Monday, September 26, 2005

The Post Shows the Way

In contrast to the lazy, worthless article from the Times, The Washington Post put some effort into its own article on the subject. They mention the Dover trial only as an afterthought. Instead, most of the article focuses on the fact that every breakthrough in biology in recent years has been entirely supportive of evolution:

When scientists announced last month they had determined the exact order of all 3 billion bits of genetic code that go into making a chimpanzee, it was no surprise that the sequence was more than 96 percent identical to the human genome. Charles Darwin had deduced more than a century ago that chimps were among humans' closest cousins.

But decoding chimpanzees' DNA allowed scientists to do more than just refine their estimates of how similar humans and chimps are. It let them put the very theory of evolution to some tough new tests.

If Darwin was right, for example, then scientists should be able to perform a neat trick. Using a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory, they should be able to predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species' DNA and the two animals' population sizes.

“That's a very specific prediction,” said Eric Lander, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and a leader in the chimp project.

Sure enough, when Lander and his colleagues tallied the harmful mutations in the chimp genome, the number fit perfectly into the range that evolutionary theory had predicted.

Their analysis was just the latest of many in such disparate fields as genetics, biochemistry, geology and paleontology that in recent years have added new credence to the central tenet of evolutionary theory: That a smidgeon of cells 3.5 billion years ago could -- through mechanisms no more extraordinary than random mutation and natural selection -- give rise to the astonishing tapestry of biological diversity that today thrives on Earth.

Evolution's repeated power to predict the unexpected goes a long way toward explaining why so many scientists and others are practically apoplectic over the recent decision by a Pennsylvania school board to treat evolution as an unproven hypothesis, on par with “alternative” explanations such as Intelligent Design (ID), the proposition that life as we know it could not have arisen without the helping hand of some mysterious intelligent force.

Sorry about the long excerpt, but I was enjoying that so much I couldn’t bear to cut it off. The rest of the article goes on in this vein, placing the trial in its proper scientific context. This really is a battle between science on one side, and irrational religious dogma on the other.

Almost no space is given to the Discovery Institute folks, and the charges they make are quickly answered:

Asked to provide examples of non-obvious, testable predictions made by the theory of Intelligent Design, John West, an associate director of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based ID think tank, offered one: In 1998, he said, an ID theorist, reckoning that an intelligent designer would not fill animals' genomes with DNA that had no use, predicted that much of the “junk” DNA in animals' genomes -- long seen as the detritus of evolutionary processes -- will someday be found to have a function.

(In fact, some “junk” DNA has indeed been found to be functional in recent years, though more than 90 percent of human DNA still appears to be the flotsam of biological history.) In any case, West said, it is up to Darwinists to prove ID wrong.

“Chance and necessity don't seem to be good candidates for explaining the appearance of higher-order complexity, so the best explanation is an intelligent cause,” West said.

The point the authors make, about the overwhelming majority of non-coding DNA having no known function, is a good one, but there’s a lot more to say as well. Non-coding DNA provides evidence for evolution in ways that have nothing to do with whether some function can be found for it. Have a look at this article for a detailed treatment of the subject.

The broader point, however, is that West is full of it. The only way ID predicts that “junk” DNA should have a function is if the designer is held up to some standards of efficiency and optimality. And I seem to recall that ID specifically disavows that idea:

Applied to biology, intelligent design maintains that a designing intelligence is required to account for the complex, information-rich structures in living systems. At the same time, it refuses to speculate about the nature of that designing intelligence. Whereas optimal design demands a perfectionistic designer who has to get everything just right, intelligent design fits our ordinary experience of design, which is conditioned by the needs of a situation, requires negotiation and tradeoffs, and therefore always falls short of some idealized global optimum.

That’s William Dembski, from pages 58-59 of his book The Design Revolution. So West is simply wrong about what ID predicts.

Incidentally, Dembski’s quote merits further analysis on its own. For example, any designer who has to worry about trade-offs based on the needs of the situation is plainly not omnipotent. If we take Dembski at his word, then the designer of ID is plainly not the Christian God.

We also shouldn’t let West’s final comment pass unnoticed. Biologists have shown time and again that natural selection acting on random variations provides an adequate explanation for biological complexity. On top of that, scientists show every day that nature still holds a lot of secrets we need to learn.

By contrast, we have a very good idea of what intelligence is capable of. Human beings possess the highest known level of intelligence, but we are not remotely capable of doing the things ID requires of its designer. This is what West describes as the more plausible explanation.

And he has the nerve to say that “Darwinists” have to prove ID wrong?


At 3:08 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

From the article: "Using a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory, they should be able to predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species' DNA and the two animals' population sizes."

Do you have a reference to this mathematical formula and prediction?

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Joe Shelby said...

It was a decent article, better than some of the op-eds that came out in that paper the past few months. They did set up a minor mistake in that they mentioned how descendents of a common ancestor may end up different enough to not be able to breed, then used the example of lions and tigers as "different species" immediately after. This, of course, obscures the fact that lions and tigers can breed (and unlike the mule, the hybred offspring are still fertile).

At 7:27 PM, Anonymous JDog said...

Yo, word up - Heddle be a M*****F***** ID apologist. He was rightously tossed from Panda's last week - Must be here for more bruises.

Y'all please help Mr. Heddle all you can - that boy be in need of a whole new set of lumps! True Dat!

At 7:30 PM, Blogger Jim said...

David, I'd bet it's found somewhere in this stack of papers by one ES Lander.

At 9:23 PM, Blogger Dave said...

jdog - David Heddle hasn't been tossed from the Panda's Thumb. He did quite a bit of posting just today.

At 7:30 AM, Blogger M.C. said...

Fundamentalist Christians who believe in a 10,000 year old earth and don't accept the reality of evolution are not the only dogmatists around.

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Jdog said...

Mr. Heddle - You were SO tossed by posters at Panda! Though you were not ASKED to leave, you were abused by the truth, thus leaving the field...battered and bleeding, You cried and cried and cried! I laughed and laughed. You HAVE been asked to leave by Pharyngula, for your usual knucklehead stupid comments. Hope this helps...

At 10:58 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

It's up to Evolutionists to prove ID wrong?

Logical Fallacies with ID and their proponents:

False dilema/Bifurcation - Well if evolution is wrong then ID must be right (although only the ID morons think evolution is wrong)

Affirmation of the consequent - If the universe had been created by a supernatural being, we would see order and organization everywhere. And we do see order, not randomness — so it’s clear that the universe had a creator.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam - ID must be true because it hasn’t been proven false.

Straw Man - ID’ers misrepresent scientists positions regularly to make it look as though there is some sort of “crisis in evolution”

Thanks from for the fallacy info.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Apparently the prediction in question comes from the following article:

Ohta, T. (1973) "Slightly deleterious mutant substitutions during evolution." Nature 246: 96-98

I am told this article is cited in recent work on the chimpanzee genome.


A little maturity, please.


There are, of course, dogmatists of all stripes and all political persuasions, but the Wiseman-Sheldrake dispute you link to is rather far removed from the main subject of this blog. What little I know about Sheldrake does not make me optimistic that he is right in this dispute.

At 2:35 PM, Anonymous David said...



At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

I thought J Dog approached the situation directly and with relish.

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous J-Dog said...

Yo Kevin - Thanks Bro. Jason - I realize this IS your blog and all, but lookie here man, I just gots to represent against those ID A-Pologizals. I just be officin here at Mid-State, and don't want to have some jive wack-off like David Heddle spewin his venom like he like to do.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger M.C. said...


How can there be a debate?

Sheldrake and Wiseman's data quite simply
speaks for itself. And there's more where it came from. The fact of the matter is that reductionistic materialism is just as dogmatic and its model is just as counterfactual as creationism.

You are right, it is somewhat off topic to this blog. I brought it up because I figure the folks here care about science and want to understand what science has discovered about the universe. This might be seen as more topical for this particular blog, though.

How did science as an institution get so far off course? It refused to address the evidence, treating the whole topic as taboo.

Robin Hanson (a "skeptic" like yourself) has some good ideas as to where the institution of science has fallen down and how it might pick itself back up.

At 8:42 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

Biologists have shown time and again that natural selection acting on random variations provides an adequate explanation for biological complexity.


I'm an evolutionist -- evolution is obvious and undeniable science, but I haven't encountered anywhere biologists have demonstrated the adequacy of the random mutation / selection theory. I don't buy the blind/random theory. Don't present it as a fiat accompli -- demonstrate it.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

I should have mentioned that I am not arguing that natural selection of natural variations is not a real component of evolution. It clearly is. I just don't go from the evolution of antibiotic resistance to the process of macroevolution.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


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