Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Wedgie for Creationists

The creationists have got their panties in bunches over Richard Lenski's recent paper on bacterial evolution and evolutionary contingency. In brief, over the course of 44,000 generations, Lenski's lab of e. coli acquired the ability to metabolize citric acid. It appears that at least 3 mutations were involved.

Now, on one hand, you have Andrew Schlafly (of Phyllis and "Conservapedia" fame) demanding a right to Lenski's data and bacterial cultures. Lenski was partially funded by the government, and Schlafly is a taxpayer. It appears that Schlafly sees the paper as a severe affront to his beliefs, and strongly suspects some kind of fraud. Never mind that he is not qualified to read such technical papers, much less analyze the bacteria for himself. The whole brouhaha is detailed here and here.

On the other hand, you have Michael Behe, an intelligent design creationist, poo-pooing the paper. After all, he says, the machinery to metabolize citric acid was dormant in e. coli's DNA. The only mutations required were those to allow it through the bacterial membrane. A handful of point mutations (most likely) over 20 years is nothing to get excited about, according to Behe.

Obviously, there's quite a disparity between Schlafly's and Behe's views. Is the paper such a blow to creationism that it surely must be fraudulent? Or are the results entirely ho-hum?

Now (July 9), we've got "Answers in Genesis" chiming in with an interpretation that Lenski's results are neither ho-hum or fraudulently evolution-affirming, but pro-creationism. Such disparities are fairly commonplace in the world of creationism, where the only guiding principle is to attack evolution on every possible front. In the spirit of fraternity, it seems that debate between the various schools of creationism is supposed to be minimized. But the logical chasms are huge.

I'm not only referring to creationist arguments against evolution, but also to their own religious dogmas. It seems, for example, that these folks are rather divided over the existence of satan, and/or his role in evolution. There was a time, though creationists have conveniently forgotten it, when satan was accused of planting un-biblical dinosaur bones in the soil. Remnants of this view can still be found on the net. Unfortunately, it seems that flimsy creationists tracts that may have existed in laundromats 40 years ago have gone the way of soft-bodied pre-Cambrian worms. Now, of course, you've got a "creation museum" with displays of folks saddled on the behemoths, and satan is normally left out of creationist arguments against evolution (Lewis Black on creationists: "these folks think the Flintstones is a documentary").

My point: scientists should make a point of questioning the creationists, a tactic that is normally ignored. Of course, there's a good argument to be made that scientists should never debate these buffoons in the first place. But if we must debate, then the scientist needn't merely play the role of creationist error correcter. My own experience is that, given a quasi-earnest nudge, these folks are foaming at the mouth to spew the most ludicrous supernaturalisms. Such a process may reveal inconsistencies in their views toward both evolution and religion, leaving them to fend off not only the scientists, but other believers.

Some other questions for the creos:

*How often has the Designer interceded? While most young-earthers would say "once", and others might say "always", creationist darling Behe implies that he does so intermittently. (Question for Behe: do you think your "science" could pin down when these intercessions occured?)

*If you claim that ID is a science, could you offer up a handful of experiments that might falsify it?

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