Woodward in Washington D.C. Part Three

We left off with Woodward about to launch into his favorite talking points. Let's have a look.

Number One: Haeckel's Embryos. Woodward spent a few minutes gushing about how Icons of Evolution author Jonathan Wells represented a “great success story” of ID. He referred everyone to an essay over at the DI (which I refuse to link to) in which he responded to all of his critics, at least according to Woodward.

He gave the familiar patter about how Haeckel's inaccurate embryo drawings are nonetheless used routinely in textbooks right up to the present day. The most interesting element here was when he showed some drawings of various embryos which certainly looked rather different. He informed us that the embryos appeared noticeably different, “even at those early stages.”

No doubt tired from this small excursion into actual science, Woodward now returned to his comfort zone of mindless ID cheerleading. He praised Wells' marvelous treatment of embryology. This was followed by a story about the personal significance of this issue to him. Apparently when he was a high school student his father (who went to Princeton, by the way) showed him his college biology textbook, and showed him those famous drawings as evidence of evolution. That's bad enough, but it gets worse! It seems that young Woodward brought this book to one of his high school teachers. The teacher, already an evolutionist, happily showed the book to the rest of the class. Golly! There was Woodward doing his part to spread evolutionary propaganda.

Part of me was trying to picture the comical scene of a high school student showing his teacher his father's college biology textbook, declaring it to show incontrovertible evidence of evolution, and then having the teacher turn around and show it to the class. This is called “tending to your legend.” If you find it likely that Woodward's story has gone through many drafts, then welcome to my world.

Most of me, however, was thinking about the ubiquity of conversion stories in ID and creationist writing. You almost never read a creationist book written by someone who has always been a creationist (Ken Ham being a notable exception). In their telling, they all used to be evolutionists before something happened to open their eyes.

For Woodward it was Haeckel's embryos. Likewise for Jonathan Wells, as he describes in Icons. For Lee Strobel, it was the Miller-Urey experiment. For Michael Behe and Phillip Johnson, it was reading Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. For Hank Hanegraaf (author of The Face that Demonstrates the Farce of Evolution) it was seeing a picture of Pithecanthropus Erectus. And on and on.

As for the embryos, I was amused that Woodward would gush about the differences among embryos “even at those early stages.” You see, one of the main metaphors used by embryologists is that of the developmental hourglass. The idea is that there is considerable phenotypic diversity at the earliest stages of development, but that this diversity passes through a bottleneck during which vertebrate embryos show striking similarities. This is followed by more diversity, as the embryos subsequently develop into whatever they are destined to become. In light of this, it seems a bit rich to gush about differences at early stages of development.

The post linked to in the last paragraph provides an excellent smackdown of Wells' arguments, so I won't rehash the subject here. This part of Woodward's talk, in which he shamelessly gushed about a man caught in numerous dishonest statements and pretended that somehow his critics had been answered, demonstrated very well what a cartoonish empty suit he really is. Woodward, it is safe to say, does not know the first thing about embryology. Yet he has no problem at all discoursing on the subject first in his book, then in person. It gives him not even a moment's pause that virtually the entire community of developmental biologists thinks Wells is little more than a fraud. Where I can I learn to be that shameless?

Moving on, talking point number two: The Cambrian explosion. More gushing about Wells. Blah blah blah. Go here for Alan Gishlick's excellent discussion of these issues. I'll content myself with two quick remarks in reply to Woodward. First, he seemed very excited by the idea that not only do the Cambrian fossils appear abruptly, but also that they are mostly “at the phylum or class level.”

This, of course, is deeply goofy. It makes no sense to describe a fossil organism as being at the phylum or class level. Every fossil is a representative of some, likely extinct, species, and that is all. What Woodward was trying to say was that it is in the Cambrian that we find the first recognizable representatives of most of the modern phyla existing today. The catch, however, is that the fact that the first modern representatives of modern phyla are found in the Cambrian does not imply that those organisms were as morphologically different from one another as are modern representatives of the same phyla. This is a common error among creationists.

Even more egregious was Woodward's blunt statement that the Cambrian fossils burst on the scene, “and that are not seen in any hint of ancestry below that.” That's just an outright lie. The Precambrian fossil record, as Gishlick explains in the post linked to above, contains quite a few precursors to the critters seen in the Cambrian explosion.

Next point: The origination of organismal form. Woodward now enthused about an anthology from 2003 entitled Origination of Organismal Form edited by Gerd Muller and Stuart Newman, published by MIT Press. Woodward began by telling us a folksy anecdote about an interview he did with Newman, and then emphasized that the contributors to the book were not ID proponents. He informed us that the contributors were looking for a new theory of evolution because the current one, Neo-Darwinisn, just doesn't work. He then plucked out a series of quotes, for example, “Neo-Darwinism has no theory of the generative.” He claims that during their interview Newman told him that “ID has not been accepted by the scientific community, but it is seriously being discussed behind closed doors.”

I am very suspicious of that last story. As for the book, I was a little surprised that I had never heard of it. I thought I knew all the real books ID folks cite. However, even just reading the description of the book at the link above makes it clear that the story is considerably different from what Woodward described. It sure looks like they are not saying, “Neo-Darwinism is fundamentally flawed and no one has the slightest idea how to plug the gaps.” Rather, it seems a lot closer to, “Neo-Darwinism leaves some unanswered questions, and the overemphasis on genetics in evolutionary biology has led to other important factors being ignored, and we discuss those factors here.”

This is a familiar ID trope. Biologist X says something evolved by good old natural selection acting on small genetic variations. Biologist Y says not so fast, here are some other possible causes that can explain the evolution of the something. Then the ID folks come in and say see, no one has the slightest idea how the something evolved. Must have been God.

Woodward belabored this a bit longer, then started talking about Ken Miller. He's “the most skilled opponent” of ID in the business. Remarkably, he described Miller's rhetoric as having “bravado” and a “brisk, impervious confidence.” He uses “sledgehammer rhetoric.” Personally, I think that's a better description of ID writing.

He didn't actually have much to say about Miller. He read a few quotes to show the strong language he uses, for example, references to Phillip Johnson's agurments “falling apart” or being “easily refuted.” This was just a lead-in to Miller's discussion of flagellum evolution in the anthology Debating Design.

If you follow these things you know what is coming. In Darwin's Black Box Michael Behe coined the term “irreducibly complex” to describe any biochemical system composed of several, well-matched parts such that the removal of any one part caused the system to cease functioning. More precisely, Behe wrote:

An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. (Emphasis Added).

In Debating Design, Ken Miller pointed out that work done since Behe published DBB had established that about ten of the proteins comprising the flagellum show clear homologies with those comprising something called the type three secretory system (TTSS). In other words, the base of the flagellum looks suspiciously similar to a system used by some bacteria to inject toxins into the cells of other creatures. Given Behe's statement about any precursor missing a part being nonfunctional, I'd say that's pretty significant. Miller went on to show that the homology of the TTSS also refuted the assumptions that went into one on William Dembski's more dimwitted mathematical efforts.

But that's not how Woodward presented things. To him, Miller was arguing that since we have discovered the homology between the TTSS and the flagellum, we can safely say we know the flagellum evolved, or at least that it could have evolved. He even trotted out an analogy due to William Dembski, that this is like arguing that we know it is possible to walk on foot from L.A. to Tokyo because we have discovered the Hawaiin Islands. Going from the ten protein TTSS to the forty protein flgellum requires similar leaps, according to Woodward.

Sadly for him, Miller's essay is readily available online. And if you read it you see that Miller makes it perfectly clear that both Behe and Dembski made arguments based on the assumption that functional subsystems of the flagellum could not exist. He was refuting the bold-faced part of Behe's quote, and that is all. He even specifically addressed Woodward's point as follows:

A second reaction, which I have heard directly after describing the relationship between the secretory apparatus and the flagellum, is the objection that the TTSS does not tell us how either it or the flagellum evolved. This is certainly true, although Aizawa has suggested that the TTSS may indeed be an evolutionary precursor of the flagellum (Aizawa 2001). Nonetheless, until we have produced a step-by-step account for the evolutionary derivation of the flagellum, one may indeed invoke the argument from ignorance for this and every other complex biochemical machine.

However, in agreeing to this, one must keep in mind that the doctrine of irreducible complexity was intended to go one step beyond the claim of ignorance. It was fashioned in order to provide a rationale for claiming that the bacterial flagellum couldn't have evolved, even in principle, because it is irreducibly complex. Now that a simpler, functional system (the TTSS) has been discovered among the protein components of the flagellum, the claim of irreducible complexity has collapsed, and with it any “evidence” that the flagellum was designed.

In short, Woodward said explicitly that finding the tiny island of the TTSS does not show that the flagellum could have evolved. But it was Behe who claimed to have found a specific reason why the flagellum could not have evolved. Miller was merely showing that Behe was incorrect. Woodward, surprise!, completely distorted the point of Miller's argument.

And now, finally, we got to the long words. Woodward amused everyone with a list of very long words from various languages. Three guesses what's coming next.

If you took all of the really long words he mentioned and ran them all together, you would have a word about 100 letters long. That, he intoned, would be a very short protein. A typical protein has about 400 amino acids. Some are even longer, and many of these “letters” are absolutely essential! There was no more argument than this, as if the mere length of the proteins was enough to establish their origin by design. He then chided Ken Miller for acting as if these proteins just float in left and right, like the cell “was like a popcorn popper machine,” just popping out these proteins. Well, he said, “There is no evidence of a single protein ever having evolved, ever, in the history of life.”

That will come as news to your typical biologist. Whole books get written on the subject of protein evolution. Ken Miller describes in Finding Darwin's God the extensive homology among the proteins of the blood clotting cascade, and explains the evidence for thinking they evovled from simpler digestive enzymes found in certain invertebrates. The evolution of new genes, and consequently new proteins, by duplication and divergence is a cliche of the subject. Comparisons of proteins across species routinely confirm the phylogenies developed by other methods.

Why do I get the impression that the only thing Woodward will accept as evidence for the evolution of proteins is the evolution, in a laboratory, of a modern protein, from nothing, one amino acid at a time?

What other lines of evidence are tipping the scales decisively in favor of ID? The new studies of the “minimal DNA” by which he means the minimal number of genes you must have for a functioning organism. Apparently you need a bare minimum of 250 genes to have a functioning cell. And some say it's more like 1000! He decribed scientists working on the origin of life as wandering around in a great labyrinth. There's a tunnel leading out of the labyrinth labelled “Intelligent Design,” but scientists have placed a sign over it saying, “This is religion, stay out.”

This is revealing. Specifically, it reveals Woodward's lack of appreciation of what it is that scientists do for a living. Intelligent Design is not a way out of any labyrinth. It is not the solution to any problem . It is nothing more than a willingness to give up on the problem.

Scientists, of course, have been pointing this out for as long as there have been ID folks. In addition to all the other flaws and errors in their scientific arguments, they have been laughably unsuccessful at developing an actual research program based on ID. You will search the ID literature in vain for any ghost of a clue about what scientists should be doing differently in their professional lives, save for giving up on certain problems as insoluble. Nothing that is mysterious suddenly becomes non-mysterious when you say, “God did it!”

Woodward has one more card to play, but we will save that for the final post.

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By scienceteacher… (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink