Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Medicine Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking Surgery

Just when I thought I could put the paper bag away…

…That all around evolution-ignorant but nonetheless eager lapdog of the Discovery Institute, SUNY Stonybrook Professor of Neurosurgery Dr. Michael Egnor, is back.

Rats. I thought that the utter drubbing he took at the hands of myself and my fellow ScienceBloggers (in particular PZ Myers) might have given him the message that he needs to lay low for a while. Apparently not. I guess he must have the monumental ego that more than a few neurosurgeons are famous for. (After all, it takes supreme confidence in one’s own abilities to be able to cut into the human brain and believe that the patient will come out OK.) It’s not enough this time for him to show up in the comments of PZ’s blog to make a fool of himself and embarrass scientific surgeons everywhere. This time around, he’s appearing on the Discovery Institute podcast, to be interviewed by fellow DI lapdog and sometimes attack poodle Casey Luskin in a a truly nauseating lovefest entitled, One Doctor’s Journey to Becoming a Darwin Doubter:

On this episode of ID The Future Dr. Michael Egnor, professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, tells his story of how he became a full-blown skeptic of Darwinian evolution. Dr. Egnor explains how he originally had internal doubt about the ability of Darwinism to produce new biological information. These doubts were then brought directly to the surface when he read books by leading ID-theorists like William Dembski and Michael Behe.

You know I just had to listen to this, particularly since it’s only around 10 minutes long. I’ll provide translations of some of Dr. Egnor’s more annoying statements (below the fold, of course).

The interview starts out with the cheerily irritating Casey Luskin fawning over Dr. Egnor as a “very distinguished guest” and an “award-winning surgeon.” The other thing that is truly grating is that neither Luskin nor Egnor ever seems to use the word “evolution” much. They both use the term “Darwinism” and refer to “Darwin” again and again in such an obviously intentional way that it’s truly jarring to hear it. (Really. Listen to the podcast to experience it. They practically spit out the term “Darwinism” as they use it as frequently as they can, rarely even mentioning the word evolution.) It’s the typical creationist tactic of trying to denigrate evolutionary theory as ideology by attaching an eponym to it, like Marxism or Leninism. Perhaps we need to start referring to ID creationism as “Beheism” or “Dembskiism” whenever possible.

But I digress. Back to the business at hand. Luskin first asks: How does a brain surgeon become a “Darwin skeptic” and was Egnor originally a “Darwinist”? After pointing out that he had majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate and that he had always been interested in science, Dr. Egnor answers by giving a description that is nothing more than one glaringly obvious argument from personal incredulity. If you boil down Dr. Egnor’s objections to “Darwinism” to their essence, they state that just because he can’t understand how evolution could result in so much complexity, then evolution must not be true. Really, that’s all there is to it under all the pseudoscientific and pseudomathematical handwaving.

Some quotes from Dr. Egnor:

Learning about biochemistry and learning about molecular biology, I found some aspects of it quite unsatisfying in a sense that there was so much astonishing complexity, so much beauty in the way life worked at the molecular level that I couldn’t understand how it came to be. At the time, although I didn’t question Darwinism explicitly because I didn’t realize how much evidence there was to support questioning Darwinism, I felt that there was something really missing in my understanding of biological complexity. But I didn’t think a whole lot about it and went on to practice neurosurgery and do my own research.

Translation: Because I can’t understand how evolution might produce the astounding complexity of life, I decided that evolution must be false. If I can’t understand it it must not be true.

The only thing that Dr. Egnor said that I can’t argue with is that something was (and is) really missing from his understanding of biological complexity. More Egnor silliness soon follows:

As time went on, I came to seriously question whether just randomness, just random meaningless events, could really generate the kind of beauty and elegance and complexity that’s at the core of living things.

Ah, yes, the old “randomness” = “meaninglessness” canard. So far, Egnor’s batting 1.000 for parroting creationist fallacies. Also, why limit himself to just living things and evolution? What about stars, galaxies and supernovae? Aren’t those astonishingly beautiful, too? In particular, though, to Egnor the genetic code is a real problem:

What troubled me about my attempt to understand where the complexity and the elegance of life came from was a difficulty in seeing how, for example, the genetic code could arise by chance. It seemed to me preposterous to assume that a representation of an informational code, which is really a language, with letters and words and syntax and punctuation, could arise by random events, no matter how many random events, or no matter what kind of selection pressure you offered. We have no experience in nature whatsoever with representational codes or languages except in biology, and the only experience we have in our lives is with such languages that are intelligently designed by people.

Talk about anthropomorphizing the genetic code! The only reason the genetic code appears to be a “representational language” is because humans brains can best understand it that way. It is our concept that we impose on the chemical reactions that are at the heart of the genetic code. It’s a metaphor. Of course, Egnor neglects to mention that the “information” and “representational codes” in the genetic code are rather wasteful and redundant. Why would an “intelligent designer” (a.k.a. God) make the actual proportion of DNA in the genome that codes for protein so small and the noncoding regions so large? What “informational purpose” do introns serve? Why are they present only in eucaryotes and not in procaryotes like bacteria? It all seems like a rather cobbled-together “language.” Wouldn’t an “intelligent designer” come up with something less haphazard?

Of course, perhaps the biggest howler of all from Dr. Egnor is this:

The difficulty was that I didn’t realize that a very powerful scientific case can be made that these aspects of living things are not random, and it wasn’t until I read the work of Michael Behe or Bill Dembski and Phillip Johnson that I came to see that the qualms that I had, the suspicions that I had, about the adequecy of Darwinism to explain biological complexity had a very sound scientific basis. In fact, in my view, th science that Behe and Dembski and Johnson were talking about was much better science thatn the Darwinism that I had been taught.

Huh? Behe, Johnson, and Dembski don’t do any actual science! All they do is voice their same fallacious “objections” to evolution and then expect people to accept ID as a valid alternative based on their “skepticism.” What experiments have they done to demonstrate that “intelligent design” might be a valid scientific hypothesis worthy of challenging the Theory of Evolution for dominance as the theory explaining the diversity of life? None. Zero. Zip. Nada. Scientists do science, and they do it by doing some form of experimentation, observations, or original investigation, after which they formulate hypotheses that make predictions based on their observations and then go back to repeat the cycle of experimentation and observations to test their hypotheses. None of these luminaries of the ID movement has done any such thing. Heck, Johnson, for one, is a lawyer, not a scientist, and seems to base his “skepticism” of “Darwinism” on legal-sounding sophistry more than anything else.

Here are some of the “questions” that Egnor has:

What struck me as astonishing in looking at the work of Bill Dembski and Phil Johnson and Michael Behe…is that if you look objectively at the genetic code, at much of modern molecular biology, you see a specified complexity that is really in some way the semantics of meaning in, for example, the genetic code, that the gene that codes for an enzyme doesn’t itself do what the enzyme does. It doesn’t catalyze a reaction. It simply has a meaning that is translated into the enzyme that catalyzes the reaction. How can one generate by random processes, regardless of what kind of selection pressure you have, because all selection pressure has been historically nonintelligent. It gets colder, it gets warmer, a boulder falls on an animal, something happens, but it’s not intelligently caused. But such selection pressure, how can that generate meaning? How can that generate a code, a language? And those questions are very good scientific questions. They’re the kinds of questions that Darwinists should have asked in the 1950’s immediately after the genetic code was revealed. It’s the kind of thing that should have stopped Darwinism in its tracks.

Actually, the full genetic code wasn’t elucidated until the early 1960’s. Indeed, I’m teaching a class in which one of the papers the students have to read is the famous 1961 Crick Nature paper (Nature 192;1227-1232, 1961, actually), in which Crick used an elegant series of bacteriophage crosses to demonstrate that the code was almost certainly a triplet, not a doublet code, although pointing out that his work did not rule out a six “letter” code. By the end of 1961 all that was known was that the genetic code was triplet and that the UUU RNA codon coded for the amino acid phenylalanine. But that’s relatively minor quibbling that’s fun to take Dr. Egnor to task for, given how much he seems to pride himself on his scientific knowledge, but ultimately not enough. The real problem is that Dr. Egnor is once again in essence defining terms to suit his personal incredulity. Because DNA stores the necessary information to synthesize the enzymes that do the chemical work that life requires, Egnor seems to be baffled that such a process could evolve without the input of intelligence. Of course, he never actually cites any evidence that his view is so. He simply believes it and asserts it as being so:

It’s one thing to propose that animals might get longer fur if the weather turns colder because of natural selection. You know, it’s a perfectly reasonable inference. You might infer that bacteria that had mutations that in some accidental way prevented them from being killed by antibiotics might have evolved resistance to antibiotics. Those are all plausible. I’m not so sure they’re so well proven, but they’re plausible. The question as to how you got a representational language, molecules that actually have semantics, that have meaning, that actually gave rise to life, and the question as to how you could achieve that by random processes is a very good scientific question, and it’s a question that should have been asked if Darwinists had been objective about their work. Immediately when the genetic code was discovered. Instead, all they did was that they made the same sort of facile assumptions that they had been making about all kinds of evolution and simply applied the same sort of “just so” stories to molecular evolution. And I think that finally good scientists are starting to come around and say, “Wait a minute. There’s been a serious mistake in terms of understanding this process. We need to go back and look at it again.”

I’ll agree that how the genetic code evolved is indeed a very good scientific question, but it is a question that in no way poses a threat to current evolutionary theory or requires the postulation of some sort of intelligence to explain. Indeed, it’s a hot topic of research for evolutionary biologists, with computer simulations evaluating the plausibility of various explanations and competing hypotheses being tested scientifically. If you search PubMed, you’ll find over 5,000 articles about or touching on the evolution of the genetic code, and PubMed doesn’t even index many evolutionary biology journals in which such articles would be expected to appear. Indeed, there was a rather interesting paper in PNAS in November about how the universal genetic code may have emerged as determined by studying of transfer RNAs. It also seems to me that Egnor also sounds almost Lamarckian in the way he describes how animals evolve thicker coats in response to cold climate. He also seems not to have considered that the very fact that the genetic code is very nearly universal for all organisms can also be viewed as supporting evolution. If the development of the genetic code appeared very early in the history of life, that would go a long way towards explaining why nearly all life, from bacteria to humans, uses the same code, and even the variants of the genetic code that exist are minor.

Not surprisingly, basically all Dr. Egnor’s “critique” of “Darwinism” boils down to is his personal incredulity that biological complexity could ever possibly have evolved from more simple elements without the input of intelligence, his anthropomorphizing the genetic code, and his concluding that, because the genetic code functions like a human language and because human language is created only by the “intelligent design” of humans, then the genetic code must have been intelligently designed. That’s it. No data supporting his position, just his “doubts.” His propensity to equate “randomness” with “meaninglessness” also strongly suggests the religious, not scientific, roots of Egnor’s “skepticism” about “Darwinism.”

This is all of a piece with Dr. Egnor’s previous self-embarrassment on Pharygula and elsewhere. Mark has dismantled Egnor’s pontifications about the fuzziness with which Dr. Egnor equates “information” with complexity, basically doing it in such a way that does not force him to define exactly what he means by “information.” Now that I think about it, I wonder if the drubbing that he took at Mark‘s, PZ‘s, and Mike‘s hands over his abuse of information theory in the service of ID creationism is what led him to start blathering about the “language” of the genetic code instead of how, in his mind, evolution supposedly cannot result in the generation of “new information.” He’s simply deemphasized the term “information” and instead substituted “representational codes” or “language with syntax and punctuation,” but he’s basically talking about the same thing. It’s his same old wine (or should I say “whine”?) in a new bottle, and the wine is, alas, still vinegar. Once again, I really hope that Dr. Egnor shows more intellectual curiosity and diligence in reading the neurosurgery literature than he does in educating himself about evolutionary theory. I really do.

The depressing thing is that at the end of the podcast, Luskin eagerly chirps that Dr. Egnor will be returning to voice his specific criticisms of “Darwinism” and thus embarrass scientific surgeons everywhere yet again with his self-confident ignorance. It looks as though I won’t be getting that paper bag to hide my shame off my head any time soon, as it looks as though Dr. Egnor will keep spouting his ignorance about evolution for the foreseeable future. (No doubt at some point he’ll spout his misunderstanding of the history of eugenics as being almost entirely attributable “Darwinism” as well. It’s only a matter of time.) I guess I’ll just have to learn to live with Dr. Egnor’s embarrassing antics. I think I can manage, though, as long as I get to fisk his parroting of long-discredited “intelligent design” creationist fallacies in my usual inimitable fashion from time to time.

After all, sometimes a guy’s just got to take out his frustrations on something.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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