Pharyngula

Via Sandwalk, this is a clip of Paul Nelson praising Jonathan Wells and his godawful gemisch of bad scholarship and lies, Icons of Evolution. They were making a big to-do over the ten-year anniversary of publication of this ghastly hackwork, and here Nelson is piously praising the premise.

It’s infuriatingly dishonest. Notice what he repeats over and over: the textbooks “diverge from the actual evidence,” they’re “out of touch with the actual evidence,” we “need to take these standard stories back to the evidence.” This, from the Discovery Institute, a propaganda mill with no evidence for their fantasies about design at all. There is such an egregious disconnect between what Nelson says and what he and his cronies do that I half-expected his sanctimonious head to explode. If you’re an intelligent design creationists, you do not have the privilege of hectoring others about evidence.

Furthermore, he’s spewing this nonsense in praise of Icons of Evolution, a book to which honesty and evidence are words in a strange foreign language…yet Nelson claims the message of that book is that textbook authors need to be “scrupulous about accuracy” — and yet those scruples are never applied to Wells, and further, Nelson is more than a little self-serving here: he is co-author on another awful DI production, Explore Evolution, which is little more than a warmed-over edition of Icons, and which has also been panned in reviews.

And then Nelson says the “response was much more hostile than I would have guessed.” He claims the hostility was because they were airing “dirty laundry,” which is simply wrong. The hostility derived from the fact that it was an appallingly bad work of misrepresentation and misleading innuendo, all on the service of an intellectually bankrupt theology.

On top of Icons of Evolution and Explore Evolution, Wells rehashed the same lies again in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. It’s become obvious that the Wells has gone dry: he’s simply repeating the same errors and phony arguments over and over again. This is not a man or work that warrants praise, but only condemnation and contempt.

In the past, I’ve focused on one specific issue that Wells repeatedly brings up, the idea that Haeckel’s embryos are some kind of ongoing problem for evolution. There are a lot of articles on Pharyngula on this subject, but I’ll just point to this one omnibus summary of links to articles on Haeckel and Wells, and briefly explain the nature of this ‘controversy’. There is a 19th century observation, made by multiple scientists and easily replicated today, that embryos go through a period called the phylotypic stage (and in vertebrates, called the pharyngula stage), in which species within a phylum exhibit a remarkable degree of similarity to one another. This is simply a fact: stop by my lab and I can pull out a series of slides of birds and mammals and reptiles and fish and show you how they all exhibit a set of characters, the presence of a tailbud and pharyngeal arches and somites and so forth, that are the hallmark of this relatively well-conserved stage. Now in the 19th century, Haeckel over-interpreted them to postulate a recapitulation of evolution within the development of an embryo, an idea now known to be false; Wells strategy has always been to point to an obsolete and falsified explanation for the similarities to argue that the evolutionary relationships are untenable. It’s a sleazy sleight of hand. Recapitulation theory is not in any way endorsed any more, but the similarities at the phylotopic stage are undeniable…yet Wells condemns any textbook that even shows photos of embryonic similarities.

That’s the central problem here. We have a phenomenon, the similarities between embryos at one stage of development, for which the creationists have no explanation, so they’re reduced to frantically denying the phenomenon. This isn’t the way science should work. The phenomenon is real; that these common similarities between embryos is better explained by common descent than by design may make creationists uncomfortable, but what a scientist should do is find an answer, not try to wave the problem away (or worse, accuse everyone who has seen these similarities as guilty of fraud).

I’d go further than to argue that the creationists are trying to hide data that defies their ideology. They’re trying to bury something that is almost paradigmatic of juicy, exciting science. There are a couple of properties of significant scientific questions that I consider emblematic of exactly the kind of work that is of great value.

  1. It has to address a universal phenomenon. The problem of phylotypy isn’t representative of all of life by any means, but it seems to be a near-universal within the animal kingdom. Why do organisms as diverse as insects and mammals exhibit this morphological bottleneck in their development? It’s a great question; it doesn’t deserve to be swept under the rug as the creationists would like to do.

  2. It has to be a non-trivial problem. Trying to figure out exactly what is going on in phylotypy isn’t easy, because the current best hypotheses all involve interactions within complex gene networks, not the most tractable problem, and solving it will require both comparative and computational tools. It’s the complexity of the subject that makes it both challenging and rewarding to solve.

  3. One thing guaranteed to spur interest if the postulated mechanisms are controversial. Proposed mechanisms for phylotypy are non-Darwinian: they involve selection for intrinsic properties of networks of developmental genes that establish large scale properties of embryonic patterning. Notice that it isn’t anti-Darwinian, or the creationists would be happy with it; the mechanism fits within the context of our understanding of evolution, but extends it somewhat to include conservation of a kind of sophisticated, modular array of genes that work together to build the body plan. It’s not just the alleles that matter, but the connections between them.

  4. Maybe I should have mentioned this one first. A key quality of good science is that it is doable — we have to be able to sit down and do measurements and experiments. Truth be told, a lot of ordinary science doesn’t engage the first three principles I listed above as much as it permits the rapid and routine collection of data. The phylotypy hasn’t been quite so tractable, and to move beyond a kind of morphological phenomenology that has characterized much of the work so far, requires comparative analysis of large dataset of developmental gene expression data. Until recently, that kind of information simply hasn’t been available.

I used the past tense there: that data hasn’t been available. But that’s changing fast now with new techniques in molecular and developmental biology, and later today I’ll summarize a couple of beautiful recent articles that have revealed some of the underpinnings of the phylotypic stage. The creationists weren’t just wrong, they’re on the wrong side of history, and day by day they are bing shown to be increasingly far off base.