Mar 13 2007

He May be a Neurosurgeon, but He’s No Evolutionary Biologist

I love a good tussle with creationists. It’s like working out with a punching bag. Recently some Intelligent Design (ID) proponents have been mud wrestling with some science bloggers, and I was invited to join in. Of course, I couldn’t resist.

The scrap was provoked by the grotesquely misnamed Discovery Institute – a think tank of ID proponents barely pretending to do science – who recently claimed that the number of scientists “dissenting from Darwin” is growing. To highlight the point they trotted out their latest poster child – Neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor of SUNY Stony Brook.

Times science blogger Michael D. Lemonick took the bait and struck back with a rather scathing review of the Discovery Institute’s misleading claims. It turns out only a pathetically small minority of scientists dissent from Darwin and almost none of them have relevant credentials (they have scraped together 700 names out of the tens of thousands of scientists in the world – so evolution defenders parodied this by putting together a list of scientists named Steve who support evolution ; now officially at 793).

Dr. Egnor himself showed up and left a few comments for the blog – and the mud wrestling began. Fellow skeptical blogger Orac wrote a nice entry summing up the situation. Orac points out the obvious – being a brain surgeon does not qualify someone to have an opinion on evolutionary theory. This does not mean that Dr. Egnor is wrong (he is) – it just means his surgical training counts for nothing.

I would like to expand on a couple of themes that have been running through the various blogs but have not been pointed out directly. The first is that evolutionary theory is complex. Evolution is a beautiful and subtle theory – one of my favorite scientific theories to study. I have spent years reading about it, learning from the best like Dawkins, Leakey, and Gould, and my understanding has continually deepened. I still remember meeting Stephen Gould for the first time and asking him about his claim that evolution is not inherently progressive – I was still trying to wrap my brain around that.

Evolutionary thinking incorporates many independent lines of evidence and attempts to explain a process that works simultaneously on multiple levels (genes, individuals, populations, species, environments), that involves a great deal of complexity and chaos and which has been occurring for billions of years. The point is – this shit is hard. It’s wonderful, challenging, exhilarating – but it is no easy task to have a working understanding of all the relevant concepts within evolution. ID proponents are living proof of this.

It is no wonder, therefore, that even otherwise intelligent people with advanced training can fail to properly grasp it. Conquering the complexities of neuroanatomy may give one the false confidence to believe that evolution will be a snap – but having studied both I can say that evolution is conceptually as or more complex than neuroscience.

This is not an excuse for Dr. Egnor’s ignorance – he threw his hat into the ring, he deserves what he gets. He should have had the proper humility to stay out. Also, he is guilty of more than just ignorance; he is making claims about evolution that have been refuted countless times. He is criticizing evolution while relying almost entirely, it seems, on secondary hostile sources. These days the internet does not afford someone like Dr. Egnor the excuse of not being able to find the proper references. As Orac showed, a simple search on PubMed (any competent practicing physician should know how to use PubMed) or even Google could have provided Dr. Egnor with the answers he pretends don’t exist.

Just a quick medical anecdote to develop this point further- I train fellows in neuromuscular disease, a subspecialty of neurology. They are already fully trained neurologists and are now spending a year focusing on this one area. About half way through the year fellows often realize that, prior to their fellowship, they thought they understood neuromuscular disease, but now that they studied it in more detail they realize how much they didn’t know. That’s when I tell them that they have to extrapolate this experience to the rest of their medical knowledge (and beyond). There is just as much that they don’t know in all the other subspecialties that they are not doing fellowships in. It’s a humbling experience. Detailed knowledge in one area should make us appreciate the potential depth of knowledge (and therefore our own ignorance) in other areas. Dr. Egnor, apparently, never learned this lesson.

The other point I want to discuss is illustrative of what I am saying above. The primary scientific point of discussion is that of information theory. ID’ers like to claim that information theory disproves evolution, and they further claim that evolutionists cannot answer fundamental questions about the increase of genetic information over evolutionary time and so they avoid the topic. What rot! Again – answers are all over the internet.

Here’s a quick summary. Evolution is like a two-cycle engine: mutations increase the amount of information and then natural selection gives that information specificity. ID’ers often say that mutations cannot be specific and natural selection cannot increase information – they’re right, they just got it backwards.

Also, it is obvious in their arguments that they do not have a proper mental image of what genetic information is like. It is not a clean set of information, where any mutation is likely to degrade it. It is incredibly messy. Think of set of books containing 21 volumes. Each volume has hundreds or thousands of chapters. Some chapters, however, have at their beginning a sentence that says – “skip this chapter.” Within each chapter there are sentences and paragraphs, but they are all mixed up. There are instructions throughout the chapter for how to take out the proper paragraphs and put them together so that they make sense. Many sections of each chapter are never used. The language in these books has only 4 letters, and every word is three letters long. Further, there are only twenty words, and therefore many words have multiple similar spellings.

Each time this volume of books is copied there is the potential to make mistakes. Because of the complexity, the arrangement of paragraphs in a chapter can change, altering the meaning of the chapter in some way. Entire chapters that are active can become skipped, and vice versa. Entire chapters can be copied twice, and rarely entire volumes can be duplicated. Imagine the text of these books. A change might cause a sentence to go from “today is a sunny day” to “today is a foggy day” (remember, in this language every possible three letter combination has meaning – there are no nonsense words).

With a reasonable working model of genetics, it is much easier to imagine how shuffling around information, duplicating, and altering the information could easily result in meaningful and even useful new information. The mechanisms for an overall increase in information are trivial and well documented (gene duplication, for example). And the ability for natural selection to give specificity and meaning to that information – for specified complexity to emerge spontaneously over time – is well documented.

But there is enough complexity in all of this that if someone smart and eloquent – like ID’ers Behe or Dembski – want to create confusion they easily can. They pull an intellectual three card monte and the evolutionary rubes buy it.

Now I don’t blame the rank and file for not having read dozens of books and hundreds of articles on evolution. But I do blame them for thinking they deserve to have an opinion if they haven’t – an opinion not borrowed from the scientific consensus, which would be reasonable, but one which assumes that the scientific consensus is not only wrong but stupid. The reason for such outrageous hubris is ideology.

Dr. Egnor has given us yet another example of how when ideology trumps science and reason the result is not pretty. Combine that with a touch of arrogance and you create an embarrassment. But so far Dr. Egnor seems not to grasp the folly of his situation. He has said that if someone proves him wrong (talking about his claim that there is no evidence that evolution can increase the amount of genetic information over time) he will acquiesce. Well, he has been proven wrong. We’re waiting.

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