This Week in Intelligent Design – 14/12/10

Intelligent design news from the 8th of December to the 14th of December, 2010.

As per usual, the intelligent design movement hasn’t been churning out articles of particularly good quality lately – hence my laziness with last week’s (nonexistent) post. Trust me, you didn’t miss anything important. But then again, is the aim of this segment really to highlight important information that all skeptics and science-lovers should know, or is it merely entertainment? That’s a question for you philosophers to work out. As for the rest of us, why don’t we get started?

The first post this week comes from Michael Egnor, a charming response to a post by Jerry Coyne about the NCSE and its so-called “Faith Project”:

Coyne asks, perceptively:

So why does the NCSE, which supports every shade between faith and atheism, have a “Faith Project” but not an “Atheism Project”?

Good question. The NCSE is an odd organization. To begin with, it’s oddly named. It’s not really a national center — it’s a small fringe organization based in Oakland. And it’s hardly promoting science education; its primary activity is to supress critique of Darwin’s theory — that is, to suppress science, which is inherently dialectic, not dogma. “National Center for Selling Evolution” seems a better fit for the acronym.


Actually, I think that I’ve figured out why the NCSE finds no need to reach out to atheists. So to help Dr. Coyne understand why the NCSE needs a Faith Project, but not an Atheism project, I’ll ask these rhetorical questions:

Does the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops need an outreach program to Catholics?

Does the Southern Baptist Convention need an outreach program to southern Baptists?

Does B’nai B’rith need an outreach program to Jews?

For Dr. Coyne, a prominent professor of evolutionary biology, I’ll pose the salient question as a multiple choice question:

Why does the NCSE have a Faith Project but not an Atheism Project?

Choose one:

a) The NCSE deplores atheism.
b) The NCSE considers atheists unimportant.
c) The NCSE is too busy.
d) The NCSE is an organization whose sole purpose is to shield atheism’s creation myth from public scrutiny, and there’s no reason for atheists to reach out to atheists.

Hint: I think Michael might want us to pick d). Oh, he’s a witty one, alright.

He’s half-right though, actually. The NCSE doesn’t waste its time with an “Atheism Project” because atheists, statistically speaking, are less likely to have an ingrained strain of creationism and evolution-denial within their ranks. Atheism can’t be construed to oppose evolutionary theory – actually, it isn’t opposed to anything, except perhaps the statement “God exists”, if only in a “you haven’t met your burden of proof, theism” kind of way.

It’s common ID rhetoric, you might have noticed, to place evolution on a pedestal in front of the atheist movement and claim that it’s, as Michael says, “atheism’s creation myth”. This is a claim barely worth acknowledging, let alone responding to. Whenever an ID proponent mentions a variation on this claim, you can be pretty sure where their theology lies – along the same lines as Michael’s creationism.


The next post is by David Klinghoffer, who chatted with Ann Gauger about Michael Behe’s latest paper on adaptive evolution:

Q. What does Behe’s article mean for the larger debate about Darwinian evolution?

A. Mike’s paper is an extension of his thesis introduced in his The Edge of Evolution, namely that it is much easier to reduce, modify or eliminate existing functions than to build new ones. He documents from the scientific literature that most adaptations to new environments or challenges are due to loss or modification of existing functions, and that gain of function mutations are very rare.

Indeed, my recent paper with Ralph Seelke in BIO-Complexity (“Reductive Evolution Can Prevent Populations from Taking Simple Adaptive Paths to High Fitness,” Vol. 2010) demonstrates Mike’s thesis completely. When challenged to grow in medium with very little tryptophan, 14 different populations of cells reduced or eliminated genes for making tryptophan, rather than fixing the broken tryptophan-making gene they carried. (Fixing the gene would have required cells to revert two specific mutations, with each reversion itself conferring a growth advantage.)

Because reducing or eliminating expression of the broken gene was “adaptive,” i.e. it allowed them to reproduce faster than cells still expressing the broken gene, and because there are many more ways to reduce or eliminate gene expression than to fix the gene, the populations always chose to reduce or eliminate gene function.

Mike’s paper is making plain what should have been obvious, given what we know about the nature of genetic events and the way natural selection works. Yet most evolutionary biologists still appear to believe that, given enough time and population, nature can work wonders. Our work at Biologic and Mike’s work is intended to demonstrate that such confidence is misplaced.

While Ann’s broader claims about Michael’s paper are false, as explained by Jerry Coyne, she’s also wrong about the implications of her BIO-Complexity paper. Demonstrating that one particular mutation cannot be reversed is not evidence that all of adaptive evolution is false. Certain phenotypes are adaptive in certain situations – that’s pretty much the bottom line of ecological evolution. Sure, there was an “evolvable” pathway to tryptophan synthesis, but it came a higher cost to the organism to pursue it than simply to jettison the tryptophan genes. Fitness landscapes don’t have to be weighted towards construction, Ann, any evolutionary biologist could tell you that, yet you seem to think that’s what we “Darwinists” all think.

Then again, Ann’s paper could be completely shoddy, since it wasn’t published in a properly peer-reviewed scientific journal, instead appearing in BIO-Complexity, a benign growth on the blind, orphaned third-cousin of the proper science process.

For most organisms in the wild, the environment is constantly changing. Organisms rarely encounter prolonged and uniform selection in one direction. In turn, changing selection prevents most genetic variants from getting fixed in the population. In addition, most mutations that accumulate in populations are neutral or weakly deleterious, and most beneficial mutations are only weakly beneficial. This means that it takes a very long time, if ever, for a weakly beneficial mutation to spread throughout the population, or for harmful mutations to be eliminated. If more than one mutation is required to get a new function, the problem quickly becomes beyond reach. Evolutionary biologists have begun to realize the problem of getting complex adaptations, and are trying to find answers.

The problem is the level of complexity that is required, from the earliest stages of life. For example, just to modify one protein to perform a new function or interact with a new partner can require multiple mutations. Yet many specialized proteins, adapted to work together with specialized RNAs, are required to build a ribosome. And until you have ribosomes, you cannot translate genes into proteins. We haven’t a clue how this ability evolved.

Ahem. References are always nice. If you’re going to make such claims, Ann, please supply us all with the relevant scientific literature that supports them. Trust me – I’m not about to take your word for it.


Lastly, we have a post by Guy Coe, on Craig Venter. How will he tie this to intelligent design? You’ll never guess:

In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, he [Craig Venter] was asked by interviewer Andy Court about his newfound status. He ranks his teams’ three achievements, the first rough draft of the human genome, the first complete human genome, and the making of the first “synthetic cells” (sic) as “amongst the biggest discoveries in modern science.”

“In practical terms, it’s about as useful as the mold that grows in a bachelor’s refrigerator” notes Court. “But scientifically, it’s a milestone.”

“Did you design this to do anything in particular?” asks Court. “No; we designed this just to see if we could do this whole experiment using synthetic DNA. And now that we know we can do it, it’s worth the effort to make the things that could be valuable.”

When asked whether this latest venture wasn’t, at least a bit, like “playing God?” His answer was swift and to the point. “No, we’re not playing anything. We’re learning the rules of life.”

“Do you believe in God?” Court asks, pressing forward. Venter smiles, locks eyes with Court, shakes his head up and down vigorously (not back and forth?!), and says, “No… that is, I believe the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power.”

Hmmm… what’s his alternative theory? Why would intelligent design and elegant implementation be any less wonderful than some as-yet undiscovered form of probability-defying “organic self-assembly?”

What a tie-in! Guy should get an award! And bonus points for the rhetoric, that’s beautiful, that is.

He continues, “I think the fact that these cells are software-driven machines, and that software is DNA — and that’s truly the secret of life, is writing software — it’s pretty miraculous, just seeing that process in the simplest of forms, that we’re just witnessing — it’s pretty stunning.”

Okay; why use the word “miraculous?” And did I just hear the observation that the key to it all is “the writing of software?” Just how is this done without the orchestrated effort of a purposive, teleological mind?

“How is it done? Why is it so? For what purpose does life exist?” For added comedic value, I’m reading those questions in my head in a Bill Bailey-esque voice.

In two minds, a materialistic evolutionary myth creeps forward, unaware of its own illogic. The world’s best biophysicists, after more than fifty years of dedicated research, still cling to the mantra, “if I can only synthesize life in the lab, I’ll have proven that no intelligence was necessary for it to have occurred in the first place.”

Is that what Venter is trying to do? No, his research is about the practical application of genome research, not the theoretical application as it applies to evolutionary biology. I doubt Venter has published much in the way of evolutionary research either. Guy seems to be clutching at straws trying to find someplace to knock a pro-evolution position from Venter’s hands.

In this case, 15 years of focused effort and $40 million have been invested to produce the “first synthetic species” (sic) in the history of science — a virtual copy of one of the simplest bacteria known to occur in nature — for which no practical applications are yet known or anticipated. Mimicry is just one of the first steps of any developing child; so while we may justly congratulate Dr. Venter for his efforts, let’s be sure to remember that cellular machinery is far more wonderful than just assuming it is the inevitable by-product of anything less than an intelligent designer.

The most useless argument for intelligent design this year? Yes, I think we found it.


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