Backed into a Corner, Egnor Cannot Keep His Arguments Straight.

Dr. Michael Egnor, the Discovery Institute’s new noise maker and inspiration for successful April Fools’ pranks, has responded to my demonstration that evolution was very crucial to the deduction of the genetic code:

Dr. Cartwright is mistaken. Darwin asserted that all natural biological complexity arose by random undesigned variation and natural selection. The intentional alteration and intentional selection of microorganisms is a nice example of designed variation and artificial selection. Dr. Cartwright’s application of Darwin’s theory to intentional design and breeding of bacteria is pseudo-Darwinism.

That emphasis was in the original because, as you know, putting words in boldface and italics makes them more true. But in truth, Egnor is just playing word games and in the process completely contradicts his most favorite argument: that Darwin was responsible for eugenics.—More on that later.

I guess one could forgive Egnor for being ignorant about the molecular genetic experiments involved in deducing the genetic code. After all, he is a surgeon with little training in experimental biology. However, one should not forgive his arrogant insistence of speaking authoritatively on subjects that are clearly out of his expertise. (In his honor, I have previously dubbed such behavior egnorance.) Take for instance his claim that the experiments used “designed” variation. Now since Egnor neglects to define and/or describe what “designed” variation is, I’m going to have to assume that he means that the variation in these experiments were created directly by the scientists. This is intended contrast with “random”, natural variation that exists in biological populations.

However in deducing the genetic code, the scientists used variants that in no sense could be considered “designed” by them. For starters, they did not have the technology in the 1950’s to design organisms (unless Egnor wants to claim that evolution is equivalent to design). Genetic engineering simply did not exist. (Heck, the structure of DNA wasn’t published until 1953.) Second, the early variants were spontaneous mutations, isolated from laboratory cultures. Only later in the research program did scientists use mutagens, which of course still did not design organisms. Reading the papers that developed and used the T4 phage system, one encounters “spontaneous” a lot in the description and discussion of the variants. The variants are never once called “designed”. In fact, many of the famous amber and ochre mutations, which helped discover the stop codons, UAG and UAA, were spontaneous mutants. So to claim that the scientists who deduced the genetic code worked with “designed” variation not random “undesigned” variation, is completely ahistorical and pseudoscientific. Perhaps Egnor should have bothered to read and understand the literature instead of bearing false witness about it.

Egnor also plays word games with selection, trying to contrast natural selection with artificial selection. However, the contrast is not what Egnor thinks it is. Both are selection; both follow the same basic principles that Darwin wrote about nearly 150 years ago; both follow the same mathematical models that formed a basis for the modern synthesis of evolution and genetics nearly 75 years ago. The fact is that the distinction between artificial selection and natural selection is purely, if you will allow, artificial. It is a rhetorical distinction that is much stronger than the biological distinction.

The fact that Egnor is willing to confidently declare that Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection is not applicable to artificial selection reveals his egnorace about evolutionary biology. He is arguing based on terminology without bothering to understand the concepts behind them. I would never let one of my students get by on such superficial and sophomoric arguments.

Egnor also asserts that biotech is just breeding microorganisms using ancient farming traditions—like the Amish. However, animal husbandry and biotech use very different selection regimes. Whereas, a breeder may pair up cattle by evaluating the physical attributes of each individual, a biotechnician is unable to evaluate individual microorganisms and instead alters their environment to select for desired gene products. In this sense, relying on the environment to evolve a population of organisms in a specific direction, biotechnology is closer to what happens in nature than what happens in stables.

Now in making the argument that artificial and natural selection are completely distinct things, Michael Egnor is in obvious conflict with other creationists and ID activists that have built arguments on artificial selection being natural selection and thus Darwinian, e.g. the recent examples of Leisola and Turunen and Egnor.

Wait, did I just say that Egnor is in conflict with Egnor? Hmm, Yes I did.

For you see, one of Egnor’s passions since he appeared on the anti-evolution scene over a month ago is to blame Darwin for the eugenics movement. For example, he ended a post on the DI’s blog with,

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 eugenics, which was Darwin’s only gift to medicine.

Egnor has now contradicted himself because, as educated people should know, eugenics was a program, favored by many early geneticists, to selectively breed more fit humans (or better described as breeding less less fit humans), similar to how farmers had breed more fit livestock. Eugenics is therefore artificial selection and, according to Egnor’s dichotomy, absolutely distinct from Darwin’s natural selection. (See I can put those words in boldface and italics too.)

In Egnor’s latest opinion, such things are not attributable to Darwin or “Darwinism”, but rather are “pseudo-Darwinism”. According to Egnor, it is “the antithesis of Darwin’s theory”. In those paragraphs where Egnor criticizes me for promoting pseudo-Darwinism, he is actually criticizing himself. So how can Egnor argue that eugenics was Darwin’s curse on medicine while days later argue that eugenics and other artificial selection regimes are the antithesis of Darwin’s theory?

The answer is simple: integrity, consistency, and honesty matter little to ideologically driven activists. They play word games with rhetoric built on flashy quicksand. When backed into a corner, facing facts they cannot handle, they try anything and everything hoping something will land, but only demonstrating that they have lost. That, my friends, is Michael Egnor, M.D.

P.S. I see that Egnor has used the longest running lie in creationism. Desperation, indeed.

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Posted by 386sx on April 10, 2007 10:46 AM

Woah, cool takedown dude.