Thursday, January 19, 2012

Creationism in Texas? Shocking!

Saw this on Jerry Coyne's Website. Baylor University's Medical Center has a quarterly journal that has just published a critique of Darwinism by someone named Joseph P. Kuhn. It's a strange and almost incoherent offering that seems to be a grab-bag of common tropes from the intelligent design community. Not only does he appear unfamiliar with established scientific facts, he seems to have only the loosest grasp on what counts as a logical argument.

The first question I have is why a seemingly respectable medical journal would publish such a thing. According to the journal's homepage this is the purpose of the publication,
Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings (BUMC Proceedings), a quarterly, peer-reviewed medical journal, communicates information about the research and clinical activities, philosophy, and history of Baylor Health Care System.

The journal offers a mix of articles and features for a general medical audience, including original research, reviews, and historical, ethical, and editorial pieces. Regular features focus on oncology, electrocardiography, radiology, pharmacology, and medicolegal issues. The editor's column, "Facts and issues from anywhere," is included as well.
Baylor is a Baptist school by affiliation, but according to Wikipedia it loosened those ties in 1991. So it appears that there isn't some kind of religious motivation. I wonder if the review process for the contributions that are more in the historical or editorial vein are subject to much review at all, given the content of Kuhn's piece.

"Dissecting Darwinism" is itself ably dissected for its scientific inadequacies by Jerry Coyne, so I'll try to not simply repeat what he says about it. I'll attempt to focus more on the logical problems the piece demonstrates.

His first foray into nonsense starts when he defends his qualifications to write such an article. He is a surgeon, not an evolutionary biologist, so his credentials are suspect. Not to worry, though:
Many surgeons, including this author, are actively involved with gene therapy, vaccine therapy, and the latest molecular targeting based on the incredible breakthroughs in our understanding of the science of DNA. Therefore, the physician is indeed an excellent source to dissect evolution based on modern science and applied medicine.
This is one of the strangest appeals to authority I've ever seen. First, an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy in any case, but an appeal to authority based on qualifications only tangentially related to the topic at hand is doubly weird. It's as if he's saying "I'm not qualified, but my lack of qualification qualifies me."

He then argues that natural selection cannot explain the origin of life for three reasons:
Based on an awareness of the inexplicable coded information in DNA, the inconceivable self-formation of DNA, and the inability to account for the billions of specifically organized nucleotides in every single cell, it is reasonable to conclude that there are severe weaknesses in the theory of gradual improvement through natural selection (Darwinism) to explain the chemical origin of life. Furthermore, Darwinian evolution and natural selection could not have been causes of the origin of life, because they require replication to operate, and there was no replication prior to the origin of life.
First, like ID proponents such as Dembski, he is enamored of information theory, arguing that the information in DNA had to have been put there, since it is too complex to arise spontaneously. ID folks treat information as some sort of mystical quality or emergent property of a system, but in reality, the DNA self-replication process and protein production mechanisms are fully physical systems, relying on predictable outcomes of chemical reactions. It can be a useful to talk about "information" in these systems, but it isn't as if DNA has to "know" something to do what it does.

Second, he makes a common mistake of taking the theory of natural selection to be a complete theory of the universe and all its events. But this is pretty clearly wrong. No one really argues that evolution by natural selection is the proper explanation for the original emergence of the very entities required for natural selection to occur. It's basically like arguing that plate tectonics can't explain continental drift because plate tectonics doesn't explain the origin of rocks. No one ever claimed that natural selection would explain every detail about life on earth. It's a straw man argument.

He goes on to appeal to irreducible complexity:
Since these systems are irreducibly complex and individual mutations in one organ would not be beneficial for the organism, these random mutations in all aspects of vision would need to occur simultaneously. Therefore, the human body represents an irreducibly complex system on a cellular and an organ/system basis.
The emptiness of the notion of irreducible complexity has been well argued by others on scientific grounds, but the important point about the argument from a logical standpoint is that it attempts to establish what must have occurred on the basis of what we have inadequate knowledge of. We don't know the exact sequence of steps that gave rise to a particular physical system, therefore it must have been put together all at once. It's an old, bad argument, actually dealt with by Darwin when he discusses the evolution of the eye. It's an argument from ignorance. It moves from a lacuna in our current knowledge about how a particular system arose to an unfounded assertion that it had to arise all at once. It's also a false dichotomy. It assumes that there are only two possible explanations for the emergence of a system: incremental construction while performing the exact function it performs today or built all at once to perform its current function. But exaptation is a well known biological phenomenon, so there are more than two options for a given system. Thus any claim that a system has to have all of its parts to be useful would have to eliminate other potential uses of partial systems.

He then proceeds to argue that there is an insufficient number of transitional fossils, another common complaint of ID proponents. There is not much to make of this claim, except to first note that it's wrong.We should also note that their complaint can never be answered, because with each transitional form discovered they can claim to see two new "gaps."

He sums up his article with a call for a "paradigm shift," referencing Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The problem with that is that Kuhn reserves paradigm shifts for theories in crisis, a category that evolutionary biology is clearly not in.

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