Monday, 6 July 2015

When scientific competence meets YEC incompetence...

While the recent influx of militant anti-evolutionists into the Science and Scripture Facebook page has seen some of them use somewhat intemperate rhetoric, there has also been examples of posters showing both profound ignorance of evolutionary biology, and a complete lack of insight into that fact. Both are poor publicity for our community in their own way; the former for reasons outlined in my last post, the latter because it gives the impression that anti-intellectualism, science denialism, and fundamentalism are rampant in our community, and positively shouts to anyone interested in the gospel message who also respects science that they will not be welcome.

In response to this Science and Scripture post in which the respected philosopher Michael Ruse pointed out that creation science has none of the characteristics of good science, one evolution denialist made the following assertion:
Nathanael John Stock "Real science" doesn't include evolution.
Needless to say, that is a remarkably uninformed statement to make given that evolution has considerable explanatory and predictive power, all the hallmarks of an excellent theory. The respected cell biologist and Christian Kenneth Miller puts it well:
I don't think there are basic “gaps” in the theory of evolution, which has proven to be a remarkably flexible scientific framework, brilliantly accommodating new data and even new fields of science, like molecular genetics. [1]
The literature is replete with examples of evolution's explanatory and predictive power, but one of my favourites is a 2009 paper that predicted -  based on the concept of common descent - that mammals with either no teeth or enamel-free teeth, having descended from toothed ancestors, would have inherited those genes, but given that they were no longer needed, would pick up mutations:
Enamel is the hardest substance in the vertebrate body. One of the key proteins involved in enamel formation is enamelin. Most placental mammals have teeth that are capped with enamel, but there are also lineages without teeth (anteaters, pangolins, baleen whales) or with enamelless teeth (armadillos, sloths, aardvarks, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales). All toothless and enamelless mammals are descended from ancestral forms that possessed teeth with enamel. 
Given this ancestry, we predicted that mammalian species without teeth or with teeth that lack enamel would have copies of the gene that codes for the enamelin protein, but that the enamelin gene in these species would contain mutations that render it a nonfunctional pseudogene. To test this hypothesis, we sequenced most of the protein-coding region of the enamelin gene in all groups of placental mammals that lack teeth or have enamelless teeth. 
In every case, we discovered mutations in the enamelin gene that disrupt the proper reading frame that codes for the enamelin protein. Our results link evolutionary change at the molecular level to morphological change in the fossil record and also provide evidence for the enormous predictive power of Charles Darwin’s theory of descent with modification. [34] Emphasis and formatting mine
This was not an isolated statement by the anti-evolutionist who also made this statement elsewhere in the post:
Nathanael John Stock Mr S&S, you may be unaware... perhaps you have blinkers on, but real scientists regard macro-evolution and population genetics, etc. as pseudoscience. More philosophy than science.
For those such as myself whose profession (medicine) places me face to face with the reality of evolution just from the evidence from human anatomy, developmental biology, and human genetics, this statement clearly betrays that the author is at best poorly informed on the subject. Certainly, the fact of common descent is no longer in doubt among the overwhelming majority of life scientists, and has not been in doubt for well over a century, as evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory reminds us:
Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. [3] (Emphasis mine)
One could be forgiven for thinking that it is the evolution denialist making these posts who is blinkered, given the overwhelming evidence from molecular biology, palaeontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, developmental biology, and comparative genomics that confirm the reality of common descent. [4] 

Certainly, one highly respected scientist who was watching this exchange was quick to remind the evolution denialist of the magnitude of his error. Professor Tom McLeish, from the University of Durham, whose professional interests include soft condensed matter physics, biological physics, polymer molecular rheology, and the theology of science gently corrected the evolution denialist:
Tom McLeish Just a point of factual order. If 'Real Science' is that practices by qualified and experiences scientists in universities all over the world, publishing under strict peer review and open debate, sharing data and ideas, monitored by professional bodies such as the Royal Society of which I am a fellow, and comprising thousands of Christian believers in their number, yes macro evolution is indeed real science and taken as the current best evidenced paradigm.
This is what I mean by how evolution denialism makes us look like credulous fools. When a layperson with absolutely no professional background in evolutionary biology (in other words, someone who simply is not competent to comment on the subject) makes utterly nonsensical remarks such as 'evolution is not real science' or 'real scientists regard macro-evolution and population genetics as pseudoscience', and gets called out on it by someone who unlike him is a real scientist, it makes our community by implication look foolish.

One can only hope that such an exchange reminds evolution denialists in our community of the need to make sure they know what they are talking about before making comments which can so readily be refuted by those who unlike them actually know what they are talking about.

Postscript: Prof. McLeish has written an excellent book "Faith and Wisdom in Science" which definitely has much to offer the person who wishes to escape the the "dark cells of ignorance" of YEC.


1. "Evolution's Final Frontier" New Scientist (2009) 201:41-43

2. Meredith, R.W., Gatesy, J., Murphy, W.J., Ryder, O.A., and Springer, M.S. 2009. Molecular Decay of the Tooth Gene Enamelin (ENAM) Mirrors the Loss of Enamel in the Fossil Record of Placental Mammals. PLoS Genetics 5(9): e1000634.

3. Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52

4. Theobald, Douglas L. "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent." The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.89. 2012. Web. 6 Jul. 2012