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

In blog posts and podcasts, Dr. Michael Egnor swings and misses

I was going to try to be a good boy. Really, I was. I had been planning on answering a question about the early detection of tumors. It was an opportune time to do so, given the recent news of cancer recurrence in Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow, coupled with a couple of papers I saw just yesterday and the announcement of new screening guidelines for breast MRI. However, I was finding that writing the piece would be fairly complex (because it’s a complex topic) and that it might even require a multi-post approach. There was no way to do it justice today; doing it over the weekend would make a lot more sense. But that left a hole in the batting line-up for today.

Sadly, an old nemesis stepped right up to fill it.

When last I mentioned the Discovery Institute’s latest acquisition in its Division of Physicians Pontificating Ignorantly About Evolution (PPIAE), Dr. Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I really did intend to leave it alone for a while. After all, he’s the Energizer Bunny of Anti-Evolution, and I didn’t want to let him dictate the agenda of my blog, no matter how much his misstatements and willful ignorance about evolution might annoy the heck out of me and embarrass me as a fellow surgeon. But then he would have to go and answer my challenge to back up his claim that the “design inference” of “intelligent design” contributed to medicine and medical research.

Well, sort of, anyway.

Of course, before making his truly lame attempt to show that the “design inference” has been such a boon to medical research, he can’t resist first serving up some serious misinformation:

He played an important role in classical genetics, in a negative way. In 1865, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel presented a scientific paper called ‘Experiments in Plant Hybridization’ at meeting of the Natural History Society of Brno in Moravia. Fr. Mendel found a remarkable pattern of inheritance in experiments on plants in his garden in his monastery. The experiments suggested that heritable factors were, in some cases, particulate, could remain hidden for generations, and sorted according to simple mathematical rules. According to contemporary records, his paper was ignored, and discussion at the meeting swirled around Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. Mendel’s seminal work, the basis for classical genetics, was buried for the rest of the 19th century under a Darwinian frenzy.

PZ‘s already dealt with this pseudohistory, explaining why it is a fallacy to claim that Darwin’s theory impeded research into genetics or “buried” Mendel’s work in anyway. Really, Dr. Egnor is spewing history so wrong that even a Holocaust denier would be reluctant to state something so easily debunked. (And, no, I am not calling Dr. Egnor a Holocaust denier, a racist, or an anti-Semite, or anything of the sort. I’m merely pointing out that he’s using the same sort of pseudohistorical “revisionism,” twisting history to suit his own ideology and apparent hatred of all that Darwin stands for in his mind. However, just you watch. If he responds to this, he’ll latch on to that comparison, focusing on it like a laser to claim that I called him a Holocaust denier.) However, while PZ saw Dr. Egnor defaming history in his post, what I saw was him trying to answer my challenge to answer how the design inference has been such a boon to biomedical research and falling flat on his face doing so. I have no idea whether he’s answer me specifically or the areas where PZ’s complaints have overlapped mine, and I really don’t care that much. I just find it amusing (but distressing at the same time) how much Dr. Egnor has to contort history to try to do it:

Darwin’s role in the emergence of molecular genetics was negative, as well. Molecular geneticists worked implicitly from an inference to design, using the principles of reverse engineering applied to biology. The genetic code was translated, and read, like a language. Darwin’s assertion that the raw material for biological complexity is “randomness” was anti-heuristic. It was the inference to design, not the inference to randomness, that led to the understanding and translation of the genetic code. Darwin never predicted, in his theory of chance and necessity, a language at the core of life. The understanding of the genetic code was the direct result of the inference to design in biology.

Former Vice President Al Gore famously claimed to have invented the Internet because years ago he was in the Senate and sponsored a bill. The assertion that Charles Darwin’s theory was indispensable to classical and molecular genetics is a claim of an even lower order. Darwin’s theory impeded the recognition of Mendel’s discovery for a third of a century, and Darwin’s assertion that random variation was the raw material for biological complexity was of no help in decoding the genetic language of DNA. The single incontrovertible Darwinian contribution to the field of medical genetics was eugenics, which is the Darwinian theory that humans can be bred for social and character traits, like animals. The field of medical genetics is still recovering from eugneics, which was Darwin’s only gift to medicine.

One more time, even I, who don’t particularly like Al Gore, realize that the claim that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet is an exaggeration of an off-the-cuff misstatement that Gore made several years ago. More importantly, Dr. Egnor’s assertion that “Molecular geneticists worked implicitly from an inference to design, using the principles of reverse engineering applied to biology” is a load of fetid Dingo’s kidneys, plain and simple. All of science operates from the implicit assumption that there is order in the universe, that nature behaves according to laws that we as scientists can elucidate. That is the only assumption that Watson and Crick (and every other molecular biologist whose combined work unlocked the mystery that was the genetic code in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s) operated from. There’s no assumption of “design” needed, just an assumption that there is a mechanism by which biological information is inherited that can be worked out with the proper experiments. As for Dr. Egnor’s claim that the “language” of the genetic code is slam-dunk evidence for design, well, I’ve dealt with that one before. Basically he’s anthropomorphizing the genetic code. The reason the genetic code appears to be a “language” is because that’s how humans brains can best understand it. It is our concept that we impose on the chemical reactions that are at the heart of the genetic code. It’s a metaphor. When you boil it all down, Dr. Egnor seems to equate “order” with “designed” and from that implicit assumption he sees a human metaphor to make sense of the genetic code as being a real language, which must be “designed.” Never mind that languages evolve, often haphazardly.

In actuality, the discovery of DNA as the molecule that encodes genetic information and the genetic code by which that information is encoded were exactly what was needed to explain exactly how natural selection could work. Without the knowledge of how discrete alleles can code for proteins that lead to different phenotypes, evolution by natural selection leaves a very deep mystery: What is the unit of information upon which natural selection works? Genetics and the genetic code answered that question. Moreover, the more we learn about genetics and the newer science of genomics, which looks at genome-wide gene expression and differences in thousands of genes at once, the more genetics supports the theory of evolution. Evolutionary pathways can now not only be mapped through the phenotype of various creatures as they change through time and generations, but these pathways can also be recapitulated by studying the changes in genes over the same time. The beautiful thing is, in most cases, evolutionary genetics recapitulates evolutionary processes as mapped out the old-fashioned way. When a theory is confirmed so elegantly through an entirely new science that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time, it’s hard to come up with more convincing evidence of the validity of that theory. Dr. Egnor seems to lack the ability to think across disciplines; therefore, he can’t seem to grasp how many different lines of evidence converge from multiple different disciplines to support the theory of evolution. He sees bits of evidence only in isolation and is unable to integrate them.

Finally, one more time: Darwin was not a eugenicist, nor does “Darwinism” or, as it’s more properly called, the theory of evolution given that Darwin’s theory is nearly 150 years old, automatically imply eugenics, no matter how many times Dr. Egnor repeats that bit of historical revisionism. Actually, it’s not revisionism, because revisionism is a legitimate academic endeavor. In reality, it’s just plain old pseudohistory to go along with the heapin’ helpin’ of pseudoscience that Dr. Egnor is spreading. As I’ve pointed out before, eugenics was nothing more than selective breeding, something understood by farmers for centuries before Darwin and indeed one major line of evidence used by Darwin to support his theory. In fact, eugenics is nothing more than artificial, not natural, selection applied to humans, and, indeed, if anything, eugenics resembles “intelligent design” far more than it resembles natural selection.

Of course, it’s not enough for Dr. Egnor just to pontificate ignorantly on one aspect of evolution. He can’t resist revisiting the bête noir that made him infamous in the first place: the question of how biological complexity can come about through evolutionary processes. As before, he can’t resist making a fool of himself again in yet another podcast, where fawning ID lapdog Casey Luskin asked him about his encounter with Michael Lemonick of TIME Magazine. This time around, I’ve cut out a lot of the blather, but there’s still plenty of willful ignorance there:

Dr. Egnor: That’s the problem with this debate is that it [the question of how biological complexity arose] is a question that only the intelligent design people are asking. The Darwinists aren’t asking it. And there could be two reasons why they wouldn’t ask it. One reason would be that they have the answer for it already, and so why bother to waste the time. The other reason would be that they don’t have the answer for it, and they know that trying to answer it would greatly undermine their theory, in which case it would make sense from their perspective to try to hush it up. So what I did was I gave them the opportunity to answer it, if they have the answer. And they haven’t answered. There’s been a tremendous amount of activity on the blogs regarding this question, but there has been no meaningful answer to that question. It would be as if one asked the scientists who are proposing cold fusion and just asked them how much energy their experiment generated, and they call you names for asking the question, they say it doesn’t matter, and they say who cares and say that only a skeptic of cold fusion would even ask the question. You come away from that saying, well, there must be something really wrong with cold fusion, and, if a Darwinist can’t answer that very simple question, how much biological complexity, measured in any way you wish, information content, whatever, but it has to be meaningful for living things, how much information can your mechanism actually generate per generation per organism. The fact is, they can’t answer it, and the fact is, they don’t even know how to ask the question. So how can their theory be a fact if they don’t even know how to ask the fundamental question on which their theory hinges?

Is your jaw on the floor? Please pick it up. Yes, Dr. Egnor is totally serious when he says that ID proponents are the “only ones” who are asking the question of how biological complexity arose. I guess all those thousands of evolutionary biologists out there studying that very question are just farting around and wasting their time. He’s also dead serious when he compares evolution (excuse me, Darwinism–spit out through clenched teeth with a sneer on his face, no doubt) to cold fusion. It’s a massive straw man argument of course. “Darwinists” aren’t telling him that it’s not an important question. It’s just that it’s a much more complex question that Dr. Egnor seems to understand. Also, Dr. Egnor has conveniently given himself an out. Time and time again, he refers to “meaningful” or “biologically meaningful” information. Who decides what’s “meaningful” biological information for purposes of Dr. Egnor’s questions to “Darwinists”? Apparently Dr. Egnor does. As Mark points out, he’s asking a meaningless question, because he (and Casey) does not accept standard measures of biological information such as Shannon theory and won’t define “information” in such a way that it can be quantified. He also seems to think that he really trumped P.Z. Myers, that is, after Casey Luskin interjected himself to kiss Dr. Egnor’s posterior some more. After taking some effort to detach Luskin’s lips from his behind, Dr. Egnor opined:

Egnor: Well, I went to his blog and I asked him, as one scientist to another scientist, let’s just be honest here. Tell me how much information you can produce, and if you can’t that’s OK but let’s talk about it. What PZ did was he just went to PubMed…and he just typed in some random things. He just typed in “gene duplication evolution,” or something like that, and he got back 2,000 different papers over the past several years. And he said, “There’s your answer.” And I reminded him that I didn’t ask how many references you can get when you type “gene duplication evolution” into PubMed, I asked how much biologically relevant information you can get. So I tried it. And I went to PubMed. I actually don’t do my science by just typing things into PubMed and counting the references that I get. I think about what I do. But I went and typed in “random information complexity E. coli”…and I got back three references, not 2,000, and the three references had nothing to do with the actual question that I was asking. So what he was doing was frankly what I think the Darwinists have been doing a long time, and I call it citation chaff. You know, chaff was stuff that pilots would throw into the air during World War II to confuse radar so that the enemy couldn’t see what was going on. And what Darwinists do is cite all kinds of papers, none of which actually address the question being asked and they assume that the person will be so overwhelmed in trying to answer these irrelevant papers that they’ll go away. And so I pointed that out to PZ.

No, PZ described why the papers were relevant and explained one paper in particular as an example of how new information arises from gene duplication followed by natural selection acting on the duplicated gene. It was utterly lost on Dr. Egnor:

Egnor: Well, in response to my question, PZ cited these 2,000 papers, but he mentioned one paper that he thought had relevance to my question, and the paper was noting that it was possible for an organism to develop a slightly different biological function by duplicating a gene, by copying a gene, by making two copies instead of one copy. And I pointed out to PZ was that my question was about new biological information, that organisms didn’t just arise by copying themselves because they would have had to have something meaningful to start with, and what I said was: If you really think that just copying something really leads to significant new information, how can you discipline students in your class who commit plagiarism? A student has copied another student’s paper. Is that like a new paper? And the student could use your argument as a way of getting out of an accusation of plagiarism.

After a little more attention to his behind by the ever brown-nosing Casey Luskin, Dr. Egnor dug himself in deeper:

Egnor: It’s the same thing as going to a bookstore and seeing that there are 20 copies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the shelves in the bookstore and, if you’re an evolutionary biologist, you would arrive at the conclusion that that’s how Hamlet was written, that it was just copied over and over again, until you had the play, from nothing. What ID people are saying is that we want to know where the biological complexity, the astonishing evidence for design, came from originally. We have no problem with the fact that some organisms make copies, but where did it come from? Who wrote it? That’s our question. I also pointed out to PZ would my question make any more sense if I just typed it twice? So I typed the question twice and asked did you see my question in a new way?

Even in a podcast, Dr. Egnor’s satisfaction with himself for having come up with what he obviously thinks to be an enormously clever rebuttal to the concept that gene duplication can lead to an increase in biological information through evolutionary mechanisms shines through. Yes, Dr. Egnor is well-pleased with his little analogy. Too bad it’s yet another swipe at a huge straw man. The reason gene duplication can result in new information is because the genes don’t stay the same after the duplication occurs. That’s right. The gene sequences start to diverge under selective pressures. After many generations, the duplicated gene can have acquired a different function, which, by any measure you want to use, is new biological information. It’s not that difficult a concept to grasp; yet Dr. Egnor seems utterly incapable of comprehending it. It’s also a process for which there are many examples in biology.

Finally, Dr. Egnor thinks that we “Darwinists” are ungrateful because we don’t appreciate the misinformation and pseudoscientific distortions of reality that ID creationists such as Dr. Egnor routinely dish up and sometimes get a little testy about having to answer the same misinformation again and again:

Egnor: …I’ve been in debates with other scientists about these issues [his brain research]. And the first thing that I’ve noticed is that scientists who are honest, who genuinely want to find the truth, are delighted when someone questions their theory. The reason is that it allows you to talk about your theory. It focuses attention on it. From a strictly practical standpoint the worst thing that can happen to a person’s theory is for it to be ignored. So, right now we are raising questions about Darwinism that have enormously raised the visibility of Darwinism. The Darwinists should be very happy. PZ Myers’ website depends on this debate. Why would he resent people asking the questions that are what give rise to the popularity of his website? What I found in my own life in science is that when people are angry when you question the science they’re doing, it’s often because they see the fundamental weakness in their own theory and they deeply resent what you’re doing. People who are confident of their own theories, who believe in what they’re doing, are delighted to have people ask questions, delighted to talk about it, and generally they treat interlocaturs with a lot of courtesy, because in a way a person who’s asking about your theory is doing you a favor. He’s giving you a chance to talk about it. So if a Darwinist approaches me and asks me politely about intelligent design, I’m delighted to talk about it.

Got that? By contrast, “Darwinists” are not “honest” and don’t “genuinely want to find the truth.” Dr. Egnor once more has to pause to detach Luskin’s lips from his posterior once again, slightly annoyed. Then he continues:

Egnor: The questions that intelligent design scientists are asking of Darwinists are the kinds of questions that a Darwinist could spend a very productive career answering. The simple question of how much biologically relevant information can be generated by a Darwinian process is a question that teams of Darwinists could spend long, highly productive scientific careers answering. And if I were a Darwinist, I would be delighted that someone asked a question like that, because it gives me work to do, because it gives me an opportunity to really prove my theory, and the last thing I do is insult the guy that asked the question. With the Darwinists, the only thing they do is insult the guy that asked the question. You gotta wonder how much confidence do they have in their own theory?

You heard it right. Dr. Egnor thinks that we “Darwinists” should be grateful for the “questions” that Dr. Egnor and his merry band of antievolutionists are “asking.” Somehow, I bet that Dr. Egnor would be far less receptive to “questions” and “challenges” about his own research if the “questions” involve the same errors repeated again and again and again, if he had corrected these errors many, many times before, and if the questioner keeps using the same strawmen, the same logical fallacies, and spouting the same easily-debunked misinformation and, yes, sometimes even outright lies. Yes, in that case, somehow I doubt that Dr. Egnor would be so sanguine about the criticism. One can be patient for only so long in the face of such willful ignorance so zealously defended against any intrusion by data or science. I’ve tried it. Many others have tried it. Some are better at remaining even-tempered in the face of mendacity than others. It would be a much different matter if ID proponents actually showed the least bit of insight into the biology behind the “questions” they asked, bothered to study and understand the scientific literature, or didn’t keep repeating the same basic errors even after corrected time and time again by many different people.

But they don’t, and they won’t. Meanwhile, Dr. Egnor’s bloviations play well to his sycophant cheering section.

Actually, considering Dr. Egnor’s response, I’m a bit disappointed that he didn’t single me out for any special mention. After all, I’ve repeatedly challenged him to explain how the design inference is “of great value” in medicine and how the design inference has been of “enormous help in scientific research in general and medical research.” I don’t think that he was specifically answering me when he made the fallacious claim that the design inference was so useful in deciphering the genetic code. If he was, his attempt was truly lame. Perhaps I’m not nasty enough to merit a response.

In any case, it’s too bad he won’t do me the favor of actually living up to his statement that he’s “delighted” when people question his theory and that he loves to talk about it when questions. Indeed, it’s ironic that he chooses not to, given that I’m probably among the least–shall we say?–vociferous of Egnor’s critics. Yet, instead of addressing my very reasonable challenge to his assertions about the role of ID in medicine and medical research, in which I have repeatedly asked that he provide some concrete examples supported by the peer-reviewed scientific literature that demonstrate that the design inference is of “great value” to medicine and biomedical research, Dr. Egnor has instead chosen to complain long and loud about those who are the most insulting to him.

I wonder why that is.

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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