Creationists should stay away from biology

I try to avoid the content Jack Hudson’s blog. He doesn’t write anything of value and he hasn’t any credentials in the areas that seem to be slightly interesting to him (namely biology), but I often poke over there to see if I can find any interesting bloggers in his comments. Unfortunately, this involves me skimming his posts. (After all, if he writes about a topic that doesn’t interest me, I may not be interested in whoever might comment on it.) And once in awhile, I fully read his shorter rants. Take a look at one his his recent examples:

Often when I argue that cells are infused with information driven molecular machinery and that this observation constitutes the basis for a readily falsifiable theory on why the cell is the product of the effort of a mind, opponents will accuse me of over-extending the use of the word ‘machine’. That is why I appreciate animations like the one below – it clearly depicts a molecular motor, that has been an integral part of cells since the beginning of life. It is clearly a mechanism composed of multiple integrated and highly interdependent parts that both convert energy into work, and provide the fuel on which the rest of the cell subsists.

The ATP synthase is definitely an information driven molecular machine, and the best explanation of its existence is that it was designed by a mind.

I can be brief here: biology is all about shape. Again and again, anyone who has studied the subject will quickly recognize that the only way anything gets done is through the interaction of molecules of the correct shape. The only exception is when we’re talking about ion gradients or something sufficiently similar where the cause of action is an electrochemical gradient (or, again, something sufficiently similar). And even then, shape is often still relevant in moving stuff from one place to another.

When it comes to ATP synthase, the basic idea is that a phosphate molecule binds to an ADP molecule and causes a conformational change. This isn’t information (which, incidentally, is a concept Jack has never been willing to define in scientifically coherent terms). It’s a change caused by certain molecules of a certain shape with certain properties, coming together to form a new shape with new properties. And if we back the train up a little bit, we’ll see that that is the case for the previous molecules, and the previous molecules to those, and the previous…and so on until we aren’t talking about much more than very basic chemical bonds.

Punching bags

Whenever creationists get hold of a legitimate scientific paper, I groan a little bit for at least two reasons. First, I know whatever they have to say, they’re going to mangle the science. We saw that with Jack Hudson last year (and, actually on literally every post about science he has ever made). And, of course, we also saw that with all the other creationist sites from which Jack stole his material. Second, I know I’m going to have to devote some time to reading and blogging on a paper I would have otherwise missed. It isn’t that I don’t like to read these things – I do. The problem is that it’s a time-suck when the blogging is factored in. You see, unlike creationists I actually research and verify what I have to say on any given piece of science.

Let’s start with the paper in question:

Here we report exceptionally preserved fossil eyes from the Early Cambrian (~515 million years ago) Emu Bay Shale of South Australia, revealing that some of the earliest arthropods possessed highly advanced compound eyes, each with over 3,000 large ommatidial lenses and a specialized ‘bright zone’. These are the oldest non-biomineralized eyes known in such detail, with preservation quality exceeding that found in the Burgess Shale and Chengjiang deposits. Non-biomineralized eyes of similar complexity are otherwise unknown until about 85 million years later6, 7. The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event8.

The gist of the find is this. Researchers discovered very old fossils of arthropod eyes from the Early Cambrian. They do not predate complex eyes, but they do predate similar non-biomineralized eyes. That is, trilobite eyes are made of calcite, meaning the trilobites produce the minerals for their eyes themselves. In turn, their eyes are hardened (and thus more easily fossilized). So these new fossils show a different way in which eyes could become complex. Furthermore, they showed a tight packing in the lenses, much in the way that a fly’s lenses appear to be tightly packed. They also were curved to form binocular vision, meaning there was a visual overlap in front of the body. This helps for judging distances and discerning complicated backgrounds. This creature was a predator.

But here is where creationists draw issue:

Did you catch that? If you were a high school student who trusted your teachers, you’d think they had evidence for this unbelievably rapid amount of highly complex change. But they merely assume that it evolved, so it “had” to have been a great evolutionary event and another example of “rapid innovation.” [And is thus a tautology.]

This comes from Neil who, like many creationists, was taking his cue from another site. He believes that every paper that mentions evolution must provide a detailed description of why evolution is true.

His quote was a reference to this excerpt from the paper:

[The new fossils] provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event.

What this is referencing is the fact that until now advanced eye fossils were almost exclusively restricted to trilobites in the fossil record. These new fossils give evidence that, as suspected, there were other marine creatures swimming around with complex eyes. Furthermore, they show a quantitative change in the number of lenses, not the sudden appearance of these sort of lenses. (But note that we can’t expect to see a perfect fossil record. We can get a good outline, but it’s silly and really very ignorant for creationists to demand to see every intermediate organism. At some point things will have to “suddenly” appear. Of course, this is in geological terms, i.e., over millions of years.) These eyes are evidence that evolution was driven in part by the anatomical changes in vision during the Cambrian.

So it is clear that none of this is a tautology. This fossil find is further evidence of the nature of evolution and the role vision played in its creation of arms races. What we see from the creationist world, however, is an immature understanding of the science. There is no doubt that Neil never bothered to read the paper from Nature, nor have many of his creationist brethren. If any of these sort of non-academics bothered to look into the literature (or even take formal courses), they would see their obvious errors. Further, even if we are to understand this paper as Neil purports it to be, he’s still in error. That is, he believes the paper is a tautology because it assumes evolution without giving evidence for why evolution is true. This is like drawing issue with physics papers because they assume gravity is true without explaining general relativity. It’s a silly complaint to make and it only demonstrates how wildly over the head of creationists most scientific papers are.

Butchering science

Creationists hate science. They hate its conclusions, they hate its methods, they hate that it doesn’t support their silly beliefs. It’s that hatred that motivates them to butcher scientific articles and papers.

One recent butchering comes from Jack Hudson. I’m sure regulars here remember him. If not, it isn’t important. He’s a creationist with a background in introductory biology courses from 20 years ago. It’s doubtful he has much experience reading scientific papers, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

In his post he butchers two articles. I’m going to focus on the first one, but I’ll briefly mention the second one. In that one researchers found that some negative mutations don’t change the protein sequence yet they are still negative. This one is simple. The entire sequence of a gene is not devoted to just the protein sequence. A mutation can therefore change one aspect of a gene without changing another – but it can still change another process that is important in forming proteins. Alter shape in one place and you have a good chance of seeing change somewhere else as a result. Biology is still all about shape.

The second paper, though. Woo. What a doozy of a butchering. First let me summarize the paper.

In asexual populations alleles can become fixed rather quickly. Their evolution is more straight forward because they aren’t mixing and matching genes. They produce offspring with the exact same genome, less there be a mutation. If there is a mutation, it can become fixed because things are generally less complicated with asexual populations and thus more black and white. Is this mutation good or bad? As the paper says and as Jack repeats upon hearing the term for the first time, alleles sweep through a population.

But when it comes to sexually reproducing populations, things become more complicated. And this is what the paper is about. The question is, do alleles sweep through populations in sexually reproducing populations like they do in asexual populations? The answer is no.

Now, if we’re to believe Jack, this means that evolution has failed because, why, evolution predicts an advantageous allele to reach 100% fixation, of course. Except it isn’t so black and white with sexually reproducing populations. (Nor does evolution predict that anyway.)

What the researchers did was study over 600 generations of fruit flies. They let them breed naturally, but then selected out the eggs which were produced the most quickly. This led to significantly faster reproducing populations. They then tracked specific alleles to see if they would become fixed. What they found was that they don’t.

Signatures of selection are qualitatively different than what has been observed in asexual species; in our sexual populations, adaptation is not associated with ‘classic’ sweeps whereby newly arising, unconditionally advantageous mutations become fixed. More parsimonious explanations include ‘incomplete’ sweep models, in which mutations have not had enough time to fix, and ‘soft’ sweep models, in which selection acts on pre-existing, common genetic variants. We conclude that, at least for life history characters such as development time, unconditionally advantageous alleles rarely arise, are associated with small net fitness gains or cannot fix because selection coefficients change over time.

The conclusion here is that selection for a particular trait in sexually reproducing populations acts upon many different aspects and genetic variants within the genome, not merely a single gene or SNP.

This suggests that selection does not readily expunge genetic variation in sexual populations, a finding which in turn should motivate efforts to discover why this is seemingly the case.

This is the actual conclusion of the paper. To put it another way (and to repeat myself), advantageous variants do not wipe out other genetic variants in a sexually reproducing population, instead acting on variation in a more subtle and complicated way. The big conclusion here is that there is a difference in how genes become fixed (or not fixed) in asexual populations versus sexually reproducing populations.

And Jack’s conclusion?

In short, if the activity failed to occur in the lab under optimal conditions, it is unlikely that traits are going to be transmitted this way in nature.

The traits are still being transmitted through natural selection working on variation. Jack’s conclusion has little to no connection to anything from the paper. In fact, it is abundantly clear that he read an article somewhere, figured out how to butcher it, and then went and read a few lines from the original paper.

I’ve said in the past that what takes a creationist 30 seconds to say takes an educated person 3 hours to correct. This post and the research required for it didn’t take that long, but the sentiment remains true – it’s a real hassle to untangle the carelessly mushed writings of a creationist.