Intelligent Design on Trial

Set your TiVo to record Nova on Nov. 13th. The program is Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, the story of the Dover, PA trial on teaching religious doctrines in science classes. The trial, popularly known as Scopes II, established that Intelligent Design is no different from classical creationism and is therefore out of place in the public schools’ science classrooms. I grew up a hour away from the venue of the Scopes Trial, and went to public schools where and when it was illegal for my teachers to give a truthful account of the evolution of life on this planet, so this sort of thing makes me very, very happy.

An Act of Deception

Intelligent Design is a deceitful critique of Darwinian descent with modification that attempts to undermine the commitment of science to find natural causes for natural phenomena. Its apparent goal is to have public school science classes teach Divine Intervention as an alternative to natural causes. One of the favorite complaints of Intelligent Design advocates is that they’re persecuted and denied free speech whenever the absence of any rational basis for their claims is exposed, and their favorite method is deception. Once again, the deception has come to the surface in a story in the New York Times on their upcoming film “Expelled.” The film’s producers obtained interviews with several prominent scientists by claiming to be doing a documentary on the intersection of science and faith rather than a propaganda piece for anti-scientism.

As the Times correctly surmises, there isn’t really any great scientific controversy over the subject matter:

There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. And while individual scientists may embrace religious faith, the scientific enterprise looks to nature to answer questions about nature. As scientists at Iowa State University put it last year, supernatural explanations are “not within the scope or abilities of science.”

Hence the claims of persecution are groundless. But we Americans love the underdog, so some will root for the ID’ers anyway.


See Volokh and Reason for more.

Predictably, the ID response is riddled with falsehoods. The Discovery Institute claims there’s an active scientific dispute over descent with modification (there isn’t) and that Richard Sternberg and Guillermo Gonzalez suffered reprisals from the science establishment for their support of creationist ideas, Sternberg at the Smithsonian and Gonzalez at Iowa State University. In fact, Sternberg was never employed by the Smithsonian and Gonzalez’ failure to win tenure was based on his thin publication record.

But we already knew that.

Win Ben Stein’s Integrity

Speaking of pimps, Ben Stein has a new docudrama coming out in February that seems calculated to pander to the persecution complex prevalent among religious fundamentalists. It’s called “Expelled” and it deals with Intelligent Design from the standpoint of the intolerance of the scientific establishment. You know, the unwillingness of scientists to accept “what if” arguments, rank speculation, and supernatural causes on the same level with hypothesis, evidence, and experiment (all the boring stuff that real science does.)

Interviews were obtained with top scientists through the duplicity of telling them the film was to be a balanced portrayal of the cultural conflict between science and literal-text religiosity, as you can see from this entry at The Panda’s Thumb.

Ben Stein is playing up the victimization angle on a blog post for the movie, and is soundly whacked by commentors for his dishonesty.

So once again we find religious fundamentalists playing fast and loose with the Ninth Commandment in order to advance their cause. Lucky for them, God isn’t watching because blasphemy is a victimless crime.

Bad news for Behe

The unraveling of Mike Behe’s mutation math continues, with this common-sense finding:

Beneficial mutations in the bacterium Escherichia coli occur 1,000 times more frequently than previously predicted, according to research from a group in Portugal.

In a study of E. coli populations of various different sizes, Isabel Gordo and her collaborators at the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Oeiras, Portugal, found that thousands of mutations that could lead to modest increases in fitness were going unseen because good mutations were outperformed by better ones1. The authors say that the work could explain why bacteria are so quick to develop resistance to antibiotics.

“It’s changed the way I think about things,” says Frederick Cohan, a biology professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He adds that although the principles involved were understood, no one expected to find such a high rate of adaptive mutation.

Oops. Never fear, the dominionist spin machine is already in high dudgeon, cranking out deflections and distractions on secret blogs as we speak.

Poor Michael Behe

When Discovery Institute fellow Michael Behe decided to publish his book The Edge of Evolution he must have known that people who actually understand the mathematics of mutation would examine his arguments and find them wanting. Perhaps urged on by his masters to feed their demanding public a new pile of steaming squish, he did it anyway, and now the bill has come due. See Richard Dawkins’ review in the New York Times, it’s devastating:

But let’s follow Behe down his solitary garden path and see where his overrating of random mutation leads him. He thinks there are not enough mutations to allow the full range of evolution we observe. There is an “edge,” beyond which God must step in to help. Selection of random mutation may explain the malarial parasite’s resistance to chloroquine, but only because such micro-organisms have huge populations and short life cycles. A fortiori, for Behe, evolution of large, complex creatures with smaller populations and longer generations will fail, starved of mutational raw materials.

If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection. Now, if you sought an experimental test of Behe’s theory, what would you do? You’d take a wild species, say a wolf that hunts caribou by long pursuit, and apply selection experimentally to see if you could breed, say, a dogged little wolf that chivies rabbits underground: let’s call it a Jack Russell terrier. Or how about an adorable, fluffy pet wolf called, for the sake of argument, a Pekingese? Or a heavyset, thick-coated wolf, strong enough to carry a cask of brandy, that thrives in Alpine passes and might be named after one of them, the St. Bernard? Behe has to predict that you’d wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.

I picture Behe sitting in a corner somewhere wimpering, but his buddy Denyse O’Leary, the ID journalist from Canada, says he “outclasses” Dawkins and calls his dog meditation an “irrelevant riff.” Why would it be irrelevant in a discussion of the size and scope of genetic variation? O’Leary doesn’t say, but her reasoning would probably go something like this: “Behe doesn’t talk about dog breeding!” Indeed he doesn’t, and that’s a big part of his problem.

UPDATE: This post pinged “Uncommon Descent,” the ID blog where O’Leary offered her slapdash opinion of Dawkins’s critique. After reading this post, the admin of Uncommon Descent removed the trackback; I can see this from my referral log. Perhaps the only way IDers will ever win their argument with reality is to stop acknowledging reality. Not that they ever did, poor dears.

Darwin’s Letters

Previously unpublished letters by Darwin and friends are about to be published:

The correspondence with Darwin’s friend and theological sparring partner Asa Gray, an American botanist and God-fearing Christian, spans decades, beginning in 1854, five years before the publication of Origin, and continuing until Darwin’s death in 1882.

Despite Gray’s committed Christianity, he went on to become Darwin’s greatest champion in the US, where ideas about so-called intelligent design have re-ignited the debate about creationism…

The relationship between Darwin and Gray was good natured, if combative. In one letter, Darwin tells Gray: “An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this. I can’t and don’t.”

Gray responds: “You reject the idea of design, while all the while bringing out the neatest illustrations of it!” Darwin, rather self-conscious of his large nose, writes: “Will you honestly tell me that the shape of my nose was ordained and guided by an intelligent cause?”

Unlike the modern “debate” between scientists and creationists, 19th century discussions of evolution were generally quite calm and respectful. It was all so much easier then, to be sure.

Who’s your daddy?

The illustrious Dr. Frank clued me in on the story about the sheep/human chimera, a man-made creature with 15% human genes and 85% sheeply ones. These critters are an experimental stage in the production of an organ-donor pool for sickly humans.

Now from the journal Nature we find that genetic mixing isn’t just for the laboratory, as Mother Nature does it herself with cute little marmosets:

As a general rule, a man who learns that his children are genetically his brother’s offspring would have good cause for distress. But for one group of primates, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that mum has been unfaithful, a new study finds.

The reason, says Corinna Ross of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, is that these primates are often genetic mosaics containing some cells that belonged to their siblings. And when those cells happen to be sperm, a male can sire offspring that are genetically nephews and nieces rather than sons and daughters.

This strange genetic mixing could be one of the reasons why these animals tend to raise their families in large collectives, with everyone lending a hand; animals are thought to generally give more parental attention to children with a strong genetic similarity to themselves.

Marmosets, you see, are typically born in pairs of non-identical twins who share a common blood supply in the womb. This leads to genetic migration and chimaerism. So any ideas you may have had about impenetrable walls between species and individuals in nature have to be set aside.

With friends like this…

One of the strangest of strange bedfollows in the net neutrality debate is the Discovery Institute. Best known for promoting the question-begging Intelligent Design construct (a critique of Darwinian descent-with-modification intended to restore moral rectitude in America by lying about biology), Disco has a sideline in telecom regulation. Their chief telecom regulator sees Bill Gates as an ally, and seeks to praise him:

Right! But you’re either a network company who don’t [sic] want any restrictions, or a content company who doesn’t understand the disincentive to building out the networks. There were tons of things proposed that would have made the US just like Europe. These are complex issues. What the consumer wants, in terms of, hey, my network gives me access to everything but it’s also very high-speed [sic] — that’s the ideal for us. And as a big company in the industry, it’s incumbent — it’s a part of our responsibility is [sic] to learn these complex issues and not let either [sic] the extreme things block what really should happen. The US did have a problem in the 1996 act that it had as an assumption that sub-leasing could do this magic thing, and how did that go? Why is Korea ahead of us? It’s a complex thing. I think we’re doing the right things. Go and look at the AT&T filing; I haven’t looked at it specifically, and see if you think that strikes a good balance.

Go and look at the AT&T filing; I haven’t looked at it specifically but you should do as I say, not as I do. This guy is not helping to save the Internet from over-regulation and I’d like for him to stop trying.

UPDATE: If you want a decent account of the Gates interview, go see Matt Sherman’s selective quotes. Note that Gates also said he thinks the AT&T merger agreement “strikes the right balance,” but that’s another story for another day, Matt never said he was going to be all fair and balanced.

Science makes his head hurt

Once upon a time, I was very fond of the Blogs for Bush blog. I believed it was important for America that Bush was re-elected, as I had no trust in John Kerry’s ability to hold a thought long enough to act on it, any thought, any action. And if I had it to do all over again, I would still vote for Bush over Kerry. But that’s because we live in an imperfect world with a political system that gives us poor choices. If I had my way, we’d have presidential candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Bob Kerry. But we don’t, and there we are.

The chief honcho of Blogs for Bush, Mark Noonan (no relation to Peggy) has shown his colors and branded himself a fool with this idiotic attack on science:

Not too long ago the blogosphere was rocking with the great debate of Intelligent Design vs Darwinism. It was an interesting debate, though I doubt much that anyone had the mind changed. Be that as it may, the whole thing got me thinking, and today ii occured to me: science is dead. We have reached the end of the Age of Science – what will come after, I don’t know, but I don’t think that we’ll ever again have a time when Science is enshrined as some sort of god-like arbiter of right and wrong. The question now: what killed science?

It’s a nice little rip-off. Nietzsche (and others) said God died in the 19th century, a victim of the enlightenment, global exploration, rational inquiry, and yes, science. But Mark’s having none of that high-falutin’ science that gives us hoaxes like Piltdown man (and then exposes them), the old-time religion is good enough for him, so he stands Nietzsche on his head.

This nonsense is not worth refuting in detail. We’ll simply note that church attendance is in decline, especially in Western Europe. In another fifty to a hundred years, science-deniers will be an even smaller and more marginal group than they are now, and this sort of thing will be taught in the history books as the last throes of a doctrine that couldn’t adapt itself to the information age.

There doesn’t really need to be a war between religion and science, and if there is one, religion will lose every time. That’s because science can feed people, heal their diseases, extend their lives and enable them to fulfill their wishes.

Science can’t answer all of our metaphysical questions about meaning and purpose, so religion can still have a role, as long as it doesn’t get too uppity. In the hands of fanatics like Noonan, it does and is therefore firmly in the ash bin of history.

Certainly, there are wackos at the margins of science who insist on a war with religion, people who insist that descent with modification proves there is no God. And there are wackos who insist that science can instruct us in morality, but they don’t represent the spirit of rational inquiry.

Noonan wants school children to be taught that the pseudo-scientific Intelligent Design construct is on the same footing as the entire apparatus of evolutionary biology, invoking the Ann Coulter arguments. This is simply nonsense. The evidentiary basis for DWM is enormous, and you can certainly find this out in a few minutes of honest research on the web.