Egnor just doesn’t know when to quit

| 25 Comments

I’m sure you’ve seen the posts here at Panda’s Thumb or over at Scienceblogs about the Discovery Institute’s newest protégé, Dr. Michael Egnor. A professor of neurosurgery at SUNY-Stony Brook, Dr. Egnor has been pontificating on how “Darwinism” has nothing to offer to medicine; and indeed, that evolutionary biology has “hijacked” other fields of study. Mike has already aptly pointed out many of Egnor’s strawmen and intellectual dishonesties, so I won’t review them all. I’ve stayed out of the fray until now because I’ve had limited time and others have been handling it quite ably, but he keeps treading into (and butchering) my territory, so I just wanted to point out a few other things Egnor is waving away when he makes statements like this:

Preventing the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria is important work, but the insight that Darwinism brings to the problem – the unkilled ones eventually outnumber the killed ones – is of no help. We can figure that out ourselves. The tough work on preventing the emergence of resistant bacteria is done by microbiologists, epidemiologists, molecular geneticists, pharmacologists, and physicians who are infectious disease specialists. Darwinism, understood as the view that “chance and necessity” explains all biological complexity, plays no role.

Sigh.

Others have already addressed the blatant ignorance of this statement (spouted following a paragraph wherein he claims that the evolution of antibiotic resistance is just a tautology), so I’m actually going to leave the antibiotic resistance stuff alone for the time being. What I want to address instead are other areas where evolution is critical for insights into many of those fields Egnor mentions, especially since my own research is at the convergence of the first three he lists: microbiology, epidemiology, and molecular genetics.

(Continued over at Aetiology).

25 Comments

Egnor:

“Darwinism” has nothing to offer to medicine;

What does believing the earth is 6010 years old, Noah had a boat full of dinosaurs, and the grand canyon was formed in a few months have to offer medicine?

I’m late to this discussion but evolutionary concepts are used in emerging disease research, vaccinology, infectious disease-antibiotic and antiviral research and therapy, medical genetics, and cancer research and therapy among others.

Whether Darwinism has anything to offer medicine has nothing to do with whether it is correct or not.

It wasn’t too long ago that some bloggers were worried about medical journals using words other than “evolution” to describe evolutionary changes. I’ve tended to think that it’s not a grave problem, as surely most peole know that “change” or “adapt” used in a medical paper refers to the same processes that “evolve” does. Yet it may be that Egnor is the counterexample to my lackadaisical response.

He may have some literalistic affliction, whether through nature or nurture I wouldn’t know. Apparently if you say “adapt” or “change”, he thinks that these are different from “evolve”. And of course, like most IDiots, he seems unable to realize that “evolution” itself, hence phylogenies, leads to no predictable patterns or consequences unless it is constrained by solid, evidenced, mechanisms. No doubt he’d agree with Tara’s points about phylogenetic studies, he’d just not connect it with natural selection, or even if he did in these particular cases, he’d not be able to generalize HIV phylogenies and ape/human phylogenies, despite there being no qualitative differences between the two.

I think that Egnor’s unacknowledged point is that you can learn medicine piecemeal, without learning how to synthesize or to generalize. He reads “adapt”, and doesn’t connect it to “evolve”. He presumably recognizes that phylogenies can be useful in medicine and in determining human breeding patterns, but he simply can’t move beyond their specific truth to the recognition that the same patterns exist throughout life.

He never was able to think synthetically and generally like a scientist does (at least I see no evidence that he can or could), and yet he probably is quite a good surgeon. Thus he does not recognize that he’d probably be a (marginally) better surgeon and teacher if he did know how to connect the piecemeal knowledge that he can spit out so well, nor does he recognize how much more important it is for medical researchers to do what he cannot, which is to think theoretically and universally.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

the insight that Darwinism brings to the problem — the unkilled ones eventually outnumber the killed ones — is of no help. We can figure that out ourselves.

Not necessarily.

Without the insights of evolution by natural selection, Medical scientists would be heading down all sorts of blind alleys, like:

1) The whole idea of antibiotics obviously is a failure. Forget about them.

1) There’s something wrong with the antibiotics themselves. They’re going bad, or the antibiotic manufacturers are not formulating them properly. Concentrate on preserving the antibiotics or on rooting out the wrongdoing at the drug manufacturers.

2) God is angry with us for making antibiotics, and has made bacteria resistant to them. We’d better obey His will and stop work on them.

People who are more knowledgable and imaginative than I can probably come up with better examples.

Re “(spouted following a paragraph wherein he claims that the evolution of antibiotic resistance is just a tautology),”

Besides, a tautology is something that’s always true. So trying to argue against something by calling it a tautology, doesn’t make sense. Or is that just me?

Henry

Besides, a tautology is something that’s always true. So trying to argue against something by calling it a tautology, doesn’t make sense.

But he doesn’t argue against the tautology. His argument stems from the fact that tautologies do not yield testable hypotheses.

the insight that Darwinism brings to the problem — the unkilled ones eventually outnumber the killed ones — is of no help. We can figure that out ourselves.

I think what he’s saying is that it’s no surprise that a heterogeneous population of bacteria, when subjected to an antibiotic, will kill off all the non-resistant strains. In this process, the fitness of the population will increase until we have nothing left but resistant strains. This way, the survival rate of the resulting population will quickly converge; so far, he’s right, this is more or less a tautological consequence of natural selection.

But this is not the insight that “Darwinism” brings to the problem. It rather explains the surprising fact that over time — or, in his words, “eventually” — the survival rate of the population gradually increases, that in fact it does not converge. And I don’t see how we can “figure that out ourselves” without the ToE and the addition of new information due to descent with modification.

Just yesterday there was an article in the NYTimes that patently demonstrate the utility of ToE principles in microbiology, epidemiology and molecular genetics. Below is a badly produced job of cut-and-paste with some relevants sentences. All mistakes and errors are mine.

Dr. Finberg’s experiments show that virus traps have some promise, but they do not reveal exactly why they failed to eradicate the virus. “What is the threshold for these traps so that they will force the viruses into extinction?” asks Paul E. Turner, an evolutionary biologist at Yale. Dr. Turner and his colleagues are trying to find the answer, but instead of studying mice, they are studying bacteria. Dr. Turner and his colleagues created a mathematical model to predict how phi-6 (virus) would fair if they mixed viral traps into a colony of normal Pseudomonas hosts. They predicted that the more virus traps the scientists added, the more the virus population would shrink. Above a threshold of traps, the viruses would not be able replace their lost numbers, and they would disappear completely. Now Dr. Turner and his colleagues are using what they have learned with bacteria to study HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Just yesterday there was an article in the NYTimes that patently demonstrate the utility of ToE principles in microbiology, epidemiology and molecular genetics. Below is a badly produced job of cut-and-paste with some relevants sentences. All mistakes and errors are mine.

Dr. Finberg’s experiments show that virus traps have some promise, but they do not reveal exactly why they failed to eradicate the virus. “What is the threshold for these traps so that they will force the viruses into extinction?” asks Paul E. Turner, an evolutionary biologist at Yale. Dr. Turner and his colleagues are trying to find the answer, but instead of studying mice, they are studying bacteria. Dr. Turner and his colleagues created a mathematical model to predict how phi-6 (virus) would fair if they mixed viral traps into a colony of normal Pseudomonas hosts. They predicted that the more virus traps the scientists added, the more the virus population would shrink. Above a threshold of traps, the viruses would not be able replace their lost numbers, and they would disappear completely. Now Dr. Turner and his colleagues are using what they have learned with bacteria to study HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

I guess the gist of Egnor’s thesis is that doctors, and med-schools, don’t use evolution directly, biologists use evolution, and doctors use what the biologists find using evolution, without having to undrstand how the biologists came up with all that useful stuff.

Sort of like me posting to this blog without understanding how the software that makes it possible works. I don’t have to understand it, as long as someone else understands it for me.

The big difference between me and Egnor, of course, is that I admit my ignorance, and don’t go around bloviating about the “relevance” of something I use but don’t understand.

the insight that Darwinism brings to the problem — the unkilled ones eventually outnumber the killed ones — is of no help. We can figure that out ourselves.

Think he is wrong here. Why are there any unkilled bacteria, viruses, protists in response to an antibiotic or antiviral in the first place? Why don’t they just be well behaved pathogens and all die? The answer is mutation.

Why do the unkilled eventually outnumber the killed? Some of the unkilled have heritable permanent changes in sensitivity to the drugs which results in selection of genetically different and fitter individuals in this particular environment. Mutation and selection is just evolution in action, albeit micrevolution.

This was discovered and understood decades ago within the framework of evolutionary theory. There is nothing for him to figure out since it was done early in the 20th century.

What he appears to be saying is we can watch evolution in action, it is a serious problem, it is obvious common sense, but evolution doesn’t happen. That is not a tautology, that is just being confused and contradictary

I think that Egnor’s unacknowledged point is that you can learn medicine piecemeal, without learning how to synthesize or to generalize.

much in the same way someone can drill for oil without knowing anything about geology.

of course, anyone can be a technician. there are lots of fields that allow this.

However, it does nothing to further the field itself, and those technicians that know where to drill for oil only know such because of the work of those who actually DO know something about geology.

I keep wondering if that really is some extraction of Egnor’s “point”, why on earth would he bother to make it?

no, this is all a distraction. It’s just a political charade. You can expect to see his statements get more and more ridiculous as time goes by.

Egnor is guilty of gross hypocrisy when it comes to antibiotic resistance.

As I pointed out in another thread, he admits that it is the result of genetic variation and natural selection. It’s patently obvious that first of all, this is evolution, and second of all, understanding that this is the mechanism is crucial to dealing with antibiotic resistance.

I’ve also pointed out the only possible reason for his behavior in this matter. Right wing politics.

I don’t say that to promote or criticize any single political ideology. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not support right wing politics, but that is not my point here.

I am merely making the factual observation that ID was invented by the right wing to “court-proof” creationism, in order to pander to “fundamentalists”. It has no sincere religious meaning; what kind of a clown would hang his spirituality on convoluted arguments about the existence of an uncharacterizable “designer”? It was and is an (extremely unsuccessful) piece of politically motivated would-be legal chicanery.

When I point this out, I get no protests from IDiots, and rare apologetic protests from people who consider themselves “right wing” but are too honest to lie about science. No-one has the nerve to deny that ID is a tool of the “conservative movement”, and indeed, denying that would cost it the DI a lot of money!

Egnor lies about evolution, and the only major reason I’ve observed for lying about evolution is a misguided belief that doing so either promotes the success of, or at least signals one’s support for, right wing politics.

Few health care professionals actually working in relevant fields seem to either agree with this guy or have a problem with evolution.

I put the keywords evolution drug resistance into the search box at the National Library of Medicine, pubmed.gov. A list of 3,125 papers came up. These, for the most part, are not Darwinists making a point. They are researchers dealing with common serious problems that determine whether people live or die. Other combinations of relevant keywords would probably show the same type of results.

It seems people are up in arms about Egnor not just because he is preposterously wrong but also because his axe grinding would be dangerous if anyone took it seriously.

It would be in cancer therapy. Malignant cells microevolve resistance to therapies; radiation, chemo, biologicals. So you just work down the list until all options stop working. The patient dies. That’s why it is important to keep developing new treatments. Basic knowledge any oncologist knows.

Raven -

Cancer and infectious disease are extremely clear examples of evolutionary processes, representing the results of genetic variation (including somatic cell mutations in the case of cancer) and natural selection. In the case of cancer, malignant cells can transiently gain a reproductive advantage over normal cells. This can lead to the malignant cell population ultimately going extinct when they destroy their own environment (the multicelluar organism itself).

Likewise, many genetic diseases are straightforward examples of evolutionary processes. In some cases, there’s even an interaction between positive selection for heterozygotes and devastating disease for homozygotes.

Not every disease is understood, and even the ones above are complex in the extreme. But the fact the humans evolved, and share the most common traits with other placental mammals, especially primates, is always important.

The relationship between biology and medicine has always been and will always be symbiotic, and much of what is known about modern biology came from medical questions.

Dr Egnor does both medicine and biology a disservice by allowing his political biases to drive him to embrace pseudoscience.

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Harold, Everyone here agrees that Egnor is wrong and would be a menace to human health and progress if anyone actually took him seriously.

It won’t happen at least in the scientific and medical communities. One can easily find hundreds or thousands of concrete examples where evolutionary concepts were used in health care related research and treatment.

He might not need to know it to saw someone’s skull open and poke around with a scalpel. There is a lot more to medicine and medical research than neurosurgery.

Did Dr. Egnor take the hypocritic oath?

:-)

I can’t vouch for any political hypothesis due to lack of data. But I can do an analysis in the face of Egnor’s own words. I come to much the same conclusions as Glen, Raging and raven here.

Egnor roughly says that we don’t need evolution to tell us that resistant bacteria will survive and multiply and outnumber non-resistant bacteria.

We could do that. It wouldn’t even be an ad hoc, but perhaps a robust theory against the observations he may want to do. Rather like Newton gravity (resistance) against general relativity (evolution).

But even this analogy which follows from Egnor’s position has two problems.

First, here the simpler theory follows after the more general. So even if Egnor would be the Isaac Newton of resistance theory (you saw the quote mine first here! :-), he would have nothing to be proud of.

Second and more seriously, the more constrained theory isn’t robust against better theories. It is always replaced by the more general theory since the later has increased predictive power and ability to grow and connect with other theories. Egnor is confusing theory with model here. It is when we model specific examples we may want to use the most constrained, simplest, model we possibly can find.

Perhaps this is why he haven’t presented an alternative creationist theory like the frontloading theory. Not understanding the hallmark and importance of predictiveness in theories, not understanding the difference between modeling and theory - egnorance of science seems to be the trademark of Egnor.

Henry Wrote:

Besides, a tautology is something that’s always true. So trying to argue against something by calling it a tautology, doesn’t make sense. Or is that just me?

Not at all. There are others who have discussed his strawman here: http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/20[…]free_b_1.php

You can search Good math for tautologies now and find a string of posts about Egnor, it became his calling card over there. ;-)

In another of those posts we find:

Mark Chu-Carroll Wrote:

No, Dr. Egnor. You do not understand tautologies. You do not understand science. And you are a disgrace to your profession, and a danger to your patients.

One thing you can say for the DI/Creationist folks, at least they know how to recycle the same old tired drivel over and over again.

But, I guess this kind of recycling won’t win you any I’m green awards (unless you’re the real scientist trying to hold back the bile in the back of your throat).

Whether Darwinism has anything to offer medicine has nothing to do with whether it is correct or not.

Huh? If something is incorrect, it’s not likely to have anything to offer.

Whether Darwinism has anything to offer medicine has nothing to do with whether it is correct or not.

Think about it. Darwinian evolution rests on 100+ years of accumulated facts and robust predictive ability in biology, geology, paleontology etc. It even predates modern medicine.

That it may be useful in related fields has no bearing on its truth or not. That is a separate and completely independent issue. I can’t think of any uses for the big bang, the theory widely accepted among physicists offhand. So what? Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

In point of fact, evolution has aided and influenced medicine a whole lot as has been discussed previously in this thread and elsewhere. I spent 5 minutes on the National Library of Medicine and came up with many thousands of papers where evolutionary concepts were implicitly or explicitly used. While Egnor is making his foolishly wrong and dangerous to human health claims, quite a few medical researchers are quietly working away and could care less what some delusional neurosurgeon says. It’s supremely irrelevant and they have more important things to do. Like advance medical research.

If it was wrong, it wouldn’t be useful I suppose. Researchers wouldn’t be using it either. But they are, everyday.

If the argument is that evolution is wrong or did not occur because the theory is not used in modern medicine, then the argument is fallacious. Raven is correct and whether or not the theory is used in any given field is irrelavant to its validity. The Law of Segregation is not used to make ice cream, that doesn’t mean that it is incorrect.

If the argument is that the theory of evolution is not used because it is wrong then the argument is based on faulty assumptions. First, as has been amply illustrated by Andrea and others, it is used all the time in modern medicine. Second, the theory of evolution has never been disproven, (except in the minds of those who refuse to believe). So to claim that it is not used because it is wrong is just begging the question.

I don’t know what Egnor hopes to gain by claiming that his ignorance is evidence of anything. I guess if that’s all you’ve got you’ve got to run with it until you collapse.

I don’t know what Egnor hopes to gain by claiming that his ignorance is evidence of anything.

His ignorance is evidence of the sincerity of his beliefs, and he gains the enthusiastic adulation of those who share his beliefs, and hence his ignorance.

“And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong or right/ If I belong I’m right/ where I belong.”

A correct theory might or might not have a practical application. (Though having such does reinforce confidence in that theory, since it supplies lots of testing of predictions.)

An incorrect one had better not, or its application might crash. (Unless the part of the theory used in that application happens to be a close enough approximation to work anyway, such as using Newton’s laws at low speeds in reasonably flat space.)

Henry

Poppers Ghost earlier thread said:

…Egnor has actually said. Egnor in fact questions even microevolution, specifically microevolution of resistance to antibiotics:

[quoting Egnor] “It’s one thing to propose that animals might get longer fur if the weather turns colder because of natural selection. You know, it’s a perfectly reasonable inference. You might infer that bacteria that had mutations that in some accidental way prevented them from being killed by antibiotics might have evolved resistance to antibiotics. Those are all plausible. I’m not so sure they’re so well proven, but they’re plausible.”

Problem with Egnor stating that bacteria mutating to antibiotic resistance might be plausible but not well proven is that it is totally false. This was worked out during the 20th century and is ancient history, predating my existence. It has been so well proven and so often that it is taken as common knowledge, sort of like the earth orbits the sun. As I recall several Nobel prizes were given out for this, Beadle and Tatum maybe or Salvador Luria.

For him to not know this brings up 3 possibilities. 1. He is ignorant of basic medicine and biology.

2. He knows it but is lying.

3. He is a Science Denier, sort of like some people are Holocaust Deniers.

I can see why the neocreos have trouble with microevolution. It is ubiquitous, easily demonstrated by anyone with basic skills, very well documented down to the DNA level, and an important and frequently life ending phenomena for anyone with HIV/AIDS, bacterial infections-nosocomial or otherwise, malaria, or cancer. But if a journey of a 1000 miles starts with a single step, the journey from an Eocene mammal to a human could too. Macroevolution is just the end product of multiple rounds of microevolution.

When your theory, neocreationism, is so weak that you have to resort to lies and Science Denial, it isn’t going anywhere.

PS: Wonder what his department thinks about this nonsense? They must be appalled.

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This page contains a single entry by Tara Smith published on March 30, 2007 11:00 AM.

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