Taking a phylogenetic approach to the law


Nick Matzke has just published a very amusing analysis of American anti-evolution efforts. Evolutionary biology has all these tools that allow one to, for instance, assemble trees demonstrating lines of descent for molecular characters, which are ultimately just strings of letters. And what is a law but a string of letters? We can relatively easily map out patterns of similarities and differences, and catalog which bill was modeled after which other bill.

So Matzke put together the history of creationist efforts to adapt their legal strategies.

The analysis of dozens of bills introduced in state legislatures around the country reveals how a single innovation from a small Louisiana parish (population 156,325) was incorporated into 32 subsequent bills through a process the study describes as “descent with modification.” Two of those 32 bills became law and now “negatively affect science education” for students throughout Louisiana (population 4.7 million) and Tennessee (population 6.5 million).

It’s also being discussed on the Panda’s Thumb.

Oh, but most entertainingly, you can tell that the Discovery Institute is furious. They’re trying to claim now that it was a criminal misuse of NSF funds.

A more serious issue is whether Matzke misappropriated taxpayer funds in order to write his article. Matzke discloses in the article’s acknowledgements that his research was funded by two National Science Foundation grants. But if you look up those grants, they appear to have nothing to do with the article he published.

Indeed, NSF Grant 0919124 is a $422,000 grant intended to “develop bivalve molluscs as a preeminent model for evolutionary studies….” And NSF Grant DBI-1300426 is a $12 million+ grant for the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, which told the NSF it would “provide scientific insights into problems such as the control of invasive species, limiting impacts of infectious diseases, and suggesting new methods for drug design.”

Neither of those awards are directly to Matzke. The larger funds an institute, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, which by its nature would support diverse projects. The smaller one includes citations to 5 papers with Matzke as an author, all relevant to the grant, so there’s certainly no evidence that he’s been neglecting his responsibilities.

Creationists: science doesn’t currently endorse slavery. A grant award buys you a piece of a person’s time and effort, but does not give you full-time ownership of their brain. In fact, granting institutions encourage awardees to explore new ideas creatively, because that’s what will lead to the next research proposal. That a scientist has found a way to use his skills and his tools in a novel way, without compromising the funded specifics of a grant, is always a big plus.

So once again the Discovery Institute reveals their total ignorance of how science works while reaching for excuses for their own failure. No surprise there at all.


  1. #1 djlactin
    Pohang, RoK
    December 19, 2015

    A professor who I worked for many years ago said “Never submit a grant application unless you already have the results in your drawer.”

  2. #2 laikaphonehome
    SLC Utah
    December 22, 2015

    Remember how the discovery institute said they would allow use of their logo, etc. for purposes of satire, then sent bogus dmca notices to youtube about videos that satirized them? Given their history, this nonsensical complaint about grant money usage is remarkably above board and honest. Do you think they have decided to abandon outright dishonesty and rely on shear idiocy instead? It would be a step in the right direction!

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