Eamon Knight finds an irritating debate (you can listen to the podcast) between a real evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, and a theologian and a philosopher, and … Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute. The first three are all pro-evolution (although I found the theologian to be annoyingly apologetic for religion, naturally enough; Denis Lamoureux is a weird and obnoxious kind of Christian who seems to use science as a tool to proselytize) and Nelson fulfills the stereotype: he opens the debate with a quotemine and gross misrepresentation. He claims that W. Ford Doolittle rejects common descent. He claims that this notion that “all living things share a common ancestor” is being challenged; unfortunately and misleadingly, he puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Doolittle would say that “all living things share a common ancestor”. Doolittle argues that there was a large pool of organisms down near the root of the tree of life that liberally swapped genes among one another, so that you can’t trace life back to a single common ancestor — you can trace it back to a large population where species distinctions were greatly blurred.

Misrepresentation of legitimate scientists it’s about all Nelson brings to the debate. It’s an excellent example of why it’s a waste of time to treat these kooks as fair and equal and trustworthy.

For another example, Nelson claims that one justification for pushing ID is that our past understanding of biology was flawed (not that he says anything that ID contributes to our current understanding). He claims that when he was in school he was taught that “cells are just bags of enzymes”, and that ID has revealed all these amazing, unexplainable “molecular machines.” Nelson is about my age or younger; when I was taught cell biology back in those same dark ages, I certainly was not taught any such nonsense. Compartments and transport, for instance, were major parts of the curriculum.

It’s not just that these creationists don’t understand biology — it’s that they actively lie about biology. Don’t trust them.

Mike Dunford has another recent example of Nelson mangling a scientific conclusion.


  1. #1 Brownian
    July 4, 2007

    Denis Lamoureux is relatively infamous at the U of Alberta (my alma mater) for his undergraduate “Science and Religion” classes. I’ve never been able to fit one in so I can’t say anything from first-hand experience, but PZ’s assessment seems pretty bang-on: most students I’ve talked to who’ve attended his class relayed a kind of starry-eyed science-is-just-so-neat-it-must-be-due-to-god attitude. He also gives serminars on the compatibility of science and religion, so students need not confront their religious beliefs.

    The sole skeptic I know who attended one of his classes found her perspective to be relatively unwelcome.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 4, 2007

    We can agree that clownschools aren’t good – clownfish reject the concept outright.

    a large population where species distinctions were greatly blurred.

    I’m not up to the list of technical details and differences, but this sounds a lot like a similarity to quasispecies. Besides viral quasispecies they are studied in abiogenesis, so I guess it is a population type that we would expect sooner or later looking back in time. Funny how creationists see magical barriers where biology see continuity.

    … that large pool of gene-swapping organisms all descended from a single ancestor [...] rather than suggest that the ribosome and the genetic code developed multiple times [...] gene-swapping, i.e. horizontal gene transfer, makes no sense at all without a shared genetic code

    I don’t see how any of that follows from models such as quasispecies, where distributed and unreliable replication is possible. And how do we test that?

    OTOH, the different nonhomologous families of RNA and DNA informational proteins have lead at least one researcher to suggest the three viruses, three domains theory. Look at his fig. 1 that shows one possibility, where DNA viruses split off from a DNA viral world to establish three different canonical DNA replication apparatuses in cell lineages from an RNA cellular world. He has some discussion on how to test this.

  3. #3 Brownian
    July 4, 2007

    Yup, I meant it, VWXYNot. Go ahead and use it all you like!

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