The Fine Art of Quote-Mining
Paul Nelson is a Discovery Institute Fellow and is a proponent of Intelligent Design (ID). He also has a reputation for being one of the more forthright of the ID proponents out there. However, I read his recent post at ID the Future about an article by Professors Eric Davidson and Douglas Erwin that shows the same dishonest quote mining we have seen from other IDers. Nelson provides some lengthy quotes from the article,
Classic evolutionary theory, based on selection of small incremental changes, has sought explanations by extrapolation from observed patterns of adaptation. Macroevolutionary theories have largely invoked multi-level selection, among species and among clades. But neither class of explanation provides an explanation of evolution in terms of mechanistic changes in the genetic regulatory program for development of the body plan, where it must lie. (p. 796)
Current microevolutionary thinking assumes that observed types of genetic change (from single base substitutions to gene duplications) are sufficient to explain all evolutionary events, past and present….But attempting to explain an aspect of animal evolution that depends on one kind of network alteration [deep changes] by adducing evidence from an aspect that depends on another [shallow changes] can be fundamentally misleading. (p. 800)
What does this say? Well Davidson and Erwin are looking at the stability of body plans at the phyla level. They note that such body plans are remarkably stable and they also note that interference with the expression of any one of the “kernel” genes will destroy kernel function. What is the “kernel”? From my reading of the article in Science, a kernel is a highly conserved developmentally important subcircuit of a larger whole complex gene regulatory network that controls for body parts and plan. Davidson and Erwin note that the kernel is inflexible and hence are not going to change via classic neo-Darwinian mechanisms.
Now, one could look at these quotes and my additional explanation and conclude that the kernel is irreducibly complex (IC), that is removal of any single part (or preventing the expression of any of the kernel genes) destroys the function of the structure we are examining. There are two problems with this view. The first is described in this post by PZ Myers about how IC structures can evolve via your standard neo-Darwinian mechanisms. The second highlights the dishonesty of Paul Nelson. While Davidson and Erwin argue that classic neo-Darwinian mechanisms are not sufficient for the evolution of new body plans, they don’t argue that the body plans evolved via non-neo-Darwinian mechanisms. In fact, they argue precisely the opposite in the very same article that Nelson is pointing too.
It would follow that these kernels must have been assembled during the initial diversification of the Bilateria and have retained their internal character since. Critically, these kernels would have formed through the same processes of evolution as affect the other components, but once formed and operating to specify particular body parts, they would have become refractory to subsequent change.–emphasis added
What this means is that the kernels initially arose via the same mechanisms that created all other biological components. Only a dishonest or superficial reading the paper would lead one to believe that ID played any role in the process. Further, the claim that neo-Darwinism doesn’t work for the pre-Cambrian is also suspect. Maybe it is correct, but that wasn’t the focus of Davidson and Erwin’s article. Further, while the process that Davidson and Erwin had in mind for the development of the kernels and other biological components may not be neo-Darwinian it certainly isn’t some supernatural designer.
As for Davidson’s comment about neo-Darwinism being dead, that quote is also quite suspicious in that it is completely stripped of its context. The bottom line is that when you read anything by an IDer one should look at what is quoted and what was not quoted. This also highlights another level of dishonesty among the IDers in general. The new refrain from the ID camp is to “teach the controversy” and that there is this dogmatism amongst scientists in regards to neo-Darwinism. But right here we see what might become the beginnings of a controversy. Davidson and Erwin are suggesting a rather controversial hypothesis (at least it appears controversial to this layperson). Of course, this isn’t the kind of controversy they are talking about. I wonder why? Probably because it doesn’t invoke the supernatural. Bottom line, you can’t trust these guys to give you an accurate picture of whatever they are talking about.