Feb 06 2009

Egnor in Forbes on Evolution

Our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, has published his ill-informed and logically-challenged opinions on evolution in a business journal. Darwin’s day is just around the corner (February 12th is the 200th anniversary of his birth and this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species), and so it’s a good time for a creationist smack down. As usual Egnor gets everything wrong. He clearly does not understand evolutionary theory, or simply does not care if his straw men are accurate or not as long as he gets to regurgitate the standard anti-evolution propaganda.

In his article he makes a number of wrong or misleading statements, some in question form. He substitues assertion for evidence, and fallacies for logic. His objections to evolution begin with this:

The fossil record shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts.

Wrong.  First, I must point out that Egnor insists on referring to evolutionary theory as “Darwinism.” As many others have pointed out before, this is a propaganda tactic to attempt to diminish evolutionary theory to the quaint ideas of one guy. It is also misleading, for the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory differs in significant ways from strict Darwinian theory.

This is pertinent to this specific example. Darwin himself thought that the fossil record would show gradual continual change among species. What we found, rather, was relative stability punctuated by speciation events – species would remain mostly stable for about 2 million years on average, then disappear from the fossil record. Meanwhile, new species would appear. Gould and Eldridge termed this pattern punctuated equilirium, and creationists have dutifly ignored them ever since.

Egnor is also wrong on many levels. First, while species are generally stable, they do drift over their time on earth. Sometimes they even show gradual directed change. Also, you have to consider the overall pattern of the fossil record, not just zoom in myopically to the regions of stability. The fossil record shows a pattern of new species arising which are clearly related to and derived from older species. There is a clear pattern of branching descent in the fossil record – to the degree that it is complete. The fossil record is highly spotty, but the more we fill it in the more it fits the pattern of branching descent.

Further, as predicted by evolutionary theory, some fossil species we find fill in gaps between extant species.  The gaps have been steadily shrinking since Darwin’s time. How far do the gaps have to shrink before Egnor would think there was not “sharp discontinuity?” He can decide to demand arbitrarily small gaps that will never be filled – such are the tactics of deniers.

And further still modern biology of extant species puts the lie to Egnors false assertion. Species are not sharply discontinuous. Species are actually very fuzzy entities, with many sub-populations and local varieties, and even apparently different species can often exchange DNA. Species are only truly discontinuous when they can no longer interbreed and produce fertile young – something which is demanded by evolution and genetics, not contradictory of it.

Egnor continues:

Darwin’s theory offers no coherent, evidence-based explanation for the evolution of even a single molecular pathway from primordial components.

Wrong. Here Egnor is just flaunting his own ignorance of the theory he rejects.  He is trying to echo the claims of Behe and irreducible complexity. And yet, biologists have fleshed out much of the molecular pathways that Behe himself used as examples, such as the clotting cascade and the bacterial flagellum. Read these posts by Ken Miller who destroys Casey Luskin from the DiscoTute on this very issue. Here is also a brief discussion of the bacterial flagellum. What Egnor fails to realize is that being personally ignorant of something does not mean it doesn’t exist (a phenomenon formally known as being “egnorant” – and yes, I know I’m the 1 millionth blogger to hit upon that happy pun).

The egnorance continues:

The origin of the genetic code belies random causation. All codes with which we have experience arise from intelligent agency.

Wrong.  Intelligent Designer proponents  have been abusing information theory for over a decade now – another discipline that they do not make sufficient efforts to understand. The genetic code is not random – it the the product of very non-random selection. That is the whole point of evolution – incremental increases in information can be retained by selection, and therefore information and complexity can slowly increase over evolutionary time.

Egnor is also committing a logical fallacy – his statement is a non sequitur. His unstated major premise is that no system can be unique or without precedence. Well, life is the most complex thing in nature. It stands to reason that it will display properties of complexity that do not have examples outside of life. Yet, Egnor treats his statement as if it proves the genetic code could not have evolved. It’s absurd.

There is evidence for variation, selection, gene duplication, redundancy, vestigial genes, and homology – all the pieces are in place. Further, the pattern of variation that we see in the genetic code of life is so overwhelmingly consistent with common descent that there is simply no other plausible explanation – short of just saying that God or ID miracled it into existence and maliciously made the genetic code look exactly as if it evolved. (Here is a good overview.)

He continues:

Intricate biomolecules such as enzymes are so functionally complex that it’s difficult to see how they could arise by random mutations.

Ah – the argument from personal incredulity.  Egnor would limit science to his own feeble and biased imagination. Further, this is a false premise – they did not arise by random mutation. They arose by varation from mutations and recombination combined with natural selection. You need to keep the selection bit in place.

And it is not difficult for me to imagine it at all – I guess I remember more of my biochemistry from med school than Egnor. Organic reactions can take place without enzymes – just slowly. Enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze organic reactions, make these reactions go faster. But they do not have to be “perfect” or necessarily complex to have some activity. A protein that makes a reaction go a little faster by chance could still provide a selective advantage. Over millions of years, variation and selection can slowly modify the protein so that it is a better and better enzyme. This is actually an excellent system for gradual change over time. This change may also be punctuated by mutations that happen to provide a significant advantage.

I would further add that gene duplication allows for redundant enzymes, so that one is free to drift in random directions while the other copy continues its original function. This allows for tremendous molecular evolutionary experimentation.

Egnor has more questions:

Why, when the genetic code was unraveled, didn’t scientists question Darwin’s assumption of randomness? Why didn’t Darwinists ask the difficult questions that are posed for their theory by the astonishing complexity of intracellular molecular machinery? Why do Darwinists claim that intelligent design is untestable, and simultaneously claim that it is wrong?

Wrong and wrong. Scientists did question Darwin’s assumptions when genetics were discovered.  Mutations seemed decidedly not gradual. Natural selection was questioned also. Its just that over the first 30-40 years of the 20th century these questions were carefully worked out – the difficult questions were asked and answered, and some continue to be. The result was the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory. Egnor and his cronies just didn’t like the answers to which the evidence lead the scientific community. Sore losers.

Further, Egnor keeps referring to randomness. But evolution is not random in that natural selection is the non-random survival of individuals who have some advantage.

And finally, scientists do not state that ID is wrong. We state that it is not even wrong – it is simply not asking a teastable scientific question. I discuss in detail here why ID is not science. This distinction is perhaps too subtle for Egnor. To further demonstrate his lack of understanding, he continues:

Why do Darwinists claim that intelligent design theory isn’t scientific, when both intelligent design and Darwinism are merely the affirmative and negative answers to the same scientific question: Is there evidence for teleology in biology?

Because asking a question is not sufficient to be considered a science. I can ask, “Does God exist?” That does not make it a scientific question.  You have to be able to say – if ID exists in biology, then what would we expect to find in nature? ID proponents refuse to make such predictive statements. Rather, they try to get away with saying what we will not find in nature (that’s the whole point of irreducible complexity), namely an evolutionary explanation for every jot and tittle of life, down to the last protein. But the failure to find evidence for a competing explanation does not render your theory scientific or testable. What ID proponents want is to set up a goal-post for evolution so that they can forever nudge it back, and then invoke a false dichotomy to declare ID the winner by default.

This concatenation of logical fallacies is not science. Egnor needs to answer this – what would ID look like in nature, stated in an operational and testable format. This cannot just be – “well, duh, it sure looks designed to me.”   The scientific community is still waiting. Give us something testable that could prove ID wrong. Evolution has survived many such challenges.

As you can see, Egnor has mastered the Gish Gallop by which he can generate misconceptions in far fewer keystrokes than it would take me to correct (even with linking to other extensive posts for backup).  So I will finish with just one more:

Why do Darwinists–scientists–seek recourse in federal courts to silence criticism of their theory in public schools? What is it about the Darwinian understanding of biological origins that is so fragile that it will not withstand scrutiny by schoolchildren?

It really is pathetic that the IDers are trying to goad us this way. Why don’t they just point at scientists and say, “chicken” while making clucking noises. Maybe that will work.

The science of evolution is rock solid. It has withstood tough scientific challenge – the scrutiny that counts.  The issue is not about wanting to shield a theory from criticism or close examination, but the quality of science education. ID is simply not science. It is chock full of misinformation and logical fallacies. It makes a good example of pseudoscience at an appropriately advanced level of study – college, say. But it is not appropriate for highschool science classrooms, and is never appropriate to be presented as if it were legitimate science. The fact that we don’t teach astrology in science classroom does not mean that we feel modern astronomy is fragile. Nor does the plate tectonic theory have anything to fear from the hollow-earthers.

Egnor’s recycled creationist arguments have all been demolished many times over in the past, and we will have to do it again in the future. The argument doesn’t change because Egnor and his ilk are not interested in genuine intellectual discourse. Rather they are just trying to provide cover for believers – for those who wish to impose their personal religious beliefs onto science education.

Like this post? Share it!

60 responses so far