These guys can’t even do “wishful thinking” competently

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I'm sure you'll hear more from my colleagues in the next week about the appalling and amusing cover article in World magazine. The magazine did something that is remarkably perverse:

WORLD asked four leaders of the Intelligent Design Movement to have some fun: Imagine writing in 2025, on the 100th anniversary of the famous Scopes "monkey" trial, and explain how Darwinism has bit the dust, unable to rebut the evidence that what we see around us could not have arisen merely by time plus chance.

I've only addressed one of the articles, by Jonathon Wells. It's stunning in both its hubris and the deficiencies of intellect and imagination demonstrated by its author.

Continue reading (at Pharyngula)

2 TrackBacks

Intelligent Design from Jeremiah's Music Blog on March 27, 2004 8:14 AM

A fascinating conversation over at The Panda's Thumb (and spillover here) about evolution and its detractor, "intelligent design." So far, the comments have been rather lucid (and their authors seeming somewhat intelligent). Bring your thinking toque o... Read More

These guys can’t even do “wishful thinking” competently PZ Myers posted Entry 50 on March 26, 2004 08:38 PM. Trackback... Read More


Referencing Wells’ statement “Another insight from intelligent-design theory advanced our understanding of embryo development.”

Let me also point to an interesting claim by Wells namely that “DNA does not program the development of the embryo”.

My experiments focused on a reorganization of the egg cytoplasm after fertilization which causes the embryo to elongate into a tadpole; if I blocked the reorganization, the result was a ball of belly cells; if I induced a second reorganization after the first, I could produce a two-headed tadpole. Yet this reorganization had nothing to do with the egg’s DNA, and proceeded quite well even in its absence (though the embryo eventually needed its DNA to supply it with additional proteins). So DNA does not program the development of the embryo.”

A statement which is addressed mercilessly by Scott F Gilbert in the supplemental material to “Opening Darwin’s black box: teaching evolution through developmental genetics” appearing in the September issue of Nature Reviews: Genetics

The explanation for this is very simple, but not obvious to the person who hasn’t had biological training. Here’s the trick: The early development of many embryos (esp. Xenopus and Drosophila) doesn’t have a thing to do with the nuclear genome. The nuclear genome isn’t even active until the 12 division or so. Rather, the early development of the frog or fly has to do with its mother’s genes! This was discovered by Sturtevant (in snails) in 1923 (Inheritance of direction of coiling in Limnaea. Science 58: 269-270;, and it was for her studies on the molecular bases for maternal inheritance in Drosophila that N�sslein-Volhard won the Nobel Prize in 1995.

Gilbert concludes

I would emphasize the importance of including examples from the developmental genetics approach when discussing evolution in public. In addition to being easier to understand than the population genetic approach to teaching evolution, the developmental approach might have other advantages. First, the developmental genetic approach uses examples that everyone can understand from visual experience. Second, evolution at the level of developmental regulatory genes might be the main source of variation. In humans that animal for which variations have been catalogued most carefully), genes are heterozygous at more functional cis-regulatory sites (gt 16,000) than at exon sites ( lt 13,000). Ordinary small-scale mutations contribute to large variations in transcription rates across the genome and so to human variation57. Third, these examples address the questions of evolutionary novelty that creationists say cannot be explained by evolution — how insects have fewer legs than centipedes, how snakes lost their legs, how birds got feathers and ducks got their webbed feet.We are therefore able to show where creationists are wrong and how their ideas about homology and morphological novelties are out of date. If the processes of evolution were viewed solely from the population genetic perspective, it would appear very difficult to explain the origins of feathers, teeth and eyes. They seem to be (in the words of the creationists) “irreducibly complex”6. However,when the perspectives of embryonic induction and developmental genetics are added, these novelties become explainable, at least in outline, if not yet in detail. Such information is crucial if we are to counter the distortions of science by creationists58.

So ID theory advanced our knowledge of Embryology? To quote Dembski

“… the dreaming never stopped and the fun never began”

“It is 2025. ID theory has defeated Darwinism, using three techniques. First, we amended the constitution in 2014, under the leadership of President Falwell and Vice President Robertson. Second, we forbid the teaching of the scientific method. If children cannot understand science, they will not realize our claims our unsound. Instead of learning about hypothesis, which we do not form, or experiments, which our theory is not subject to, children watch Star Trek reruns and study technobabble. Finally, we have rounded up the evolutionists and given them lobotomies. We also rounded up evolutionist books, and science books in general, and burned them, with a lobotomy for everyone caught with one. Using these techniques, on the 100th anniversary of the famous Scopes “monkey” trial, Darwinism has bit the dust, unable to rebut the evidence that what we see around us could not have arisen merely by time plus chance. They are unable to rebut the evidence because we gave them lobotomies and destroyed science.”

Maybe I should submit it. At least mine has a remotely plausible chance of coming true.

Heh, that Gilbert stuff is great. He mentions in passing the evolutionary origin of feathers. Regarding feathers, long a creationist shibboleth, I recommend the popular articles by Prum and Brush in Scientific American, “Which came first, the Feather or the Bird,” based on their technical review, “The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers” in the Quarterly Review of Biology.

Brian: At least mine has a remotely plausible chance of coming true.

There goes any hope of publication.

Is there really any need to “debunk” this? These aren’t even hypotheses, but explicitly and openly sanctioned wankfests. I might as well write about how I’m God and that it will be revealed in 3038.

Ive never understood why no one has kicked the “evolution within species” crutch from dogmatists.

Unless I’m unclear on the idea, “species” are an entirely human construct. The end of one species and the beginning of another are like the lines on a map. We made them up out of convenience.

If you’ve consented to evolution within the species but deny macro evolution, you’ve claimed that evolution is conscious of our delineations and respectfully constrains herself.

PvM: Yeah, every time I read anything by Wells pontificating on developmental biology, I simply can’t believe that the guy was in a Ph.D. program in the subject; I find it hard to believe that he has even been exposed to an undergrad course in db. A developmental biologist who doesn’t comprehend maternal effect…what a scary thought. But that, I presume, is the desired goal of the Intelligent Design movement: dumb down everyone to the point that they can then believe every word of the bible is literally true.

Speaking as an absolute layman in this regard, I’ve come to think of “irreducable complexity” as an intellectual cop-out; essentially an admission that an individual simply can’t comprehend a non-simplistic answer.

“Intelligent design” has great appeal to an individual seeking to maintain a simplistic (and often bivalent) worldview. It writes off any responsibility to engage complex or challenging assumptions. It also re-establishes a primogeniture kind of relationship with the Divine, with it’s not-so-subtle insinuation that we as humans are created in the image of God.

In other words, “intelligent design” makes for a better *story* if for no other reason than it makes an easier fit into popular dogma, reinforcing long-held convictions about our relationship with the cosmos.

Am I making sense here?

Rooter sayeth:

“Unless I’m unclear on the idea, “species” are an entirely human construct. The end of one species and the beginning of another are like the lines on a map. We made them up out of convenience.”

Great insight. I wonder what the effect on evolution theory would be if we cast out the idea of “species” (I think I hear DeCartes spinning in his grave)

Hmmm, just looked at the Gilbert supplementary material. I hate to be pendantic, but he really should have had someone give that piece an edit, although I suppose it’s just supposed to be a personal view. Still: not all trilobites went extinct before bony fishes evolved, some trilobites persisted to the end of the Permian; “Archaeopterix” should be correctly spelled “Archaeopteryx.” And there are various typos. Things are much better once Gilbert gets to developmental biology of course, and the main article in Nature is also fine. He should have submitted the supplemental material to for comments. ;-)

Simce we are into pedantry, it’s not entirely true that species are a human construct. If you look at species in the present (horizontally, so to speak), species are very real - they are a group of related organisms genetically isolated from all other such groups (Mayr’s definition, IIRC). On the other hand, historically speaking (vertically), there is no (need not be) demarcation between species: any organism should be able to breed with its parents. That of course if you are a committed gradualist - one could envision specific scenarios in which this may not be necessarily the case.

Yeah, species are objective, if sometimes fuzzy, categories of organisms, at least at a single particular time. There are famous studies that compare the classifications of professional biologists to the classifications of native tribes, and they show that the two groups independently arrive at virtually the same lists.

The question becomes much more difficult in geological time, since despite punctuated equilibrium we do have examples of microevolutionary series transitioning between critters that are clearly different species (morphologically distinct and as different from each other as current species are different from each other) at the endpoints. Then again, this is expected if species evolve

PZ marvels at how Jonathan Wells got anywhere in dev-bio. However, there is good reason to wonder if JW is being actively dishonest.

He is a known Moonie, a member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. I don’t mention that to dismiss him as belonging to some weird cult, but to suggest that he may be using some of that church’s more infamous practices.

That church has a doctrine of “heavenly deception”, in which it is permissible to lie about that church’s beliefs and practices and aims, if it is expedient to do so. And that church has been known for using front groups to disguise its identity, especially when recruiting.

A more direct hint that JW may be doing something like that may come from his various descriptions of his anti-Darwinist aims. In Icons of Evolution, he claimed that he became skeptical of evolution in graduate school, while to his fellow Moonies, he has claimed that he went to graduate school so he could destroy Darwinism from within, on the advice of Father Moon himself.

So could that IoE preface be a bit of “heavenly deception” for the purpose of recruiting people to his cause?

And now, for something completely different …

Wishful Thinking: a Response to Philip Johnson’s, “The Demise of Naturalism”

On a fervid Wednesday afternoon in August of 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted to banish evolution from the State’s science curriculum. The event differed from previous political challenges to teaching evolution in the public schools in one significant way: the the majority of Kansans rejected this lunacy at the polls. No judicial intervention was required, only a state-wide embarrassment at the policy engendered in part by massive national ridicule.

When six of the seven members who voted for the proposal were ousted in the next election, the political power of traditional creationism diminished to the point of impotence. The movement had suffered ignominious defeats in federal courts more than a decade before, first in 1982 with the McLean decision, and followed by the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard. In those cases, the courts recognized that creationism is a religious, rather than a scientific theory, and invalidated laws demanding its inclusion in public school science curricula.

These and other repudiations forced the Christian Fundamentalists and Reconstructionists who underwrite such efforts to change their strategy. Thus was born the modern “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement: a grasping religious philosophy hidden beneath a cloak of pseudoscience. The proponents of ID sought to overcome the intractable scientific and logical flaws in their reasoning by resorting to political evangelism – advancing propaganda proclaiming the imminent demise of Darwinism, and keeping their own theories sufficiently vague in order to skulk beneath the constitutional radar. Despite a few short-term successes, including the so-called “Santorum Amendment” to the Federal Education Act of 2001 (which never actually made it into the final draft of the Bill), the long-term consequences of the neo-creationists’ “Wedge” strategy were not those that its authors had intended.

Where initially the Wedgies’ greatest asset was a broad public ignorance of evolutionary biology, their campaign to deepen that ignorance by circulating misinformation in popular literature – including coloring books – by-and-large produced the opposite effect. In the first decade of the 21st Century, people who previously had no particular interest in science were enticed by the emotionalism of the debates occurring at school board meetings, and began to reconnoiter the landscape to determine which side had it right. Certainly, many of these layman inquisitors were seduced by their own hopes, fears and prejudices into embracing the new dogma of Intelligent Design, but others were thankfully more critical.

A surprising number happened upon some of the more honest pontifications of the high priests of ID, in which religion, morality and culture – not science – were revealed as the roots of the Wedge’s opposition to Darwin. These objections, they saw, were the clergyman’s, not the scientist’s. More thoughtful minds began to view ID with skepticism, noting that disingenuousness was rife throughout the writings of its main proponents, both in their critiques of evolution and responses to their critics. At the end, these nascent rational voters had to conclude that ID was at best little more than wishful thinking, and at worst, a program of indoctrination for a particular brand of religious authoritarianism.

Now, in the year 2025, the proverbial cat is completely out of the bag. ID is mocked, rather than discussed, where it is mentioned at all. The tumor it represented has since been excised from the classroom, and the United States is home to an embryonic but growing public interest in real science. The most compelling modern narratives regard not what we believe, but what we as a species have come to know about the natural world. The ancient religions have entered a period of transition – perhaps the beginning of a second Enlightenment – and the ancient scams like astrology and palmistry have fallen almost completely into disrepute. Credulity and absolutism have themselves become sins.

The final, lasting, and perhaps inelegant consequence of the ID movement has been the incipient intellectual marginalization of religious fundamentalists from public discourse. Children have become increasingly dismissive of the metaphysical despotisms inherited from their parents, and now heed other, less parochial voices. The cultural transition from traditionalism to individual conscience, so abhorred and resisted by the Wedge, has been catalyzed by the ever more pervasive rejection of unbending belief. Surely, religion itself will not become extinct, but in this age, any world view that is not tempered by reality will soon be relegated to the “dustbin of history.”

Ultimately, the world will be better for it.

This is excellent - I presume you wrote this?

Thanks. Yes, I did.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on March 26, 2004 8:38 PM.

Dembski: The displacement problem and the law of conservation of CSI was the previous entry in this blog.

Is Beckwith Right? Does MN entail PN? is the next entry in this blog.

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