Intelligent design news from the 9th of March to the 15th of March, 2011.
Another week, another lot of posts by the ID community to sort through. As you may have noticed by now, I’ve given up on devoting much time to anything posted on Uncommon Descent (except for quick links), due to their insular nature (they seem to be read only by their preexisting, fervent community), their complete lack of substantial and interesting discussion, and their overwhelmingly religious tone, which I’m fairly sure robbed them of any pretence of being an objective, scientific and secular place for formal and informal discourse on all matters ID and evolution.
Evolution News & Views, however, remains far more tightly regulated by the Discovery Institute’s PR machine, straying into religious territory fairly rarely, and only really when Michael Egnor decides to swing by, which is, I’m afraid to say, not as often as it used to be. Perhaps he tired of defending dualism from Steven Novella’s neurological assaults, or attacking abortion from a completely secular and scientific perspective. I know I would. Anyway, EN&V remains a good target because people who might be removed from the ID debate have the greatest chance of taking it seriously over any of the other pro-ID blogs out there. It looks snazzy and professional, what can I say?
Also, hello if you’re reading this on The Panda’s Thumb (to which this lede is cross-posted)! This is just my weekly series where I look at at least three posts from the major intelligent design blogs – focusing on Evolution News & Views in particular, for the reasons stated above – and examine their arguments and rhetoric. What I really look for is anything novel: there are plenty of posts out there that simply retread copiously-trodden ground. Then again, sometimes old topics can be given a reboot through a nice rhetorical twist…
Enough of that, let’s get into it!
The first post this week is by the always-charming Casey Luskin, in which he begins his attack on a paper published in the journal Quarterly Review of Biology critiquing Michael Behe’s notion(s) of irreducible complexity. Note that Casey, in this post, doesn’t refer to any of the science or arguments behind the paper, but instead, in a supernova explosion of irony, chastises the authors for daring to use rhetoric:
As we discussed, Michael Behe published a peer-reviewed paper in the December, 2010 issue of Quarterly Review of Biology (QRB), a prominent biology journal.
Critics have claimed that Behe’s paper had nothing to do with intelligent design (ID) — but the paper sought to establish that Darwinian mechanisms tend to not generate new functional molecular features, which seems very much like an argument relevant to ID. The editors of QRB apparently disagreed with those critics, as they felt compelled to publish alongside Behe’s paper — in the same issue — an article against Behe and ID titled “Irreducible Incoherence and Intelligent Design – a look into the conceptual toolbox of a pseudoscience,” whose argument actually managed to surpass its title in outlandish rhetoric.
If you read Behe’s paper, it’s is measured, carefully argued, and restrained and cautious in its conclusions. One can see that he’s being very careful with his argument. In contrast, the anti-ID paper has a very different tone. It is filled with charged rhetoric, bold sweeping conclusions, and cursory analysis. Behe’s standard scientific tone is inordinately tame compared to his critics. Aside from the title, consider the following unqualified broadbrush statements with outlandish rhetoric in the paper critical of Behe:
Charged rhetoric, bold sweeping conclusions and cursory analysis? Where have I heard those things before? Surely not from Casey Luskin, the King of Bloated Rhetoric! My irony meter melted.
So let’s see specifically what Casey has a problem with in the QRB paper:
- ID suffers from “complete lack of scientific merits”
Never have I heard such rhetorical spin! Someone, hold me. Come on now, Casey, that’s just a statement of fact, whether you agree with it or not. It’s not “outlandish rhetoric” if it’s true.
- “Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) had been one of the most successful pseudosciences”
Is the rhetoric here calling ID “Intelligent Design Creationism”? Because that is a proper subset of ID, the subset that the Discovery Institute inconsistently promotes, off and on as the environment changes – off when they need to appear scientific, on when their fellows are giving talks at a church or writing for a Christian website. Again, it’s not outlandish if it’s true.
- “IDC’s politics and religious ideology”
Just look at the Wedge Document, it’s a fact. And how is that a rhetorical term to use, “ideology”? It’s descriptive and rather accurate, I think.
- ID suffers from “religious motivation”
I would say that the Discovery Institute is the one that suffers from religious motivation, not ID itself. But that’s a minor point. I see no outlandish rhetoric here.
- “the IDC movement was never driven by its arguments but by its religious ideology”
This is a little more like it, an absolute phrase. I admit that it’s rhetorical and I probably wouldn’t have written anything like it myself (mainly because it’s a very strong claim without supporting evidence), but, again, it’s hardly outlandish.
- Behe uses an “incoherent definition”or a “disjointed definition” that is “misleading”
Nothing bad here, just accurate and calm descriptors of Behe’s definitions. Note that the authors do spend the majority of the paper backing up these specific claims, so they’re hardly throwaway lines used for argumentative purposes only.
- Behe was “stubbornly insisting” on intelligent design
Eh. It’s emotive and not all that defensible, but again, not outlandish by any stretch of the imagination.
- “Behe has disingenuously taken advantage of this very ambiguity in answering his critics”
Really? That’s over-the-top? Here, let me rewrite that sentence to show what it would look like if it were actually soaked in rhetoric: “Behe has, with the conviction of a madman, dangerously exploited this purposeful ambiguity in order to throw his critics off the scent of his multitude of indefensible lies.“ There, all better.
- Behe makes “an absurd demand” or “pointless arguments” and “dodges and weaves like a hunted rabbit”
Again, that’s rather light stuff. Nothing to get worked up over.
In fact, the whole paper is very calm in addressing Behe’s claims about irreducible complexity, and the examples above that Casey listed are really the only ones he could find. Their mildness actually demonstrates how little rhetoric was being used in this piece, if they were the only examples.
But whatever Casey does, I can do back, so I present to you, the outlandish rhetoric of Casey Luskin:
- “Darwinian mechanisms tend to not generate new functional molecular features” (gasp!)
- “whose argument actually managed to surpass its title in outlandish rhetoric” (shocking!)
- “it’s [sic] is measured, carefully argued, and restrained and cautious in its conclusions” (wow!)
- “It is filled with charged rhetoric, bold sweeping conclusions, and cursory analysis.” (ouch!)
- “consider the following unqualified broadbrush statements with outlandish rhetoric” (oh no he didn’t!)
- “anti-ID papers must turn up the volume and resort to such harsh rhetoric” (damn!)
- “rant against ID” (hiss!)
- “they needed to bash ID” (such violence!)
- “Behe’s critics’ inaccurate take” (harsh!)
And that’s not even all of them. So there.
The next post is by the delightful anonymous contributor Evolution News & Views, which contains a fair bit of rhetoric, strangely enough, while talking about Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter and the universality of the genetic code – or not, as the case may be:
Another Dawkins Whopper: The Universality of the Genetic Code
Since at least the publication of The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Richard Dawkins has claimed that the genetic code is universal across all organisms on earth. This is “near-conclusive proof,” he writes, that every living thing on this planet “descended from a single common ancestor” (1986, p. 270) at the root of Darwin’s universal tree of life.
More recently, Dawkins repeated the claim in his bestseller The Greatest Show On Earth (2009, p. 409):
…the genetic code is universal, all but identical across animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea and viruses. The 64-word dictionary, by which three letter DNA words are translated into 20 amino acids and one punctuation mark, which means ‘start reading here’ or ‘stop reading here,’ is the same 64-word dictionary wherever you look in the living kingdoms (with one or two exceptions too minor to undermine the generalization).
The post then goes on to show that there are in fact more than “one or two” different genetic codes – in fact there are seventeen at last count – and therefore Dawkins was lying and being a generally nasty human being, like all atheists are.
“One or two” is therefore a Whopper. As in, just not true.
A “Whopper”? Now that’s rhetoric right there.
Apparently Dawkins and Venter were at a science forum together in February, when this went down:
The question for discussion at the forum was “What is life?” Most of the panelists agreed that all organisms on Earth represent a single kind of life — a sample of one — because all organisms have descended from a last universal common ancestor (LUCA). This “sample of one” problem is strong motivation, panelist and NASA scientist Chris McKay argued, for exploring Mars and other planets (or their moons) in our solar system, to try to find a second example of life, unrelated to Earth organisms.
Venter disagreed — in a remarkable way (start at the 9:00 minute mark). “I’m not so sanguine as some of my colleagues here,” he said, “that there’s only one life form on this planet. We have a lot of different types of metabolism, different organisms. I wouldn’t call you [Venter said, turning to physicist Paul Davies, on his right] the same life form as the one we have that lives in pH 12 base, that would dissolve your skin if we dropped you in it.”
“Well, I’ve got the same genetic code,” said Davies. “We’ll have a common ancestor.”
“You don’t have the same genetic code,” replied Venter. “In fact, the Mycoplasmas [a group of bacteria Venter and his team have used to engineer synthetic chromosomes] use a different genetic code that would not work in your cells. So there are a lot of variations on the theme…”
Here Davies, a bit alarmed, interrupts Venter: “But you’re not saying it [i.e., Mycoplasma] belongs to a different tree of life from me, are you?”
So how did Venter answer Davies? Roll the video:
“The tree of life is an artifact of some early scientific studies that aren’t really holding up…So there is not a tree of life.”
Eh. Venter’s not accurate here. While a straight tree with no complications (ie. horizontal gene transfer) is certainly not on the table anymore, a universal common ancestor is – see a recent paper by Douglas Theobald on the statistical likelihood of single-ancestry.1 And why is Venter trying to support a multiple-ancestor hypothesis with the seventeen genetic codes data? The differences between the codes are not great, and eleven of the seventeen codes are found only in mitochondria, not in their host cells. Would Venter argue that each of those mitochondria have a separate complete ancestry? It seems unlikely and slightly absurd. Those at the Discovery Institute, however… Anything’s on the table when there’s an unknowable Designer around. Random phylogenetic trees for everyone!
Dawkins’s lack of knowledge about the different genetic codes may have just been simple ignorance. I certainly wasn’t aware of it until a little while ago. But what does it matter? Sure, he’s a public face of science, and of evolutionary biology in general, but his opinions are not necessarily the opinions of every scientist working in the field. His mistakes do not translate into gaping holes in the theory of evolution – as satisfying as that sounds to ID proponents, it’s just not true.
The universal genetic code is still fairly universal, even with slight modifications in some taxa. But that’s what we would expect from evolutionary theory anyway, some conservation with taxa-specific changes. Why is it considered such damning evidence against common ancestry?
The last post this week comes from Anika Smith, reporting on the Tennessee Academic Freedom Bill and, therefore, “academic freedom”:
Tennessee House Bill 368 will move to a vote by the House General Subcommittee of Education after expert testimony from scientists and educators who expressed their concern that students need to learn more about science and develop critical thinking skills.
Among those who testified in favor of the bill were Ph.D. biologist Robin Zimmer, Executive Director of Center for Biomedical Research in Knoxville, and Harold Morrison, a recently retired biology teacher with 30 years experience teaching evolution in public school biology class.
Dr. Zimmer has an op-ed today in the Tennessean supporting the bill’s efforts to promote critical thinking, something he sees as necessary for good science education:
Mr. Dunn’s timely amendment (HB 368) offers an improvement in our approach to science education. The bill simply proposes that public teachers be permitted to allow critical analysis of scientific theories within the public classroom. Two UT science department chairs testified in opposition to the bill. What strikes me as odd is how academic scientists could argue with an approach that, in all honesty, molded them into the professionals that they are today. What I am talking about is advanced critical thinking and analysis that lies at the very core of a scientist’s world. A well functioning peer review system challenges a scientist’s thinking and ensures critical and constructive discourse.
This is the scientific process. Why would we deprive our future scientists from understanding how to critically challenge and assess scientific theories?
Ah, the classic argument. Out of context, it’s rather reasonable, really. Why not teach critical thinking to students and get them to evaluate evidence themselves? That’s science, after all, you do it all the time as a working scientist. But, of course, that’s not how the bill will be applied. You only need to look at another segment of Dr. Zimmer’s article to its real context:
Darwin’s theory is limited
Those who oppose the bill seem to be focused on the teaching of evolution as a non-controversial fact. But are there controversies associated with theories such as full Darwinian macroevolution? Sure there are. Michael Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University, recently published a book entitled: The Edge of Evolution, the Search for the Limits of Darwinism. In it he notes that plasmodium bacteria, which cause malaria, have developed resistance to new drugs. This is indeed a form of evolutionary change through adaptation. But why is it that these bugs have not evolved significantly in other ways? Why is it that malaria is still confined to the tropics and has not evolved to thrive in more temperate regions? He then argues that there are limitations or boundaries to classic Darwinian evolution. Dr. Behe is not alone in questioning apparent boundaries.
I am not writing to argue for or against macroevolution or any other scientific theory. But the bottom line is that critical thinking and analysis fosters good science. For high schoolers, their love of science and acumen for it will not come from memorizing and repeating textbook prose, but rather by diving into the strengths and weaknesses of theories such as evolution.
Sure, there are controversies in science. But to say that the ID-related evolution controversy is a controversy worth studying in school classrooms is pushing it. To be taught in the classroom, you need to have some minimum level of support for the opposing idea. Behe’s arguments are near-universally rejected as good challenges to evolution by biologists and he really has no respectability in the field of molecular evolution. Is it a proper controversy when one man and his very small group of supporters shout at the mainstream ideas without producing any real science to back up their claims? Of course not. And yet, that’s what the “controversy” surrounding evolution is. It’s nothing but a few people making a lot of noise, causing some laypeople to wonder what all the fuss is about and whether or not their children should learn about the shouting.
Their children don’t need to know about the shouting. It would just confuse them, like it confuses most people. Shouting is inherently confusing.
Rapid fire ID news!
- More about discrimination lawsuits. Hooray.
- Again, global warming isn’t relevant on this blog, guys.
- William Dembski, Valiant Defender of Uncommon Descent
- Did you hear that? Evolution is soul-destroying! I thought they were immutable…
- Theobald. A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry. Nature (2010) vol. 465 (7295) pp. 219-222 ↩