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Monday, 12 March 2007

Laughing at Luskin

At Pharyngula, PZ Myers reports on this review by Casey Luskin of a book I haven't read but that looks mighty interesting: The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, by Sean Carroll. Casey Luskin is a major figure from the Discovery Institute, which, in case you didn't know, houses all those Intelligent Design people who go around attempting to discredit evolution.

PZ found it excruciating:

I skimmed it in short sessions punctuated with bouts of whimpering, eye drops, and obsessive hand-washing; you'll have to forgive me if I don't attempt a thorough dissection.

Fear not, PZ! To the intelligent non-biologist reader who has not had to suffer this sort of garbage before, the report is a scream. I've been giggling all over the place. See, I've been learning all manner of stuff that contradicts Luskin's claims just by reading the parts of the book that he quotes. Like this bit, quoted on page 9 of the review:

The possibilities for building species trees based upon DNA, RNA, and protein sequences were quickly recognized by scientists (such as Francis Crick, Emile Zuckerlandl, and Linus Pauling), as soon as protein sequencing began to reveal the similarities and differences in proteins shared among groups of species. … Darwin described the geneology of species as trees, with speciation producing ramifying branches. But in the world of microbes, unknown to Darwin, some events happen that violate the pattern of treelike evolution. Microbes exchange genes, and some microbes live within the host species in a process called endosymbiosis. These processes enable the transfer of genes between very distant relatives, and thus confuse the family tree. - Sean Carroll, TMoTF, page 85 if Luskin's credentials as a lawyer have given him the ability to at least quote the page number correctly.

Get this: here's a biological way for the genes of a species to change in a new way. But Luskin quotes it as evidence against evolution. Specifically, against the idea that we can sort species into evolutionary trees. Because, obviously, if natural, random, non-designed changes happen that don't fit the tree format, then, er... there must have been a designer?

Luskin seems to think that any evidence that contradicts even a tiny part of the picture can somehow bring down the whole - even if it's just a small alteration in one corner that can be fitted in to the rest of the picture with perfectly consistent changes. He's mad. But then, he is trying to say that "neo-Darwinism" is a religion. Perhaps he thinks he has finally found the scientific equivalent of that bit in 1 Kings chapter 7 that implies that pi = 3. The trouble is, of course, that every scientific theory is subject to change; we keep them because (or, if...) they accurately describe the stuff we know.

On the other hand, that book by Carroll sounds really interesting. Maybe I should read it.

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