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

Where’s that Doctor Doom mask again?

As I sat down on the couch in front of the TV last night to do my nightly blogging ritual, trying to tickle the gray matter to come up with the pearls of wisdom or insolence that my readers have come to know and love, I had a fantastic idea for a serious consideration of a question that comes up in the discussion of science and pseudoscience and how to combat pseudoscience. It would be serious and sober. It would be highly relevant to the interests of my readers. It would rival anything I’ve ever written for this blog before.

I ended up writing this instead. Oh, well, maybe tomorrow. Besides, I’ve already done one serious post this week, and it’s only Tuesday.

So what happened? I was perusing the Last 24 Hours feed for ScienceBlogs, out of curiosity over what my fellow ScienceBloggers were up to, and, damn it if PZ didn’t lead me to something horrific. If you thought Gerry Spence’s statements that I “discussed” yesterday were Grade A brain dead dumb, as they say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The source of this stupidity? It’s someone we’ve met before, although I haven’t written about him in a long time. It’s also about a subject I haven’t written about in a while. Perhaps it’s because it causes me such distress when this particular maven of pseudoscience sticks his foot in his mouth or, even worse, sticks it in some other less tolerable place of his anatomy in his foolishness. Indeed, it’s someone who, because we share a profession, has caused me no end of embarrassment because his every utterance on this particular topic is a profound embarrassment to all surgeons.

That’s right; that creationist neurosurgeon with a penchant for laying down hunks o’ hunks o’ burnin’ stupid on a regular basis, that Energizer Bunny of antievolution nonsense, Dr. Michael Egnor has spouted off on evolution again in a way that got my attention. It came in response to a post by PZ about a conference he attended entitled Understanding evolution: the legacy of Darwin, which served as a launching pad for Dr. Egnor to go right down the rabbit hole:

Re: P.Z. Myers’ recent post:

I’ll be spending my day at this symposium, “Understanding evolution: the legacy of Darwin”, most of today. It’s about to start, so I’m not going to say much before I focus on the lectures, but it is open to the public, so if you’re in the Penn neighborhood, come on down to Claudia Cohen hall, room G17 (which we have since learned is the famous old surgical demonstration auditorium), and listen in. I’ll report later on the contents of the talks.

I’m having trouble finding the program Myers is referring to (why wasn’t I invited!?), but Claudia Cohen Hall is on the medical campus at Penn, so I surmise that the presentations will be on eugenics (apologies for it, I hope), which is Darwin’s only legacy to medicine.

Here we go again. The stupid, it burns. It sears. My neurons are crying out in pain. Once again, Dr. Egnor trots out the tired old “Darwin inevitably leads to eugenics” coupled with his usual claims evolution has contributed nothing–or, as Dr. Egnor says it, nothing!–to medicine. Only Dr. Egnor could come up with something so utterly devoid of understanding, so scientifically ignorant, so full of the arrogance of ignorance. I realize that a certain degree of self-confidence is necessary to be a surgeon, even more so for a neurosurgeon, where the stakes are so high and the penalty for mistakes so dire, but in Dr. Egnor’s case it’s gone far beyond that. He has no clue what he’s talking about, and he is utterly clueless that he has no clue. In fact, that about sums up Dr. Egnor. Worse, he thinks he’s a real cut-up (sorry, couldn’t resist):

But of course eugenics won’t be mentioned, except perhaps brief exculpations (“Eugenics was the misuse of Darwin’s theory by a few rogue geneticists…”). No doubt the talks will be ‘Children Hate Vegetables Because of Ancestral Reproductive Advantage of Avoiding Toxins’ or ‘We Will Evolve Oiler Skin Because of Frequent Bathing’ or ‘X-Linked Color Blindness Evolved to Help Paleolithic Male Hunters See Camouflage.’ Believe it or not, these are actual cutting-edge evolutionary “theories.”

All he’s capable of is mockery. Unfortunately, he has no substantive basis for his mockery; he appears to have only superficially read the essay that he mocks, and he offers not a single substantive rebuttal of any of its contents. It’s probably because he lacks the understanding or imagination. He’s too busy pushing an idea that, when you boil it down to its essence is: If we can’t understand how such-and-such biological structure works, God did it.

Once again, he goes off on the same old BS that he always does when he says:

Darwin’s positive legacy to real medical science is non-existent. Darwinists append vacuous stories to actual scientific advances and claim that Darwinian fables provided indispensable guidance to the scientific breakthrough, when the opposite is true. Microbiologists, molecular geneticists, paleontologists, epidemiologists, etc. do the real science, and evolutionary biologists add the Darwinian narrative gloss. The evolutionary claim — usually part of a press release — is generally ornate (“Evolutionary Saltation Induced by Pleistocene Heterozygote Advantage…” or some such, which always boils down this template:

“Organisms that [insert actual scientific insight] gained reproductive advantage.” Survivors survived.

Get me that Doctor Doom mask again. I’m resisting the urge to slink away in shame once again for the stain of stupidity that Dr. Egnor spreads all over my profession. As a certain New York talk radio host used to like to say, he “couldn’t be more hopelessly wrong.” No matter how many times it’s been explained to him that natural selection explains many things in medicine, including how microbial resistance to antibiotics evolves, how single cancer cells evolve into cancers and develop resistance to chemotherapy, and quite a few other things. Indeed, how desperately Dr. Egnor tries to avoid admitting that evolutionary theory is useful for anything in medicine is pathetic in the extreme. In actuality, evolutionary theory can quantify the reproductive advantage and estimate the expected changes in gene frequency and the rate of alterations of distributions of alleles. Molecular biologists, microbiologists, paleontologists, and epidemiologists do indeed do work that supports evolutionary theory, but it’s not because evolutionists “put an evolutionary gloss” on their work but rather because evolutionary theory makes predictions which require the disciplines of molecular biology, microbiology, paleontology, epidemiology, zoology, and biologists to test. Scientists belonging to these disciplines are needed to test the predictions made by evolutionary theory, and they do. In fact, that lines of evidence from so many different disciplines support it is what makes the theory of evolution one of the best-established, most robust theories in science, if not the best-established, most robust theory. Unfortunately, Dr. Egnor seems willfully blind to this very basic observation.

He’s also willfully blind to the difference between natural and artificial selection:

Darwin’s theory was (and is) indispensable for only one thing in medicine: eugenics. Eugenics is human breeding. Eugenics has been viewed as an imperative (and still is) by many Darwinists, because if the origin of human beings is natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), then human compassion for the weak (i.e. human civilization) impairs natural selection, and a corrective is needed to avert degeneration of our race. If we are evolving animals, then benevolence must be balanced by breeding if our species is to survive. This odious ideology, based on an odious (and scientifically vacuous) assertion that natural selection is the origin of man, is the foundation of eugenics, and is Darwin’s only real legacy to medicine.

Let me repeat it yet one more time: Eugenics is not natural selection. It is artificial selection. Indeed, it is akin to animal breeding to select for desirable traits and breed out undesirable traits. Farmers and horticulturists have realized for centuries, if not millennia, that it is possible to change animals and plants, sometimes radically, through many generations of selective breeding. Indeed, Charles Darwin’s great insight, the reason he is remembered 150 years after he published his theory, is that such alterations in animals occur over many generations through natural selection by the same basic mechanism, as he described in the first chapter of Origin of the Species:

But when we compare the dray-horse and race-horse, the dromedary and camel, the various breeds of sheep fitted either for cultivated land or mountain pasture, with the wool of one breed good for one purpose, and that of another breed for another purpose; when we compare the many breeds of dogs, each good for man in very different ways; when we compare the gamecock, so pertinacious in battle, with other breeds so little quarrelsome, with ‘everlasting layers’ which never desire to sit, and with the bantam so small and elegant; when we compare the host of agricultural, culinary, orchard, and flower-garden races of plants, most useful to man at different seasons and for different purposes, or so beautiful in his eyes, we must, I think, look further than to mere variability. We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them; indeed, in several cases, we know that this has not been their history. The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds.

The great power of this principle of selection is not hypothetical. It is certain that several of our eminent breeders have, even within a single lifetime, modified to a large extent some breeds of cattle and sheep. In order fully to realise what they have done, it is almost necessary to read several of the many treatises devoted to this subject, and to inspect the animals. Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organisation as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.

The insight that major alterations resulting in an increase in frequency of a trait in a population of organisms can occur through successive generations of cumulative selection in which that trait gives even a slight reproductive advantage. Charles Darwin based his theory by taking his observations of animal breeders and horticulturists and realizing that nature did the same thing in which the selective pressures are unique to the environment and conditions in which organisms find themselves. In fact, as has been pointed out by me and others, if there’s one thing that eugenics can be likened to more than natural selection, it’s intelligent design. After all, it’s the attempt by humans, presumably (albeit not always) intelligent, trying to “design” the perfect human, whatever their idea of “perfect” may be.

Sadly, I’m actually beginning to feel sorry for Dr. Egnor, as he’s becoming more and more incoherent. Look at this last paragraph, if you don’t believe me:

Fairy tales about the origin of illnesses and adaptations are worthless to medicine. The materialistic philosophical basis for Darwinism and the inference that humans evolved by natural selection have been catastrophic to medicine. Any genuine insight claimed by Darwinists, such as the dynamics of antibiotic resistance or of heterozygote advantage in such diseases as sickle cell anemia and malaria, is really gained by the relevant basic sciences (molecular genetics, microbiology, epidemiology), with no need for Darwinian just-so stories. For the past century, Darwin’s only legacy to medicine has been eugenics. Darwinists are hoping that the salient modern human evolutionary adaptation is amnesia.

And apparently Dr. Egnor is hoping that the only salient modern evolutionary adaptation is ignorance. Unfortunately, when it comes to “intelligent design” creationists, he may be right.

Still, it’s pretty depressing to read that last paragraph. It’s a mess. It’s nothing more than a repetition of the same nonsense he’s repeated multiple times not just in other posts for that repository of antiscience, Evolution News & Views, but in this post. He simply asserts once again that evolutionary theory has been “a disaster to medicine” without providing one whit of evidence to support his argument. He tries to dismiss the very real contribution evolutionary biology had to make in understanding why the sickle cell hemoglobin allele is retained in human populations at such a high frequency event though it is so deleterious in homozygotes by attributing the insight to relevant basic sciences, but what led those “relevant basic sciences” to the concept of heterozygote advantage, which states that the sickle cell allele gives a survival advantage to those who possess only one copy because it confers increased resistance to malaria? It was evolutionary theory, of course. (It certainly wasn’t ID.) Ditto bacterial resistance to antibiotics. These are not “just-so” stories. They are instances in which evolutionary theory makes predictions, and, in the case of bacterial resistance and sickle cell disease, biology fits those predictions. Moreover, eugenics was (and is) a misapplication of Darwin’s theory. Attempts to breed humans for specific traits predated Darwin, and eugenics advocates latched on to evolution by natural selection as a justification of a concept that does not require natural selection–just selection.

Of course, the irony of it all is that Dr. Egnor steadfastly refuses to see that eugenics is more consistent with intelligent design, which, alas for him, has yet to make any testable predictions or explain anything about biology.

Now let me go digging in my basement for that Doctor Doom mask again to hide my face in shame as I slink away back to my office.

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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