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.

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.