September 13, 2005

My Conversation with a Developmental Biologist About Evolution

from - smijer

Is evolution a theory in crisis? Is Intelligent Design the coming paradigm?

We all have our opinions about this, but opinions are like you-know-what. And most of them do stink. But what about a professional? Via Jeff Blogworthy, I discovered that an enterprising blogger supportive of the Intelligent Design movement had found and interviewed a scientist friendly to the cause. So, I found one, too, to speak in favor of science. He asked me to keep his identity confidential due to his covert activity for the Evil Atheist Conspiracy. But I can tell you this much: It is PZ Myers, currently of the University of Minnesota at Morris. He agreed to an interview, and here it is:

smijer: Thanks for speaking with me, Prof!

Myers: Any time.

smijer: So, is there any debate within the scientific community about the
general validity of the body of theory referred to generally as
neo-darwinian evolution? What about among the fringe crackpots in the
scientific community? Lawyers? Mechanical Engineers? Preachers?

Myers: There is general agreement among all informed scientists on the
validity of common descent, and that natural selection is one of the most
important processes in evolution. There are also many rather
fierce disagreements among many. For instance, here is debate on the
relative importance of neutral hanges (which some think of as mere noise,
while others reasonably regard as the major source of variation) vs.
selection (which all agree occurs, and is essential for adaptation...but
there is more to organisms than just adaptations.) Down at the base of the
tree of life, common descent gets messy and rather syncytial, with
opportunities for horizontal gene transfer that may have been very important. Many of us also think that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is showing signs of its age, is getting a bit creaky, and is failing to encompass many important processes in evolution. For instance, the synthesis says little about
development, my field, because relatively little was known about it at the
time Dobzhansky and Mayr and Simpson and many others were assembling it.
The combination of genetics, molecular biology, and development that has
occurred during the last several decades, though, is fueling a real
revolution in our thinking. The field of evo-devo is going to radically
change how scientists think about evolution (as far as I'm concerned, at
least. There are some who think evo-devo is a minor issue. This is one of
those things we're fighting about.) Scientists are constantly pushing at the
boundaries of what we know, and are always wrestling over something.

smijer: I hear it darkly whispered that "dissent", in any of its various forms,
is tantamount to career suicide. My cousin is a plumber and he says
evolution is a crock. Will he lose his job?

Myers: That's absurd. Bucking the status quo can be difficult, it's true -- pursuing unconventional ideas can make it difficult to get grants and get published, and that can kill a career -- but scientists are always trying something new. It's part of the job. They have strategies for doing this. There's always the project that's safe and generates a steady stream of interesting results and brings in funding for the lab, and some of that funding is used to run pilot experiments on new ideas. If they work out, they form the basis for new grants and an expanding investment. That's the key thing, though: something has to work out. There has to be some grounds for continuing a project.

Doing 'research' that is a dead end, gets no results, is poorly executed and based on flawed and unscholarly ideas...that is career suicide. As it should be. Incompetence is a skill rewarded with promotion only in the Republican party.

Your cousin the plumber is probably safe. I've never asked my plumber his views on evolution, and it's not relevant to his work. Now if he told me he didn't believe in water pressure, then I might stop calling him.

smijer: All due respect, prof, but didn't this dude, Richard Sternberg, get creamed by his colleagues at the Smithsonian just for publishing a paper on ID that, while very inept and in some ways ridiculous, still made it through a legitimate peer review process? This James McVay fellow from the Office of Special Counsel seems to think so... Since that happened to one guy, maybe that's what they mean about the "career suicide" thing. So, did Sternberg get a bum rap, or get what was coming to him? Hint - if you say he got a bum rap then you are confirming all the dark suspicions about the dogmatism of the Darwinist orthodoxy, but if you say he got what was coming to him, you're pegged as part of the conspiracy to repress scientific dissent.

Myers: It wasn't legitimate. It was an article published in a taxonomy journal not appropriate for its subject, shepherded through by a creationism-friendly acting editor (Sternberg). It was highly suspicious. Sternberg didn't get any kind of rap at all -- he's still working, he's still affiliated with the Smithsonian. I think he
didn't get what was coming to him; he's a creationist (oh, excuse me, a "baraminologist"), which brings his competence into question. I'd never trust anything he's written, and if I had the power, I certainly wouldn't ever hire him to teach students...but if are a repressive conspiracy, we're sure not very good at it.

Also, ultimately what counts in a publication is what your peers think of it. The article Sternberg slipped through is a forgettable and empty bit of vacuous fluff that would fade away uncited, except that the Discovery Institute sees it as a PR opportunity.

smijer: Is there sort of a whisper campaign going on? A sort of secret society of
dissenters? And, when I say "dissenters", do I really mean "creationists"?

Myers: Hah. No. Evolution is a topic that routinely comes up in our department, and believe me, there's no one who thinks there is any credibility to creationism. We teach aspects of evolutionary biology at all levels of our curriculum, and someone who dissented would stand out prominently. He or she would probably trigger even more discussions about the subject.

I think the reason we have no creationists in our department is that we don't hire crackpots or ignorant incompetents. Those kinds of policies do make it difficult for creationists to advance in academia, I will concede.

smijer: Would dissenting against evolution... ah hell... would being a creationist be most like dissenting against string theory, the standard model of quantum theory and relativity, classical newtonian physics, or the heliocentric model of the solar system? I apologize in advance for asking you questions about fields for which you don't claim professional expertise.

Myers: I would say that rejecting evolution is nearly equivalent to rejecting heliocentrism. It's an observation that has been reinforced over and over again, and only a real nutcase tries to argue with it anymore. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is sort of like classical Newtonian physics: something that put a set of observations on a sound mathematical basis and accounts for most of what we see in the world, but also has limitations that mean some aspects are not well
covered, and there are phenomena that need incorporation in a more complete theory. Biology hasn't yet had it's Einstein.

And no, our Einstein isn't going to come from the ranks of those clowns at the Discovery Institute.

smijer: Are you one of the Steves? (note, I'm referring to the document known as "Project Steve")

Myers: I'd have to be Psteve for that to work.

smijer: Aw, Pshaw. Apropos of nothing, can you tell me which is most useful to the average workaday scientist in his or her research, evolution, Intelligent Design, or black coffee?

Myers: Did you have to throw coffee into that list? Now the message is all
mangled, because coffee is awfully important. At least I can state
unambiguously that Intelligent Design is dead last. Nobody uses it --
it would be like postulating ghosts spitting in your reagents when
you weren't looking to explain some results.

smijer: One guy said that he had been told that the discovery of a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian would debunk descent with modification. Wasn't the original quote about (plural) rabbits, i.e. enough to rule out such possible errors as inaccurate dating of the strata? And don't you think he meant that it would debunk the evolutionary understanding of natural history more than just the mechanism of "descent with modification"? And, to the best of your knowledge has anyone ever found such a thing as a Precambrian rabbit? And do you think they would have still tasted like chicken?

Myers: I think he said just "rabbit", singular, but what is implied is a well-confirmed, unambiguous out-of-sequence specimen, which would require some level of verification by replication. Such a discovery would mess up a lot of things in biology, and would make a hypothesis about some kind of artificial intervention by an unknown agent tenable. No such anachronism has been found, although there are lots of dangling lineages where we don't have evidence of a beginning. Intelligent Design proponents like to point to those unknowns and
claim their designer is lurking there, but as we all know, it's actually the Flying Spaghetti Monster--he loves those tangled strands where the beginnings and ends are ambiguous.

If there were a pre-Cambrian rabbit, it would precede chickens, so we'd also have to revise our conventions and say that everything tastes like rabbit.

smijer: In your opinion, do Behe or others provide a falsifiable theory that can be "debunked"? If not, would it be proper to say they have been, or can be "debunked"?

Myers: Behe, in Darwin's Black Box, said that irreducible complexity was a property that could not evolve. That was debunked; of course it can. But if nothing else, the Intelligent Design creationism movement has proven itself oblivious to criticism. You will still find people who claim that Behe discovered some phenomenon that makes evolution impossible. The same is true of Dembski and his mangling of the "No Free Lunch" theorem.

So yes, they can and have been thoroughly debunked scientifically, and ID is a joke in the scientific community. However, their entire strategy is not about science -- it's about PR and politics.

smijer: Since, as you say, so much of this controversy lies outside the lab and in the media and popular publications, do you think books like Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God bring much to the table? Why do you think that someone sympathetic to ID would be familiar with Behe's book but completely unfamiliar with Kenneth Miller?

Myers: Yes, I think we need much more outreach to people outside our narrow
disciplines. Miller's book is excellent, even if I did find the Christian apologetics insipid, personally.

It wouldn't be at all unusual to find a professional cell biologist who had not read Miller's book -- the professional is not in the target audience. However, it would be extremely unusual to find that same professional, who is remote from the popular press, reading Behe's tripe. Further, finding a professional who reviews Behe *approvingly* is stretching credibility to the breaking point. I'm tempted to invoke Dembski's "Universal Lower Bound" of 10-150 and say it couldn't possibly be, except that I know stupidity flourishes on both sides of the professional fence.

smijer: My personal knowledge of science is what I remember from a very instructive high school course some 15 years ago and what I've read on the internet. I pimp tractor trailers for a living. Nevertheless, I understand quite well why fossil rabbits from the Precambrian would falsify the evolutionary understanding of natural history. What do you think about the credibility of a person who holds a PhD in biochemistry from a Big Ten university, teaches cell biology for a living, and has been published in scientific journals, but who, when asked the question about the rabbits and the Precambrian answers, "that is a hard one. I honestly don't know"?

Myers: He's right: there are scientists out there who don't use evolution, who don't think about evolution, and who don't THINK, period. Every job (except maybe tractor trailer pimping, which I hear is a lively occupation held by no one other than the bright and well-informed [note: flattery will get you everywhere]) is populated with some number of placeholding deadwood, even biology, so it's never hard to find some few incompetents and get dumb answers out of them -- just don't hold them as representative.

Alternatively, your clueless biochemist could also be a fiction
invented by an equally clueless layman.

smijer: Once more, since I asked the question in a silly way before, approximately how often are core darwinistic principles - those disputed by most
creationists or even those not disputed by many, employed in doing new research in other fields of biology?

Myers: "Darwinistic" means something very specific -- it refers to a
particular mode of evolution, as described by Darwin. If one is a
population geneticist, then the tools of Darwin and the neo-Darwinian
synthesis get used all the time. Any time one looks at a population,
those models are implicit in the analysis.

In my own field of developmental biology, it's a little different. We rarely look at selection. However, rules of common descent are essential in any kind of comparative analysis. The theory of evolution is part of the background for any study. Years ago, when the lab I was in was just starting to use zebrafish as a model, we did so with considerable discussion and study of the fish's place in
phylogeny. We specifically pursued it because it was a vertebrate model system that would complement flies; Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, who won a Nobel for her work in Drosophila, apparently agreed with that, since she's now also doing a lot of work with zebrafish.

I take evolution for granted. In the past, I've tried assaying the evolutionary content of journal articles, and was surprised that explicit discussion of evolutionary relationships was fairly high, approaching 100% in a couple of the developmental journals I surveyed. It was much, much lower in clinical journals, which only discuss human cases, and also lower in a few neuroscience journals I
looked at, where the topics of the articles were sometimes clinical, and often focused on a single molecule. Basically, whenever your work involves two or more organisms, evolution is essential; if it's narrow enough to only deal with a single species, evolution may not come up.

smijer: If you think there is a place at all for it, how should Intelligent Design be taught in a responsible public school curriculum?

Myers: Not as a science, period. Preferably, it would be taught as history -- ancient history -- and regarded as brief, pathological aberration.

I'm not going to make the error of suggesting it be taught in comparative religion or philosophy courses, either. It's bad theology and even worse philosophy (and as biology, it's total crap). Unless it's being used as an example of laughably bad science, it shouldn't be used at all.

smijer: Is there anything you would care to add?

Myers: One of the important attributes of any good science class is that it
has to discuss the evidence. We teach evolution because it has good
evidence and has lead to productive research programs. The greatest
failure of ID is that it has no evidence and suggests no path to
obtaining any, and that's why it doesn't belong in the classroom.

smijer:: I can't say that I could not agree with you more. If I had some extensive training and practice in biology and sciences related to your field, I could express legitimate agreement. As it is, I can only say that an anonymous cell biologist who expresses disagreement with you has much more right to his opinion on the subject of evolution than I do to mine. And yet, somehow, I think my assent to the nearly-unanimous view is more correct than
his dissent from it. Thanks very much for your time.


What are the differences between the consensus set of scientists who have accepted the facts of evolution and have gotten on with trying to gain a better understanding of it and the diversity of life that has resulted from it, and those who are desperate to return to a TheoCentric model of biology?

Several differences stand out... One is that the first group is backed by mountains of well established data, and works from principles that are constantly being fleshed out and refined in the lab. From Darwin's Finches, to a magnificent fossil record of natural history; from the laboratories where fruit fly species diverged and the viral strains were seen to evolve to the analasys and sequencing of the genes and genomes of entire species, those who are dedicated to real science in biology have a vast reservoir of data to support their work. On the other side, Intelligent Design theorists have yet to produce one novel result in a lab, or discover a single bit of evidence that unequivocally supports their view.

Another is that the way scientists and IDists talk about themselves. Myers pointed out in his interview several areas where older Darwinian ideas are being challenged, and where the importance of Darwinian mechanisms for evolution are being questioned in many areas. Yet, these scientists are not making grandiose claims about the revolutionary new paradigm that will overthrow the dogma of the past 150 years. At least, mostly they are not. It seems to me that, with the the ID proponents, what is lacked in evidence is made up for in bluster. Relatively small slights to their cause from the scientific "establishment" are painted as a conspiracy to crush "dissent". They work the press relentlessly to create a favorable public opinion environment in which to advance their political agenda. And, they compare themselves favorably with such folks as Galileo.

The remaining difference is the composition of the groups. The pro-science crowd runs the gamut... you got your evil atheists, and your pious Christians, your Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintos, and everything else. ID is entirely composed of people with a religious investment in denying evolution.

I'm going to quote a little bit now from the epilogue that Mr. Dawn Treader included with the interview that inspired this one:

Good, old-fashioned pragmatism. If functioning under the rubric of design produces faster, scientific breakthroughs, from discoveries to cures, then I think we will see a faster adoption of design as a metascience. If not, then we will be left to slug out a debate about concepts in a tool-driven, results oriented world. (note: the question is, who will step up to create a research program that will permit research to flourish using a design framework?)

I have a hard time imagining this. ID at present exists as a large body of rhetoric. There is the argument that there are "Gaps" in our knowledge of the history of life that evolution cannot explain, even in principle, and that some sort of Intelligent Designer (God, of course) fills those gaps. There are the arguments that ID, or the "controversy" surrounding it, should be taught in public school. There are popular appeals meant to gain sympathy from Joe Sixpack (that's me & you). But there are no mechanisms with explanatory power. There is no data. There is no research program. How the heck can anyone use this body of rhetoric to guide research? I just don't see how it would be possible. If the Discovery Institute comes up with a plan for doing it... well more power to them. We'll see if their program produces useful results. And if it does... well then, maybe we'll start seeing the seeds of paradigm shift. I won't hold my breath.

To quote again:

What role will worldviews play? A huge one. Most Christian's think that naturalism is what keeps evolution alive. Naturalism (as a worldview), however, is on the way out, in my opinion. As Hugh Ross boldly predicts, naturalism is dying of natural causes. As James Herrick points out, in his book The Making of the New Spirituality, the void is being filled by what Herrick terms the New Religious Synthesis (basically religious syncretism). Herrick demonstrates how critical evolutionary theory is to many neo-religious thinkers. So, whether Ross and Herrick are right or wrong, worldviews will continue to play a vital role in keeping evolutionary thinking entrenched.

The very premise of this contention - that it is philosophical naturalism that keeps evolution alive - is vacuous, and excusable only because it comes from a layman who is unfamiliar with the science. It is the data that keeps evolution alive, and very healthy. If it were naturalism instead, well, then we wouldn't have an abundance of scientists who reject naturalism but still contribute to and support the science of evolution.

World-views are important - but more for life at large than just the practice of science. Again we hear the language of "God of the Gaps" theology: that naturalism leaves a "void" that can be filled with theological speculation. And, in my personal view, philosophical naturalism does provide an incomplete world-view. And for purposes of leading a fulfilling and useful life, one must supplement that view with values derived from culture and from a commitment to humanistic ideals, and one must explore the aesthetic of living - not just the mechanics of it. But, when we are talking about methodological naturalism rather than a world view that consists of or includes philosophical naturalism, we are talking about the one single tool that has been helpful to us for understanding the world we live in. So far, no one has found a replacement for it that produces anything close to the results that we have from science. And I won't hold my breath for that to happen, either.


Posted by smijer at September 13, 2005 08:32 AM

Thanks for the great interview. Very enjoyable..and I like your philosophical bent.

univar.jpg Posted by jeff on September 13, 2005 01:48 PM
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Sacrilege! Rabbit does not taste like chicken!

univar.jpg Posted by Bayesian Bouffant, FCD on September 13, 2005 02:36 PM
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Frog and snake taste like chicken, but they're relatively closely related.

Rabbit tastes a lot more like chicken if one uses the same 11 herbs and spices -- and it helps to remove the feathers (from the chicken) and the fur (from the rabbit) before tasting.

univar.jpg Posted by Ed Darrell on September 13, 2005 05:06 PM
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Chicken paprikash and Rabbit paprikash taste the same and I love them both!

univar.jpg Posted by coturnix on September 13, 2005 10:23 PM
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Wow. S&B has hit the big time!

univar.jpg Posted by alice on September 14, 2005 10:57 PM
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