expressed, but the red gene is more strongly/rapidly turned on. Now lets assume we’ve got a single celled egg with this strand of DNA, and it’s also pre-loaded with the black protein by its mother, as in this cartoon.

i-6b2d7522d09b8d5b979f02d48c1a2aab-dif_prob.gif

The red gene is turned off by all that black protein, and the black gene will just be making more black protein: when the cell divides into two, the pattern will continue, and all the progeny cells will continue to have the same pattern of gene expression. Oh, no! How can we ever do anything interesting?

Here’s one way:

i-b52a8cd44e31aa024e7d34843aac238d-dif_distrib.gif

We start with the same system, black gene active and red gene repressed, but we have a second step there, called “differential distribution of determinants”. Somehow, the black protein is localized to one part of the dividing egg, so that when it divides in the third step, no black repressor is present in one of the daughter cells. In the fourth step, the red gene is active, makes the red protein, and shuts off the black gene. Look! Two cells with exactly the same genes, but with different patterns of gene expression!

At this point, you should be thinking, “Hey, he cheated—he said ‘somehow’ the protein is localized! Isn’t the ‘somehow’ what we want explained?”

You’d be right. The ‘somehow’ of localization is the real question, but I want you to be in the same state of mind as Jonathan Wells. Wells looks at this problem, and thinks correctly that step 2 sure looks like an interesting problem, incorrectly claims (or more cynically, intentionally misrepresents the state of our knowledge) that the differential distribution is unexplained, and worse, starts babbling. He makes an interesting analogy that each cell has its own zip code defined as a pattern of gene expression, and that we need to assign unique zip codes to each cell…but then, typical for an IDist, decides that this implies a Postmaster and Slots and a Wall (metaphor run amuck! Watch out! I’m surprised he didn’t postulate a Tape Dispenser and a Stamp Vending Machine.)

Yet the existence of “cellular zip codes” still doesn’t solve the problem either (and the authors of the article don’t claim that it does). If the human body were the United States and cells were postal envelopes, each would start out bearing every zip code in the country on its face. Only after the postmaster had stuck each envelope into one of many slots on the wall to direct it to its final destination would a particular zip code be highlighted. Obviously, the postmaster and the array of slots play a major role in determining where each letter goes.

If the DNA corresponds to zip codes that are originally the same on every envelope, where in the embryo are the postmaster and the slots? What is it that highlights one zip code but not others? Where is the all-important developmental information that directs cells to different parts of the body and tells them where they are and how to differentiate?

A fellow just has to laugh at the feeble imagination of the IDists: a postmaster? You’ve got to be kidding me. Why postulate an anthropomorphic entity in your analogy when we’ve got a wealth of examples of natural processes that sort out cell identities? Here are some examples of the ‘somehows’ to explain step 2 of my cartoon—these are all known, functional mechanisms for setting up differential gene activity in developing cells, and none of them require handwaving about some unknown entity monitoring every embryo and intelligently tagging cells.

  • Maternal factors. The egg is not a uniform smear of factors. When produced in the ovary, various proteins that specify patterns of gene activity are non-uniformly distributed, so that the dividing cells receive different portions of these maternal components. The best known example now is probably bicoid in the fly, but this principle has been known for a century or two; frogs also have visibly striated eggs, and Conklin in 1905 described a detailed pattern in ascidians.

  • Sperm entry. One obvious symmetry breaking event in diploid organisms is fertilization: a single sperm enters the egg, and its entry can trigger a cascade of membrane and cytoplasmic events localized to one side of the zygote. This is a very common signal, used in amphibians, for instance, that can be used to generate differential gene activity.

  • Environmental influences. Many animals use gravity as a cue, and the mechanism is easy enough to understand: denser proteins will sink through the cytoplasm to localize to the bottom of the egg. Another cue is light; the alga Fucus uses light to induce calcium fluxes on one side of the embryo that lead to differentiation of the rhizoid. Mammalian embryos are oriented relative to the site of implantation in the uterus.

  • Chance. Especially when dealing with small numbers of molecules, chance fluctuations in the distribution of the determinants can lead to small quantitative differences in gene expression, which can be coupled to feedback mechanisms that amplify differences (for example, as I described for Notch) which then produce stronger qualitative differences in cell identity.

These describe ways of breaking symmetry early in development to establish initial polarity, but later events are also explainable: they become more complicated in detail, but the problems are simpler in principle. Once you’ve got two cell types, additional cell types can be generated by, for instance, cell signaling. A cell that is in the middle of a patch of the red cells in my cartoon, for example, is in a different environment than a cell at the boundary between the red and the black; a cell that senses both red cells and black cells as neighbors might be triggered to activate a third gene. Another mechanism used in collections of cells is the gradient—a cell can sense its location along an axis by measuring the concentration of a particular signaling molecule, reading a kind of molecular vernier that specifies identity. As development unfolds, the cellular environment becomes a richer and more complicated source of diverse signals that are used to further increase the diversity of potential differentiated cell types. (Again, you might look back at my article on Notch for examples).

Wells tries to turn his misconceptions into an indictment of “neo-Darwinism” in his conclusion, but he’s missing the point.

By focusing attention on DNA as the supposed source of raw materials for evolution, neo-Darwinism has systematically downplayed the nature and location of developmental information elsewhere in the embryo. Obviously, there is more to embryo development than is dreamt of in neo-Darwinian philosophy.

Errrm, this has long been a complaint about the neo-Darwinian synthesis by developmental biologists—it neglected development almost completely. There is a groundswell of activity to correct that omission, driven by the evidence collected by the evo-devo approach, and (perhaps less persuasively) by the philosophy of Developmental Systems Theory. Scientists have turned to the study of natural mechanisms to answer these questions; they are not going to waste time calling up the hacks at the Discovery Institute for their bad ideas. And, most importantly…

No postmasters are involved.

Comments

  1. #1 Karley
    January 25, 2007

    This has nothing to do with anything, but how do you pronounce “fucus”?

  2. #2 Natasha Yar-Routh
    January 25, 2007

    OK this cinches it, the DI has to be an elaborate put on. A practical joke run amok. The incredibly strained metaphors are just too bad to be anything but a deliberate put-on.

    Either that or Wells and the other intellectual thugs at DI hold their target audience in total contempt. Figuring that the rubes are just too stupid to see through their weak arguments or do any research on them. This while you and the other science bloggers work on the assumption that presented with the factual evidence people are smart enough to rech the correct conclusions.

    So I guess it comes down to the DI being elaborate put-on artists or con-artists, take your pick.

  3. #3 bc
    January 25, 2007

    Okay, I just read Wells’ short article. So, how does ID explain congenital defects? Or the influence of environmental factors on a developing embryo? Seems that science explains these pretty well, but the postal service would just have a hard time.

  4. #4 TheBrummell
    January 25, 2007

    how do you pronounce “fucus”?

    I’ve heard it pronounced, by a specialist in algal systematics, and by a grad student in his lab studying the genus, as “FEW-kus”, approximately.

  5. #5 BlueIndependent
    January 25, 2007

    This is interesting, and reading through your post gave me an interesting idea. Perhaps to spread knowledge of evolution, and to teach it in a more complete and correct way, maybe there could be a series of videos.

    What i’m getting at is, you could have a child of age 9-12 playing the biology skeptic (but sounds more like a curious person that just doesn’t know anything on the subject). This young biology skeptic would ask questions similar to those the creationists love to toss around, but they wouldn’t be made in the same condescending way. Rather, the questions, when asked by the child, would be presented more as “I just don’t know and I’m lookig for answers to these questions.”

    This would engage young people, many of whom will have similar questions, and then a schooled young biologist (20s to mid 30s) explains how these questions are answered. Explaining how the functions/causes were discovered, and/or the accompanying testing methods, might also lend to understanding of the scientific process, and promote interest in analyzing the world.

    I see this as a way of objetively tackling intentionally politically-charged questions in an environment of fairness. Sometimes kids are caught in the middle between what they’re being told and what they have real questions about and would be open to thinking in detail about.

    Now hopefully my idea has already been taken up and at least tried. I’d love to see it happen, and if it hasn’t, I’d love to help make it happen.

  6. #6 BlueIndependent
    January 25, 2007

    Regarding the whole Postmaster analogy, you notice the creationists never tackle questions of miscarriages or other birth-related issues.

    If miscarriages happen, did the Postmaster not show up to work? If the Postmaster did not like the soul in the precious baby, why did he kill it? Indeed, why did he put it there in the first place? If a baby is born with physical or mental developmental problems, does the Postmaster not like them? Does the child with the disability KNOW it is loved/saved by the Postmaster?

    I’d love to see how they would non-answer these questions.

  7. #7 T. Bruce McNeely
    January 25, 2007

    Using Wells’ analogy, cancer could be termed “going postal”!

  8. #8 lgoldie
    January 25, 2007

    Ummm… I’m confused. Haven’t any of these people heard of epigenetics and chromatin regulation??? There is an entire branch of molecular genetics devoted to explaining exactly these questions, how genes are differentially expressed in various tissues, even in different cells of the same tissue-type, using a higher-order form of genetic coding driven by heritable and environmental modification of the chromosomal super-structure. You know, like histone de/acetylation, and CpG methylation. Not only are these demonstrable mechanisms for differential gene regulation, they actually explain HOW other factors, such as environmental cues, effect control over gene expression.

    Apparently this field of inquiry is not as widely recognized as I foolishly hoped to believe!

  9. #9 clheiny
    January 25, 2007

    [Wells] decides that this implies a Postmaster and Slots and a Wall (metaphor run amuck! Watch out! I’m surprised he didn’t postulate a Tape Dispenser and a Stamp Vending Machine.)

    Well, Intelligent Postman theory is still a work in progress. Unlike you Darwinists, who have had 150 years to figure it all out and still don’t have the answer, you can’t expect them to have completely figured out the role of the Stamp Vending Machine in the process after only a few tokes, uh, days. Maybe in another week or so, if they don’t get the munchies.

    I can’t wait to see what developmental role the Disgruntled Ex-employee With Firearms plays!

  10. #10 PZ Myers
    January 25, 2007

    These ideas are widely recognized — they’re basic, anyone with any education in developmental biology knows them.

    Except, apparently, Jonathan Wells.

  11. #11 Tom
    January 25, 2007

    This can’t be right. At 39 cents per stamp, and approximately one trillion cells that need to be delivered, it would take 3.9 trillion US dollars just to make a baby. Kids are expensive, but not that expensive.

  12. #12 llewelly
    January 25, 2007

    Jonathan Wells asked:

    Why don’t nerve cells secrete juices that digest the brain?

    The idea that nerve cells might secrete juices that digest the brain is intriguing … perhaps it explains creationism?

  13. #13 Stanton
    January 25, 2007

    To digress a bit, but, does the life cycle of Fucus involve a stage where it parasitizes certain kinds of red algae, or was that something else?

  14. #14 Mags
    January 25, 2007

    I’m utterly utterly baffled as to how this guy got a Developmental PhD. It just does. not. make. sense.

    In fact it’s a bit annoying that it was even with *my* developmental model, Xenopus.

    Baffled.

    Mags (Developmental biology undergraduate degree, doing a developmental biology PhD right now. Well, not right now. I’m commenting on this post… You get the idea)

  15. #15 Natasha Yar-Routh
    January 25, 2007

    BlueIndependent,

    A wonderful idea, I hope that someone has or will implement it.

  16. #16 Julie Stahlhut
    January 25, 2007

    Apparently this field of inquiry is not as widely recognized as I foolishly hoped to believe!

    Whether or not it’s well-recognized is beside the point, because Wells’s business is not to understand and explain the current state of developmental biology research. He’s much more focused on misleading his readers into believing that already-answered questions are impossible to answer.

  17. #17 Jim in STL
    January 25, 2007

    how do you pronounce “fucus”?

    Back in grade school, during the dinosaur roaming with people stage of world history, a friend and I were overheard saying f_ck and when we got to the principal’s office tried to make an argument that we’d been discussing fucus. We didn’t really know or care what a fucus was but according to the dictionary we were using, it was the closest word with the desired pronunciation that we could find starting with an f.

    It didn’t work.

    Oh yeah, save jesus, stop the heathen gravity!

  18. #18 DA
    January 25, 2007

    If miscarriages happen, did the Postmaster not show up to work? If the Postmaster did not like the soul in the precious baby, why did he kill it? Indeed, why did he put it there in the first place? If a baby is born with physical or mental developmental problems, does the Postmaster not like them? Does the child with the disability KNOW it is loved/saved by the Postmaster?

    Simple: These anti-Postmaster happenings are due to The Vandal. The problem of evil is solved by the loved and precious baby using it’s free will to choose the deformed path of The Vandal.

  19. #19 llewelly
    January 25, 2007

    This can’t be right. At 39 cents per stamp, and approximately one trillion cells that need to be delivered, it would take 3.9 trillion US dollars just to make a baby. Kids are expensive, but not that expensive.

    It’s not right. 39 cents per cell times one trillion cells is .39 trillion dollars, approximately the cost of an irresponsible US invasion of place many Americans can’t find on a map. Expensive, yes, but only 1/10th as expensive as you’re thinking.

    In any case it explains why fundamentalist Christians oppose abortion. They’re involved in a conspiracy to make USPS filthy rich.

  20. #20 Poseidon
    January 25, 2007

    So, how does ID explain congenital defects? Or the influence of environmental factors on a developing embryo? Seems that science explains these pretty well, but the postal service would just have a hard time.

    Not if it’s anything like the USPS; my mail gets lost, and I get other peoples’ mail, all the time.

    New strained metaphor suggestion for the DI: FedEx! At least they’re usually on time–at my office, anyway.

  21. #21 lgoldie
    January 25, 2007

    < "Whether or not it's well-recognized is beside the point, because Wells's business is not to understand and explain the current state of developmental biology research. He's much more focused on misleading his readers into believing that already-answered questions are impossible to answer.">

    True story. So I guess the more pertinent question becomes this: is Wells truly just ignorant to the fact that science has already thrown down solid answers to these questions (entirely possible for someone whose interests certainly do not lie in broadening his knowledge of the current state of understanding in developmental biology); or is he in fact entirely aware that these answers exist, and yet chooses not so much to ignore them, as to actively set about deceiving others for more pathological social purposes? If the latter is true, well then we’re dealing with a whole other kettle of fish. In this scenario, Wells should rightly be seen not as merely another self-serving Creationist who likes to expound kooky ideas, but as a righteously calculating liar whose voice should no longer be heard in the context of “knowledgeable” scientific sources.

  22. #22 Sean Foley
    January 25, 2007

    If miscarriages happen, did the Postmaster not show up to work?

    I think you may be misunderstanding some of the nuances of Dr. Wells’ elegant analogy. At various points in the day (like lunch breaks and immediately before closing), the cellular post office is extraordinarily busy. Various envelopes (or “genotrons”) are brought in for delivery, but at a certain point, people (or “Golgi devices”) wanting to stamp their genotrons for delivery find that the line is too long and return to their offices (or “microchondria”) with every intention of putting their genotrons in the mailbox tomorrow, but you know how these things go: the next day, you don’t have time to duck out to the post office during your lunch break, or you forget until 3:00 and can’t do it on your way home because you need to get to the grocery store, or you get sick and can’t make it to the office. After a few days of this, you forget all about the genotron sitting on your desk and it never makes it to the post office.

    And that’s how miscarriages happen.

  23. #23 June
    January 25, 2007

    Another birth effect to be explained are conjoined twins,
    which often have unusual organ confgurations to integrate (say) one heart or one liver with two heads. As many biologists have pointed out, these natural birth products could prove evolution at work, experimenting with new tissues or connections or even body plans.

    Either that, or that postmaster is an incompetent, irresponsible idiot. But I expect the rebuttal from the ID camp will be “hey, we all make mistakes”.

  24. #24 BlueIndependent
    January 25, 2007

    Wow, thanks for clearing that up Sean Foley. You know, now that you put it that way, I am apparently directly responsible for several miscarriages, entirely random of course.

    I do believe I should be curling into a fetal position on the floor in deep sorrow for the guilt on my hands…

  25. #25 knobody
    January 25, 2007

    It’s not right. 39 cents per cell times one trillion cells is .39 trillion dollars, approximately the cost of an irresponsible US invasion of place many Americans can’t find on a map. Expensive, yes, but only 1/10th as expensive as you’re thinking.

    don’t forget the bulk rate discount. that could cut things back to 150 or 200 billion dollars. what a bargain!

    i took differentiated cells in college and thought it was the most magical (and possibly the most difficult) course i had. every new explanation, every new pathway, just made the whole thing that much more amazing to me. my awe and wonder only increased by knowing how things worked. introducing a postmaster just takes the magic away for me. i’d rather live in a godless world full of wonder than explain away every complex system by putting it all in the same “god” box and ignoring it. i think creationists aren’t just missing the point, they are missing out on all the amazement and glory too. their loss, not mine.

  26. #26 Hank Fox
    January 25, 2007

    From the Discovery Institute’s bio on Jonathan Wells:

    “Dr. Wells is currently working on a book criticizing the over-emphasis on genes in biology and medicine.”

    Woo.

  27. #27 Hal
    January 25, 2007

    Is there any such thing as the honorary revocation of a doctorate?

  28. #28 wright
    January 25, 2007

    I’m with you, knobody. We are living in a time when we have tools like never before to explore the scope of the universe. And tools like the Internet, where even laymen like me can find the hard-won prizes of that exploration.

    Yet there are people who want no part of that. What’s more, as I commented on the Panda’s Thumb, there are those who don’t want anyone else to know either. And that makes me angry.

  29. #29 minimalist
    January 25, 2007

    The “over-emphasis” of genes. In biological research. Wow.

    Will he be arguing for equal time for the “demonic possession theory” of disease?

  30. #30 FitzRoy
    January 25, 2007

    The Postman Always Rings Twice.

    But then, who answers the door?

  31. #31 AndreasB
    January 25, 2007

    Another birth effect to be explained are conjoined twins,
    which often have unusual organ confgurations to integrate (say) one heart or one liver with two heads. As many biologists have pointed out, these natural birth products could prove evolution at work, experimenting with new tissues or connections or even body plans.

    Have they? I would think that for it to have something to do with evolution it would have to be inheritable. That is, not just the conjoined twins surviving and finding someone to boink, but the conjoinment being induced in their offspring.

    Given that twin conjoinment is accidental and not induced by genetic mechanisms this would not be the case, I think.

  32. #32 Chris
    January 25, 2007

    Nice work, PZ.

    The airtight answer Postmasterists give to the ‘why miscarriages’? is to blame some dude named Adam. His ‘sin’ introduced ‘corruption’ into the heretofore perfect Postal Service (that’d make a good band name, btw), and caused all the errors we see today.

  33. #33 speedwell
    January 25, 2007

    BlueIndependent, if you’re serious about the video, I know (live with) a professional 3D animator who would be massively interested in such a thing and is unemployed at the moment. I’ll sound out the starving artist when I get home 🙂

  34. #34 Rey Fox
    January 25, 2007

    This raises the alarming possibility that they will start trying to claim that development, as well as evolution, runs counter to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

  35. #35 Rocky
    January 25, 2007

    His version of god is getting smaller and smaller to explain less and less. Not the Hebrew middle eastern thunder wielding creation god of everything, but the micro-manager with his host of assorted imaginary angels dancing on the head of cellular DNA. I’ve asked creationists I know about DI’s explanations of god’s influence, and DI’s answers are not going over well within that group. They believe it marginalizes their version of god, which of course it does. They don’t understand how DI’s rationalized answers are any more real than the scientific explanations. Ultimately, this will be DI’s downfall. Without that support, and the general public being educated that scientists DO have rational answers that leads to improvements in their lives and healthcare, Well’s and his ideas will soon be relegated to a humorous footnote in the “Flat Earth and other related stupidities” section of history books.

  36. #36 AndreasB
    January 25, 2007

    The airtight answer Postmasterists give to the ‘why miscarriages’? is to blame some dude named Adam. His ‘sin’ introduced ‘corruption’ into the heretofore perfect Postal Service (that’d make a good band name, btw), and caused all the errors we see today.

    Heretic! Don’t try to soil the public image of the Intelligent Postmaster scientifictious Theory by associating religiously loaded words like “sin” with it! Of course the sciency explanation explained by the Theory about that Original Deefficiencer who is by convention generally called “Adam” — yet has nothing whatsoever to do with that guy from the Holiest Of Books — is that he may (or may not) have introduced Reforms To Streamline The Business at an unknown time (which may even be 6000 years ago) which have lead to decay (like, totally, thermodynamics!) generations of Imperfect Workers later who didn’t properly execute the Perfect Reform Plans due to their imperfect understanding and often mess up their tasks — in unknown, probably unknowable ways — ending in unexplainable failures.

    The Postal Service is of course perfect, it is just the imperfect workers fault if something gets lost. Denial of this theory has led to moral decay like abortion, snow free Christmases, Gay Communist Hitler, women being allowed to speak in public and making eye babies before marriage.

    P.S.: The Postal Service

  37. #37 Rupert
    January 25, 2007

    This puts Wells in with von Daniken, Velikovsky, Sheldrake et al (and wouldn’t I like to see that byline on a paper!) as a purveyor of pseudoscience that explains things which either just aren’t there or are well explained otherwise.

    This stuff sells books and annoys people, but is otherwise insignificant. It’s a surrender: you can’t build on it, you can’t argue against anything with it, you can’t integrate with anything else.

    It may be better to tiptoe quietly away and get on with, you know, science.

    R

  38. #38 Loren Petrich
    January 25, 2007

    Seems almost like Jonathan Wells believes that morning glory flowers require divine intervention to open, that God has to come by and say “Hey, flower, open!”

  39. #39 Saint Gasoline
    January 25, 2007

    Finally, Wells has given me good reason to believe in the stork!

  40. #40 mark
    January 25, 2007

    This example is just more evidence that Wells is not stupid or abysmally ignorant–surely he is purposefully lying to those who know less than he does. As long as people who know more than he does are not in the audience, he’ll get away with it.
    So I guess “junk DNA” = “junk mail,” but what about chain letters? SASE?

  41. #41 BlueIndependent
    January 25, 2007

    speedwell,

    Sure. I’d love to be part of a project that not only helps others, but informs me as well.

  42. #42 rrt
    January 25, 2007

    Rey Fox: Regarding the SLOT and development, I actually have seen that argument made (that development from embryo to adult contradicts SLOT). I think the SLOT argument may (?) even have started out in that form. I don’t see that version of it much anymore, but I do still occasionally do, and once even from a very intelligent (but scientifically ignorant) friend.

  43. #43 chris
    January 25, 2007

    blockquote>but what about chain letters? SASE?

    Don’t know about chain letters, but perhaps SASE = masturbation?

  44. #44 Leon
    January 25, 2007

    Hank Fox said:

    From the Discovery Institute’s bio on Jonathan Wells:

    “Dr. Wells is currently working on a book criticizing the over-emphasis on genes in biology and medicine.”

    Woo.

    Wow, that’s a new one. Maybe I should write a book criticizing the overemphasis on molecules in physics and chemistry…or better yet, how about criticizing the overemphasis on God in theology?? Now that might make for some good reading.

  45. #45 Leon
    January 25, 2007

    Hank Fox said:

    From the Discovery Institute’s bio on Jonathan Wells:

    “Dr. Wells is currently working on a book criticizing the over-emphasis on genes in biology and medicine.”

    Woo.

    Wow, that’s a new one. Maybe I should write a book criticizing the overemphasis on molecules in physics and chemistry…or better yet, how about criticizing the overemphasis on God in theology?? Now that might make for some good reading.

  46. #46 PZ Myers
    January 25, 2007

    Actually, a book on the overemphasis on genes would be a good thing — but Wells is clearly incompetent to write it. I’d recommend reading Goodwin or Oyama instead.

  47. #47 Leon
    January 25, 2007

    Hank Fox said:

    From the Discovery Institute’s bio on Jonathan Wells:

    “Dr. Wells is currently working on a book criticizing the over-emphasis on genes in biology and medicine.”

    Woo.

    Wow, that’s a new one. Maybe I should write a book criticizing the overemphasis on molecules in physics and chemistry…or better yet, how about criticizing the overemphasis on God in theology?? Now that might make for some good reading.

  48. #48 Xanthir, FCD
    January 25, 2007

    Wait, wait, wait. If I recall correctly, didn’t PZ parody this exact thing a while ago? Either that, or we did it in the comments. I clearly remember us talking about IDists moving divine intervention into the womb to explain development, as an example of something absolutely ridiculous that they’d nevertheless probably still do.

    Gah, google fails me! Or more likely, I fail google. T_T

  49. #49 Leon
    January 25, 2007

    Hank Fox said:

    From the Discovery Institute’s bio on Jonathan Wells:

    “Dr. Wells is currently working on a book criticizing the over-emphasis on genes in biology and medicine.”

    Woo.

    Wow, that’s a new one. Maybe I should write a book criticizing the overemphasis on molecules in physics and chemistry…or better yet, how about criticizing the overemphasis on God in theology?? Now that might make for some good reading.

  50. #50 Leon
    January 25, 2007

    (Sorry about the triple post. Internet connection issues on my end.)

  51. #51 craig
    January 25, 2007

    “If miscarriages happen, did the Postmaster not show up to work? If the Postmaster did not like the soul in the precious baby, why did he kill it? Indeed, why did he put it there in the first place? If a baby is born with physical or mental developmental problems, does the Postmaster not like them? Does the child with the disability KNOW it is loved/saved by the Postmaster?”

    The Postal Service works in mysterious ways.

  52. #52 Mike Haubrich
    January 25, 2007

    “This raises the alarming possibility that they will start trying to claim that development, as well as evolution, runs counter to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.”

    Actually, this concept has been used in reductio ad absurdum rebuttals to the whole 2LOT bunkum. And given Well’s style, it may be end up being one of the justifications for the “mini-postmaster” arguments after all. In deceiving children of Satan while in service to Father Moon, every stupidity is brilliant.

  53. #53 Leon
    January 25, 2007

    (Sorry about the triple post. Internet connection issues on my end.)

  54. #54 toucantoad
    January 25, 2007

    I suspect Mark is right on. Wells did not write that for PZ, his students, or any of the biology majors in university. He wrote for it for a science-gullible public, and it will be effective. They never read Pharyngula or any other rebuttal source. What a dishonest mess.

  55. #55 fnxtr
    January 25, 2007

    Thanks PZ for this intriguing encapsulation of development. Now I have more fascinating pathways to follow… dishes can wait… Wells is such a dork…

  56. #56 June
    January 25, 2007

    AndreasB says conjoined twins are accidental – precisely! The development system is capable of taking an accidental clump of cells and building a different body plan with different plumbing – in nine months! That proves that a natural system can dynamically adjust its functioning to adapt to local variations, and so it must be capable of detecting and assessing local design problems, feeding them back to some redesign process, and changing normal development on the fly.

    But that is exactly what is meant by ‘intelligent design’. And so the ID crowd is pretty much forced to move God into the womb (in fact into each cell) — or they must grant that natural systems capable of ID are indeed possible.

    Similarly (and that was my feeble point re evo) it seems possible that evolution, too, may be capable of more dynamic modification than we know of today, e.g. quantum-level effects that are weird enough to include remote action and local time reversal (see ‘Quantum Evolution’ by Johnjoe McFadden).

  57. #57 SEF
    January 25, 2007

    Has anyone read Jonathan Wells’ doctoral thesis (the Molecular and Cell Biology one!) to see if it includes any of the information he now pretends not to know?

  58. #58 Alison
    January 25, 2007

    I tell you, if I had enjoyed science and biology as much in high school as I do now, I’d be a doctor or something by now. It’s all thanks to ID – as soon as it started rearing its ugly head, I knew it was wrong, but didn’t have the scientific knowledge to refute it. Thanks to all the people who know this stuff and can refute it, I feel so much more edumacated! Thanks, PZ and faithful commenters!

  59. #59 Chris
    January 25, 2007

    AndreasB,

    “Original Deefficiencer”-LOL! I forgot that ID stands completely independent of all that religious nonsense 😉

    Thanks for the PS link-I confess that I was trolling for other fans of their music!

  60. #60 John Owens
    January 25, 2007

    The ‘somehow’ of localization is the real question, but I want you to be in the same state of mind as Jonathan Wells.

    You complete, utter, bastard, PZ.

  61. #61 John Marley
    January 25, 2007

    Apparently, the Disco Institute has decided (deluded themselves into believing) that the Theory of Evolution has been de-stabilized enough that they can spread their “influence” to other disciplines.

    “Evolution yesterday, the rest of Biology today, all of Science itself tomorrow!”

  62. #62 GuLi
    January 25, 2007

    Rocky,

    Well’s and his ideas will soon be relegated to a humorous footnote in the “Flat Earth and other related stupidities” section of history books.

    I wouldn’t be that optimistic. After all, the “gaps” trick
    makes for a very resilient position. ID is forced to evolve
    with time, but I’m afraid the clade won’t terminate that
    soon. The man in the street may know more and more, but
    science seems to outrun him, until now. How close are we to
    the day arguments from incredulity don’t work anymore? It’s
    still a great demagogic tool.
    In that sense, ID is parasitic (and endemic, if it’s the
    word) – whereas the other kooks who had at least some ground
    to stand, however flat, could be utterly defeated by the
    simple spreading of the right knowledge.

  63. #63 Ed Darrell
    January 25, 2007

    I love it when you talk science! I love it when you talk evo-devo!

  64. #64 Tukla in Iowa
    January 25, 2007

    if I had enjoyed science and biology as much in high school as I do now

    Personally, I think it’s easier to enjoy something when I’m not worrying about deadlines and tests.

    At the moment, I’m relearning all the trigonometry and calculus that I learned in college 15 years ago, then promptly forgot after I passed the courses. This time I’m doing it at my own pace so I can enjoy how interesting the subjects are and so I can actually understand what I’m doing instead of regurgitating constructs and formulas.

    Similarly, I love reading PZ’s posts about developmental biology, but I know that I would never have the inclination to get into the nitty-gritty details.

  65. #65 Ray
    January 25, 2007

    The Postal Service works in mysterious ways.

    As one who works for the Postal Service I don’t think the first word that springs to mind is “mysterious” but lets go with that.

    Cheers,
    Ray

  66. #66 Kristine
    January 25, 2007

    Why don’t nerve cells secrete juices that digest the brain?

    Man, who says that they don’t? And I thought I’d seen everything from this dude. Just unbelievable. I suppose we’re going to hear how “junk DNA” is just “junk mail” from the devil, but you still might find some good coupons to, er, redeem.

    Hey! “Niether sleet nor snow nor rain nor dark of night” can keep the onward march of biological research from its “appointed course.”

    Watch out Wells. The postman always rings twice. It’s the anti-Christ coming to replace your little zip codes with ISBN Marks of the Beast.

    Everyone, just mark your genome “Return to Sender” and see what happens.

  67. #67 Chinchillazilla
    January 25, 2007

    Why don’t nerve cells secrete juices that digest the brain? If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??

    …Wow, it’s like MadLibs. Just string random creationist quotes together in the car and giggle.

  68. #68 John Owens
    January 25, 2007

    By the way, if anyone here has an opportunity, could you ask Dr. Wells where Kevin Costner comes into play in development? I’d just like to know how different developmental biology will stand after the Apocalypse/Rapture/Third Bush Reign.

  69. #69 Steve Watson
    January 25, 2007

    I’ve often thought (and may have even posted along these lines on t.o, though I can’t find it) that, if the origin of the human form (an abstraction) is some sort of impossible mystery requiring the invocation of magic, then so is the development of an individual human from a fertilized zygote (aside: of course the rationale behind the evo-devo progamme AIUI is that the latter gives you clues to the former). Welles seems to agree with me on that — only he draws the opposite conclusion.

  70. #70 Steve Watson
    January 25, 2007

    I’ve often thought (and may have even posted along these lines on t.o, though I can’t find it) that, if the origin of the human form (an abstraction) is some sort of impossible mystery requiring the invocation of magic, then so is the development of an individual human from a fertilized zygote (aside: of course the rationale behind the evo-devo progamme AIUI is that the latter gives you clues to the former). Welles seems to agree with me on that — only he draws the opposite conclusion.

  71. #71 Colugo
    January 25, 2007

    Here’s an idea: The New Wedge

    Create a statement that says something along the lines of “We scientists accept, on the basis of overwhelming scientific evidence, the common descent of life on earth.”

    Nothing about mechanism – selection, adaptation, Darwin, self-organization and so on – nothing about things like the existence or nonexistence of God, teleology, or the Anthropic Principle. Simply an acknowledgment of the common descent of life on earth.

    I don’t see why a number of those who sign IDist statements like the one touted by the Discovery Institute – Stanley Salthe, Mae-Wan Ho, Michael Denton, and even Michael Behe – could not, on principle at least, sign a statement of acceptance of the common descent of life. Their names would appear beside those of evolutionists of every stripe, from Richard Dawkins to Brian Goodwin.

    Of course, some of them, wary of the public relations implications of such a statement, might refuse to sign.

    But suppose that some would. That would create a clear line – a wedge – within the Discovery Institute/ID camp between Biblical literalists and other anti-evolutionist IDists (Jonathan Wells, Phillip Johnson) who reject common descent on the one hand, and quasi-evolutionist IDists and heterodox evolutionists (those who sign Discovery Institute-affiliate statements) who accept common descent.

    And what is the most fundamental fact of the history of evolution besides the common descent of life on earth?

    The IDists have relied on a strategy of conflating Darwinism (selection-adaptation), a mechanism of evolution, with the fact of evolution. Disagreement about the relative explanatory power of a particular mechanism of evolution is a minor quibble compared to whether one does or does not accept the common descent of life.

    The camp of ID and its fellow travelers is mighty big and hence, I would imagine, highly susceptible to schism.

  72. #72 yiela
    January 25, 2007

    Yeah, Postal Service, an offshoot of Deathcab for Cutie who are from my hometown, Bellingham, WA.

  73. #73 Colugo
    January 25, 2007

    Correction: Instead of “big camp” in the last sentence of my post, I meant “big tent;” that is, containing individuals with disparate and mostly incompatible views.

    Also, by “history of evolution” (which may suggest history of the theory) I meant “evolutionary history.”

  74. #74 RedMolly
    January 26, 2007

    Yeah, Postal Service, an offshoot of Deathcab for Cutie who are from my hometown, Bellingham, WA.

    A funny thing from TV a couple of nights ago: a commercial featuring The Postal Service’s song “Such Great Heights.” A commercial for UPS.

    (Iron & Wine’s version of “Such Great Heights” is better than the original.)

  75. #75 Nigel Depledge
    January 26, 2007

    PZ, in this bit:
    “…explaining exactly how this works: we tell the students about maternal factors, environmental effects, cell signaling, single transduction, gene repression and activation, all this wonderfully fun stuff …”, did you actually mean that to be signal transduction?

  76. #76 Jud
    January 26, 2007

    Wells’ stuff, the “front loading” thing that DaveScot mentions frequently at UD, Dembski’s information theory and “specified complexity,” Behe’s “irreducible complexity,” etc., all seem to me at bottom to rely on the notion that it is quicker and easier to attain complexity through the intervention of intelligence as opposed to natural stochastic processes.

    Those who live in suitably cold climates: Next time frost makes patterns on your windows, try to draw what you see.

    **Thus** I refute Dr. Wells! (See http://www.samueljohnson.com/refutati.html .)

  77. #77 Nescio
    January 26, 2007

    Tangentially, I’ve heard the converse of the 2LoT argument a couple of times; development proves that 2LoT doesn’t apply to living beings.

  78. #78 BlueIndependent
    January 26, 2007

    speedwell, did you mention the idea to your friend?

  79. #79 I am not a Monkey
    January 26, 2007

    Jonathan wells will singlehandedly kick your rear in a debate, and unlike you, he does not have to use ad hominems to accomplish this.

  80. #80 Zarquon
    January 26, 2007

    Can you point to an ad-hominem argument by Myers, monkey-boy?
    Thought not.

  81. #81 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 26, 2007

    Tangentially, I’ve heard the converse of the 2LoT argument a couple of times; development proves that 2LoT doesn’t apply to living beings.

    Oh, it applies alright, it’s that development shows that it isn’t a problem for life.

    But more to the point, it is an absurd thought from the beginning to apply the basic law of 2LoT here. Never mind that Earth is an open system with plenty of energy from the sun passing through, so 2LoT mean little for any subsystem – how do you define the system and the entropy for a living being and its environment in the first place? That is like trying to figure out how to do my private economy solely on some general principle of national economy.

  82. #82 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 26, 2007

    Tangentially, I’ve heard the converse of the 2LoT argument a couple of times; development proves that 2LoT doesn’t apply to living beings.

    Oh, it applies alright, it’s that development shows that it isn’t a problem for life.

    But more to the point, it is an absurd thought from the beginning to apply the basic law of 2LoT here. Never mind that Earth is an open system with plenty of energy from the sun passing through, so 2LoT mean little for any subsystem – how do you define the system and the entropy for a living being and its environment in the first place? That is like trying to figure out how to do my private economy solely on some general principle of national economy.

  83. #83 Rey Fox
    January 27, 2007

    Isn’t it cute when they use Latin words in an attempt to sound smart?

  84. #84 Douglas Watts
    January 27, 2007

    I have a feeling this guy’s ancestor kept yapping at Galileo, telling him a telescope was a total waste of time …

  85. #85 Keith Douglas
    January 27, 2007

    Ok, that settles it. Wells is a fraud of the worst kind.

    And I’m getting increasingly convinced the strategy of the Disco guys is simply to demolish. The “positive” stuff is a distraction.

  86. #86 Ron Okimoto
    January 28, 2007

    How sad would Wells’ designer be if it could be twarted by a piece of mica slipped between two tissue layers during development. Developmental biology has come a long way from those first experiments, but Wells hasn’t seemed to have gotten off first base. It would seem that the designer uses materialistic means to control development, and that it isn’t much inclined to circumvent our petty efforts to mess it up and learn something from it.

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