Genetic Drifters

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers criticizes the stubborn obfuscations of Michael Behe, who refuses to yield his illogical calculations. Behe says (rightly) that a certain mutation necessary for drug resistance in the malaria parasite has about a 1 in 1020 chance of occurring. But the mutation is also detected in 96% of malaria patients who respond well to the drug; it proliferated widely because, by itself, it had no impact on the parasite’s fitness. The parasite needed another mutation, occurring at a later date, to develop resistance to the drug. Behe rests his case for divine intervention on the basis of bad math; as PZ writes, “It was crude, stupid, and ridiculous when J. Random Creationist was doing it, and it’s even worse when a guy with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, who ought to know better, panders to the mob of creationists who don’t even grasp middle school mathematics by using fallacious operations in probability.” Meanwhile, Orac reports that one of the flu strains targeted by this year’s vaccine “has undergone what is referred to as ‘genetic drift,'” making the vaccine less effective than desired. Yet the vaccine still offers protection against about 57% of circulating strains. On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle shares research that says consuming caffeine while pregnant can effect genes in the baby’s heart. In total, researchers “identified 124 genes and 849 transcripts that were altered by exposure to caffeine in utero.” And on ERV, Abbie Smith reviews the evolutionary trajectory of HIV, which may be tending toward a ‘truce’ with human hosts.


The Carte Blanche of Intelligent Design

As an alternative to biblical creationism, Intelligent Design infers a less obtrusive God to explain life on Earth. This deity doesn’t hurl bolts of lightning, unless it’s with the express purpose of sparking abiogenesis in the primordial soup. On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse dismisses probabilistic arguments against the likelihood of complex organisms, explaining that even the most improbable-seeming outcome of natural selection is more or less inevitable. As a flawed analogy, he imagines flipping a coin 500 times. This will always manifest a sequence of heads and tails that only had a one in gazillion chance of occurring. But of course, nature has no mercy upon arbitrary outcomes. Rosenhouse writes, “The prolonged action of natural selection ensures that most gene sequences have a probability close to zero of ever occurring (or persisting for long if they do occur) while the small percentage of functional sequences have a relatively high probability.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers aces a quiz that was meant for him to fail. PZ writes that ID “was intentionally formulated in response to court decisions that prohibited gods and faith-based arguments — they literally rewrote their texts to exclude god to circumvent church-state conflicts.” No surprise: it’s hard to sway skeptics with a true believer’s plan B.

Thus it was an uphill battle that Ken Ham lost in his debate against Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Nye was widely perceived as the winner, even in religious circles.  Greg Laden sums up Ken Ham’s argument as “We know everything, we understand the most important issues of origins, creation, and evolution, and all of this information comes mainly from the Bible.”  This in contrast to Nye, who presented “science, science, science and more science” clearly and convincingly.  Greg continues “During the few moments when we were allowed to see the evangelical audience during Bill Nye’s presentation they looked, frankly, charmed.”  PZ Myers sounds a note of dissonance amongst the praise for Nye, saying “Nye is good at communicating a passion for science, but fails to note the conflict when he pretends that science is about being a better, more employable widget maker for Big Widget, Inc.”  In other words, Nye focused on the economic advantages of scientific understanding to the exclusion of aesthetic and philosophic advantages.  PZ sees science as an art, and argues we should practice science for science’s sake.

As for Ken Ham, with even Pat Robertson disavowing biblical creationism, he may have been flogging a dead horse.  The invention of Intelligent Design as a shield for traditional religious beliefs may have backfired on creationism. The faithful are comfortable abandoning the idea of a Young Earth to embrace geology and evolution, as long as they have the carte blanche of Intelligent Design to provide a hypothetical role for the Almighty.