More Of The Same From The Intelligent Design Camp

08-10-09 imageThe ID blog Uncommon Descent recently reproduced a section of an article from the journal Nature Physics.  As I have not read the full article myself (and don’t plan on paying the $32 necessary to purchase it), I can’t comment on how the quoted passage fits into the author’s overall thesis.  His intentions are not the focus of this entry.  Instead, I will occupy myself with addressing the claim* being made by the luminaries at Uncommon Descent through usage of the excerpt.

Let’s get this out of the way early.  The idea that the existence of horizontal gene transfer will somehow tear down and render useless the theory of Darwinian evolution is patently ridiculous.  HGT refers to the ability of an organism to exchange genetic material with another organism and incorporate this material into its own genome.  Most of the research on HGT has dealt with bacteria, though studies do indicate this process is also important in the other prokaryotes and even single-celled eukaryotes.  The mechanism was first described 50 years ago and is among the best understood means by which organisms increase both genetic and phenotypic variation.  Despite the wealth of information that has been uncovered about HGT, the apparent Darwin killer, the past half century has not been witness to any kind of decrease in the confidence in or acceptance of evolutionary theory in the scientific community.

The aspect of Darwinian evolution that HGT has challenged, and the ID crowd has extrapolated into a challenge to the theory as a whole, is Darwin’s model of the phylogenic tree, metaphorically described as the Tree of Life.  This metaphor is based on the idea that genes (or traits in Darwin’s day, as he knew nothing of genetics) are only transferred vertically (from parent to offspring).  Therefore, the existence of horizontal transfer and our increasing understanding of its importance in the evolution of single-celled life has rendered Darwin’s model of phylogeny incomplete.

So Darwin was wrong about the Tree of Life.  Consider me unimpressed.  First, the notion that Darwin’s original model was insufficient to explain the true diversity of life and its evolution is old news.  Take a quick look at Darwin’s original illustration and a more current phylogenetic tree.  It’s safe to say that the original idea has been modified and expanded on.  It will inevitably be modified further in the future, either as a result of enhanced understanding of horizontal gene transfer or something else entirely.  And that’s okay.  That’s how science works and what makes it so powerful.  It morphs and changes to fit the best evidence available at the time.  Second, On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago.  Not surprisingly, Darwin was wrong about lots of things.  However his central premise, descent with modification, that the evolution of life into its many diverse and distinct forms has come about as a result of natural laws structured around variety, heredity, and fecundity has held true.  Evolutionary theory has been around for 150 years, and in that time become a rock solid explanation for the development of the diversity of life that integrates evidence from genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, geology, molecular biology, paleontology, physiology, ecology, and many other disciplines.  It has survived assault after assault since its inception and has adapted and grown stronger over time as new evidence has been discovered and incorporated.  It doesn’t fall apart because a different mechanism of heredity than the one that predominates now was more common at another point in history.  In fact, horizontal gene transfer fits quite nicely into evolutionary theory.

ID proponents would have people think differently.  A common tactic of the movement, illustrated in their posting of the excerpt, is to find any fact they possibly can that doesn’t seem to line up with current theory and shine as bright a light as they can upon it.  Then they say, “See?  If that’s wrong, the whole thing must be wrong.”  This represents and major misunderstanding on their part of how the scientific process works.  Evidence against evolution does not constitute evidence for intelligent design or any other explanation for the diversity of life.  For ID to unseat evolutionary theory and be accepted as a scientific explanation for the diversity of life, it must prove that it fits the current evidence better than the current theory (evolution) through experimentation.  This is unlikely to happen because ID is not scientifically testable.  So instead of heading to the laboratory, intelligent design proponents like those behind Uncommon Descent scour the literature for anything they think weakens the theory of evolution (see: horizontal gene transfer).  And they wonder why no one in the scientific community takes their ideas seriously.

*The agenda of Uncommon Descent is further illustrated by this post from January of this year (and subsequently debunked here, here, and here) in which they argue the exact same point.  I know.  ID proponents recycling old, disproved arguments.  I’m just as shocked as you are.


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One Response to “More Of The Same From The Intelligent Design Camp”

  1. P.E.T Says:

    Thanks for the necessary and informative post. It truly is unbelievable what these ideologues latch onto. I have access to a wide variety of articles, including Nature. Email me separately and I can send you pdfs if you’d like.


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