I’m jumping into this late, and it’s at least somewhat off topic for this
blog, although I’ll try to pull a few mathematical metaphors into it. But Michael
Egnor, that paragon of creationist stupidity, is back babbling about evolution and
bacterial antibiotic resistance. This is a subject which is very personal to me:
my father died almost a year ago – basically from an antibiotic resistant infection.
Since Mike at the Questionable Authority and Mike at Mike the Mad Biologist already ripped Egnor to shreds, I’m not going to bother with the whole thing; I’m just going to focus on one particular part. (And per standard practice,
I won’t link to a DI site, since they feel free to arbitrarily change or delete posts and comments without any notice.)
There is another sense in which Darwinism is used in the debate about antibiotic resistance.
Darwinists claim that ‘natural selection’– the observation in biology that survivors survive– is
indispensible to medical research on antibiotic resistance. Of course, this mundane tautology is of
no value to actual research (‘I didn’t make the breakthrough until I realized that the bacteria
that survived exposure to the antibiotic were the survivors…’). Biochemistry, microbiology,
molecular biology and pharmacology do the heavy lifting in antibiotic research. Evolutionary
biologists’ inference to ‘natural selection’ is highly superfluous to the actual work. The
inference to natural selection is a rhetorical device, not a meaningful scientific heuristic.
Yet, remarkably, many Darwinists seem not even to understand natural selection. Dr. Dardel, the
study’s author, posted this comment on Panda’s Thumb:
Actually, we did indeed use darwinian (sic) evolution within this work (something unusual in structural biology). In order to obtain an enzyme with increased stability (a critical point for structural studies), we used selective pressure to obtain mutants of the enzyme. We selected for bateria (sic) with increased aminiglycoside (sic) resistance, by plating them on antibiotic containing medium. It turned out that some bacteria evolved such stabler (sic) enzymes variants which made this whole study possible!
Dr. Dardel is both candid and mistaken. His comment that the use of Darwin’s theory is “unusual in structural biology” is obviously true, and refreshingly candid. He is, however, mistaken about the application of Darwin’s theory to his recent work. His assertion that “…we selected bacteria…by plating…” is artificial selection, not natural selection. Artificial selection is breeding, in this case microbial breeding. The principles of breeding date back thousands of years, and owe nothing to Darwin. In fact, Darwin claimed that non-teleological processes in nature could produce changes in populations just as teleological processes like breeding could. Even Darwin didn’t claim that his theory explained the outcome of intentional breeding. It’s astonishing that a modern professional scientist like Dr. Dardel doesn’t recognize the difference between artificial selection and natural selection.
First, I’ve got to comment on the absolutely astonishing arrogance on
view there. Dr. Egnor believes that he knows more about an experiment than the
scientist than the person who performed it. I know that surgeons are, by reputation,
very arrogant people (you sort of have to be extremely sure of yourself
to be willing to cut a person open and fix their innards) – but this is truly beyond the pale.
But let’s get to the meat of it.
Egnor’s argument is interesting in its own pathetic way. On the surface, it’s a word game – “artifical selection” versus “natural selection”. But when you really peel away the
superfluous stuff, it’s really fundamentally an argument against the validity of experimental
Here’s where I go mathy for a bit, because I think it’s the clearest way of making my point.
What scientists do is look at natural phenomena, and try to understand them. They use their
understanding to create a model of what they’re observing. What’s a model? The simplest way of
looking at it is as a function: Experiment(precondition)=Prediction – the scientist looks
at some phenomena, and tries to prune down the relevant factors to a minimum – and that minimum is
the input to the model function – the precondition of the experiment. Preconditions are
always incomplete: what you always try to do is to do the experiment under controlled conditions – which really means conditions that eliminate some of the potential inputs
in order to allow you to focus on a particular relationship or phenomena.
The output is what their understanding of the phenomena predicts.
For example, Newton looked at how things move. What he found was a very simple relationship: if I
take an object with a certain mass, and I push it, it will accelerate, and the acceleration is
related to both the mass of the object, and how hard I pushed it. To state that for an experiment,
we could say that the relevant factors are mass (m), force (F), and acceleration (a). So for an
experiment, I could let a be the dependent variable; and then model would say that a is a
function of m and F, so a(m,F)=F/m.
Then I do my experiment, and compare the result to what I predicted. Does that equation
really accurately tell me how much something accelerates under a given force?
All scientific experiments ultimately come down to that: given this set A of conditions, if I do B to it, then I predict a particular result: B(A). A is never a complete set of all the possible inputs, because everything is affected by everything else; so the input to my experiment is always incomplete, and the output is always approximate. But the heart of the experimental process is this equation: Experiment(Preconditions)=Prediction.
Egnor’s argument is that that equation is not valid. By Egnor’s reasoning, you cannot
do an experiment that tells you anything about the world, because your experiment is done under
controlled conditions. Controlled conditions are artificial, and different from the real world in
which natural phenomena occur. Therefore experiments are different from
natural phenomena: experiments are artificial phenomena, and you can draw no conclusions about natural phenomena from those experiments.
Of course, that’s rubbish. We draw conclusions from experiments all the time where the
experiment is performed under controlled conditions. The experiments do tell us useful things. But we do consider the context in which they’re done, to understand what we might miss. For an extreme example, we could do motion experiment in space far from a gravity well, so that we could
observe motion without friction from contact with a surface or from air resistance. But we’d
understand that the results wouldn’t be exactly the same as what we see on earth, because
we’re in an accelerated reference frame, with lots of friction.
In the case of the experiment that Egnor did, what the scientists did was
start with nearly sterile conditions, and take non-resistant strains of bacteria,
and expose them to a particular family of antibiotics over time, to see how they
would react. The end result was that some of the bacteria developed
a particular form of highly stable enzymes. They wanted to get bacteria with
these stable enzymes. They did it not by selecting bacteria with stable enzymes, but
by selecting bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics, because they predicted
that bacteria with the stable enzymes would be more resistant to antibiotics. So
the selection process wasn’t even selecting for the desired result! It was
a classic use of the experimental model: Prediction=Experiment(input);
Egnor comes in after the fact, and says “the experiment isn’t valid, because
the selection was artificial”. That makes about as much sense as coming into
Newton’s experiment, and saying “That experiment about motion isn’t valid, because
you did it under controlled conditions; if it was just a mule pulling a cart up the street,
it would have been different, because the mule pulling the cart is natural,
but your experiment is artificial.
The experiment predicted that natural selection – that is,
bacteria surviving to reproduce in a particular environment – would evolve to
produce a particular kind of enzyme that they wanted. They didn’t pick the
bacteria based on what kinds of enzymes it produced – they just looked at
the end result, where they had bacteria that could survive in the presence of
lots of antibiotics. And the result was that those bacteria – as predicted – evolved
to survive in the presence of antibiotics, and in some of them, that resistance
caused the bacteria to produce the desired enzyme.
Classic experimentation. Prediction=Experiment(Precondition). It worked for
Newton; it works for physicists; it works for chemists; and it works for biologists.
You can’t reject the results of the experimental process and call yourself a scientist. If Egnor wants to give up pretending to talk about science, and admit that he’s nothing but a dark-age mystic, that’s fine. But he pretends to be a scientist, while rejecting
the results of experimentation.
So, Dr. Egnor. Tell me. How does one do experiments in your universe? Is it even possible for biologists to do experiments of any kind? Or do
you believe that biology is fundamentally immune to experimentation and therefore
not really science at all?