• Darwin’s Doubt – Chapter 13 – Part 1

    As specifically requested by a commenter, I am continuing with Darwin’s Doubt. Apparently Chapter 13 has arguments devastating to evolution and/or evidence to support Intelligent Design.

    The chapter (entitled The Origin of Body Plans) begins with a research experiment. But not just any research experiment (PDF), this one resulted in a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1995).

    Basically, the researchers heavily mutated fruit flies, then observed their development. By doing so, they were able to identify places in the genome that, when mutated, changed the shape of the organism.

    Meyer tells us an interesting quote here:

    “The problem is, we think we’ve hit all the genes required to specify the body plan of Drosophila,” he said, “and yet these results are obviously not promising as raw materials for macroevolution. The next question then, I guess, is what are—or what would be—the right mutations for major evolutionary change? And we don’t know the answer to that.”4  (Darwin’s Doubt pg 257)

    That footnote 4? Well, here’s the footnote comment:

    Quotes recorded in contemporaneous notes taken by philosopher of biology Paul Nelson, who was in attendance at this lecture.

    So, there is no possible way we can verify what was actually said in this discussion or the context in which this comment was made. Since it’s from someone else’s notes, Meyer wouldn’t even need ellipses to generate a confusing message.

    But who is this Paul Nelson? Meyer calls him a “philosopher of biology”. I’m not sure what that means, but Paul A. Nelson is a creationist. He’s a Young Earth Creationist and fellow of the Discovery Institute (where Meyer is currently the director of the Center for Science and Culture).

    I personally find it rather interesting that Meyer fails to inform us of these details. It’s a known fact that creationists misrepresent material and fabricate or take out of context quotes from scientists. Again, since it’s been a while since I’ve talked about this. We have dozens of examples from right here in Meyer’s own book (from the first few chapters) and an entire project dedicated to pointing out such quotemines at the talk.origins archive.

    Here’s an article calling out Paul Nelson for quotemining. And another one where Nelson makes claims about scientists without them knowing about it. Or this article which also shows a Nelson quotemine. Or this one which also accuses him of quotemining.  It’s actually amazing to me that Nelson would take comments of evolutionary biologists and try to interpret them as support for intelligent design.

    Given this, I think we must question the accuracy of Paul Nelson’s report here.

    So, chapter 13 (as I predicted) hasn’t started out that well. At the top of the third page (and the bottom of the second page) are quotes from a scientist that no one has any possible way of confirming. Notes written by a creationist who is a known advocate of intelligent design, that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and who is also known for taking quotes out of context.

    I honestly don’t understand how anyone, at this point, can think that Meyer’s book is anything but scientific fiction*.

    But I’d also like to comment specifically on this part of the quote

    The next question then, I guess, is what are—or what would be—the right mutations for major evolutionary change? And we don’t know the answer to that.

    To this question Meyer says

    Thirty years later, developmental and evolutionary biologists still don’t know the answer to that question.

    Umm… that’s simply not true. Here’s a list of how changes appearing during development can result in new forms.

    Dr. Sewall Wright is one of the founders of population genetics. He was describing why small changes over time are much more effective that drastic changes all at once. His work was being done in the 1930s.

    So scientists have known for four score of years how evolution actually works. Not by massive changes in one generation, but by millions of successive changes over millions of years. Meyer, if you recall, seems to think that the Cambrian explosion of 40 million years, isn’t enough time to generate new body plans, even tking into account the research that shows that the genes leading up to these new body plans were present in the populations at the time well before the Cambrian explosion began.

    Meyer has, once again, set up a strawman and demolished it with a powerful kick. The experiments described at the beginning of the chapter was massively mutational and few of the fruit flies survived the experience. But that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The experiment was see what happened during development when certain mutations happened. To ensure that the researchers got the right mutations, they had to ensure that large numbers of mutations happened. This was in the late 1970s, scientists didn’t have the technology that we take for granted now.

    Once again, I will refer everyone to my article about mutations and my article about how new taxonomic groups are formed. These two articles continue to show that creationists (including Meyer) either don’t understand how evolution actually works or they purposefully misrepresent it to people who don’t know how evolution works.

    Just a cursory search of the literature reveals many articles that relate to development of body plans and/or the Cambrian explosion. I’ll have to go into these much later, but here are a few examples.

    Maxwell, E., Furrer, H. & Sánchez-Villagra, M. Exceptional fossil preservation demonstrates a new mode of axial skeleton elongation in early ray-finned fishes. Nature communications 4, 2570 (2012).

    D. Murdock, S. Bengtson, F. Marone, J. Greenwood, P. Donoghue, Evaluating scenarios for the evolutionary assembly of the brachiopod body plan.Evolution & development 16, 13–24 (2013).

    Stöger, I. et al. The continuing debate on deep molluscan phylogeny: evidence for Serialia (Mollusca, Monoplacophora + Polyplacophora). BioMed research international 2013, 407072 (2012).

    Either way, Meyer continues to be an unreliable reporter. I’ll continue with Chapter 13 as I have time, since it’s somehow important. 

    The rest of the series.

    * I use this phrase instead of science fiction, which has a specific meaning. I take the idea from historical fiction where an author uses history as a source for a fictional story. In this case, Meyer is using science as a source for a fictional philosophy.

    Category: Book ReviewCreationismEvolutionfeaturedGeneticsScience


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