The Addiction of Egnorance

Dr. Michael Egnor is creationist neurosurgeon at SUNY Stony Brook—an embarrassment to that fine institution, I’d imagine—and the most recent addition to the Discovery Institutes’s roster. He is well known in the blogsphere for his ability to make the most illogical and obviously factually incorrect claims in an effort to discredit “Darwinism”. (Okay that is not actually a novel phenotype among the creationists and intelligent design activists.) For example, he actually argued that evolution had nothing to do antibiotic resistance, a Hovindesque argument. (Hopefully, Egnor pays his taxes and is not a complete Hovind imitation.)

Fact checking doesn’t matter when you are as arrogant as Egnor. In a memorable exchange, he argued that evolution was not important to medicine because not a single medical school had any classes or professors dealing with evolution. When it was shown that there was an entire evolution graduate program in his own medical school, he then argued that the existence of such programs doesn’t prove that evolution is important to medicine, ignoring completely what his original argument was. What rational man can make both these claims while completely ignoring the connection? I dubbed such an egotistical combination of ignorance and arroganceegnorance“.

But Egnor is simply unable to control his egnorance. He continues to write for the Discovery Institute, each time justifying the gift of his name to “egnorance”.—He is like a junky, except his addiction isn’t crack but making a total jackass out of himself.—In his latest pair of posts he is on roll, inventing fictions about history to illogically argue that because at some point in history someone didn’t use evolution in medicine or genetics, then evolution is not important to how those things are studied today. It is like arguing that, because Hippocrates didn’t practice neurosurgery, neurosurgery is dispensable to medicine.

Now Pat and PZ have handled this inept pair of posts; however, I want to one additional point in regards to the most recent one. According to Egnor,

… Darwin’s assertion that random variation was the raw material for biological complexity was of no help in decoding the genetic language of DNA.

Egnor is completely and utterly wrong. This is a total distortion of the actual research that went into determining the genetic code. The research program of Crick, Brenner, Benzer, and colleagues relied heavily on applying Darwinian principles (random mutation and selection) to model organisms. Specifically, they isolated mutations in bacterial viruses (phages), and then used selection to find revertants under controlled experimental conditions. With such data, Crick et al. (1961) were able to demonstrate that each residue in a protein was encoded by a non-overlapping triplet of nucleic-acid residues. In another example, with the same system Benner et al. (1967) used selection experiments on mutations to argue that UGA did not code for an amino acid and specifically argued that it must have an important function “because otherwise natural selection would have certainly allocated it to an amino acid.”

So in spite of Egnor’s egnorance, Darwin’s ideas were not only a help but very essential “in decoding the genetic language of DNA.”

Now the biotech industry is founded on the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Selection is an essential part of the process that creates transgenic organisms, like bacteria that produce human insulin. Humans are unable to create transgenic organisms directly, instead they use recombination DNA technology, which randomly creates transgenic organisms from building blocks provided by the researcher. The result is a population of organisms, in which a small minority contains the desired transgenic trait. The researcher then uses Darwin’s mechanism, selection, to evolve a population that is enriched for the desired trait. And voila, with what to someone like Dr. Egnor must seem like wizardry, a population of bacteria can now produce human insulin, enriching and saving the lives of millions, all thanks to Charles Darwin.


  • Benner et al. (1967) UGA: A Third Nonsense Triplet in the Genetic Code. Nature 213:449-450 [link]
  • Crick et al. (1961) General nature of the genetic code for proteins. Nature 192:1227-1232 [link]
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Sent by The Panda's Thumb on March 28, 2007 10:55 PM

What did evolution have to do with the deciphering of the genetic code? According to the Discovery Institute’s [Egnorant] News and Views, nothing. According to the actual research, everything.... [Read More]

Sent by Evolution News & Views on April 11, 2007 11:32 AM

Darwinist blogger Orac recently took issue with my observation that Darwin’s theory plays no important role in medicine. Orac, a surgical oncologist, insisted that Darwin’s theory is very helpful in modern cancer research. He wrote:... [Read More]

Sent by T4 Bacteriophage on April 13, 2007 12:16 AM

(comparison of the genomes of various T4-like phages) abstract & pay Virus Genes 11:285-297. [Read More]

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Posted by Nigel Depledge on March 29, 2007 7:59 AM

One minor quibble: you are glossing over an awful lot of modern molecular biology. In the biotech industry, if we wish to have bacteria expressing a human protein (such as, for instance, insulin) we would clone the gene for that protein into the bacteria, most often in the form of a plasmid. The plasmid will often be a commercially-available one, that will also include multiple restriction sites (places where a wide selection of enzymes may be used to cut the DNA to allow insertion of the gene of interest), a strong, easily-controlled promoter (often from the T4 bacteriophage) and an antiobiotic resistance gene.

The presence of antibiotic-resistance genes in the plasmid allows selection of those organisms that have taken in the plasmid. This has all, of course, relied on evolutionary theory to be brought about, but modern molecular biology is a far cry from its “random-mutation-followed-by-selection” roots.

Posted by Pat Hayes on March 29, 2007 8:52 AM

To the list of evolution’s undeniable contributions to modern medicine we might add the discovery that the sickle cell trait is related to resistance to malaria.

As a teenager, Anthony Allison was influenced by a visit to Louis Leaky at Olduvai Gorge and reading Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” Thus inspired, Allison studied R.A Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright at Oxford.

Later, in 1949 he took blood samples from tribes all over Kenya on an medical school expedition to Mount Kenya.

Using his understanding of variation and natural selection he was able to see a geographic pattern in these blood samples and discover the correlation between sickle cell trait and resistance to malaria.

The fascinating story is told in Sean Carroll’s “The Making of the Fittest.”

For the intelligent design “theorists,” egnorance truly is bliss.

Posted by Reed A. Cartwright on March 29, 2007 12:15 PM

Nigel, you are correct. However, my point is that “Darwinian” methods are essential to the biotech industry. I did not mean to imply that those were the only steps in the process.

Posted by fnxtr on March 29, 2007 12:37 PM

I predict Egnor is going to say none of this proves randomness in genetic variation.

Posted by David Stanton on March 29, 2007 1:30 PM

I predict that when you point out to Egnor the studies that actually demonstrate randomness in genetic variation that he will ignore you and ask why you don’t do the studies. Of wait, realpc has already done this on another site. Of dear, how can I claim to predict something that has already happened? I know, I’ll just use the tried and true ID method of posthoc “prediction”. That ought to shut them up once and for all!