Planet Earth

An Odious Mixture

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerJan 18, 2007 1:21 PM


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Mark Twain once discovered to his horror that his story "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" had been hideously translated into French. He went so far as to publish the original story, the translation, and his own retranslation of the French back to English to show just how badly it had been abused. "I claim that I never put together such an odious mixture of bad grammar and delirium tremens in my life," he declared. I was reminded of Twain's experience when a reader drew my attention to a creationist attack published yeserday against an article I recently wrote for National Geographic. It is always a weirdly compelling experience to read such stuff. It's as if my words were dragged through some creationist machine and chopped up into...well, into something, although it's hard to quite see what it is. What is clear is that my article--which explored recent research into the evolution of complex traits--has really gotten creationists worked up. In November, Casey Luskin from the Discovery Institute, the House of Intelligent Design, wrote a sprawling attack full of confusion and misleading claims. For me at least, it reached a climax of absurdity when Luskin posed the question, "Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?" Now, the Internet makes it easy for anyone to publish something that they immediately regret typing. I've certainly done that a few times myself. But just Tuesday, Luskin approvingly quoted himself asking the Great Pinto Question. They're sticking to it, believe it or not. The next day came Answers in Genesis. Answers in Genesis is a more old-fashioned creationist organization than the Discovery Institute, the sort that claims that dinosaurs lived alongside people a couple thousand years ago. They've gone after me before, but the latest attack is unusual in its lurid intensity. The author is one "Dr. Mark Blais, Liberty University." Dr. Blais is a cipher. On the biology department web site, there is only a "Mark Blaise" listed, with no professional details. A search for either name along with Liberty University on Google scholar got me nowhere. What I do know is that Liberty University, run by Jerry Falwell, requires its biologists to be young-earth Creationists. (Any creationism-watchers recognize the name?) The shadowy Dr. Blais is here to tell you that my goal in writing my article was not to describe interesting new research published in the world's leading peer-reviewed biology journals, but instead "to take the concept of complexity and imply it is a result of the toolkit of nature rather than from the spoken Word of the Creator." Apparently, I did this by becoming a food stylist.

The subtleness with which this is packaged for public consumption rivals the restaurant and food industry. How delicious the food looks in the advertisement or on the commercial. Hours are spent to make the food appear pleasing to the sense of sight, that our sense of taste may be so stimulated as to cause us to go out and buy the product.

But beware of this elegantly prepared feast, dear reader! You may expect to bite into eternal truth--you know, "the truth of the origins of species, genetic diversity, and design in all living things in the book of Genesis," as Dr. Blais(e) puts it. Instead, your meal is spiked with qualifications and uncertainties. "How factual are statements that have words such as 'presumably,' 'may,' 'may have,' 'think,' 'kind of,' 'yet to determine,' and 'probably'?" asks Dr. Blais. I can only wonder what sort of research Dr. Blais got his Ph.D. in. Is it one in which scientists intepret new results with nary a "may," "may have" or "think"? In fact, that is what science--all science--is about: finding new evidence and pondering its significance, and then going out to find more evidence to test that pondering. The further Dr. Blais wades into the article, the more of his ignorance he reveals. He refers, for example, to "Craig Venter of Celera Genomics." Venter parted ways with Celera five years ago. I describe body-building genes shared by flies and humans in the article, which prompts Dr. Blais to write, "Zimmer has suggested the transition of fly larva to man with the only evidence being that we have nearly identical genes for some structures." News flash: we are not descended from fly larva, just as we are not descended from chimpanzees. Dr. Blais claims repeatedly that I don't describe how simple ancestors could evolve complex traits such as heads or multicellular bodies. In fact, I did. Genes can duplicate and then diverge, for example. Groups of genes can be switched on in different places in the body. But Dr. Blais doesn't even mention these processes. He also fails to mention the evidence that this occurred. The closest invertebrate relatives of vertebrates are headless, but the swollen tip of their nerve cord is built by genes that are related to the genes that build our heads in the same spaital pattern. That's what you'd expect if gene duplication and redeployment build the vertebrate head. After a while, things just get goofy. Dr. Blais quotes Neil Shubin, a paleontologist who discovered a transitional fish fossil called Tiktaalik with limb-like fins. "We knew that some fish in the Middle Devonian (375 million years ago) were experimenting with their fins in ways that would allow for the evolution of the weight bearing structure of tetrapod limbs." Shubin is speaking metaphorically here. A number of fossils of fish at the time show fins that had evolved into various limb-like anatomies. The process was like a series of experiments, many of which failed. But Dr. Blais seems to have gotten a picture in his head of fish in lab coats. "How do they know fish are capable of experimenting? What has science come to?" I can do no better than to quote the great Mark Twain in his outrage at his French translation: "I think it is the worst I ever saw; and yet the French are called a polished nation. If I had a boy that put sentences together as they do, I would polish him to some purpose." Update 1/18: A couple people have commented and emailed to me that Twain's retranslation was just a joke about chauvinism, a la Stephen Colbert. Any Twain scholars out there?

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