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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Favourite 'Intelligent' Design Argument

Of course, all 'Intelligent Design' arguments are simple variations on the argument from ignorance and incredulity. Basically, the argument goes, "I don't know how this works and I can't believe it wasn't done by a god, therefore it was done by a god, and don't expect me to spoil my lovely argument by learning and understanding stuff."

There are a large number of people who make a handsome living supplying people with that level of reasoning ability and intellectual (dis)honesty, especially in the USA where fundamentalist Christianity is a multi-billion dollar industry.

One of the originators of the under-cover wing of the Creationist industry, 'Intelligent Design' was biochemist, Michael J. Behe, who wrote a book called Darwin's Black Box which claimed that there are certain structures which are 'irreducibly complex' and therefore could not have evolved by the small steps proposed by Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection. Michael Behe is a devout Catholic and talks almost exclusively to right-wing conservative Christian fundamentalist groups but denies his argument is merely biblical Creationism cloaked in a scientific-looking disguise which is intended to get round the First Amendment of the Constitution of the USA.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
'Intelligent Design' and 'Irreducible Complexity' are major planks of the 'Wedge' strategy whereby right-wing fundamentalist groups continually try to insert their religion into schools and other government-funded bodies in order to subvert the Constitution and overthrow the safeguard of separation of church and state which underpins freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in a secular society.

Behe's book was, of course, refuted within days of publication by proper biologists and he has never presented his ideas for peer review or to a conference of microbiologists, never-the-less it sold millions to creationists and is still widely quoted as if it were genuine science.

Ironically, one of the main structure he relied on was the flagellum of the motile bacterium Escherichia coli. This is ironic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the precursors of the 'proton motor' which powers the flagellum, and which is the nearest thing to a wheel known in nature, albeit it's the 'axle' which spins round, not the wheel, are known, so very plausible mechanisms for its evolution can be described. See also Evolution of the Bacterial Flagella.

But Behe's claim falls down in another area: the necessary 'complexity' to produce a flagellum is not in the component proteins and how they are assembled but in E. coli DNA. There is no record of Behe having investigated the 'complexity' of E. coli DNA to determine if it is indeed irreducibly complex in respect of the flagellum because he has never carried out that study.

The second irony is that E. coli and its related bacteria are a good example of evolution.
The genera Escherichia and Salmonella diverged around 102 million years ago (credibility interval: 57–176 mya), which coincides with the divergence of their hosts: the former being found in mammals and the latter in birds and reptiles. This was followed by a split of the escherichian ancestor into five species (E. albertii, E. coli, E. fergusonii, E. hermannii and E. vulneris. The last E. coli ancestor split between 20 and 30 mya.
See also Wikipedia - Escherichia coli Phylogeny of Escherichia coli strains.

Thirdly, there is the fact the E. coli is the subject of a long-term experiment in evolution which has already produced some interesting results after some 50,000 generations:
The E. coli long-term evolution experiment is an ongoing study in experimental evolution led by Richard Lenski that has been tracking genetic changes in 12 initially identical populations of asexual Escherichia coli bacteria since 24 February 1988. The populations reached the milestone of 50,000 generations in February 2010.

Since the experiment's inception, Lenski and his colleagues have reported a wide array of genetic changes; some evolutionary adaptations have occurred in all 12 populations, while others have only appeared in one or a few populations. One particularly striking adaption was the evolution of a strain of E. coli that was able to grow on citric acid in its growth medium.
But my favourite irony in Behe's choice of E. coli as his example of 'Intelligent Design' is in what E. coli can do. One strain is a normal, even beneficial part of our gut 'flora', i.e. the collection of micro-organisms which live in our digestive tracts, the dead bodies of which constitute a large part of the volume of our faeces. E. coli helps control some other organisms which, if they become too numerous may be harmful. However, some strains of E. coli are far from 'friendly' and even our 'friendly' ones are far from friendly if they get into our blood where they can become seriously pathogenic, even fatal. Some strains are highly dangerous and great care must be taken to prevent them getting into our food.

The supreme irony here is that this pathological tendency of E. coli is enhanced greatly by its motility, which depends entirely on its flagellum. If we are to believe Michael Behe we have to believe his intelligent designer designed a mechanism for helping a bacterium make us sick and even kill us, presumably, because it loves us so much.

Untrammelled by little inconveniences like facts, Michael Behe continues to push his brand of fundamentalism to credulous Creationists and sell them books full of long-refuted argument and falsehoods. Such is the level of integrity we find pervading the Christian fundamentalism industry, particularly in the USA where it also promotes extreme right-wing politics and pedals its creed to those at the bottom of the social ladder, and which the Christian conservative right seeks to keep there by feeding them ignorant superstition dressed up as hope.


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1 comment:

  1. So epic "R". I get the AiG Newsletter and am in awhhhhhhhhh at Behe, evertime.

    Kriss

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