Pharyngula

Jonathan Wells recently gave a talk in Albuquerque at something called the “Forum on Science, Origins, and Design”, a conference about which I can find absolutely nothing on the web. I wasn’t there, of course, and I don’t get invited to these goofy events anyway, but I did get a copy of Wells’ powerpoint presentation from an attendee. It’s titled “DNA Does Not Control Embryo Development” — shall we look at it together? It’s really a hoot.

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Jonathan Wells has been exposed to a little bit of knowledge, just enough for him to regurgitate a few common phrases that are current in the developmental biology literature, and to pretend that he is profound and revolutionary. Nothing could be further from the truth — his title comes straight out of mainstream evo-devo. It’s actually rather funny, since there is a tiny bit of truth in what he says, but what’s true isn’t original with him, and it certainly doesn’t have the implications he thinks.

He starts with a few quotes to show that some scientists tend to have both a naive view of development, and tend to simplify a bit when speaking in public. Here’s James Watson:

We know that the instructions for how the egg develops into an adult are written in the linear sequence of bases along the DNA of the germ cells.

And Ken Miller:

Our genome is an “amazing script, carrying within it all of the instructions for building a human being.”

And Francis Collins:

The recipe for building the animal body is controlled by remarkably few genes.

Woo-hoo. These are all good scientists who are not developmental biologists, and who are guilty of the dreadful sin of over-simplification. It’s entirely true, however, that there is a tendency to reduce the role of the genes to an excessively narrow view of “control”, and it’s an attitude that many modern biologists would like to see broadened.

Wells missed a trick, though. There’s an even better source for this idea, in Richard Lewontin’s excellent little book, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Development(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll):

One of the most eminent molecular biologists, Sydney Brenner, speaking before a group of colleagues, claimed that if he had the complete sequence of DNA of an organism and a large enough computer then he could compute the organism. The symbolic irony of this remark is that it was made in the opening address of a meeting commemorating the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s death. A similar spirit motivates the claim by yet another major figure in molecular biology, Walter Gilbert, that when we have the complete sequence of the human genome “we will know what it means to be human.” Just as the metaphor of development implies a rigid internal predetermination of the organism by its genes, so the language used to describe the biochemistry of the genes themselves implies an internal self-sufficiency of DNA.

The rest of the book is very good, and continues along the same lines to point out the interdependency of genes, cytoplasm, and environment.

Oh, but wait — Wells can’t use that. If his point is that he and his creationist ilk are clever iconoclasts, it does no good to reveal that there are huge numbers of biologists, including evolutionary biologists, who have been arguing that the metaphor of control is invalid.

Besides, it’s silly for an IDist to be complaining about metaphor. The primary foundation of their rationalizations is an extended and inappropriate metaphor, that you can call molecules “machines” and pretend that that means they were built by designers in little factories.

Wells has a grander plan than to rebuke a few molecular biologists for sloppy language, though. Here’s the key point in his talk.

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See the “logic”? If some people think DNA controls development, and if those same people accept evolution, than by showing that DNA does not control development, then evolution must be false. It’s Wells’ familiar game of throwing dirt in random directions and hoping it will stick on a few biologists, so he can claim the whole field is wrong. It’s a rather absurd premise.

It’ll be interesting to see how he plans to claim this erroneous metaphor is central to “Darwinism”, since Darwin did not know anything DNA or genes, and didn’t have this metaphor at all. One solution, of course, is to just skip over the first 60 or 70 years of evolutionary biology and jump to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, when genes were incorporated into the theory.

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Uh, OK. It’s a summary of the synthesis that doesn’t mention Fisher and Wright and population genetics, Dobzhansky on genetics and speciation, Mayr and biogeography, Simpson and paleontology. It’s a bit cartoonish, especially since the first two points are purely Darwinian and precede the synthesis, and the fourth was also worked out prior to the synthesis by people like Morgan and Muller. And the third point…hey, wait a minute. Where’d that come from? That isn’t part of the neo-Darwinian synthesis!

Genes (DNA) carry all the essential hereditary information, and a “genetic program” controls embryo development.

Wells just tossed that in. We know that is not true, and we’ve known it for a long, long time. I mean, Wells is supposed to be a developmental biologist — he must know about, to name one example, the work of EG Conklin on ascidians around 1900, in which he mapped out the distribution of cytoplasmic determinants in the egg. The synthesis said almost nothing about development, and here’s Wells trying to pull a fast one and tell you that not only was development a key underpinning of the theory, but that a false metaphor was specifically part of the story.

It wasn’t. He’s making stuff up.

Shall we see some more made-up stuff?

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Heh. First day of class, first lecture in my developmental biology course, all I talk about is genomic equivalence. It’s very basic stuff: the cells in your body all have the same genes, but different cellular phenotypes. That’s the cool stuff in development, thinking about the way cell fates switch under regulatory control.

I don’t call it a “paradox”, though. Why would I? It’s like saying that the existence of “if” statements in computer science is a paradox! Conditional expression of subsets of genes is central to development — it’s hard to imagine differentiation occurring without it.

Here’s another weird one.

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This is a complete misrepresentation of the Klotz paper — it says no such thing. Here’s what the paper is actually about.

In addition to the DNA in the nucleus, cells also need many other components to function. One set of these extranuclear elements are various proteins associated with the cytoskeleton, an internal framework of tubular rods that run throughout the cell. In particular, there is a specific structure called the centrosome that is a kind of cytoskeletal organizing center — sort of like a seed crystal that acts as a starting point for growth. One special role for the centrosome is as an anchor point for the fibers upon which chromosomes shuttle about during cell division.

Sperm cells carry a centrosome as well as a nucleus. That centrosome appears to be important in triggering cell divisions. What Klotz and his coinvestigators did was take unfertilized frog eggs, prick them to trick them into responding as if sperm entry had occurred, and injected them with the centrosomic proteins. They demonstrated that the centrosomes were important for driving early cell divisions — they did not get complete frogs. Cell divisions eventually arrested, but some of the pseudo-fertilized eggs got as far as the tadpole stage.

We do similar things with zebrafish. Sometimes you want embryos that have only the maternal genes, and the way you do this is to suppress a meiotic division (so that the egg will be diploid rather than haploid), and fertilize it with sperm that has been so thoroughly irradiated that its genetic material has been destroyed, and all it is doing is carrying a centrosome and some other activating factors into the egg.

These experiments emphatically do not demonstrate that DNA does not matter — the cells have a full complement of maternal DNA. It does not demonstrate that the paternal centrosome is sufficient to generate a complete animal. This claim is complete bunk. Don’t just take my word for it: here’s the conclusion to the Klotz paper.

Taken together, these results are consistent with the idea that the whole or part of the centrosome structure acts as a seed to start the centrosome duplication cycle in Xenopus eggs.

That’s a more modest and far more appropriate interpretation of the results.

Next!

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Cool. Hox genes are always fun. Wells then gives an overview of the classification of genes by Nusslein-Volhard and Wieschaus, who found that there were early maternal effect genes, gap genes that block out broad chunks of the anterior-posterior axis, segmentation genes that partition the embryo into repeating elements, segment polarity genes that assign identity within a segment, and then the Hox genes, which give the segments special identities in the body plan. And then, this is his conclusion:

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This is an old theme for Wells. Hox genes aren’t the very first genes turned on in the embryo, so they must not be that important; in his previous books, he’s tried to make a similar case that because Haeckel’s phylotypic stage (the pharyngula in chordates) isn’t the earliest stage, and that there is more variation between classes of organisms in the earlier stages, evolution is false. It doesn’t follow.

Hox genes are activated relatively late in early development. That’s still early, at 4-5 weeks of development in humans. There are many other genes that are expressed later still, and they are seriously dependent on an appropriate earlier pattern of Hox gene expression. Developmental processes build on prior processes; this isn’t surprising at all.

It is true that flies have some positional information laid out before fertilization. This is also not a new revelation; I already mentioned the work of Conklin on ascidians, so we’ve known for over a century that many animals are mosaic, getting a headstart on spatial differentiation with a specific distribution of some informational molecules. This isn’t magic (AKA intelligent design), however — it’s generated by an asymmetrical arrangement of supporting cells in the ovary. Not all animals do this. One example: mammals! Our eggs don’t seem to have much, if any, spatial information initially, and all of the cells in the early blastula are mostly equivalent. Differences emerge progressively by interactions with each other and with neighboring tissues.

This next slide is amusing.

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Next time I see Fred Nijhout, I’m going to have to let him know that he is being cited by creationists. I think he’ll find it funny. Maybe.

That quote is from an excellent paper by Nijhout in which he takes the abuse of metaphors to task, and points out the flaws of the “control” and “program” models of the genome. Here’s the abstract.

In describing the flawless regularity of developmental processes and the correlation between changes at certain genetic loci and changes in morphology, biologists frequently employ two metaphors: that genes ‘control’ development, and that genomes embody ‘programs’ for development. Although these metaphors have an admirable sharpness and punch, they lead, when taken literally, to highly distorted pictures of developmental processes. A more balanced, and useful, view of the role of genes in development is that they act as suppliers of the material needs of development and, in some instances, as context-dependent catalysts of cellular changes, rather than as ‘controllers’ of developmental progress and direction. The consequences of adopting this alternative view of development are discussed.

Re-reading this paper, it looks like many of the correct ideas in Wells’ talk are lifted directly from it; the incorrect ones seem to be Wells’ own weird biased misinterpretation. What’s important, though, is that it actually invalidates Wells’ overall conclusion. He wants to claim that evolution is built partially on this premise of genetic “control”, yet here is a paper by a well-known evolutionary developmental biologist not only explaining that “control” is a poor metaphor, but discussing how evolutionary theory is made richer by a better and more accurate understanding of developmental processes! It’s as if Wells is ignoring everything Nijhout was writing except for a few statements that he could lift out of context and pretend that they are an attack on the foundation of evolutionary thought. (Yeah, I know. Big surprise.)

Let’s deal with Wells’ conclusion, finally.

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The floor plan of the embryo is in the form of spatial information that precedes DNA differentiation. This is not always true. It’s only the case in some animals. It doesn’t matter, though, since maternal factors are also the product of evolution…and are also produced by maternal genes.

Some of this spatial information is carried by the centrosome and cortex. This is true. It’s been recognized by biologists for a long, long time. Once again, the ID research program uncovers the obvious that real biologists have been discussing for a century.

There is evidence that both the centrosome and cortex are heritable independently of the DNA. Well, sort of true. Also sort of wrong. He’s making the complement of the mistake he’s accusing biologists of making. Just as you can’t say all the hereditary information is confined to DNA, you also can’t say that it’s the domain of the centrosome or cortex. The centrosomal proteins are gene products! What we’re really dealing with is a tangled web of interdependent processes.

So DNA does not determine all the essential characteristics of living things. It is necessary but not sufficient for embryo development. Yes. Again with the obvious, Mr Wells! Look, vehicle. Look, road. Which one is in charge of the route you will take from point A to point B? You need both. And biologists, including evolutionary biologists, have been aware of this for a long time.

The idea that genetic programs control embryo development is not an inference from evidence, but a deduction from neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Breathtaking nonsense. Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory says nothing of the kind, especially since it says almost nothing about development at all. You can actually see classical evolutionary biology as only saying there is a measurable correlation between the hereditary material (whatever it is; it wouldn’t even have to be nuclear) and the phenotype. The causal mechanisms that translate genes into form and function is the domain of developmental biology, which most other biological disciplines have simply treated as an abstraction.

I’d like to know what Wells actually said at his conclusion. I have to infer from his slides that he’s making a strange argument that heredity is not the product of DNA, and therefore the evolutionary evidence from genes and molecules is invalid. I know, that sounds awesomely stupid and it’s hard to believe anyone could stand up in public and say it, but that’s the thrust of his presentation. Then again, Wells has been willing to say lots of stupid things in his books, so I shouldn’t be surprised that he’d do likewise in his lectures.

Comments

  1. #1 Sauve
    February 2, 2009

    Oh dear. My embryol prof would love to see this.

  2. #2 JD
    February 2, 2009

    So ontogeny really does “regurgitate” phylogeny.

  3. #3 Stanton
    February 2, 2009

    Once I jokingly suggested that Mr Wells hired other people to do his homework and labwork for him when he was taking classes to get his Cell Biology degree.
    After looking at this catastrophic, bone-draining brainfart of his, I think I hit a horrific bull’s eye with my summary of his college career.

  4. #4 Stanton
    February 2, 2009

    Also, Professor Myers, you’re far too charitable when you use “weird” to describe this.

    The term “appallingly moronic” is far far more accurate.

  5. #5 Jadehawk
    February 2, 2009

    I’m just curious at which point during the whole thing he squeezed in the “and here’s where God whispers to the cells within the zygote to tell them exactly how to develop” line. you just know it had to be in there somewhere.

  6. #6 szqc
    February 2, 2009

    I said in the Durston thread that Durston would be dishonest rather than stupid; Jonathan “Captain Obvious and Blovious” Wells seems both.

    I second Sauve’s comments: my embryology and development prof would enjoy hammering at Wells also (he is more of a plant guy but one of the best here in Canada – kinda resembles an older PZ with the same mellow voice in person but get him going on bullshit and the evisceration begins).

  7. #7 JD
    February 2, 2009

    If Wells discovers that epigenetic inheritance is carried by gnomes on the Seattle Center Monorail, modern synthesis will be dismantled.

    We must stop him!

  8. #8 Quotidian Torture
    February 2, 2009

    PZ, you’ll be happy to know that you’ve just melted my mind with your science-speak. See, this is why I’m majoring in architecture. Buildings are so much easier to comprehend than biology. And “Intelligent Design” isn’t something we have to worry about. At least not when the clients get involved.

  9. #9 QrazyQat
    February 2, 2009

    It’s too bad evolution isn’t a religion; incantations of “Richard Lewontin, Richard Lewontin, Richard Lewontin” would banish any of these twerps back to their netherworld. But then it does anyway, if you add a bit of his work after the incantation. Have I mentioned how much I like Richard Lewontin’s work? :)

  10. #10 Bckcntry
    February 2, 2009

    See, this is why I have trouble arguing with intelligent designees. Here you have an “expert” totally misinterpreting previous research and adding a little bullshit. Then laymen IDiots come along and totally misinterpret that and add even more bullshit.

    As a layman NEODARWINIST(thunderclap) I’m at a complete loss. I know what’s being said is babble but it’s hard to argue. Praise Lewontin I found this site. It’s given me a lot of ammo (so to speak) to use against ridiculousness.

  11. #11 ryanm
    February 2, 2009

    PZ,
    I may be confused, but I think you accidentally used “centromere” a couple of times when you intended to use “centrosome.” Excellent post, btw.

  12. #12 bradley
    February 2, 2009

    “See the “logic”? If some people think DNA controls development, and if those same people accept evolution, than by showing that DNA does not control development, then evolution must be false. It’s Wells’ familiar game of throwing dirt in random directions and hoping it will stick on a few biologists, so he can claim the whole field is wrong. It’s a rather absurd premise.”

    i am not familiar with this wells fellow or his tendencies but i doubt that he cares to smear a few biologists, it doesn’t help him in the long term.
    what linking these two theories (no matter how poorly) does is convince people who do not have a background in science (and need the metaphors to understand what the heck is happening) that evolution is not as valid as they had hoped. he doesn’t have to (nor can i imagine he is academic enough to even dream about) prove evolution wrong. he just wants to toss a blanket of doubt over as many people as possible then cuddle up to them and sell his theory

    if he smears a biologist it just means that he won’t be able to misquote them later (unless the audience is particularly clueless –which i guess could include me since i do not know what most biologist have said or what mr. wells has said about them in the past– but nonetheless it would be in poor taste, even for a creationist).
    smearing a biologist or proving a theory wrong doesn’t win anyone over to his bogus theories. most of these folks are glorified door to door sales people who are trying to sell something. if you are trying to sell something (that doesn’t work) you have to look rational, open, kind and thoughtful not hateful, angry, biased and crazy.
    the ultimate goal isn’t to bash science it is to convert people to their theories to make money.

  13. #13 clinteas
    February 2, 2009

    Fascinating to see how Creationists often use a little bit of real science to smuggle in their lies and distortions,whether its Durston,or Wells here,or Behe,they all use the same tactics,assuming that their usual audience wont be able to tell the actual science apart from the distortions.
    Nice one,PZ.

  14. #14 Lynn David
    February 2, 2009

    So why then should each go after its own kind in a Wells world? Might as well have humans giving birth to cows.

  15. #15 foxfire
    February 2, 2009

    PZ, do you ever sleep? Your relentless energy in combating the forces of woo with logic, reason and observation (not to mention very excellent teaching/writing skill) is truly astounding and laudable.

    What I don’t understand about these people (the ID crowd) is the time, money and energy they waste trying acquire agreement that the obvious (scientific theory in various fields is not yet complete) must somehow lead to the ridiculous:
    - Science cannot yet perfectly explain everything, therefore:
    - The ultimate explanation must be non-natural, therefore:
    - The book designed by committee in the 4th century C.E., that consists of creation myths of a certain middle eastern bronze age tribe of semi-nomadic, paternalistic sheep herders and 1st century C.E. savior-hero (Messiah)tales, must be literally true and beyond question.

    Yeah, that logic really works for me.

    Keep on truckin’, PZ!

  16. #16 Phillip
    February 2, 2009

    I bet Wells is one of those religous nuts who got a biology degree for the sole purpose to ‘attack it from the inside’ and use his credentials to make him more credible when he’s talking about anti-evolution stuff.

  17. #17 Tatarize
    February 2, 2009

    Yeah, Phillip, you can bet the Moon on that prediction.

  18. #18 davem
    February 2, 2009

    “Just as you can’t say all the hereditary information is confined to DNA”

    And there was me, thinking that it did. I obviously need to do some reading. Anyone have a recommendation for reading for a layman like myself to catch up?

  19. #19 ngong
    February 2, 2009

    Debunk AND teach! My favorite sort of Pharyngula post.

  20. #20 Christophe Thill
    February 2, 2009

    Let me try to reconstruct Wells’ twisted reasoning. Darwinian evolution needs variation between individuals, but it also needs at least one part of this variation to be inherited. That’s what we know. Wells mentally adds: “inherited through DNA”. So when he finds stuff that is inherited through another channel or other processes, he thinks that Dawrinian evolution is proven false.

    Philip (#16): if you really never heard about Wells before… well, I can only say that you guessed right.

  21. #21 Gravy Dragon
    February 2, 2009

    This guy can’t seriously have a degree in Cell Biology can he? Someone was joking when they said that right?

  22. #22 amph
    February 2, 2009

    If ?teaching the controversy? would consist of a series of articles like this post, tearing apart the lies and stupidities of the creationists, and at the same time revealing how it really works, then maybe it would not be such a bad idea.

    davem: go to PubMed and type: epigenetics. 4866 reviews.

  23. #23 Kevin Beck
    February 2, 2009

    When the title page of a PowerPoint presentation on a biology topic includes “Ph.D (theology),” it can’t be a good sign. When it further includes, in a larger font, “Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute,” there can be no question not only that what follows is a joke, but also that the anticipated audience includes science ingenues and dupes at best.

  24. #25 Raiko
    February 2, 2009

    I can totally see how people would get so confused by the lecture, they actually believe there’s a point to it. It’s not only bad in contents, like all creationist presentations, it’s also a really bad presentation when it comes to structure and layout. Deliver this with the usual over-speed at which creationists tend to slap their pseudo-evidence at you (like a machine gun, sort of), and you’ll have the audience’s ears bleeding into their brains just enough to buy this nonsense.

  25. #26 Matt Heath
    February 2, 2009

    To the people who turn up here from time to time, see non-science posts and bitch about this not being a science blog: read the above and STFU.

    This rocked.

  26. #27 strangest brew
    February 2, 2009

    Well as has been mentioned the whole con is directed at folks with vague and probably out of date knowledge of a few principles and terminology used in Biology.

    It is doubtful any such knowledge goes deeper then cursory familiarity…certainly not down to the evolutionary or even developmental biology level…

    Which is a fundamental criteria required by Creation drones when a presentation is made!

    They need minds that are uncluttered with reality otherwise their crap does not work…simple like so!

    They say that open mindedness is the point…well actually no it is not.. is is ignorance and a pre-disposition to woo hysterics…

    Otherwise these clowns will have no audience!

  27. #28 ConcernedJoe
    February 2, 2009

    Another damn excellent post PZ – great education

    One thing that struck me was that “even I know better and I’m no PhD!” re: Wells’ garbage. But then, I suspect Wells does too.

    Again I warn:

    Arguing for public approval with a creationist requires great teaching and persuasive skills. It is not about the facts mostly.

    The “professional” creationist need only capitalize on weaknesses in the way humans grasp things — the “human nature” of how we perceive and make sense of what we perceive — to sway the enough people have some success.

    Their speak fits the “mental model” we are born with (simply speaking) when it comes to our making sense of things large in time or space or numbers. We are also born expecting a cause for things, a cause that we can quickly understand and disposition. It takes years of education by competent educators and dedicated study to overcome our built-in proclivity toward flawed intuitions, perceptions, and conclusions.

    Professional creationists like professional level magicians and/or illusionists know that humans are easily tricked if these flaws are exploited and especially if the target audience lacks detailed knowledge and feels entertained and have their guards down or is otherwise made comfortable.

    To fight Wells and that ilk one must first show people the mechanism of their tricks — so people see they’re being tricked. This cannot start with expecting people to understand the facts – nor need it.

    “Our” first order of business is to help people to rightly view them as illusionists — and that their end points no matter how seemingly real to us in the audience are probably not real (not truth) but only illusions.

    IMHO for example PZ’s post did a great job at exposing facts and a good job at showing the tricks. FOR THIS BLOG ENTRY IT WAS A PERFECT MIX!! However for the masses — if it was used for a debate for instance — I feel one would have to sharpen the latter and marginalize somewhat (to the hip pocket) the former.

  28. #29 Jeremy
    February 2, 2009

    Whoa, that felt quite educational. Thanks for the scientific post, made me feel like I was back in college again.

  29. #30 NewEnglandBob
    February 2, 2009

    Wells, Dembski and Behe – the Three Stooges of Creationism;
    ideological sons of Philip Johnson – the first IDiot

    All denizens of the Discovery Institute – the genesis of illogic, obfuscation and deceit.

    But don’t forget Wells’s Unification church – moonies and other crazies who believe Jeebus showed up in Korea in 1935.

    Wow – a stellar collection of mental midgets!

  30. #31 James F
    February 2, 2009

    I’m amazed that Wells was accepted into Berkeley’s MCB Ph.D. program in the first place. He was third author on a Development paper and second on a PNAS paper, both of which were published after he got his Ph.D., which also surprises me.

    And what does he do all day? He’s certainly not doing scientific research, so I guess he prepares for talks and works on the draft of whatever his next antievolution screed will be. But seriously…is that all he does with his time?

  31. #32 KnockGoats
    February 2, 2009

    Excellent post – evo-devo rocks!

  32. #33 AnthonyK
    February 2, 2009

    Sounds to me very like the quote (but from whom?):

    “What’s true is not original, and what’s original is not true”

  33. #36 Porco Dio
    February 2, 2009

    criekey PZ, why pepper your blog with this garbage? wife wasn’t home? nothing on TV again?

    c’mon, really…. does such a brainless twat deserve so much coverage?

    you could’ve debunked him in 3 sentences…

    other than this, you’re my hero.

  34. #37 Lorax
    February 2, 2009

    Glad I work on a microbe! I guess for the first couple of billion years evolution is AOK. Wells seems to only have a problem with multicellularity and cellular differentiation. I wonder where Mr. Wells draws the line, human are clearly the product of Odin, since cats are similar in developmental process they must be too, which means we have to include fish, and insects…but what about sponges? Did Odin design Dictyostelium, they at least have a partial part of their life as multicellular differentiated organisms…screw it, back to work on yeast.

  35. #38 AnthonyK
    February 2, 2009

    I’m sure you’ll all enjoy this (from “respectful insolence”:
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/02/tom_minchin_on_confronting_alternative_m.php
    Ten minutes not wasted!

  36. #39 Emmet, OM
    February 2, 2009

    Who was it who quipped that a work was ?both good and original, but the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original??

  37. #40 Christophe Thill
    February 2, 2009

    Meanwhile, our friends at New Scientist are at it again.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126935.300-ancient-creature-points-to-parallel-evolution.html

    “According to conventional thinking, simple animals, including sponges, jellyfish and corals, evolved step-by-step in a linear fashion into those with more complex bodies, such as mammals.”

    This doesn’t look very “conventional” to me…

  38. #41 MH
    February 2, 2009

    Thanks AnthonyK (#38), that was fantastic!

    And bravo PZ.

  39. #42 Nerd of Redhead
    February 2, 2009

    Good summary PZ. I could easily digest it even before I had any coffee.

  40. #43 Tim
    February 2, 2009

    Sorry to ask…but what is that term that means that someone writing about religion can never write something so stupid that i won’t be believed by other?

  41. #44 slpage
    February 2, 2009

    What I don’t get about these “genes are not important” types is how they think they can just ignore very obviously gene-related malformations and knock-out experiments. If genes were so inconsequential, why is it that mutations in them or having them removed can produce phenotypic consequences?
    And, of course, what then was DNA ‘designed’ for?

    They never have an answer.

  42. #45 Ashley Moore
    February 2, 2009

    So, Wells’ thesis is that not only is God the designer, but he is an appallingly bad designer and must constantly tinker with the design to get it to work properly?

  43. #46 Tulse
    February 2, 2009

    I don’t understand the ultimate goal of Well’s argument — if it is to promote ID, then what about all the other IDers who argue that there’s no junk DNA? And how does the dethroning of genes provide evidence for ID, since surely some physical mechanism must be involved in the transmission of hereditary information and the shaping of development — is every embryo supposed to be a literal miracle? Wells seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and all just to score some minor point about ideology.

  44. #47 Ashley Moore
    February 2, 2009

    Tim @ #43,

    Poe’s Law

  45. #48 Holbach
    February 2, 2009

    NewEnglandBob @ 30

    Good post and right on the mark. I loathe all four of these slime cretins. I would have written, “all inmates of the Deranged Institute”. And we wonder why Science is finding it hard to advance in its logical course.

  46. #49 maddogdelta
    February 2, 2009

    This guy seems almost well versed on some published documents. Apparently he needs a refresher on Leviticus 19:11 Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.

    But I guess the NT wiped all that stuff out…

  47. #50 J-Dog
    February 2, 2009

    Bwa Ha Ha!

    This guy IS a marooon! I give him an “F” just for his Power Point presentation! Utter dreck.

    And he doesn’t even reference his “Father Moonie” sponsor and leanings!

  48. #51 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    February 2, 2009

    The value of Creationism and Intelligent Design is high, in that it creates “teachable moments” such as this. Seriously… Show of hands everyone:

    How many of us lay people would never have given a second glance backwards towards our biology classes had it not been for creationists? I know that creationists did me a huge favor. Since I started hearing them and checking up on them, I have found biology and evolution to be much more fascinating than I had ever thought it was when I was in high school.

    Thanks, PZ!

  49. #52 LisaJ
    February 2, 2009

    Wow, beautifully done PZ. That guy really is something else. I feel compelled to add what I feel is another terrible aspect to his talk: those slides. Where are the pictures? They’re too wordy. And those overlapping letters on the title page… ugh. That couldn’t have been a very engaging or visually appealing talk, besides all of that made up crap he would have spewed.

  50. #53 clinteas
    February 2, 2009

    ConcernedJoe @ 28 said

    Professional creationists like professional level magicians and/or illusionists know that humans are easily tricked if these flaws are exploited and especially if the target audience lacks detailed knowledge and feels entertained and have their guards down or is otherwise made comfortable.

    Why though? What compels these people to lie,distort and misrepresent? I just dont get that part of it.

    Larkin comes to mind:

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

  51. #54 Robert
    February 2, 2009

    Davem @18:

    “Just as you can’t say all the hereditary information is confined to DNA”

    And there was me, thinking that it did. I obviously need to do some reading. Anyone have a recommendation for reading for a layman like myself to catch up?

    The simplest metaphor that works is that, while DNA does have the hereditary information required, there’s missing context. That context is provided by the development environment – the mother, who is a product of her DNA.

    So, if DNA is the “blueprint of life”, the blueprint needs to be sent to the right factory to be followed. A consequence of this is that environmental factors have hereditary impact – e.g malnutrition as a child will impact development of the female reproductive organs, which will impact foetal development of the next generation.

    (Another consequence is that mammalian DNA can be simpler than, say, frog DNA. This is because the mammalian “factory” includes nice features such as temperature & humidity regulation, which the open-pond environment used by frogs does not)

    A nice layman-oriented read would be Darwin’s Watch.

  52. #55 GorunNova
    February 2, 2009

    Ugh… I wonder how many people saw that presentation and, not knowing the background behind it, accepted it at face value?

    I can’t believe how people who claim to be good religious folk can lie straight faced about what scientific theory says and not feel the least bit guilty about it. Apparently, they’d better dust off their Bibles and reread Commandment #9.

    … you know? The one about false witness? :/

  53. #56 charley
    February 2, 2009

    T_U_T @ 34

    I’m interested in your buglist of human cognition link, but it doesn’t work.

  54. #57 AJ Milne
    February 2, 2009

    Apparently, they’d better dust off their Bibles and reread Commandment #9. … you know? The one about false witness? :/

    There is something more than a bit appalling about these guys. I sometimes feel a little pity for the ones you figure are maybe just regurgitating BS they heard elsewhere, maybe not too bright, and/or not too grounded in the science itself, laymen taken in by a presentation just like the one Wells gave…

    And then there’s the guys like Wells himself. A man who goes to the trouble to read those papers, cursorily at least, construct a set of distortions from them he can hope will pass muster with anyone who doesn’t know the science, and which require reading of those specific papers to demonstrate the quote mining even for those who do…

    Even giving him the benefit of what little doubt remains about deliberate distortion, even imagining maybe the guy’s just been fooling himself so long* that he reads the papers and sees what he wants to see before even having a hope of grasping what he’s actually reading, pity isn’t the emotion that comes to me first.

    Disgust, that’s first. Pity takes a while longer.

  55. #58 AJ Milne
    February 2, 2009

    (*Missing footnote from above: and note that even if that’s the case, those earlier lies to himself are really no less disgusting. Either way, I find I remain most unimpressed. A con who fools himself first so he may lie more convincingly later is no less a con.)

  56. #59 Rob
    February 2, 2009

    Im sorry, but Wells is an A**hole. Im a postdoc working at a leading research institution in the US. I spend 80+ hours a week at work, getting paid a relative pittance. I am working hard for data and try contribute to the body of scientific information, that makes the world a better place. Im so furious when these idiots misrepresent hard won evidence for their own personal financial and political gains.

  57. #60 Peter Ashby
    February 2, 2009

    What is interesting is that in the Discovery Institute religious dogma is a somewhere you don’t go. People who would be truly horrified if their children became Moonies or Mormons or SDAs tolerate and laud people who are just because they are also creationists. The truth is that if they were to win there would be a bloodbath within.

    I am reminded of the line The Handmaid’s Tale where the radio reports mopping up operations against a few Baptists in the hills. These people should be careful what they wish for.

  58. #61 Nanu Nanu
    February 2, 2009

    NANU NO UNDERSTAND POST

    POST MAKE NANU FEEL STUPID
    NANU BECOME CREATIONIST AND MAKE ARGUMENTS FROM IGNORANCE

    His slides remind me of the Jeopardy color scheme. couls you imagine creationist jeopardy? hahaha… ew.

  59. #62 Eamon Knight
    February 2, 2009

    For ages I’ve been hearing creationists hammer on the metaphor about genes being “information” and “code” to make an organism, and of course it requires a Mind to create “coded information” yadda-yadda. And now Wells reverses course? Could be fun to invoke Wells against the next person who tries to pull that one, and watch their head explode ;-).

  60. #63 CJ
    February 2, 2009

    So DNA does not determine all the essential characteristics of living things. It is necessary but not sufficient for embryo development. Yes. Again with the obvious, Mr Wells! Look, vehicle. Look, road. Which one is in charge of the route you will take from point A to point B? You need both. And biologists, including evolutionary biologists, have been aware of this for a long time.

    See the trouble we get into when we try to simplify using metaphors/analogies – the vehicle is not a necessity, it just gets us there a lot faster.

    I recall when the Human Genome Project had just begun and all of the over-reaching statements were made about what knowing the entire sequence would do for us and I always said that while it certainly wasn’t much ado about nothing it was much ado about not so much.

    The most pressing question I have with regard to Wells’ presentation is how does someone like this get a PhD in Biology from Berkeley (the faculty must be so proud)?

  61. #64 Steve_C
    February 2, 2009

    Holy Crap those slides are ugly… it almost fulfills the Timecube promise of bad design indicates a certain level of disconnect from reality.

  62. #65 Tulse
    February 2, 2009

    For ages I’ve been hearing creationists hammer on the metaphor about genes being “information” and “code” to make an organism, and of course it requires a Mind to create “coded information” yadda-yadda. And now Wells reverses course?

    Exactly — isn’t Well’s argument exactly counter to those IDers who argue for the sophistication of DNA? Did someone not explain the strategy to him?

  63. #66 Bodach
    February 2, 2009

    Yay, Science! Wells is the Mooney guy, right? Someone should publish a deck of ID cards, so I can remember who these guys are. I’d buy a couple copies.

  64. #67 Janine, Queen of Assholes
    February 2, 2009

    But I thought this was a science blog.

  65. #68 Peter Ashby
    February 2, 2009

    I recall when the Human Genome Project had just begun and all of the over-reaching statements were made about what knowing the entire sequence would do for us and I always said that while it certainly wasn’t much ado about nothing it was much ado about not so much.

    Depends on your focus. For those people into tracking synteny groups across time genome sequences are a wonderful resource and we have learnt a lot about how important maintaining groupings of adapted genes together is, regardless of which chromosome boxes they get flung into. Also the boom in SNPs etc in mapping disease genes. It was certainly possible to positionally clone disease genes prior to the genome sequence but these days it is so very much easier. The relatively small number of genes settled the debate in favour of those studying gene regulation because it became a matter of not what we have but how we use it that matters. A huge proportion of our genome is expressed in the brain at some time and place compared to a mouse.

    Also there was genuine debate over how many genes we had prior to the genome sequence. I started my postdoc career in ’93 when the idea, apparently, was that you cloned your unique gene, found it’s conserved sequence and the family to which it belonged and your career was set. There were certainly people about like Robin Lovell-Badge and Sry for eg (not that he is not a good scientist). Those like me who came from more traditional Dev Biol backgrounds looked on this diamond mining frenzy with some puzzlement since it was obvious that environment was very important. That was the whole point of the classic ‘transplant this organiser tissue to a new place and see what happens’ was all about.

  66. #69 Blake Stacey
    February 2, 2009

    [B]iologists frequently employ two metaphors: that genes ‘control’ development, and that genomes embody ‘programs’ for development. Although these metaphors have an admirable sharpness and punch, they lead, when taken literally, to highly distorted pictures of developmental processes. A more balanced, and useful, view of the role of genes in development is that they act as suppliers of the material needs of development and, in some instances, as context-dependent catalysts of cellular changes, rather than as ‘controllers’ of developmental progress and direction.

    A person in a Puckish mood might argue that this means, in other words, genes really do embody “programs”, if you’re used to how programs really work — particularly in a massively parallel, networked situation, where everything is an interdependent, horribly complicated ruttin’ mess.

  67. #70 Lee Picton
    February 2, 2009

    Thanks, PZ, I wish I could go back to college and take biology courses from you. I had to read your dissection three times before I understood it (more or less), and that in itself gave me pause. Had I been exposed only to the original lecture, my (inadequate) background in biology would have tempted me to give it credence – and this is EXACTLY what these disingenuous creeps are counting on. My only recourse would have been to check the academic’s credentials – Whew! The Discovery Institute! That at least would have made me suspicious, but what is one to do when the means for skepticism are not at hand? It is a never-ending battle.

  68. #71 BlueIndependent
    February 2, 2009

    “I don’t understand the ultimate goal of Well’s argument — if it is to promote ID, then what about all the other IDers who argue that there’s no junk DNA? And how does the dethroning of genes provide evidence for ID, since surely some physical mechanism must be involved in the transmission of hereditary information and the shaping of development — is every embryo supposed to be a literal miracle? Wells seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and all just to score some minor point about ideology.”

    I think the ultimate goal of their continuing efforts is to repeatedly make a number of seemingly related but entirely disconnected, separate assertions that what science shows is fundamentally false, and that it is false based on human non-perfection. What I think they are trying to imply through that is that evolutionary theory is inherently invalid and thus evil, because humans devised it, and sinful humans devising such grand stories that are false is an affront to their god and their way of life because they assume it’s to confuse the great unwashed they’re trying to otherwise convert. I think Wells would say of other creationist strains that they aren’t necessarily wrong either, or that he would give some foot shuffling answer such as “see, the evidence for evolution is so messy, nobody can understand it, and we get all these different possibilities. How can anybody keep it all straight and expect us to believe it?” I’m guessing that would be one way he’d try to couch it.

    But your question is certainly correct: How does “dethroning” genes prove ID? It of course doesn’t even if genes were dethroned. The only dethroning occurs through an absolute vacuum of evidence for anything else, assuming again that genes were in fact dethroned. Wells is claiming that godidit for a lack of research and study, even if his suggestions were even remotely true. So, I guess we could say that Wells is saying that, in a total lack of evidence for anything else, godidit! Which means that he must be saying that since we in fact do have evidence for other things, that godidit must be false!

    But to be sure, Wells and his ilk are claiming that because humans are flawed, they cannot be trusted to come up with anything inherently good, especially if that thing does not come from their god. It’s a line of thinking that fits quite well with their top-down obeyance of musty books from ages past. But I do note that as PZ pointed out above, Wells starts with an agreeable point, and ends in an entirely incorrect place based on religiously biased conditions.

  69. #72 T_U_T
    February 2, 2009

    the link again buglist dont know why it got unclickable

  70. #73 TheNaturalist
    February 2, 2009

    How is it that somebody like me with no formal training in biology knows this is crap but a guy with a Phd. doesn’t?

  71. #74 ConcernedJoe
    February 2, 2009

    Clinteas #53

    Because one or all of these:

    1. they are RWA (brain is wired such) so they feel compelled to support dogma they been told to accept than support rationality and facts (or even to recognize them). A form of mild insanity but the other qualities of loyalty and sacrifice to a cause make RWA’s useful at times so they exist and will continue to exist.

    2. they are batdung insane

    3. they have significant prestige, power, and/or money to gain in a relatively easy fashion

    4. they have some other motivation to put forth a “noble lie” for some greater good in their mind

    5. they are absolutely incredibly PURPOSELY stupid

    6. they are batdung insane (oh did I say that?)

    7. they are absolutely incredibly PURPOSELY stupid (oh did I say that?)

  72. #75 spits
    February 2, 2009

    It’s too early for this…

    I saw the first slide and had to do a double take. Really? I mean, really?

  73. #76 Aquaria
    February 2, 2009

    My migraine is too horrible this morning to follow this too closely. All I can say is that this “presentation: looks like the youtube stills of a 15 year old who’s just read Ayn Rand for the first time, and wants to “share” some “insights” about her new BFF (never mind that the deranged cow is dead–Sh!).

    I think I’ll go throw up now.

  74. #77 Pierce R. Butler
    February 2, 2009

    Personally, I prefer the Wells whose words were delivered alongside all this by the Pharyngula Random Quote Generator:

    I do not believe I have any immortality. The greatest evil in the world today is the Christian religion.
    [H.G. Wells]

    davem @ # 18 – Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is often & highly recommended as an “evo-devo” intro.

    And to all those complaining about the lamentable esthetics of these slides – don’t they come straight out of some PowerPoint template? (insert “design” joke here)

  75. #78 Falyne
    February 2, 2009

    *stands and applauds*

    Bravo, good sir, bravo! A truly marvelous scholarly evisceration!

  76. #79 ThirtyFiveUp
    February 2, 2009

    Matt Heath #26

    “To the people who turn up here from time to time, see non-science posts and bitch about this not being a science blog: read the above and STFU.
    This rocked.”

    What he said.

  77. #80 Sparkomatic
    February 2, 2009

    @71
    Still, the Disco Inst. must do some serious yoga to accomplish the contortions necessary to go from,

    “Although these metaphors have an admirable sharpness and punch, they lead, when taken literally, to highly distorted pictures of developmental processes. A more balanced, and useful, view of the role of genes in development is that they act as suppliers of the material needs of development and, in some instances, as context-dependent catalysts of cellular changes, rather than as ‘controllers’ of developmental progress and direction. The consequences of adopting this alternative view of development are discussed.”

    to evolution completely false ergo Godidit. You have to wonder if at some level they must be conscious of the disingenuous nature of their endeavors. The elaborate cherry-picking would seem to indicate they must. Is this simply another example of lying for Jesus or do they really hold the strength of their convictions?

  78. #81 Pierce R. Butler
    February 2, 2009

    OTOH, on another post here, the Pharyngula Random Quote Generator said,

    The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.

    Richard Dawkins

  79. #82 John
    February 2, 2009

    …because Haeckel’s phylotypic stage (the pharyngula in chordates)…

    DRINK!

  80. #83 hje
    February 2, 2009

    Oh noes! Wellz can has intelligent development!?!!!

    What’s next? Will IDers argue that Brownian motion is not random (each molecule is pushed by God to its next destination).

  81. #84 Shirley Knott
    February 2, 2009

    Well, #83, the step after that will be to explain that not all prayers are answered because He is still coloring in the innermost details of the graphic rendering of the classic Mandelbrot set.
    Clearly, if God did not design the ultimate endpoint of the evaluation of that little equation, and did not fill in all the intermediate details at every stage, then it would not have been possible.

    no hugs for thugs,
    Shirley Knott

  82. #85 minimalist
    February 2, 2009

    Man, it’s been over 3 years now, when are we going to see the results of his earth-shattering research into Centrioles, Cancer, and, Like… Stuff

    I mean, I realize that a restless genius like Wells is always looking ahead, but surely he should publish the results of his last paradigm-subverting effort!

  83. #86 Ivar Husa
    February 2, 2009

    Another great, educational post, along with insightful comments (most, anyway). I am anjoying my read of Endless Forms Most Beautiful, taking it up on PZ’s recommendation.

  84. #87 DebinOz
    February 2, 2009

    This guy has a PhD from UCB? Now I am really depressed. I have one of those from UCB in epidemiology, and Mary-Claire King (a geneticist) was on my orals committee. I’m sure she will be horrified!!!

  85. #88 Rob Davidson
    February 2, 2009

    Lewontin’s great ‘n all, but he lost me quite a lot with his Ed Wilson-bashing dogma in the 70s and 80s

  86. #89 prl
    February 2, 2009

    Bodach @66

    Yay, Science! Wells is the Mooney guy, right? Someone should publish a deck of ID cards, so I can remember who these guys are. I’d buy a couple copies.

    It’d have to be a special deck of cards. An ordinary one only has two jokers and four knaves.

  87. #90 eddie
    February 2, 2009

    Pierce @81 makes a very good point about how science isn’t about argument from authority but about following the evidence wherever it leads.

    Maybe the Random Quote Generator is a secret creationist. I’ve hat occasion to question it in the past.

  88. #91 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 2, 2009

    I feel compelled to add what I feel is another terrible aspect to his talk: those slides. Where are the pictures? They’re too wordy. And those overlapping letters on the title page… ugh.

    And Times New Roman. Times New Roman looks great on a screen, but it’s fucking illegible when projected! The thin parts of the letters just, like, disappear.

    As a whole, the design doesn’t come out of a PowerPoint template, but Times New Roman was the default in PowerPoint for Windows for a long time.

    How is it that somebody like me with no formal training in biology knows this is crap but a guy with a Phd. doesn’t?

    I’m not sure if he really doesn’t know it’s crap, but I know he doesn’t care about whether it’s crap. After all, he starts with his conclusion, and that’s the Irreverend Sun Myung Moon. He doesn’t care about how to arrive at that conclusion. Fuck evidence, fuck reality, and the horses they rode in on, for Wells knows The Truth™. Read for yourself:

    Father [Moon]‘s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

    – Jonathan Wells, Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.

  89. #92 Monado
    February 2, 2009

    DaveM, maybe Carl Zimmer’s “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea”? It’s a textbook on the basic concepts of evolution that you can read like a novel. And perhaps his “Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs” about developmental controls and macroevolution. And http://www.epigeneticsnews.com/

  90. #93 Monado
    February 2, 2009

    Facebook has an English (Pirate) beta setting!

    If you click on the language for a page in Facebook, there’s an option to translate into Pirate. And they are asking for help building their lexicon, or concordance, or whatever the hell it’s called.

  91. #94 Gelf
    February 2, 2009

    I direct your attention to the fact that not only do many people believe that Santa Claus exists, but they also believe that God exists.

    This is not just a coincidence; there is a logical and historical connection between the two.

    …there you go, I just disproved God. That was easier than I expected.

  92. #95 Mr Twiddle
    February 2, 2009

    I often wish that I could present the Creationist’s arguments that I encounter to an expert for proper evaluation rather than having to go it alone. So it was with a sense of great pleasure and sublime satisfaction that I read through Professor Myers’ analyzation and refutation of Wells’ argument. I would like to see a lot more of this.

  93. #96 melior
    February 2, 2009

    Adding to the beautiful complexity of the story, we’re learning even more about the functionality of many non-protein-encoding DNA sequences.

    Standard “textbook” genes encode RNAs that are translated into proteins, and mammalian genomes harbor about 20,000 such protein-coding genes. Some genes, however, encode functional RNAs that are never translated into proteins. These include a handful of classical examples known for decades and some recently discovered classes of tiny RNAs, such as microRNAs.

    By contrast, the newly discovered lincRNAs are thousands of bases long. Because only about ten examples of functional lincRNAs were known previously, they seemed more like genomic oddities than critical components. The new Nature study shows that there are actually thousands of such genes and that they have been conserved across mammalian evolution.

  94. #97 ospalh
    February 3, 2009

    [nitpick]
    If you can’t use an umlaut in Mrs Nüsslein-Volhard’s name, it sould be transcribed as Nuesslein-Volhard
    [/nitpick]

  95. #98 Chas
    February 3, 2009

    I live in Albuquerque and heard nothing about the Forum (I read the paper thoroughly, too). I suspect it was put on by a local church, hence the lack of publicity on the intertubes.

  96. #99 David vun Kannon, FCD
    February 3, 2009

    Since the cytoplasm and all its contents are gene products, all he’s saying is that development is controlled by your genes, plus your parents genes. Sounds different when you say it that way.

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