A couple of days ago I fell off the wagon. I had been trying so hard to quit arguing with Creationists on the Internet, but I just couldn’t resist the temptation.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be fun at times. In addition, I’ve learned a lot from the research that it has prompted me to do over the years, and this has been my one justification for continuing. In fact, it was an argument with a Creationist that led me to create the first of the Evolution is REAL Science videos. (Video #6 is in the works – stay tuned.)
But arguing about evolution can be maddeningly frustrating and even somewhat depressing. It’s also an addictive habit, so much so that I would sometimes stay up way too late in order to fine tune my responses, crafting just the right rhetorical devices and including lots of references to the primary literature. Then, when I eventually did go to bed, my brain would still be running in high gear so that it would take hours for me to finally fall asleep. Losing sleep over this kind of stuff is just not worth it, in my opinion, so I made the decision to stop doing it.
Well, to my dismay, my self-restraint gave out on Tuesday.
I was pulled back in by a blog post entitled Human/Ape Common Ancestry: Following the Evidence by Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute’s erroneously-named Evolution News and Views (EN&V) blog. I don’t visit EN&V very often, but I happened to notice that comments were allowed on Casey’s post, so I thought I’d ask him a question. The post is about how the evidence for common descent is supposedly “dicey” and that ID proponents are interested in “taking a scientific approach” to the question in order to “follow the evidence where it leads.”
This is all pretty standard fare from Luskin, but I was particularly interested in exploring his preliminary point, namely that “human/ape common ancestry is compatible” with intelligent design (ID). I have always found this disclaimer to be strangely hypocritical because Luskin quite obviously rejects common ancestry (or at least his warped understanding of it). It just seems odd that he promotes an idea (ID) that may or may not be compatible with the central conclusion of the scientific framework that he is fighting against (evolution). I’m no psychologist, but there’s probably some cognitive dissonance occurring there.
Casey Luskin receives a lot of criticism for his anti-evolution activism. I mean, A LOT. As I see it, most of the scientific criticism directed toward Luskin is deserved, and some is even earned. But some of the critical attention Casey receives crosses the line from criticism to counterproductive mocking and name-calling. It’s to the point now that when you put Casey’s name into Google, the first suggestion in the drop-down list is “casey luskin is an idiot.” Ouch.
So I guess this post could be considered gratuitous piling on. For that, I apologize.
In my past online encounters with Casey, he has always been very polite and cordial. The schmaltzy tone of his writing sometimes comes off a little forced and disingenuous, but he doesn’t resort to the kind of vitriol that is often directed at him, and I respect that. Casey’s consistent refusal to wallow in the mud-slinging gives him the moral high ground in most situations, although the fact that he frequently plays the “civility card” erodes away some of that high ground.
Anyway, I was pleased to see that Casey approved my first comment almost immediately after I submitted it. I looked forward to an enlightening discussion. Unfortunately, in his response to my post, Casey avoided answering my question. I thought maybe this was because he misinterpreted my point, so I responded with the following:
I asked you to explain how ID-friendly researchers could use the principle of common design to make predictions about shared nonfunctional genetic similarities.
You responded by saying that “the principle of common design should lead ID-friendly researchers to be skeptical of claims that shared genetic similarities are non-functional.”
First, I don’t understand how the principle of common design would lead to skepticism about the existence of shared nonfunctional genetic similarities. After all, what would prevent the designer(s) from using “artistic license” and inserting nonfunctional sequences in identical locations in the genomes of similar species? Can you explain the logical connection between the principle of common design and your skepticism concerning shared nonfunctional genetic elements?
Second, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there are at least some shared nonfunctional genetic elements in humans and chimpanzees. My question was: how could these be explained or predicted using the principle of common design?
Here’s why I asked:
As I stated previously, I am willing to accept your assertion that functional genetic similarities could be explained by common design just as well as they are explained by common descent. However, as I pointed out before, common ancestry can explain and predict the existence of both shared functional and nonfunctional genetic elements in related species.
For example, one of the authors of the paper I linked to discovered that humans and chimpanzees both have an (apparently nonfunctional) Alu element inserted in the 3′ UTR of their functional NANOG genes. Based on common ancestry, he inferred that this element must have been inserted into the genome before the divergence of the lineages leading to humans and chimpanzees. The same Alu element was not found in rhesus macaques, so he inferred that it must have been inserted after the lineage leading to macaques diverged from the lineage leading to humans and chimpanzees. At this point, he went looking for the site in the NANOG gene of rhesus macaques that corresponds to the insertion site in humans and chimpanzees. Not only did he find the site, but he was able to predict the exact sequence of the DNA because he already knew the sequence of the Alu flanking regions in humans and chimpanzees.
What we have in this example is a case where common ancestry explains both the similarities in functional sequences and the differences in nonfunctional sequences among related species. As far as I know, such specific, testable predictions cannot be made using the principle of common design.
Am I right?
Third, I already knew that ID advocates are skeptical of the notion that non-coding DNA is nonfunctional.
But so are evolutionary biologists! That’s why they have continued investigating and have discovered that some of these sequences do indeed have interesting functions. As pointed out in the paper you linked to, it was biologists using evolutionary theory who first proposed the existence of functional pseudogene sequences. They hypothesized that some pseudogenes–especially those that are transcribed–might have regulatory roles, in part because they showed evidence of evolutionary sequence conservation. And this was over 25 years ago!
Apparently, while the ID-paradigm encourages a “wait-and-see” approach to these questions, the evolution-paradigm encourages a “go-and-find-out” approach.
Finally, it is important to note that the discovery that NANOGP8 shows evidence of function does not contradict evolution. NANOGP8′s characteristic lack of introns and its poly-A tail both indicate that it is a retropseudogene, and the genetic mechanisms that can produce these sequences are well understood. Also, as I just pointed out, the hypothesis that some pseudogenes may have regulatory functions was published a quarter century ago by biologists using evolutionary theory. So the discovery of functional pseudogenes is, although perhaps somewhat unexpected, fully compatible with evolutionary theory.
More importantly, none of this evidence lends support to the idea that the NANOGP8 retropseudogene was designed, as your argument seems to be implying. Well, that is, unless you’re arguing that the designer(s) used reverse transcription to insert a copy of the NANOG gene into the human genome and then modified it slightly to encourage cancer cells to proliferate.
Is this your argument?
The above comment was submitted on Tuesday evening, June 14th, 2011 around 11:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (that’s 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning where I live – as you can see, I really need to get a life). I specifically remember seeing the screen saying that my comment was being held for moderation, so I know that it was submitted.
As of this writing, my comment has not been posted, even though it is in full accordance with EN&V’s comment policy. My last couple of sentences may have been a little sarcastic, but that pales in comparison to some of the stuff that get’s posted on EN&V. Sadly, given that several other comments have been posted since I submitted mine, it appears that Casey has chosen to ignore the evidence I presented. I’ve thankfully learned to save my comments to a .txt file before submitting them, or else all of that work would have been lost.
So why go to the trouble to document this? After all, I’m certainly not the first person in the world who has had a comment denied on a blog!
Here are my three reasons:
First, I don’t want my recent fall off the wagon to be in vain. I am not going to take the time to write up something like that just to have it dumped into the Internet abyss (although I think I may have settled on the topic for video #7!- thanks Casey!).
Second, I think it’s important to document Casey Luskin’s to lack of integrity in this situation, especially in light of his repeated claims about wanting to “follow the evidence” where it leads. He’s not really following the evidence. He’s running away from it.
Finally, I think this incident nicely highlights one of the major differences between Casey and people like me: I don’t get paid to argue about evolution on the Internet, but Casey does. To me, that explains a lot. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a man to follow the evidence when his salary depends on him running away from it.