Tennessee House Bill 368

The Tennessee House of Representatives just passed a bill that opens a door to attack the accurate teaching of evolution and any other scientific theories.  Essentially the text reads that it will be against the law to:

prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

As I understand it, this would allow any teacher at any time to argue against any scientific theory that they don’t agree with.  Anything will go as long as they don’t explicitly say that their motivation is based on a “religious or non-religious doctrine.”  Flat-earthers, HIV-deniers, and intelligent design proponents will be fair game in Tennessee schools.

The bill is simply ridiculous in its motives.  One would presume that the bill’s sponsor believes that he is furthering  the true ideas a and wants of scientists.  Well not exactly:

"Evolution may not be controversial in the scientific community, but may be in our greater community," bill sponsor Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said.

Here is where the problem lies.  The fundamentals of history should be decided by historians, math decided by mathematicians, and science by scientists.  As long as the information is accurate,  it should be taught truthfully.  As Richard Feynman said: “Reality must take precedence over public relations.”  This bill is a step backwards in the progress of humanity. 

Today is the 5th Anniversary of Kitzmiller Trial

On December 20th, 2005, Judge John E. Jones III, ruled that it was unconstitutional to read a statement that discredits evolutionary theory and barred the teaching of intelligent design there.  This was the first, but probably not last, trial that involved the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

Its hard to believe that it has only been 5 years since the details and motives of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement were brought out to the public in a public trial.  We learned from staunch ID supporter Michael Behe that there are no peer reviewed published articles supporting ID.  We learned how the Discovery Institute’s”wedge document” essentially points to the idea that ID was brought up as a way to replace the scientific method with “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”  We also saw how the book in question, Of Pandas and People,  had earlier versions where they simply replaced the word “creation” with “intelligent design.”  Of course there was more damming evidence against the ID proponents in the trial, but these three facts alone provide sufficient evidence that intelligent design is not science and should never be taught in the classroom.

Intelligent Design does not make predictions and is not science.

Since it has been so long since I last wrote a blog post, I thought that I ease back into blogging by attacking the lowest of the low hanging fruit from the Discovery Institute. Namely, the argument that Intelligent Design (ID) is real science.

Recently, Casey Luskin wrote a post discussing how ID proponents test their theory in real world situations.  Luskin provides a short list of four items (is that the most he could come up with?) that are supposed predictions of ID.  Lets take them one at a time:

(1) Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and specified information).

This is not a prediction. Life has already been seen to have “intricate patterns that perform specific functions.”  In fact, isn’t the complexity of life what made people believe ID in the first place?

(2) Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors.

It is rare to find any facet of an organism that doesn’t already have a precursor, let alone “large amounts of novel information.”  The prediction of ID should state that there will only be the instant appearance of new structures. Any evidence for a slow, gradual development of a structure would refute ID and prove evolution.  For example, you might see a fully formed tetrapod without any precursors if ID was true.  However, we see in the fossil record myriad examples of transitional forms from fish to tetrapod (Tiktaalik, Panderichthys, etc.).

(3) Convergence will occur routinely. That is, genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different and unrelated organisms.

This prediction seems odd to me. Convergence is a prediction of evolution. Take for example the convergence of the ability to fly. Evolution would predict that different organisms would gain the ability to fly, but they would achieve this ability by slightly different methods.  Luskin is predicting that structures would be re-used by different organisms.  Why do all wings look so different? Does a fly’s wing resemble a bird’s or a bat’s? Not at all.

(4) Much so-called “junk DNA” will turn out to perform valuable functions.

4) “Much?” Luskin should have said “all.” if we are to believe in intelligent design.  Why waste even a single nucleotide if you were to design an organism’s DNA? This sort of ambiguity is what makes these predictions worthless.

I think it is clear to see that the predictions put forth by Luskin are basically worthless for providing support that ID is real science.  What do you expect when you can give the “designer” any attribute, power, or foresight that you desire?

NSF creates center at MSU to study evolution in action

Great news!  Michigan State University has been awarded $25 million by the NSF to create a Science and Technology center to study evolution in action. This center will utilize resources from many other universities and involve 30 researchers. I am really glad to see that the NSF is willing to spend its money on such an important issue.

The focus of the center is on evolution in action, an area of evolutionary biology that has not really been addressed in any large scale effort. Many of the missing details in evolution will be answered at this center. Having answers to these questions will both further our understanding of life and how it changes over time, but it will also address criticisms brought by people who doubt the theory. Objections by evolution deniers have been falling one by one, and this will hopefully continue that trend.

The center will perform experiments on both live organisms and virtual organisms. This approach has several benefits and has been used in other areas of biology, especially neuroscience. Experiments performed by virtual organisms (simulations) can then be tested on live organisms to confirm their predictive strength. Likewise, experiments can be performed on live organisms and then be tested against virtual organisms.

All and all, I think spending the money on this subject is valid. Many of the ideas learned from these experiments will have dual or multiuse applications. Not only will we learn about biology, but also about evolutionary actions of diseases, engineered projects, geologic phenomenon, etc.

Another point against Intelligent Design: blurry lines of design

In reading some of the older posts from the Evolution News and Views blog, I came across a short post by Casey Luskin explaining that there is some wiggle room to what was and wasn’t designed in the Intelligent Design (ID) theory.

Luskin writes:

Of course anyone with a cursory knowledge of ID would be aware that ID fully allows for the action of natural processes, and design is only invoked when we find tell-tale signs of intelligent action, such as high levels of complex and specified information.

At the surface, this seems like a perfectly reasonable statement that makes ID sound as though it is a well-defined theory.  However, this view of intelligent design leaves a lot of leeway.  How complex and specified does it really have to be to be considered ‘designed’?  Since these are arbitrary values, one could never really separate two objects or organisms and say one is designed and one isn’t.  This sort non-measurable attributes makes ID not science.  However, it does give an ID proponent a way out when something is demonstrably nature driven.   All they have to say is that the designer didn’t design that, but now look over here…

Intelligent Design more focused on politics than science?

It has been awhile since I have delved into the ideas coming out of the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views blog.  When I visited it last night, I was shocked bemused at how much the focus of the blog was on global warming.  I decided to count how many articles were focused on global warming (which has absolutely nothing to do with evolution).  I came up with this little chart of the blog’s topics:

ENVs post topics from 12/9/2009

The chart is very telling on the state of affairs of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.   First, there is not one single post showing any evidence for ID.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it is always nice to point out.  Second, most of the posts were focused on something that is not even related to evolution or ID: global warming.  Together with the prevalence of the immorality of believing in evolution, I think it is clear that the ID movement is more political / philosophical than it is focused on science and the determination of reality.  Just another reason why the whole idea is pseudoscience.

Vote for the best evolution video

The Discover website has a poll up where they want you to vote for the best video that explains evolution in 2 minutes or less. Some of them are pretty good. Go take a look.

Vote here.

Lenski’s new results; Behe’s red herring

Richard Lenski is an evolutionary biologist who studies evolution by analyzing changes in bacterial populations.  Perhaps he is most famous for his long-term experiment where his group identified a population that evolved to use a nutrient (citrate) that E. coli normally can’t use.  This was a very important finding as it provided proof-of-concept that random mutations alone are sufficient to induce new functions.

In a recently published paper in Nature, Lenski takes the above experiment and analyzes the frequency of mutation throughout these populations.  The goal of this paper was not to show which specific mutations led to the ability of the bacteria to use the new nutrient source.  The goal was to look at the level of overall mutation rate during the experiment.  In the authors own words:

The relationship between rates of genomic evolution and organismal adaptation remains uncertain, despite considerable interest.

Thus, the coupling between genomic and adaptive evolution is complex and can be counterintuitive even in a constant environment. In particular, beneficial substitutions were surprisingly uniform over time, whereas neutral substitutions were highly variable.

Of course the Discovery Institute and ID proponents are not going to keep quiet about any work coming from Lenski’s lab as their work provided such an important part of the evolutionary puzzle.  Michael Behe took up the challenge this time and wrote an entry at Evolution News and Views.  Lets address some of Behe’s points.

Behe’s first compliant is that

[Lenski’s group] identified a couple score of mutations which they say are likely beneficial ones. That is almost certainly true, but what they don’t emphasize is that many of the beneficial mutations are degradative — that is, they eliminate a gene or its protein’s function.

First, Behe is attacking the paper for something that is really irrelevant to the point of the paper.  It also doesn’t disprove the original result of that spontaneous mutations that led to a novel attribute.  It is a red herring designed to poke holes in Lenski’s work instead of directly arguing against it.  So why all the degradative mutations?  Well, these experiments were done in a lab under strict conditions (single temperature, no other organisms, defined nutrients) to eliminate other variables. Without these other stimuli, is it any wonder that most changes are degradative?

Behe also criticizes the rise in what is called a mutator line in these experiments.  A mutator strain is one in which mutations arise more frequently than in a normal strain.  Again this doesn’t really address the ideas of the new paper or in the proof-of-concept of Lenski’s original data.

Anyway, who cares that these strains became mutator strains. A mutator just increases the frequency by which mutations arise. Maybe it would have taken 3 times as long for the beneficial mutation to arise if the mutator strain hadn’t evolved. It doesn’t change the fact that the cells evolved into a state where they could use a nutrient that they couldn’t before.   Besides, it is a moot point as one of the original mutation had arose before the 20,000 generation, a time before the mutation that led to mutator strain had occurred.

Finally, Behe closes with the expected tactics that we have grown to love from ID proponents.  The first tactic as illustrated above is to wrongfully criticize valid experiments in favor of evolution.  The second tactic is then to say how this data really proves intelligent design:

Lenski’s decades-long work lines up wonderfully with what an ID person would expect — in a huge number of tries, one sees minor changes, mostly degradative, and no new complex systems. So much for the power of random mutation and natural selection.

First, an ID proponent would not expect the E. coli to ever use the new nutrient.  The “power of random mutation and natural selection” led the bacteria to a whole new attribute.  Don’t forget, this experiment lasted only decades, or 1/100,000,000 the time bacteria are believed to inhabit the earth.  Finally, like I stated above, these were very unnatural conditions that would never be experienced during normal life on earth.