Abusing Science

Number 11 of a series

This series is inspired by Philip Kitcher’s book of the same name. The creationist Center for Science and Culture, a compartment of the Discovery Institute, is a major supplier of material for this series. Their blog site, Evolution News, posts items promoting contrary views on modern science, and this one is typical:

First Review of Darwin Devolves Relies Heavily on Circular Reasoning

Full disclosure: I subscribe to Science magazine, and I have a copy of the 8 February issue with the review of Behe’s book. The authors are Nathan H. Lents, S. Joshua Swamidass, and Richard E. Lenski. The review is on page 590 of the issue, but you can follow the link posted by Brian miller and read it on the Science magazine blog.

The core of Miller’s argument seems to be this section, titled “Unlimited Creative Power.”

The authors argue that many of the traits found in life give evidence that they are the product of evolutionary processes having dramatically altered ancestral precursors. How do the authors come to this conclusion? First, they assume that all biological features are the result of undirected processes transforming features in ancestral organisms. Second, they identify some remarkable trait in life, such as the auditory ossicles in mammals. Then, they explain its origin through evolution without providing any substantive details. Finally, they use the “fact” that evolution formed the new trait as evidence for its unlimited creative power. 

This line of argumentation only appears compelling to those who assume from that start that the core assumptions of the standard evolutionary model are true.

Miller continues his argument against natural processes by again recapitulating Behe’s principle of irreducible complexity. Features, such as the use of echolocation by dolphins would require multiple, beneficial mutations simultaneously, which occurrence is considered by legitimate scientists to be unlikely. Mainstream scientists continue to point to paths of evolutionary development that reach observed features without encountering irreducible complexity. However, critics of natural origins, such as Miller, ignore or disparage these explanations.  Lents, Swamidass, and Lenski include the following in their review of the book:

Behe also ignores the fact that some of his prior arguments have been dismantled (2). He includes a lengthy appendix that argues that the blood-clotting cascade is irreducibly complex, for example, but fails to mention Kenneth Miller’s simple, elegant scheme for its stepwise evolution (3) or the fact that a progenitor fibrinogen gene has been discovered in echinoderms (4).

Behe doubles down on his claim that the evolution of chloroquine resistance in malaria by random mutations is exceedingly unlikely because at least two mutations are required, neither of which is beneficial without the other. His calculations have already been refuted (5), and it has long been known that neutral and even deleterious mutations can provide stepping stones to future adaptations. Indeed, a 2014 study, unmentioned by Behe, reported discovery of two genetic paths through which malaria has evolved chloroquine resistance through multiple steps (6).

The references cited are:

3. K. R. Miller, in Philosophy of Biology: An Anthology, A. Rosenberg, R. Arp, Eds. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), pp. 439–449.

4. X. Xu, R. F. Doolittle, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87, 2097 (1990).

5. R. Durrett, D. Schmidt, Genetics 181, 821 (2009).

6. R. L. Summers et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, E1759 (2014).

Darwin Devolves will be issued on the 26th of this month, and I will obtain a copy for review, but not anytime soon. These creationist books tend to hit the market at full price, eventually becoming available at a discount. I have previously reviewed The Edge of Evolution and Darwin’s Black Box.

One thought on “Abusing Science

  1. Pingback: Abusing Science | Skeptical Analysis

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