Bicoid, nanos, and bricolage

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flagellum cartoon

Intelligent Design creationists are extremely fond of diagrams like those on the right. Textbook illustrators like them because they simplify and make the general organization of the components clear—reducing proteins to smooth ovoids removes distractions from the main points—but creationists like them for the wrong reasons. "Look at that—it's engineered! It's as if God uses a CAD program to design complex biological systems!" They like the implication that everything is done with laser-guided precision, and most importantly, that every piece was designed with intent, to fill a specific role in an apparatus that looks like it came out of a high-tech machine shop at a Boeing aerospace lab.

This is, of course, misleading. Real organelles in biology don't look glossy and slick and mechanical; they look, well, organic, with fuzziness and variability and, most importantly, mistakes and slop. What these biological machines look like is not the precisely engineered output of a modern machine shop, but like bricolage. Bricolage is a term François Jacob used to contrast real biology with the false impression of nature as an engineer. It's an art term, referring to constructions made with whatever is at hand, a pastiche of whatever is just good enough or close enough to the desired result to make do. It covers everything from the sculptures of Alexander Calder to those ticky-tacky souvenirs made from odd bits of driftwood and shells glued together that you can find at seashore gift shops.

The closer we look at the developmental biology of organisms, the more apparent the impromptu, make-do nature of their construction is. This is not to imply that they don't work well or efficiently, but only that the signature of intent is missing. What we see is function cobbled together out of scrap from the junkyard. One clear example of this property is a gene, nanos, in Drosophila.

Continue reading "Bicoid, nanos, and bricolage" (on Pharyngula)

(Note: Pharyngula will be inaccessible for much of the day on Sunday, 13 June, while maintenance work is done on the electrical system out here in Morris, Minnesota. Look for it to be back online in the early evening.)

8 Comments

very good point about the misleading diagrams.

Just for the record, the guy who made bricolage a popular notion was the anthropologist Levi-Strauss who used it to characterize what most of human thinking is like, a perpetual improvisation based on whatever is already at hand. Francois Jabob, a Frenchman, was doubtlessly making an allusion to Levi-Strauss in using the term.

PZ Myers said (referring to a stylized flagellum):

“Intelligent Design creationists are extremely fond of diagrams like those on the right. Textbook illustrators like them because they simplify and make the general organization of the components clear—reducing proteins to smooth ovoids removes distractions from the main points—but creationists like them for the wrong reasons.”

Surely this has been mentioned before, but for all their complaining of Haeckel’s enhanced embryo drawings, isn’t it ironic that IDers have no problem with their own “Icons”?

The closer we look at the developmental biology of organisms, the more apparent the impromptu, make-do nature of their construction is. This is not to imply that they don’t work well or efficiently, but only that the signature of intent is missing. What we see is function cobbled together out of scrap from the junkyard.

I am truly astonished. We have a new evolutionary argument here, the argument against apparent complexity. “It looks complicated but it’s really just a bunch of stuff thrown together and -hey! It works!”

Are you guys serious?

That’s not a new argument, nor is it an argument against complexity. We’ve been telling you guys for a long time that random processes are very, very good at creating complexity.

Jack Shea says:

“Are you guys serious?”

They are, but arguments like these sometimes bother me because general audiences tend to read more into them than was intended. IDers like to trap their critics into arguing against design or for poor design. What should be emphasized to would-be ID sympathizers is (1) that the designer could do it anyway He wants, and even though it looks messy, inefficient, etc. to us, that is no justification for making a value judgment about the designer, (2) that these arguments are meant to show evidence for evolution and common ancestry, not against design or for poor design, and (3) that IDers, for all their attempts at diversion, propose no serious alternatives in terms of how the designer did it.

Hey Jack Shea, have you ever wondered why this blog is called “The Panda’s Thumb?”

What really sucks about creationists is how much you waste trying to teach them to get them to understand, only to have them persist with gibberish. There’s nothing new about pointing out how misleading diagrams can be in biology. (This does not mean that the Panda’s Thumb article was not good, it was) It is not a new evolutionary argument.

The next example is based on Gould’s (1993) analysis of fossil iconography. He feels that the artistic conventions used in these paintings/illustrations create an enormous departure between scenes as sketched and any conceivable counterpart in nature. He sees a fundamental difference between artistic genres in general and the nature of fossil iconography in specific. All artistic genres follow social conventions, but few also “grapple with the assumption that finished products represent a natural reality” (p. 108). Gould identifies a series of conventions (all of which can be defended) that “distinguish painted fossil scenes from inferred actualities.” He argues that certain fundamental misconceptions that many people have about evolution can be traced to these conventions.

from The Role Of Abstraction In Scientific Illustration: Implications For Pedagogy by Punyashloke Mishra

If creationists spent half the time for reading Answers in Genesis, Kent Hovind, and William Dumbski, on doing real thinking about biology, one of them might someday make a contribution, instead of just draining people’s time.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on June 12, 2004 12:35 PM.

Entropy continued was the previous entry in this blog.

Icons of ID: Explanatory filter and false positives is the next entry in this blog.

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