Sunday, November 8, 2009

More BS from people trotting out PhDs

The proponents for creationism (or intelligent design, as the names are really interchangeable) at the Discovery Institute (DI) have a new campaign going on where they aim to expound upon 95 theses that, they claim, will make you reconsider Evolutionary theory. At least, I think it's the work of the DI since the only thing on the page right now is a link to a DI document that lists the names of scientists and other academics who have assented to the statement:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

First, I love that the 95 theses are a tribute to Martin Luther's seminal work which he tacked to cathedral doors to ignite a reformation of the Catholic church. And they say intelligent design isn't religious in nature?
Second, I love that there isn't anything on the page. I am sure this is the calm before the storm, but for now it just points out that there is no evidence to disprove any facet of evolutionary theory as it stands today. Most likely, these 95 theses will be things that argue against Darwin's ideas of 150 years ago or will just point to gaps in our understanding and say, "since we can't explain this (yet), God must have done it". Same old crap, new marketing and PR.  Or, it will just be some crazy ideas that are unfounded and unsubstantiated by any factual evidence (like this one)
Next, I would like to point out that the statement above is pretty reasonable. First, it's not asking anyone if they denounce evolutionary theory, of even whether or not they think it fails to explain the origins of species, it just asks if they are skeptical about random mutations and natural selection being the SOLE cause of the complexity of life, and if they would encourage people to pursue further inquiry into evolutionary theory. It is cleverly worded so that a scientist would read it and think, "of course, why wouldn't we want to further investigate the theory that underlies ALL of the major findings in biology for the last 150 years. Surely there are nuances to be expounded upon, and our understanding of the natural world will likely never be complete, as new species arise everyday." Of course a non-scientist would read this, and if they were already skewed to favor creationism, would accept this as evidence that there is a major conflict amongst academics over whether or not evolution is true. Let me be plain, THERE IS NOT. The OVERWHELMING majority of scientists recognize that evolution is a fact.  Those who don't, I suspect, are lying out of some misplaced sense of duty to their religious beliefs, or for some monetary or political gain.  Asking whether or not you agree with such a statement is a trick question... ask any evolutionary biologist, and my bet is that all of them would agree. Why? because if they didn't think that evolutionary theory should be "carefully examined", they wouldn't be able to justify their own jobs! I mean, why would you spend your whole life and career studying something you didn't think needed a more "careful examination"  And as for being skeptical, that is what scientists do. I am skeptical too! Particularly when you ascribe something like ALL of life's complexity to just 2 processes: random mutation of DNA, and natural selection. Especially when we already know that artificial selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift can drive evolution as effectively (if not more so) than natural selection.

And as for random mutation, it is a wonderfully exciting hypothesis to suggest that there might be changes to DNA, that could be selected for or against, that are not random, and actually, I think you could already make a case for it. More and more evidence suggests that our environment interacts with our DNA at the molecular level. As a common example, UV radiation from the sun preferentially targets thymidine molecules in our DNA, more specifically, pairs of thymidines that happen to be next to each other. When UV light mutates our DNA, more often than not, it causes two of these molecules to fuse together, forming a thymidine dimer (see figure above, copyright 2004, Steven M. Carr). These are the mutations we worry about with sun exposure because they can lead to skin cancer, and these mutations are obviously not random: the chemical structure of thymidines in DNA lends them more to an energy induced change in bonding than other molecules in the DNA (the C, G, and A nucleotides). Of course, this example is more of an analogy because, in order for a mutation to be passed on to one's offspring, it has to occur in cells that will ultimately give rise to either a sperm or an egg cell, and, hopefully, your spermatagonial cells and ovarian follicles aren't getting sunburned. However, this analogy suggests that it is possible for mutations to be non-random, which means it may be possible for mutations that get passed on to be non-random as well... for example, molecules from the food we eat and the air we breathe enter the blood stream and are thus trafficked to all of the cells in our bodies (including sperm and egg cells). These molecules may introduce mutations in a manner similar to UV radiation from the sun, that is in some preferential, non-random way. This is a fascinating idea! And it can be tested experimentally and thus scientifically, and thus, should be "more closely examined". And then we will obtain evidence either for or against non-random mutations being an agent of evolutionary change. And, if we find it's possible, then we can futher "examine" different species for more examples of non-random genetic changes.

But there are even more hypotheses and predictions we can generate based on the evidence we already have, which lead us to "examine more closely" these aspects of evolutionary theory. Previous mutations could make it more or less likely for specific types of mutations to occur in the future. And DNA, by its very chemical nature and structure may lend itself to certain types of changes over others (like the suburn and thymidine example, except possibly without the need for a mutagen). Also, we know that mutations at the sequence level aren't the only things that can bring about change at the phenotypic level. Whole genes sometimes get duplicated when the processes of meiosis and mitosis go awry.  We can further "examine" these duplication events to see how often they occur, or how important they are for different types of traits. Sections of chromosomes cross over during meiosis to introduce genetic variability, and mechanisms have arisen to vary phenotypes at the RNA and protein levels as well.  These areas all need further "closer examination" to see what role they play in evolution, if any.

The point is, this statement that seems to indict so many scientists as "dissenting from Darwinism," is actually quite weak and not up to date with much of what has been discovered about evolution and genetics in the past 50 or 60 years. Many biologists would admit to not only being skeptical, but to claiming that the statement "random mutation and natural selection account for ALL the complexity of life" is actually false, (since we already know that random mutation and natural selection are not the WHOLE story of evolution). Basically, the poorly named discovery institute has trotted out some old ideas about evolution and asked, "who thinks we should investigate further?", NOT, "who disagrees?", but "who thinks we should investigate further?" Well, of course scientists are going to want to investigate more closely, that's what we do! But the DI just wants you to read that statement, and think that there is massive "dissent from Darwinian theory", and that we should all pack up our books and go home. Agreeing to the statement they have written only means you dissent from an antiquated and un-updated theory of evolution. You may as well ask physicists if they are skeptical of the ability of Isaac Newton's ideas to explain ALL of the things we see in the universe. I imagine they would all say no, his ideas have been updated and expounded upon by others like Einstein to fill in the gaps where Newtonian physics fail and to explain what's going on at the sub-atomic level, or in black holes, or at the beginning of the universe. Does this mean that ALL of Newtonian physics is wrong? No. In fact, it is still the basis for most of our knowledge of physics in the world we live in (where everything is at least as big as an atom and things move slower than the speed of light). The same is true for Darwin's ideas.  Are they perfect and all-inclusive? NO. Do they still provide the framework that explains almost everything we observe in biology? YES.

The main difference here is, ID propoents use this statement to claim that scientists support so called "intelligent" design because ID, so they claim, further investigates evolutionary theory.  But that is a lie.  Scientific investigation allows us to more closely examine evolutionary theory.  ID, while helpful in its ability to point to some of the unanswered questions and interesting examples, does nothing to find out anything new about those instances.  The whole basis of the idea is this: some divine being who we cannot see or know in any objective or natural way put everything here and that was that.  This idea is the opposite of further examination, it is fatalism pure and simple.  It is saying that things like the origin of species are too complex to figure out, we should just say god did it, give up, and go home.  In fact, I should think that while most biologists would affirm the statement put forth by the DI, most creationists would not (at least if they were to read it the way scientists do).  In fact, I suspect that most of the fellows at the DI don't really want to examine evolutionary theory any further because everytime we do, their claims are disproved and evolutionary theory is further verified (like the evidence for the evolution of the bacterial flagellum which I talked about here).

This is just another example of how the DI and other proponents of creationism manipulate people and information to cloak themselves in this false air of credibility when really they are being flat out deceitful. They don't really want to "examine" evolutionary theory "more closely" they simply want to tear it down in the eye of the public. ID is a smear campaign plain and simple.

I don't yet have a PhD, but when I do, maybe they'll ask me to sign their petition as well?  I think I would have to refuse on moral grounds. I agree with the statement, but not the spirit of it, and not the dishonesty that went into crafting and disseminating it. Questioning evolutionary theory is great! It's what good biologists do everyday. And I encourage everyone to question it, to find out more (from reputable sources), and to test their theory over and again, scientifically.  The difference is, the DI doesn't want you to carefully examine evolutionary theory, at least, not in any productive way. They want you to learn FROM THEM the specific examples of things that haven't been explained yet. And the things they point to, like old ideas, and say they've been proved wrong when really they've just been updated. And they want you to think that numerous scientists disagree with evolutionary theory, when really the true scientists just want you to understand it better.

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