Jun 27 2011

Egnor Is Back

Remember Michael Egnor – the creationist neurosurgeon who made a second career out of embarrassing himself with nonsensical blog posts over at the DiscoTute’s blog, Evolution News and Views? His crowning achievement on this score, in my opinion, was his argument that if evolution were true brain cancer should result in improvements in the brain.

I haven’t heard from Egnor in a while, but now I learn that he has his own blog, called “Egnorance.” The name is a nice touch on his part – some bloggers have been using the term “egnorance” to refer to Egnor’s particular brand of nonsense. It is sometimes successful to take a term meant to be derisive and adopt it as your own in order to turn it around. At the least it can take the wind out of the sails of your critics. Unfortunately, the content of the blog is a bad as ever.

This came to my attention because Egnor wrote a blog post responding to my recent post about Michele Bachmann’s creationist stance. Egnor (true to his style) thought he could get a blog post out of my use of the term “creationist” by projecting his own intellectual dishonesty. Egnor does provide an excellent example of the apologist form – exploiting any vagueness in meaning to create confusion and the appearance of sinister intent on the part of those with whom he disagrees.

I don’t expect anyone attempting to critique a blog post of mine to read everything I might have written about that topic before. This is my 1010th post on NeuroLogica – scholarly due diligence only goes so far for a blog post. But Egnor is specifically commenting on my writing in general – so a minimal amount of diligence in looking for posts about the exact topic would have been nice. Even if Egnor had remembered the posts that he has responded to in the past it would have helped. Instead he attempts to interpret my most recent blog post as if it’s the only thing I have ever written on the topic.

The current discussion centers around the definition of the terms “creationism” and “evolution.” Of course there are a range of beliefs under each term – as has been discussed before by me and others. I have clarified the various aspects of evolutionary theory, when specifically relevant to the current discussion. For example, in a previous post I wrote:

There are countless published observational and experimental studies that support various aspects of evolutionary theory – common descent, natural selection acting on variation brought about through mutations and recombination, and the specific relationships among organisms.

It is not practical, however, to go into a lengthy discussion of the various aspects of evolutionary theory and the various forms creationism every time I use either term. I and others use the term “creationism” generically to refer to any form of evolution-denial (a better term that I occasionally use). Apologists, however, like to play semantic games. In a previous post Egnor went as far as to say:

The term creationist in this debate refers to young earth creationism. I’m not a young earth creationist. Therefore when Mr. Sandefur calls me a “creationist,” he’s misrepresenting my views.

Uh, no. Egnor uses a ridiculously narrow (and as far as I can tell, unique to him) definition of the term “creationist” in order to argue that someone else is being dishonest in their use of the term. He tries this gambit again in his new post.

In affirming that nearly all scientists accept evolution, disingenuous polemicists like Novella apply the most general meaning to evolution, and ascribe the most restricted meaning- young earth creationism- to opponents of atheist/materialist evolutionary theory.

Uh, no. Nowhere is any of my writings on the issue can you reasonably infer that I mean “young-earth creationist” when I use the term “creationist.” The fact that I have specifically corrected Egnor on this previously is relevant, since Egnor is trying to use this issue yet again to argue that I am being “disingenuous.”

Let’s continue to compare Egnor’s current blog post with his previous writings  – to see the true meaning of the term “disingenuous.” Regarding Bachmann, I wrote:

She is dead wrong, of course. There is no scientific controversy about the fact of evolution.

The “fact of evolution” seems pretty clear to me – that fact that life on earth is the result of organic evolution. For the purposes of that blog post, it was sufficiently specific – I specifically referred to the fact of evolution, vs any particular mechanisms of evolution, or even the specific evolutionary history of life on earth. Egnor missed the distinction, and runs off the cliff.

All scientists do support evolution, if evolution is defined as change in populations of organisms with time. The fossil record amply documents evolution, but one need not cite scientific data. The population of squirrels in my neighborhood changes subtly each year. The evolution that all scientists support is that kind of evolution.

I disagree that evolution is apparent from casual observation of local squirrel populations – but in any case, this seems like the old “microevolution” gambit. This is the tactic whereby evolution deniers dismiss certain evidence for evolution as just supporting “microevolution”, as opposed to “macroevolution.” This is a false division, however, not based upon any science. Egnor continues:

If evolution is defined as the specific theory that Darwin proposed– that all adaptation occurred by the mechanism of random heritable variation and natural selection– then Novella is utterly wrong. There is a raging debate in evolutionary biology about the genesis of adaptations, and there is utterly no consensus.

Again – Egnor returns to old canards that he has been corrected on numerous times. He likes to refer to scientists who accept evolutionary theory as “Darwinists.” But the theory that Darwin proposed is over 150 years old, and the science has progressed quite a bit since then. This makes for a convenient straw man argument, since Darwin’s name is so iconic and is often thought by the public to be synonymous with evolutionary theory.

Of course the current consensus does not affirm a 150 year old theory without accounting for all that we have learned since. Specifically, Egnor slips in the term “all adaptation” and hopes the reader won’t question it. But all we have to do is say that “most adaptation” is due to random variation acted upon by natural selection, and we can say that there is a robust scientific consensus to support this view. There is vigorous debate about what other mechanisms might be contributing to evolution, and to what degree – but selection acting on variation is still at the core of evolutionary processes. Egnor is using a typical denialist strategy – using debate at the fringes of a theory as if it calls into question the core of the theory. This is the equivalent of using current debates about epigenetics or fine details of genetic theory to call into question that DNA is the molecule of inheritance.

Egnor continues:

If evolution is defined as the transition from one species to another with time, nearly all scientists accept it, although many agree that the evidence is substantially incomplete for most species.

If by evolution Novella means common descent, that is supported by most, but certainly not all, scientists.

Yes – that is mostly what I meant by the “fact of evolution” – the origin of species through evolutionary processes, which means that all species are related through common descent. So Egnor admits that there is a scientific consensus supporting the fact of evolution. But notice how he tries to water it down by saying that “certainly not all” scientists support common descent. First, a robust consensus does not imply nor require unanimity. Second, there is no serious dissent from common descent within the scientific community.

Regarding the completeness of the fossil record, again Egnor tries to create a false impression – a watering down of the evidence for evolution. The fossil record is quite impressive, showing compelling evolutionary sequences for many major groups and species. But of course, since there are millions of species extant today, there isn’t anything like a “complete” fossil record for most species. This is one of those “true but misleading” statements for which denialists are infamous.

Let us also compare what Egnor is now writing to what he has written previously. One might infer from the above that Egnor accepts the consensus (or at least that there is a consensus) that the fossil record supports common descent – although he never explicitly says that he accepts it. I guess he did not want to openly say that he rejects the scientific consensus. But in  a previous post criticizing me he wrote:

The fossil record does not show a “clear pattern of branching descent in the fossil record”, even “to the degree that it is complete.” The fossil record shows punctuated equilibrium, which is stasis in a species for millions of years, then disappearance of the species. New species arise, discontinuous with old species. Even isolated ‘transitional’ forms are rare, and gradual transitions are virtually non-existent.

I have already deconstructed that bit of nonsense above. What, then, does Egnor believe now? Is he admitting his previous error, or is he being “disingenuous” now in order to make his current point. Egnor seems to always be writing in a vacuum – he does not account for the previous writing of the target of his criticism, nor even his own previous writing. Denialists, however, do not need to outline a coherent theory or stance. Their goal is simply to cast as much doubt as possible onto the scientific theory they don’t like.

Next we get to what seems to be the crux of Egnor’s position (if such can be inferred from his writing):

If by evolution Novella means absence of design, one must first define ‘design’.

If design means application of intelligent agency to the origin of life and speciation, then many scientists, even scientists who are atheists and who hold to strong materialist views such as Francis Crick, Leslie Orgel, and Richard Dawkins, have suggested that directed panspermia (i.e. intelligent design) may be the best explanation for some aspects of the emergence and evolution of life.

I have addressed the question of “design” at length previously, such as in this post where I argue that evolution is not the “absence of design.” But “design” is not limited to the “application of an intelligent agency” as I previously pointed out. Design can result from a bottom-up self-organizing process, like evolution. The intelligent design (ID) crowd, like Egnor, attempts to equate design with intelligence, but this is false. The real question is – does life show the signs of a top-down intelligently planned form of design, or a bottom-up evolutionary form of design? Biologists have already addressed this question, and the evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter – evolution. Meanwhile there is no evidence of top-down intelligent design.

Egnor also repeats a very dishonest claim, that he has been called on before – that Dawkins and others support alien-based intelligent design. This is not true – it is a misrepresentation of what Dawkins said on the dishonestly produced Expelled movie in which he was specifically asked the hypothetical question if there were any possible scenario that could explain top-down design in nature if it were discovered. These types of hypothetical questions are always dodgy – what if you found  evidence of something that is anomalous or highly unlikely, what would you think then? Dawkins played along and said that, well, possibly an advanced alien civilization might be an explanation. This was then twisted to claim that Dawkins actually supports this idea – and has been repeated by countless creationist apologists ever since, including Egnor.

Immediately after Expelled was shown, however, Dawkins clarified his position and how he was misrepresented. To continue to portray Dawkins as supporting the idea of intelligent design through directed panspermia is beyond misleading.

One last bit of nonsense from Egnor:

If design means teleology in the sense of directedness or final causation, or more vaguely as some sort of ‘theistic evolution’, there are many scientists who hold to this view. In fact, any scientist who is a Christian, or Jewish (theologically, not just culturally), or Muslim almost certainly holds to some sort of teleology, because the belief that God created the universe necessarily implies some form of teleology in nature.

Egnor is confusing science with the personal beliefs of some scientists. Scientists of many faiths may find some way to accommodate the science with their beliefs – but that does not make their beliefs scientific. This seems to be one front on which creationists (in the broadest sense of the term as meaning anyone who denies evolution to a significant degree) are currently fighting. The comments to NeuroLogica, for example, are full of such arguments – that “atheist Darwinists” are trying to shove their atheistic version of evolution onto society. All the ID proponents want is a little teleology (some directed force at work, rather than “blind” evolution).

And of course they make many errors and misrepresentations in doing so. First of all – there is nothing “atheistic” about science in general or evolution in particular. Science is, in fact, agnostic toward any proposition that is outside the realm of science. That realm involves methodological naturalism – every effect must have a cause, and everything must follow natural laws. This is not a choice, nor is it about belief. Science does not require philosophical naturalism – the belief that there is nothing beyond nature (and therefore scientists can come to scientific conclusions based upon the process of science, but still maintain philosophical/religious beliefs for whatever reasons they choose). But science does require methodological naturalism – because the process of science cannot function otherwise. Any notion that includes miracles or supernatural agency is not falsifiable, and is therefore beyond the reach of the methods of science.

With regard to evolution the question is – did the process of evolution unfold through purely natural processes, or is there some agency at work directing evolution and imposing design on the process? First of all, ID proponents have a hard time stating their theory in a way that is falsifiable. What we can say is that there is no evidence that suggests that there is teleology in evolution – that there is any designing force, or any process at work other than blind natural processes. They are not ruled out a priori (like creationists typically whine about – they lost the scientific battle so they brood about not being treated fairly), there is just no evidence that leads us in that direction. There is no atheist conspiracy, scientists are just following the evidence.


Michael Egnor is giving every sign of continuing the shenanigans that has already made him infamous in skeptical circles. He rabidly and falsely accuses his intellectual foes of dishonesty, when in fact he is demonstrating a shocking degree of misrepresentation of the views and statements of others, while being coy about his own.  He also demonstrates either a short-term memory problem, or an inability (or unwillingness) to follow links or perform Google searches. He cannot even keep from contradicting himself in previous posts. He does, however, provide a convenient example of the apologist/denialist form.

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