Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Medicine Science Skepticism/critical thinking

Time for the metal mask again: The Egnorance that is ignorance returns, and Orac is not pleased

You may remember from yesterday that I wrote about a concerted propaganda effort by antivaccinationists to torture the facts and science behind a case of a girl with a rare mitochondrial disease whose condition may have been exacerbated by vaccination, resulting in an encephalopathy with some autism-like symptoms. Actually, I had had in mind an entirely different topic for yesterday, but news events drove me. Basically, I couldn’t stand all the B.S. I saw emanating from antivaccinationists on news broadcasts and radio, and I had to do my little part to counter it. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the original topic planned for yesterday could wait. Also fortunately (or unfortunately), it marks the return of an advocate for pseudoscience whom I hadn’t dealt with for a long time. True, Mike the Mad Biologist, Mike Dunford, Larry Moran, and Mark Chu-Carroll have all taken their shots, but given my history with this man in the blogosphere and given the profound embarrassment that he, as a fellow surgeon, causes me when he spouts off misinformation, misunderstandings, and stupidly specious attacks on the theory of evolution (or, as all antievolutionists like to personalize it, “Darwinism”), coupled with the profound stupidity of his post, I realize that a heapin’ helpin’ of Not-So-Respectful Insolence™ is definitely called for–nay, demanded!

Yes, everybody’s favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Egnor, is back. Who else could it be, but the Energizer Bunny of antievolution.

Conveniently enough, it just so happens that Dr. Egnor decided to defend Jonathan Wells’ brain dead attempt to deconstruct a story about antibiotic resistance, a story that, fortunately enough, I had already blogged about. Basically, it was a rather interesting study involving X-ray crystallography of two different forms of an enzyme responsible for multidrug resistance to multiple classes of antibiotics, acetyltransferase, one form before selection for resistance and one in the resistant bacteria. The investigators found that the protein from the resistant bacteria had acquired mutations that made the active site pocket of the enzyme more flexible and better able to accommodate different antibiotics. Wells claimed that evolution had “nothing to do” with this study and, even more risibly and desperately, argued that, because the study used X-ray crystallography it had no need of “Darwinism.” That provoked one of the actual investigators, Frederic Dardel, to post this comment after the post about this story on Panda’s Thumb:

As principal investigator of the study under discussion, I’d like to strongly support the view advocated this page. In fact, I was completely amazed to see how our work has been misrepresented by M. Wells.

Actually, we did indeed use darwinian evolution within this work (something unusual in structural biology). In order to obtain an enzyme with increased stability (a critical point for structural studies), we used selective pressure to obtain mutants of the enzyme. We selected for bateria with increased aminiglycoside resistance, by plating them on antibiotic containing medium. It turned out that some bacteria evolved such stabler enzymes variants which made this whole study possible !

Finally, I would not consider myself as a chemist, I got my PhD in molecular microbiology. It seems that M. Wells finds it easier to portray us as non-biologists, and hence implicitly as non-evolutionists.

Having been so thoroughly and utterly slapped down, not just by me or other bloggers, but by the principal investigator of the study that he so misrepresented, it was clear that Jonathan Wells needed help.

Enter everyone’s favorite antievolutionist neurosurgeon with an amazing talent for inserting his foot so deeply into his mouth about evolution that it requires removal from one of his otolaryngology colleagues. As always, Dr. Egnor was ever at the ready to try to provide tactical air support for his fellow antievolutionists. Unfortunately for Wells, in his arrogant incompetence Dr. Egnor’s support is more akin to friendly fire mowing down his own soldiers, with our merry antievolution propagandist shugging his shoulders like Alfred E. Neuman saying “What, me worry?” as he poured hot lead into his own favored cause of ID. His entire premise is based on the specious use of the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” selection:

There is another sense in which Darwinism is used in the debate about antibiotic resistance. Darwinists claim that ‘natural selection’– the observation in biology that survivors survive– is indispensible to medical research on antibiotic resistance. Of course, this mundane tautology is of no value to actual research (‘I didn’t make the breakthrough until I realized that the bacteria that survived exposure to the antibiotic were the survivors…’). Biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology and pharmacology do the heavy lifting in antibiotic research. Evolutionary biologists’ inference to ‘natural selection’ is highly superfluous to the actual work. The inference to natural selection is a rhetorical device, not a meaningful scientific heuristic.


Dr. Dardel is both candid and mistaken. His comment that the use of Darwin’s theory is “unusual in structural biology” is obviously true, and refreshingly candid. He is, however, mistaken about the application of Darwin’s theory to his recent work. His assertion that “…we selected bacteria…by plating…” is artificial selection, not natural selection. Artificial selection is breeding, in this case microbial breeding. The principles of breeding date back thousands of years, and owe nothing to Darwin. In fact, Darwin claimed that non-teleological processes in nature could produce changes in populations just as teleological processes like breeding could. Even Darwin didn’t claim that his theory explained the outcome of intentional breeding. It’s astonishing that a modern professional scientist like Dr. Dardel doesn’t recognize the difference between artificial selection and natural selection.

The only rhetorical device is Dr. Egnor’s. Truly, he has cranked the Stupid-O-Meter up to 11 and flipped all the switches on to the highest power level, the better to induce apoptosis (that’s programmed cell death) in as many neurons as possible possessed by anyone with an understanding of biology and evolution. He succeeded. (Every time I read one of his antievolution screeds, I worry that I may be becoming less intelligent.) As pretty much every blogger has noted, Dr. Egnor has, like Humpty-Dumpty, simply defined words so that they “mean just what he chooses it to mean, neither more nor less.” Basically, he’s redefined “artificial selection” to mean what he wants it to, to mean in essence any sort of selection done in a laboratory experiment. By defining artificial selection this way, Dr. Egnor clearly thinks that he can therefore reject any experiment having to do with selection in a laboratory as being “artificial,” not “natural” selection, and from that shaky rhetorical trick thus argue that the results can’t have relied upon or been informed by evolutionary considerations.

Now that’s some serious Egnorance!

Here’s the problem. As Mike the Mad Biologist pointed out over a year ago, what defines artificial selection is not that it occurs in the lab. What defines it is the intent of the person doing the selection. The person doing the selection defines what traits he wants to select for, what traits constitute “fitness” that will determine which organisms continue on to reproduce. In practice, it’s selective breeding for certain traits, as dog breeders and farmers have done for centuries. Moreover, even if Dr. Egnor’s little rhetorical trick had any real practical use in considering studies of evolution, even artificial selection in the lab would still be quite relevant to demonstrating the importance of the theory of evolution in understanding bacterial resistance. After all, Charles Darwin’s great insight that led to his theory was that he recognized that the same mechanism that was at work during artificial selection as practiced by farmers and dog breeders was also occurring in an undirected manner nature, and he dubbed that process “natural selection.” At the biological level, the two share the same mechanisms, as we came to understand in particular after the modern synthesis of Darwinian evolutionary theory and genetics that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the case of antibiotic resistance studies, this is even more true. Scientists expose bacteria to the antibiotics that are used to treat diseases and allow them to reproduce. Only the resistant bacteria can survive and, more importantly, proliferate in the presence of the antibiotic being tested. Scientists can then do exactly what Frederic Dardel did and study the genes involved in resistance to determine what mutations have led to what changes in protein function. Such studies allow the understanding of evolution at the genetic and molecular level, and evolutionary considerations are part and parcel of designing the experiments involved. They also allow the testing of hypotheses and the predictions that flow from them. Dardel and his colleagues hypothesized that multidrug resistance was due to mutations in the active site of a particular enzyme. They exposed bacteria to the relevant antibiotic and induced resistance. Their results? Mutations that led to changes in the active site of the protein that allowed it to accommodate a larger sidechain on an antibiotic was found. The experiment confirmed the prediction of evolution with regards to the bacteria and and enzyme known to be involved in resistance to the drugs being studied. Even better, consideration of evolution led to a potential strategy to minimize or block resistance based on the mutations in the resistant strain of bacteria. In the case of this experiment, not only was evolution important to formulating the hypothesis, but it led to results that suggested a strategy for drug design that could reverse this resistance.

It’s been so long since I’ve delved into the cesspit of bad science and logical fallacies that represent a typical post by Dr. Egnor. I had forgotten just how bad they are. I had even forgotten my reactions to many of Dr. Egnor’s big dripping turds of antiscience that caused me first to want to cover my face by wearing a paper bag over my head and then to make like Doctor Doom and have a metal mask forged to hide my face permanently, not wanting to admit that Dr. Egnor is a fellow surgeon.

It looks as though I have to go and find those Tibetan monks again. This time I really need that mask.

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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