Pharyngula

Michael Egnor, Whig historian

He mangles science, now he defames history. Michael Egnor is like the Swiss army knife of creationist hackery.

Former Vice President Al Gore famously claimed to have invented the Internet because years ago he was in the Senate and sponsored a bill. The assertion that Charles Darwin’s theory was indispensable to classical and molecular genetics is a claim of an even lower order. Darwin’s theory impeded the recognition of Mendel’s discovery for a third of a century, and Darwin’s assertion that random variation was the raw material for biological complexity was of no help in decoding the genetic language of DNA. The single incontrovertible Darwinian contribution to the field of medical genetics was eugenics, which is the Darwinian theory that humans can be bred for social and character traits, like animals. The field of medical genetics is still recovering from eugneics, which was Darwin’s only gift to medicine.

Wow—that is simply breathlessly ahistorical.

  • Al Gore did not claim to have invented the internet.

  • No one has claimed that Darwin invented genetics, either, or even that he was indispensable to it. Mendel’s work languished for thirty years because a) the paper was presented at and published by a relatively obscure natural history society, in Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines im Brunn; b) it really is quite a tedious paper, full of tables of numbers, and not at all the kind of thing most natural historians were keen on at the time; and c) it was unclear how universally applicable his results were—Mendel himself did experiments with hawkweed that gave results that did not fit with the simple Mendelian model. Darwin had a competing (and wrong) model of heredity which did not help matters, but given that the existence of Darwin’s gemmular hypothesis did not impede research in the 20th century, it’s rather silly to blame him for blocking work that he had not even read.

  • The rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900 did provoke a great deal of argument within the community of evolutionists for about 20 years; it was not at all clear how to reconcile genetics and Darwinian evolution, and it took a fair amount of scholarship and research to fit them together, work which culminated in the neo-Darwinian synthesis. At that time, though, the most famous name in genetics was Thomas Hunt Morgan, who authored books titled Evolution and Genetics and The Scientific Basis of Evolution — arguing that evolution and genetics were somehow in opposition simply makes no sense at all. Once the concepts were worked out, genetics helped evolution’s case.

  • Watson and Crick both are and were proponents of evolutionary theory, and did not see any conflict between their observations and evolution. I have no idea what Egnor is babbling about when he says “random variation … was no help in decoding the genetic language of DNA.” As geneticists and biochemists worked out the chemical nature of the molecule of heredity, they very quickly puzzled out the mechanisms that generate errors — that work was essential in figuring out how change occurs. Working out the genetic code was a different problem. When Egnor claims that the “understanding of the genetic code was the direct result of the inference to design in biology”, he’s simply lying. Try reading about how the genetic code was cracked by people like Crick and Brenner and Benzer, and what you find is a purely reductionist experimental approach to the problem.

  • Darwin was not a eugenicist. Eugenics owes a greater historical debt to animal husbandry — you do not need evolutionary theory or even genetics to propose that you can change a stock with selective breeding. If Egnor would like to blame agriculture for the cruelties of the eugenics movement, he’d be more accurate.

I’m appalled at Egnor’s poor grasp of the history of these sciences. I suppose it only goes with the territory, though — he’s incompetent when it comes to the science, so why not be a dazzling nincompoop in all areas. He’s a kind of creationist Renaissance man, knowing absolutely nothing about everything.

If Stony Brook lets this man teach, they have a problem. I would actively discourage any students from attending a university that puts such a malinformed fool in front of a classroom.

Comments

  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 28, 2007

    Eugenics owes a greater historical debt to animal husbandry — you do not need evolutionary theory or even genetics to propose that you can change a stock with selective breeding.

    My understanding was that Darwin was independently influenced by animal husbandry.

    Perhaps we need to make Egnor an evolutionary tree between between the disciplines? But wait… he can’t read those…

    Okay, how about: if eugenics influenced evolution, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??

    they very quickly puzzled out the mechanisms that generate errors — that work was essential in figuring out how change occurs.

    How and why change occurs is probably the more important part of the code, especially in medicine. One would think that this shouldn’t be a matter of egnorance.

    a swiss army knife has more than one tool.

    LOL!

    So which type of tool is Egnor? He doesn’t cut it, he isn’t too picky about facts, but tries to screw ignorant people. I will vote for a screwdriver, more specifically a cross one.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 28, 2007

    Jeremy:

    Yes, you can and do efficiently argue against their points. So what? That’s why evolution has the place that it does in science and society, and creationism does not.

    Not at all. Evolution is science because it works, not because scientists argue better than creationists. (Which point of yours is dubious btw, since YEC and ID are excellent PR machines for sterile messages.)

    “We want to get rid of this pseudoscience so no one will succumb to its stupidity.”

    Pretty much, though suppression is the realistic target here. All pseudoscience are antiscientific enterprises, which misled people and take their money in the good name of science.

    Besides the practical aspect, there is also a moral one. Scientists, such as PZ, endeavors for us to learn about nature. All else equal, it would still be unethical to not oppose antiscientism and to not promote knowledge. Unless you can show that your concerns have any real substance, it must be acceptable as default that scientists do as they feel is required of them.

    Btw, a heads up, you are also misrepresenting this blog particularly. The blog owner is a strong believer in education, which is another proactive concern.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    March 29, 2007

    As a teacher yourself you should be aware of the primary problem: tenyear, that annoying but comforting thing that prevents you from being easilly fired once you have it.

    Wow! An eggcorn is born! Tenure has nothing to do with “ten” or “year”, it’s about holding in Latin (you are held, kept, instead of fired).

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    March 29, 2007

    Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines im Brunn

    in Brünn.

    Any string of German text quoted by a non-speaker turns into a pseudogene at a rate so fast it makes baraminology possible.