News, news, news!

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.)