News, news, news!

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We’re having another one of those media frenzies again. The 80th anniversiary of the Scopes Trial, plus continuing legal and political battles over evolution around the country, have provoked a number of high-quality, in-depth stories this week. NPR’s All Things Considered reviewed the history of the Scopes Trial on Tuesday (see the previous PT post ). I think the various NPR links to various pro-evolution websites related to PT are partially responsible for the slowdowns we had yesterday. The Scientist reported on the Leonard affair at Ohio State University. Ben Feller of the Associated Press wrote a widely redistributed story, “Teachers debate how to handle evolution,” reporting on the dilemmas teachers face and on commentary at the recent National Educators Association meeting. This story is hosted at MSNBC among other places, and MSNBC has set up a whole special website, “The Future of Evolution,” which links to many previous stories, on both science and politics. (For reasons that remain obscure, MSNBC decided to put a Conehead alien, or something, in their banner for that page.)

And, best of all, New Scientist devoted the cover of their July 9, 2005 issue to “The End of Reason: Creationism’s new front in the battle of ideas.” The “Creationism Special” (or was that special creationism?) includes:

  • An article reviewing the history since the Scopes Trial, up to modern-day controversies: Debora MacKenzie (2005). “A battle for science’s soul.” New Scientist, 2507, pp. 8-9. July 9, 2005.
  • Some above-average critical analysis of the science-related arguments of ID, particularly irreducible complexity: Bob Holmes and James Randerson (2005). “A sceptic’s guide to intelligent design.” New Scientist, 2507, pp. 10-11. July 9, 2005.
  • An essay by Laurence Krauss reviewing his experience with ID advocates in Ohio, and the sneaky indirect tactics employed by the ID movement: Laurence Krauss (2005). “Survival of the slickest.” New Scientist, 2507, p. 12. July 9, 2005.
  • A blistering essay from the News Scientist editors, “Creationism against Darwinism? No contest.” New Scientist, 2507, p. 3. July 9, 2005.

How’s this for a closing argument? From the editorial:

There is no scientific controversy between ID and evolution. The case for teaching them as valid alternatives is no stronger than the case for teaching students about some supposed controversy between astrology and astronomy.

Lurking beneath this debate is the issue of whether religion should make an appearance in science classes - as the creationist movement has long wanted it to. Here it is difficult not to suspect that the people behind ID are being disingenuous. In their books and papers. They would rather readers saw ID as purely scientific. Yet one of the governing goals of the Discovery Institute, ID’s spiritual home, is to spread the word “that nature and human beings are created by God”.

Let’s be honest. This is creationism by another name. Tell a class of teenagers that the tail of a bacterium did not evolve but was designed, and who will they think the designer is? ID may qualify as a religious belief, but it is not science. Teach it in philosophy or sociology by all means. Its proper resting place, however, will be in history.New Scientist editors, July 9, 2005

Also, don’t miss Bob Holmes’s feature article on rapid evolution in modern times, due to unintentional selection pressure from humans: Bob Holmes (2005). “Evolution: Blink and you’ll miss it.” New Scientist, 2507, pp. 28-31. July 9, 2005.

Holmes did an excellent story back in February on attempts to produce protocells in the lab: “Alive! The race to create life from scratch.” The story emphasized the importance of combining membranes with hereditary material in order to get primitive replication systems going – this is several steps more sophisticated than the “replicating molecules” studies that usually get reported on. So Holmes is clearly a sharp cookie.

A further illustration of sharpness is this sidebar in Holmes’s story on rapid evolution:

Change for the better

When it comes to rapid evolution, microbes are the clear champions - just ask any physician struggling to treat an antibiotic-resistant infection. But that same evolutionary precociousness also makes microbes an unparalleled tool for cleaning up toxic messes.

Take weedkillers such as atrazine and 2,4-D, or nitrotoluenes such as TNT. Born in chemists’ labs, these chemicals had never existed on Earth before. Yet just a few decades after their introduction, bacteria whose ancestors have been around for 3.5 billion years had evolved the enzymes needed to break them down for food. Their secret? They can pick up second-hand genes from their neighbours at what is essentially a vast, freewheeling flea market, and then tinker with them to alter their function.

Microbiologist Michael Sadowsky from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, has found evidence for this in the soil bacterium Pseudomonas. The four genes it uses to break down atrazine are scattered at random in its genome, suggesting that they were picked up one at a time. What’s more, each is bracketed by transposons, bits of mobile DNA often implicated in genetic reshuffling.Sidebar to Holmes (2005), “Evolution: Blink and you’ll miss it.”

What’s that? Four genes required to break down a human-created compound, atrazine, all working together – yet assembled from genomic flotsam and jetsam, by natural evolution, within a few decades? But I thought Michael Behe said that the natural evolution of multiple-parts-required systems was essentially impossible!

I may be able to take a bit of credit for suggesting this topic to Holmes – I brought up microbial degradation of xenobiotic compounds when Holmes called the NCSE office to get our take on Behe’s “irreducible complexity” argument. I didn’t see the topic appear in the “Sceptic’s guide to intelligent design” article, but there it is in this sidebar to Holmes’s feature article.

(The New Scientist articles require a paid subscription. Journalists have to eat, I guess. They have an introductory offer available, for only $4.95 you get full online access and four print issues.)

24 Comments

Yeah, we’ve seen this with nylonase and DDE degradation genes as well so it’s certainly something that has occured repeatedly. I wonder what ID proponents would make of the concept of genome shuffling as well especially because it’s an almost completely random process, that works brilliantly for rapidly producing a more efficient enzyme.

It’s good to see the mainstream journals realising that this pseudoscience cannot be ignored and should be adequately refuted where it counts: In peer review.

Sorry, I just can’t resist writing to you people again. So, the learned editors of NEW SCIENTIST have managed to put a few words in some sort of order to stir up the old, obsolete Origins Debate, have they? Pity they can’t consult the relevant publications, and lay the matter to rest. Truth can be a fearsome thing. But let’s try some logic. (I am not part of the I.D. Movement – they refuse to acknowledge I exist – just like NEW SCIENTIST.) These words the NEW SCIENTIST Editors strung together in some sort of intelligible order – would they have been even a fraction to the power of 10 as intricately information-carrying as the DNA of a pond weed? Now it is completely “unscientific” to allow pond weed to have been designed by anything but blind chance – according, that is, to NEW SCIENTIST, TALKORIGINS, etc., NOT according to Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Joule, Dalton, Faraday, Kelvin, Einstein, Planck, etc.,etc. – therefore, it is certain that no intelligence was involved in the NEW SCIENTIST editorial. It is by definition religious indoctrination to suggest that NEW SCIENTIST, TALKOSTRICHES, etc.,etc., have any intelligence at all. What you people are doing to the image of Science is unprofessional, unneccessary, and all but unbelievable. P.H..

Talk Ostriches? O_o

they refuse to acknowledge I exist

Just like their designer, which they can’t even tell what it was just yet although they think its God in one context and aliens in another and ‘none’ in others. It’s almost as if the ID movement have been hit by a mass form of multiple designer disorder and they can’t figure out anything else from there.

Please don’t feed the troll.

Philip Bruce Heywood Wrote:

But let’s try some logic.

By all means! Let us know when you’re ready to begin.

I am not part of the I.D. Movement — they refuse to acknowledge I exist.…

Judging from your post, maybe that’s because you seem even less capable of logical argument than they are.

Philip Bruce Heywood Wrote:

…TALKOSTRICHES.… …is unprofessional, unneccessary, and all but unbelievable. P.H..

It’s Davison without the apples or Doctorate.

I normally just lurk, and this is only tangential to the topic, but it is ID news: a Catholic archbishop published an article in The New York Times basically putting the Catholic Church on the side of ID (assuming I read it right, and I think I did). I blogged a bit about it, but it’s the kind of thing that deserves more attention.

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Vogel, you didn’t read it correctly, (which is not your fault. It could be written better.)

The Archbishop argues that Catholics are not atheistic evolutionists, but rather theistic evolutionists. I have no idea why he thought that this needed to be clarified.

Regarding the New York Times op-ed, I do wish that the honorable archbishop had not set up a false dichotomy between natural processes and the action of God. As I have previously pointed out on PT (“Note to meteorologists: You’re next”), this position makes any natural explanation – meteorology’s explanation of lightning, geology’s explanation of plate tectonics, etc. – an argument against God. Most of the time, most Christians, especially Catholics, realize that this is an absurd position. If the natural processes under consideration are mutation and selection, however, for some reason sometimes a special distinction is made. I don’t think the old Pope bought into this, but I fear the new Pope might, given that Pope Benedict is from Germany, this archbishop is from Vienna, the archbishop went out of his way to characterize the 1996 Papal statement as “unimportant”, and the archbishop went to the trouble of sending his views on the topic all the way over to New York for national consumption in the U.S.

The NYT piece equivocates on the notion of “evidence.” When the Archbishop asserts that there is overwhelming evidence for design, he suspiciously fails to qualify it as “scientific” evidence. Immanent design is real, he reminds the reader. How real? Real as in being verifiable by experiments, and testable hypotheses? I think not. Reality has many dimensions. By that argument, it seems to me then, the Archbishop is likely to be comfortable with meteorology and lightning and plate tectonics as evidence of design.

What does trouble me, however, is the Archbishop making blanket statements about what constitutes science and ideology. Do we really need a religious organization unilaterally defining the demarcation between science and religion? This is the step back, in my opinion, when the Church no longer recognizes the scientist as an equal in this discourse.

Ah well, maybe I misread the archbishop’s editorial, but he does pretty clearly set up neo-Darwinism as equal to atheism, and Design as the alternative. This is how Behe would define things, not your average scientist, who would say merely that neo-Darwinism merely refers to the natural processes of population genetics, not the cosmic atheistic worldview.

Well, maybe we should ask the good Archbishop if he believes that the weather and earthquakes are really unguided and unplanned. A consistent application of human reasoning would seem to require the Archbishop see Design everywhere, not only when it is convenient for him.

I guess, it remains to be seen if the Archbishop deliberately (mis)applied these two qualifiers “unguided” and “unplanned” to distinguish neo-Darwinism and evolution. Those qualifiers are inherently metaphysically loaded, and scientifically unverifiable. I agree, a scientist should know better than that.

The paragraph that set off the most alarms in my head was this:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

That’s not the only one I twigged to, but it’s one of the more obvious ones. Sounds awfully IDish to me, even when they grant common ancestry - the emphasis on “unguided, unplanned” as wrong, the accusation that evolution is ideology, etc. Still, I’m willing to entertain (if only out of desperate optimism) that I’m still wrong. And you’re right, it’s not a very clear article in any sense.

Well, it looks like I may have been a bit quick on the draw - I hadn’t seen the Cleveland article (now linked on the front page). So, at the very least, whatever IDishness is floating around the church is less than systemic. Thanks for bringing that up.

Cincinatti article, not Cleveland. Sorry.

Nick, the problem with the archbishop’s op-ed is that he uses anti-evolution terminology to promote theistic evolution. Perhaps he has been influenced by the language of ID politics without actually understanding the politics.

For instance, according to him supporters of science education have used John Paul II’s statement on evolution to argue that Catholics are atheistic evolutionists. ???

No. Earthquakes were created by God until we stumbled upon plate tectonics, etc. Then He stopped making earthquakes. See how easy it is to be an ID apologist? :)

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Sorry, I just can’t resist writing to you people again.

No offense, but, uh, who the hell are you?

What does trouble me, however, is the Archbishop making blanket statements about what constitutes science and ideology. Do we really need a religious organization unilaterally defining the demarcation between science and religion? This is the step back, in my opinion, when the Church no longer recognizes the scientist as an equal in this discourse.

Maybe next he’ll withdraw the Catholic Church’s apology for that whole Galileo thingie . … . .

Over at ID the Future the ID apologists claim that Pope Benedict may have directed the Archbishop of Vienna to write the Op-Ed in the NYT. And another leading light of ID is clear that the Bishop is speaking for ID on the grounds of reason and not faith! And did you know Guillermo Gonzalez is an “astrobiologist”?

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I don’t habitually scan these pages but was passing by and couldn’t resist sending the comment you (commendably) published, above. To clarify a couple of points; I know that there are people who can be classed as both scholars and gentlemen, associated with your publication. There is definite evidence of it in a few of the comments posted above. It was not the intent of my original to suggest otherwise. The “unprofessionalism”, etc., refers to policy, not personality. Secondly, for, “refuse to acknowledge I exist” read, “refuse to acknowledge the existence of my publications”. No dedicated professional habitually and intentionally excludes himself from developments in his field. I commend any scholars and gentlemen who may be on your team. And thanks for the laugh. P.H.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on July 7, 2005 1:57 AM.

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