I support this sentiment wholeheartedly, and, to the best of my knowledge, so does everyone else in the department, except for Dr. Behe. However, recently the chair of our department received a letter from someone who wished to defend Dr. Behe's honor, and he cc'd that letter to everyone in the department. Now, the dilemma is, do I even waste my time countering all the lies and misinformation this letter contains, or ignore it because I should be spending my time doing something more productive... say watching tv, or sleeping, or mindlessly beating my head against the wall... but then I can't resist... and I guess that's why its a pet peeve.The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of "intelligent design." While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.
So, if you want to read all of this drivel in its entirety, you can get a pdf here. I'm just going to pick out some of the more annoying points, and then send this all on to PZ Myers to see if he wants to waste any more time picking apart this ID-iocy.
My first point is this, the chair of our department is Dr. Murray Itzkowitz, not Itzkovitz, if you are going to write a letter to someone and accuse them of not knowing their field of study (at which they have worked for decades and published numerous peer reviewed papers), the least you could do is look up the proper spelling of his last name, which can be found on the same webpage that you are critiquing. Just a thought.
Point 2: The author of this letter claims:
"Dr. Itzkovitz, suppose I told you that I have personal knowledge that at least two members of your department (apart from Dr. Behe) strongly disagree with this position and that they have already privately communicated as much to several individuals of whom I am personally aware. Furthermore, suppose I told you that these brilliant scientists are so afraid of losing their faculty positions at Lehigh that they have chosen to keep their professional opinions private until such time as they have attained tenure."Now, I added the boldface emphases to point out that this person claims there are at least two untenured faculty in our department who support ID, and that THIS IS A BOLDFACED LIE. There are currently only 4 untenured faculty in our department. I don't just claim to know people that have talked to these people, I know the individuals themselves, very well, as our department is not very big. I have worked closely with these faculty members, taught classes with them, conducted research projects with them, shared meals and more than a few drinks with them, and... they are my friends! Of the 4 of them I can tell you exactly how many support the notion of ID. The answer is zero.
But then I guess I shouldn't be surprised at lies and misinformation from someone trying to support creationism.. Uh... I mean "intelligent design". Let's move on to the arguments he puts forth against evolution by natural selection. The author of the letter states:
"Sir, until you or your department faculty can fully and empirically explain from the perspective of either naturalistic materialism or Darwinian gradualism... the following phenomena, you have no legitimate basis, under the Scientific Method, for making such broad-brushed statements regarding either Dr. Behe or intelligent design."Before I get to "the following phenomena", let me point out that ID has nothing to do with the scientific method, as the principle tenets of the scientific method are 1. you make some observation(s), 2. you formulate a hypothesis, and 3. you design an experiment to test your hypothesis (and by test, I mean you try to falsify it). Its on this 3rd point that ID fails, as just saying "some intelligent agent did it" is NOT a TESTABLE hypothesis, at least not when the intelligent agent is a supernatural agent (if it were J. Craig Venter, or aliens, then, maybe you'd have something).
Anyway, the first argument is:
"The Cambrian Explosion": the sudden appearance in the fossil record (with no prior transitional forms, as required by Darwin) of over 50 body plans ("phyla") in the geological instant of just 5-10 million years...I take some solace in the fact that at least this guy believes the earth is older than 6000 years, and that he views 5-10 million years as merely an instant in the geological age of the earth. BUT, this is actually a pretty common creationist talking point... they point to the "explosion" of biodiversity that took place during the Cambrian period and incorrectly claim that there's no fossil evidence for organisms existing before this time that could explain all these new species. however, there is actually evidence for forms existing prior to the Cambrian, and those forms share similarities to the species that have been identified as arising during the Cambrian. I will defer to PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula, where there is an nice little post on exactly this topic.
Our guy also argues that since the explosion, we have only lost phyla, not added them, so, he feels, Darwin's tree must be wrong because its upside-down. First, this is misleading, because phyla are groupings of species based on the fact that they share very ancient body plans. Numerous new genera and species have evolved since the cambrian (humans and all other modern mammals), but the development of a whole new phyla would be crazy at this point in history as selection works on what's available, as the common body plans of the established phyla are what's been available for hundreds of millions of years, its likely that we will not see any new phyla, unless we all die out and the whole process basically starts over. Then, after a couple billion years, we might get some new phyla. But the point is, Darwin's tree has gained many branches, it just hasn't gained any new trunks. Second, this argument also betrays a common misunderstanding about evolution by natural selection. The idea that selection is directional, or purposeful, is just wrong. While Darwin's tree branched out because he was formulating how we got so many different species over time, starting from the origin of life which was likely a single species, or at least a small number of species, the loss of species has always been part of the equation, and we know from the fossil record that there are several periods in time when resources became scarce, and many species died out (like the Permian extinction) which would seem, at least to this guy, like the tree turned upside down, but then righted itself again after that. In recent history, we've again seen a pruning of the tree, this time because of human population growth, exploitation of resources, and pollution, which have caused the extinction of many species. If these practices continue, Darwin's tree may well start "going upside down" again.
Argument #2: "The total absence of transitional forms in the fossil record"
Really? This is just silly. First of all, if you understand that evolution only ends for a population when they go extinct, then you realize that ALMOST ALL FOSSILS are transitional fossils. Our pen-pal obviously accepts that there are numerous examples of fossils dating to the Cambrian period, to quote him: "These include representatives of every single animal phylum now in existence on earth, including the Chordates." So he believes that fossils showing the evolution of a spinal cord exist, but they aren't transitional forms? We have fossils of fish that were transitional to land dwelling tetrapods, dinosaurs evolving from reptiles into birds, evolving feathers and wings, even our own ape-like ancestors whose fossils reveal that they started walking on all fours less and less about 3.4 million years ago (or 4.4 million years ago based on this new find). The creationists know this, but they like to put their hands over their ears and scream: "LALALALALA, I can't hear you!"
But let's flip this argument around. What's really interesting about the fossil record is not that creationists pretend it lacks transitional forms, what's interesting is that on all of the fossil hunting expeditions, or with all of the accidental finds, with the multitude of fossils that have been found, characterized, and catalogued, there have NEVER been ANY discoveries of modern forms found in antiquity. For example, if you want to find evidence against the current theory of evolution by natural selection, you should look for a modern human skeleton that dates to more than 4 million years ago, or even just 200,000 years ago, or a modern horse skeleton from 5 million years ago, etc. If anomalies like these existed, then we would have to start figuring out why they were there, and our modern explanation would need to be revised and updated to explain these finds. And yet, there have been no such anachronistic fossils. The fossil record confirms evolutionary theory.
Argument #3: "The assembly - and operation of - the bacterial flagellum: Arguably the best evidence (some say "poster child"?) for intelligent design..."
Oh, good grief! Not this tired old argument. First of all, let's assume he's right (which he is NOT) that we lacked the evidence to explain the assembly and operation of the flagellum... if that were the case, it would still NOT be evidence FOR intelligent design, it would simply mean that we don't yet have the evidence to explain how this structure arose. You can't set up 2 ideas: A and B, then point to an instance where there is not enough evidence to support A, and immediately claim that B must be the correct explanation... and not just the correct explanation for this one instance, but now to be broadly applied to all instances.... you're forgetting about options C, D, and E...this is just faulty logic on top of bad (or, rather, complete lack of) science). A good scientist would generate several hypotheses (from which s/he could make testable predictions) about the origins of the flagellum, while a poor scientist (or non-scientist) might say "God did it" which is not only untestable (and therefore unscientific), but it also stifles the curiosity that would lead us to an actual explanation of how things happened. Perhaps 2 or more bacteria fused in a symbiotic relationship bringing together various parts of this cellular motor, perhaps, over millions of years, proteins that were serving other functions in the cell were co-opted by mutations that brought them together to serve the function of motility, or perhaps it was magic... the bacteria flowed over the philosopher's stone and a flagellum magically appeared... the first two ideas are scientific hypotheses and can be tested, the last explanation is completely ridiculous, and outside the realm of science (and no different from intelligent design). But don't take my word for it, watch this clip from the excellent NOVA special: Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial
OR, you can watch this clip where Ken Miller explains the failings of the flagellum as an example of "irreducible complexity"
Argument #4: The genetic code...
So, this guy mentions wanting to quote John McEnroe, and all I can say to that is, right back at you: "Really?!?!? You cannot be serious!!!!" Before I get to the incredibly weak argument that he uses here, let me just say that if anything, the genetic code is one of the biggest pieces of evidence (and tools used) IN SUPPORT OF evolutionary theory. The fact that ALL living things on this earth share DNA (and RNA) as the basis of protein expression and heredity in our cells suggests that we ALL share a common origin. Also, sequencing the genes of numerous species of organisms has led to only minor changes in phylogenies, but ultimately, sequence comparisons have confirmed the phylogenetic relationships that morphological characters gave us (i.e. we suspected that as humans, we share our most recent common ancestors with other great apes, like chimpanzees... comparing our genomes we see that we share roughly 99% of our genetic material with chimps, whereas, when we look at a mouse or a fish, animals with whom we would have to go farther back in time to find a common ancestor, there are a lot less similarities in the sequences). And yet there are still enough similarities among even distantly related species that we have been able to study the genes involved in the development of fruit flies and use that information to discover the homologous genes that are critical to the development of humans and other mammals (because selection can only work with what's present, these genes change and evolved in our ancestors, but not so much as we can't still recognize them). On top of that we are now able to use the tools of genetics to attempt even more elegant studies into the nature of evolution (like this story I talked about here) where we can actually attempt to reverse engineer the changes that took place in individual proteins as they evolved over millions of years (i.e we can empirically show how small numbers of mutations, or even single mutations, can dramatically change the functions of proteins, allowing them to be selected for or against over time, keep this in mind, it will come up again).
Of course, the argument that the genetic code bespeaks design and not evolution is not new either, and here is a post by PZ Myers debunking a similar claim.
Putting all of that aside, what's this guy's argument?
Apparently, Bill Gates (among others) thinks that the genetic code looks like a "computer program" or like "advanced software"
Wow! That's it? DNA has the appearance of design? And you can make arguments by analogy? Whoa! Slow down, I'm so used to having to counter arguments that actually have EVIDENCE behind them, and not just weak analogies, I'm going to have to actually... oh, wait, I can counter these too...
Okay, so again, this shows why the scientific method is so powerful, because lots of things appear to be one thing, but then careful experimentation and hypothesis testing reveals that our intuitive interpretations of these "appearances" turn out to be faulty. For example, time appears to be constant. My wife and I go to work each day, and despite my not seeing her, when she tells me she will be home around 6'o'clock, I know I can check my watch, 30 miles away at my job, and know when she is getting home. If I call home, she will likely be there. But Einstein (and others, who helped to test his ideas) showed that time is not constant, but rather variable depending on how fast you are moving with regard to everything and everyone else (thus time is relative, hence: theory of relativity). The same is true for many instances of supposed design, not just in the fact that many of these examples have been shown to be explained by evolutionary theory, but also because appearances are RELATIVE. To explain, I will use many of the same arguments by analogy that our letter writer uses. He writes:
"When we see 'John loves Mary' written in the sand, or hieroglyphics etched into an Egyptian cartouche, or the faces of four American Presidents sculpted into Mount Rushmore, or stone trilithons circumscribing an English meadow, we don't say 'look what the wind did!' or 'isn't that an interesting erosion pattern!' or 'what incredible glaciation produced that curious circle of erratics on Salisbury plain!' We infer design."So, first the John loves Mary argument. This is what I mean by the appearance of design being relative. As a thought experiment, assume aliens from a distant galaxy happened upon a beach here on earth and saw "John loves Mary" written in the sand they would likely not infer intelligent design if their forms of written communication were so vastly different from ours, or if characters like our letters were common on their planet as nothing more than geological formations, kind of like this one.
Mount Rushmore is another one of my favorite examples because it always reminds me of "the Old Man in the Mountain", a famous landmark in New Hampshire (that, sadly has continued to erode beyond recognition, but here it is in its former glory).
the virgin Mary in a bird turd), but in order for us to truly know if something was designed (by man), we need evidence. For example, we have numerous historical documents that tell us that Mount Rushmore was sculpted between the years of 1927 and 1941, approved by Congress under President Calvin Coolidge, and based on the design of sculptor Gutzon Borglum. In the case of Stonehenge, we also have evidence to suggest that it was put there by humans. For example, the type of rock used is not found anywhere near stonehenge, suggesting that something or someone must have moved these huge rocks a distance of over one hundred miles (though that could have been a glacier!). Next, when you look at the site, there is evidence of human burials, suggesting that humans were there and using the site, and more convincingly, many of the tools used to shape and erect the stones have been found in digs around the site. These same bits of evidence are what's missing in the argument for ID. For example, where's the evidence for the tools the designer used to create DNA or the flagellum? Did the designer drop a bit of his or her balogna sandwich in the bacterial motor? Or is there any other evidence that s/he was there? No. Not only is there no evidence FOR design in biological systems, but if you want to claim that the designer is a supernatural being, then there will never be a way to even look for such evidence.
The next argument is entitled "The failure of the 'primary axiom'", which is another tired old creationist argument that basically states that mutations cannot generate any new information. This guy seems to be getting a little more specific and claim that mutations cannot generate new proteins (they only seem to be able to damage or detract from what's already there). His conclusion is that if mutations cannot generate new proteins, then there cannot be any new and beneficial proteins for nature to select for, and therefore new features and thus new species (including man) couldn't have evolved. Even Dr. Behe doesn't believe this garbage! In Dr. Behe's latest book, he freely admits to accepting the evidence for macroevolution, including the origin of man from ancestors we share in common with the other great apes. But let's take this argument apart just like the rest...First, single letter mutations in the genome are not the only way to introduce new information into an organism or species, there are numerous examples of how viruses and other pathogens have inserted strings of DNA into the genomes of their hosts (the capability that virus' have to do this has actually led to our ability to experimentally alter the genomes of lab animals, like in these recently developed transgenic songbirds). Additionally, when the replication of DNA goes haywire you can get duplications of segments of genes or even whole genes that get added into the genome. Lots of genes that are important for development actually came about from multiple duplication events. Some of these genes have very similar functions because they haven't been selected for change but rather it was more beneficial to have a redundancy of function to protect against deleterious mutations (as seems to be the case with some Bone Morphogenetic Proteins, like BMPs 2 and 4 which are very similar), and then there are others that evolved to carry out many different functions like the numerous Hox genes that are involved in the establishment different segments of the body plan, and subsequently, numerous different tissues, organs, and cell types. On top of that, new proteins don't need to be manufactured to elicit great changes at the phenotypic level. Many aspects of where and how much protein gets made from a gene are also encoded in the DNA sequence. For example a mutation in the promoter sequence could change which cells express that gene, or when they express it, or how much of it they express. If this happens to a gene that is critical during development, dramatic changes can occur. For example, scientists recently uncovered a step taken by the common ancestor of mice and bats toward the longer limbs needed for bats to develop wings. By altering a part of a mouse gene known as an enhancer, they made the limbs of the mice longer, and more like bats' limbs, during development. (An enhancer is a part of the sequence that doesn't even make it into the protein, but it enhances the level of transcription, thereby leading to more of the protein being expressed) Now, if we ignore all that, and assume that mutations are the only way to achieve change, there are actually, still, plenty of examples of new and different proteins coming about from mutations. Most of the ones we know about lead to some form of disorder or disease, but that is because medical research gets way more funding than evolutionary biology research, which is to say there are likely just as many mutations that have yielded "beneficial" new proteins, but we haven't investigated them because we have an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality when it comes to research in the life sciences. However, if you want an example of a mutation giving rise to a new protein that is not deleterious, just look at our own immune systems, where genes for antibodies are constantly being mutated to give rise to antibodies that can recognize thousands of different antigens. In fact, the ability of a single mutation to yield new and possibly beneficial proteins has led numerous chemical and bioengineers to artificially induce (relatively few) mutations and select for proteins (based on phenotypes, like the ability to degrade or metabolize a new substrate) that may have therapeutic or commercially beneficial properties. Essentially, they are recreating the evolutionary process, at the level of individual proteins, in the lab (here's a review, and here's another article for example, and another one) (if you want even more examples you can go here, or here). So, obviously, it is not impossible for one or a few mutations to result in phenotypes at the protein level that can be selected for or against, and we have many examples of where this has happened in our own DNA.
The final argument is possibly my favorite because it illustrates so clearly what is wrong with ID (in a word: fatalism). Also, it is basically the same old creationist argument of "the eye is too complex to have evolved..." EXCEPT, since the evolution of the eye has been so well described (or here), the ID-ots must have now moved on to the heart...
"The Heart of the Matter: one thing that has always perplexed me from an evolutionary standpoint, Dr. Itzkovitz, has been the heart... Essentially what we have here is a pump... a machine... complete with chambers, muscle, blood vessels, valves, and an intricate arrangement of electrically conductive tissue that all work together, with incredible rhythm and harmony, to pump deoxygenated blood (including red blood cells containing hemoglobin) to the lungs (where it is oxygenated), receive it back again, and then pump it to the rest of the body, and then back again... My dilemma is this: Which evolved first, the chambers or the valves? the cardiac muscle or the neural circuitry which excites it? The blood vessels or the blood itself? the red blood cells or the hemoglobin they carry? the lungs or the heart itself?Okay, before I get into it... here's a blurb about the evolution of the 4 chambered heart, and before that, the two chambered heart, which evolved from a muscular tube like the one we find in some fish, and here's an abstract of a review on the evolution of blood itself (sorry, but I couldn't find a freely accessible full article), and here's an article on the evolution of hemoglobin (and its co-opted use for carrying around oxygen to be used in metabolism).
I could stop there, and let you just read about it on your own, but this argument is just such a great opportunity to demonstrate the difference between science and non-science.
How did the heart come about? How did blood come about? And hemoglobin? These are all excellent questions! I am completely fascinated! Where did blood cells come from? How did they first start to work? I, as a scientist, would try to start figuring this out by making predictions and looking for evidence to either support or refute those predictions. For example, I might say, well, why don't I look at other aerobic organisms and see what their circulatory systems look like, I would predict that some of them have retained more "primitive" hearts and circulatory systems that could give me clues to what the predecessor to our own system may have looked like. I might also predict that organisms that are still capable of anaerobic metabolism as well as aerobic metabolism (that is, they can survive with or without oxygen) use something like hemoglobin for something other than their aerobic metabolism, which might provide another clue. I might look at the heart and say that it looks like modified smooth muscle (which is innervated in the digestive system to move food along the GI tract) and see if I could find an example of an organism that moves oxygen along with its food, or perhaps uses smooth muscle and a similar peristaltic motion to perfuse itself with oxygen. I can go on and on, generating testable predictions that, upon investigation, would tell us more about the world around us, the other organisms we share it with, and our own history, the history of how we evolved, which could then reveal more about how our circulatory system works, or why it works the way it does, which could lead to us being able to regenerate parts of the heart after a heart attack (which some species of fish can do despite their having more "primitive" hearts), or figure out how to make blood cells in people with various forms of anemia more effective at carrying oxygen, etc. The point is, the scientific method contributes a greater knowledge and understanding of our natural world, and contributes to our advancement as a society and as a species, it allows us to do more and greater things with our knowledge. What does the ID "method" do? Well you can see it all over this section of the letter: "do you see my quandary here?" "please help me out here..." this is a "real chicken-or -the-egg kind of thing"... "that has always perplexed me" The reason it is so perplexing to this guy is because he already has a fixed idea in his head... he believes that the heart must have been formed whole, just popped into existence by "the designer", and because he is starting with this faulty conclusion and trying to make sense of it, he can't. He throws his hands up in the air, says, "I give up. Somebody way smarter than me must have put it together and slapped it into Adam's chest." BUT, if this guy could work from the evidence up, and see where it takes him, he would find that there are actually vEry good explanations for how the circulatory system could have arisen gradually. Do we have ALL of the pieces of evidence yet? No. But, by using the scientific method, we will continue to collect more and more evidence, and that will lead us to a better understanding of the circulatory system. With ID, we will be left with nothing, there will be no need to continue investigating anything because we can just say: "The designer did it. And (he or) she is so smart, I can't possibly figure out what she (or he) did, so why bother. I'm gonna go abuse prescription drugs and play video games." Okay, maybe that last part won't happen, but, trust me, thinking you have all of the answers is a dangerous place to work from. That's why science works from the question to find each new answer, and from each answer comes up with new questions. Scientists don't start with the answers, they constantly have to seek them out... One of my favorite comedians, Dara O'Briain, says it best: "Science knows it doesn't have all the answers... otherwise, it'd stop."
Anyway, those were the main arguments, the guy goes on to talk about how consensus science is rarely right, but like all of these nutjobs, he points to ancient times when the consensus was a flat earth or geocentric universe, he doesn't point to the fact that pretty much everyone accepts the theory of gravitation (gravity), or the germ theory of disease, or even the theory of relativity. I mean these theories must be equally flawed since they are the consensus, right? He also recommends that both of Behe's books be made required reading material for our biology and biochemistry undergrads... pardon the expression, but it'll be a cold day in hell before that happens. He also doesn't understand why we claim that Behe's books are not science on the website, and I'll try not to be too repetitive here, but science is a METHOD of invesitigation, a METHOD for understanding the natural world (hence: scientific method). Making things SOUND or SEEM scientific by talking about the circulatory system or other biological processes that have been discovered by using the scientific method, that is NOT science. Just think about all of the herbal supplements, diet products, and other quackery that's out there, that SEEMS scientific, but doesn't work for anything except making money for the snake oil salesmen. If it does not involve hypothesis testing, it is not science.
He ends the letter by insulting all of us who accept the evidence for evolution by natural selection as being lazy (HA!), cowardly (I'm only afraid when my dentist says "this may take a while"), arrogant (wait, who's claiming to have absolute truth here?), too ideologically committed (remember that time I was telling you what irony is?), or too dishonest to admit what he/she really suspects... WOW! hmmm... I'll leave you to think on that one.