Illogic and Innumeracy at the Biologic Institute

The Discovery Institute has posted an essay by a new contributor, Dr. Ann Gauger of the Biologic Institute.

If you are wondering whether this new expository source will sustain the Discovery Institute’s longstanding reputation for publishing spin, please read the following excerpts and be comforted.

Let me explain what the four forces are, and then I will describe the problem they pose.

Natural selection is the evolutionary force with which most people are familiar, and can be simply stated as follows: organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and have more offspring than other less fit counterparts, all other things being equal. Mutation and recombination act as the engine of organismal variation: mutations change an organism’s DNA (by substitution, insertion or deletion of particular bases, or modification of the DNA), while recombination shuffles the DNA into new combinations, thus producing further variation. This means that each individual has a unique genome. Differences in each individual’s DNA can produce differences in how well the organism functions in its environment. Finally, genetic drift causes particular variations to be lost from small populations at random, simply because individuals may die or fail to reproduce for reasons unrelated to their fitness for their environment.

[...]

This may seem counter-intuitive, so let me reiterate this point. Because of the accidental effects of genetic drift in small populations, natural selection is not strong enough to guarantee that beneficial mutations will eventually become fixed (universal) in a population or that weakly harmful mutations will be eliminated. Thus, in organisms with small effective population size (e.g. all vertebrates, which includes us humans), the stochastic and non-adaptive forces of mutation, recombination, and drift will tend to drive evolution in non-adaptive directions.

[...]

This picture of evolution is strikingly in contrast to the stories told by biologists who believe in the adaptive power of natural selection to generate whole new cellular systems, behaviors, and body plans (see for example Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll 3 or most evolutionary psychology arguments 4). If three out of the four forces driving evolution are non-adaptive, then perhaps most evolutionary change is also non-adaptive, and not due to the power of natural selection. Hence the controversy.

Emphasis added.

First, the main bit of illogic in the above. The conclusion, highlighted in the quoted excerpts, does not follow. The conclusion would need measurement of the relative frequencies of each process, something that Gauger apparently is not prepared to enter upon, since it would also invalidate her argument. Simply because there are four enumerated processes does not imply that some specific one of them must therefore occur less frequently, making the above quoted bit a straightforward piece of misleading and fallacious argumentation.

Second, another bit of illogic in the above. Gauger depends on a contributing argument, that if most evolutionary change is non-adaptive, adaptive processes cannot be said to account for such things as the generation of new cellular systems, behaviors, or body plans. This argument is completely unsupported by Gauger. Something Gauger fails to take cognizance of is that even among those called “adaptationist” as if it were an epithet, the prevalence of non-adaptive evolutionary change is commonly stipulated. I heard Richard Dawkins field a question as to whether natural selection could be said to be the main process in evolutionary change, and in his response he explicitly stated that when one looks at the level of proteins and the genome, what one mainly sees is change via genetic drift, but that if one looks at the level of visible or discernible morphological and behavioral traits, most of those have been shaped by selection. A trivial result from examination of the genetic code is that about 20% of possible single nucleotide changes are completely neutral, meaning that a substantial proportion of a genome could change without engaging any selection at all. On the other hand, only about 1.5% of the human genome codes for proteins. Selective processes can be far less frequently in action than drift and yet have important effects on the evolution of traits; what the mode of evolution is does not eliminate selection as the cause of the various phenomena Gauger lists.

Third, Gauger pushes innumeracies. When saying that “natural selection is not strong enough” to effect change, Gauger ignores the fact that one can utilize the math to determine just how strong selection would need to be to be effective at a given effective population size. There is no single fixed value for the strength of selective pressure on a particular trait, as Gauger’s text misleadingly relies upon; that is a context-dependent value that one can only get from empirical study. Certainly, only larger selective values will overcome drift at small population sizes, but one can then work on characterizing the likelihood that such strong selection may occur rather than following Gauger’s fallacy and believing that one need not even look. Another innumeracy of Gauger’s is her bland assertion that all vertebrates have small effective population sizes. This will come as a shock to ichthyologists, rodent biologists, and bat biologists everywhere. Even artiodactyls have had large effective population sizes (e.g., bison in North America before 1865). Once the various sorts of biologists are over their shock, though, they will have a good chuckle at Gauger’s expense.

Editor’s Note: Ann Gauger is a senior research scientist at Biologic Institute. Her work uses molecular genetics and genomic engineering to study the origin, organization and operation of metabolic pathways. She received a BS in biology from MIT, and a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Washington, where she studied cell adhesion molecules involved in Drosophila embryogenesis. As a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard, she cloned and characterized the Drosophila kinesin light chain. Her research has been published in Nature, Development, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her awards include a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship and an American Cancer Society post-doctoral fellowship.

That’s very sad. Gauger shouldn’t be having these very, very basic problems with the biology. It just goes to show just how ideological precommitment to “intelligent design” creationism can make even smart people like Gauger say uninformed things.

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38 thoughts on “Illogic and Innumeracy at the Biologic Institute

  1. Matt Young

    The four forces in physics are gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear weak, and nuclear strong. Gravitational is by far the weakest. Therefore it is not important. Right?

  2. Austringer Post author

    Thanks, Matt. That’s yet another way in which the Gauger argument fails.

    When someone is so aggressively promoted as an expert in a topic and then makes such completely false statements, one is left with, as I see it, only two alternatives. First, if there is innocence with respect to emitting the falsehoods, the best one can do is consider the putative expert to be incompetent. The assertion of expertise must be considered to be bogus in that case. Second, if they are not incompetent, all that’s left is the inference that they are deliberately emitting the falsehoods. If they actually know what they are talking about, and yet persist in telling the public falsehoods, I don’t see how they can avoid that plain conclusion.

    When someone emits a bunch of falsehoods but hasn’t claimed any personal expertise, it is far simpler to extend the benefit of the doubt and attribute such a performance to a general ignorance. Once expert status is claimed, though, that benefit of the doubt disappears. Such a person is either lying about the topic or about their expertise in the topic.

  3. Mike Haubrich, FCD

    Even with the maths aside (cause I am not trained in them for biology,) if Natural Selection were to be the sole force acting on genetics in evolution, the Malthusian nature of Darwin’s proposition would still be formidable. Given the fecundity of life, those traits eliminated through death, extinction and bad luck would leave all the more room for the traits which aid survival of populations.

    I wonder if she will address Sean Carroll’s work in her future essays, since she only alludes to his book but doesn’t specifically address any of the issues he explains.

  4. ERV

    I dont even think she has the ‘four forces’ right.

    Mutation and recombination are the same thing. Recombination is just ‘bulk’ mutation. I think she means to say gene flow between populations.

    For instance:
    HIV-1 Subtype B in the US.
    HIV-1 Subtype C in Africa.

    Both subtypes happily increase their genetic diversity through mutation and recombination.

    Gene flow, however, occurs when an individual is co-infected with both subtypes, recombination occurs, introducing a Subtype B gene in the context of Subtype C HIV-1.

    But in this case its the gene flow thats interesting, not the actual recombination, because, as I said, recombination happens all the time.

    As far as Mz Annie herself, she got her PhD 20 years ago. She has three publications– 2 in grad school, 1 in her only post-doc. She might have had a Nature paper in school (good for her), but shes a failure. She wouldnt be a scientific role model, even if she werent a Creationist.

  5. Austringer Post author

    A classic genetics text by Suzuki et al. split genetic change into four processes: chromosomal mutation, gene mutation, recombination, and change in transposable genetic elements. Dr. Gauger is certainly either confused or engaging in demagoguery about a great many things, but I wanted to critique her on points that were obviously wrong, and avoided those that were simply arguably wrong.

  6. KP

    I wonder how she deals with neutral changes in genes and/or their protein products that can be traced through common ancestry and thus show evolutionary change.

    Oh, wait. The DI folks don’t have a problem with common ancestry, just don’t ask them about it directly. And don’t tell the YECs.

  7. minimalist

    ERV, how dare you call a SENIOR RESEARCH SCIENTIST at the Biologic Institute a “failure”! Why, she’s risen to the top of her field!

    Also, this has me LOL’ing like mad: (from the Wikipedia page on the Biologic Institute)

    Gauger reported on her work at the Wistar Retrospective Symposium held from June 3 through June 7, 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts. As reported by Daniel Brooks, “…she discussed “leaky growth,” in microbial colonies at high densities, leading to horizontal transfer of genetic information, and announced that under such conditions she had actually found a novel variant that seemed to lead to enhanced colony growth. Gunther Wagner said, “So, a beneficial mutation happened right in your lab?” at which point the moderator halted questioning.”

  8. James F

    Following up on what ERV said, Gauger’s last paper (1993 in JBC with Larry Goldstein) is the oldest paper listed on the Biologic Institute’s web site. So far they’ve got nothing for 2009, and the DI’s CSC stopped listing papers “supporting” intelligent design in 2006 (from that great biology journal, Chaos, Solitons and Fractals). It’s as if something happened in 2005….

  9. Blake Stacey

    OK, on behalf of all sane MIT graduates, I’d like to apologize for Gauger’s innumeracy. I know that when I studied there, you could learn population genetics.

    Incidentally, Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is well-known among physicists as a crackpot garden; its editor, M. S. El Naschie, uses it as a spuriously credible repository for his own “E-Infinity” claptrap.

  10. James F

    Blake, so it’s basically your Rivista di Biologia?

  11. Arthur Hunt

    The four forces in physics are gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear weak, and nuclear strong. Gravitational is by far the weakest. Therefore it is not important. Right?

    Using Gauger’s logic, one could also claim that, because it is but one of four forces, the nuclear strong force really isn’t that strong or important. Certainly not enough to shape or frame matter.

  12. mark

    My first thought after reading the quote (after “WTF?”) was the Doctor has never added vectors, has she?
    I thought the Four Forces were War, Famine, Death, & Conquest.

  13. Skeptico

    If I cross the road, there are two possible outcomes:

    1) I can get to the other side safely

    2) I can get hit by a car.

    If one out of the two outcomes from crossing the road ends in death, then if humans cross roads they will pretty soon all humans will be killed.

  14. David

    great post. I went & read the whole painful thing. My favorite quote:

    “In his landmark book On the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed natural selection as a force sufficient to account for the organismal complexity and diversity we see around us today. But Darwin knew nothing about genetics or molecular biology. He knew nothing about how variation among organisms was produced or inherited, or what the limits of variation might be. He knew nothing about population dynamics or how difficult it might be for a slightly advantageous trait to spread throughout a population.

    In the many years since Darwin wrote his book, scientists have learned much about these topics, and as a result, they have identified four forces driving evolution, not just the one known to Darwin. The four forces are natural selection, mutation, recombination, and genetic drift, and when taken together they affect evolving populations of organisms in sometimes surprising ways. This has led to the controversy …”

    The point of the essay is that Darwin was wrong and the DISCOVERY of three additional forces that he knew nothing about explains just how wrong he was.

    Another zinger is in the footnotes. Gotta’ read the footnotes, they hide the best stuff….
    “This is the standard story. Some scientists are now proposing that mechanisms exist to promote targeted mutations …”

    This seems to me to be opening a door to some kind of intelligent design proposal.

  15. Brian Schmidt

    Wouldn’t genetic drift be as likely to help spread a beneficial mutation as it would be to eliminate it? I thought small isolated populations were ideal ones for new mutations and the primary means of speciation.

  16. eddyline

    Re: Skeptico

    No, there’s more vatiation! You could also be hit by a truck, a bus, a motorcycle, lightning, falling rocks, buffalo, elk, moose, or tsunami. Therefore, humanity should have been extinct before it even evolved to Homo sapiens!

  17. Susannah

    I am a lay person, with my education ‘way back in the mists of history, and possibly a complete idiot, to boot, but I have a question about her reasoning:

    “Because of the accidental effects of genetic drift in small populations, natural selection is not strong enough to guarantee that beneficial mutations will eventually become fixed (universal) in a population or that weakly harmful mutations will be eliminated. Thus, in organisms with small effective population size (e.g. all vertebrates, which includes us humans), the stochastic and non-adaptive forces of mutation, recombination, and drift will tend to drive evolution in non-adaptive directions.”

    What I understand is this; beneficial mutations may or may not be fixed in a population. But why would that mean that mr&d would push towards non-adaptive directions? It does not seem to follow.

    If beneficial mutation A (bmA) is not fixed, wouldn’t that still leave the possibility that bmB would, and that natural selection would choose that one, instead? In other words, so the population doesn’t follow path A, which would be adaptive, it still may follow path B, which is also adaptive, just different.

    Am I completely out to lunch?

  18. Bronze Dog

    I was reading for a while, thinking, “Well, that seems alright. Are they quoting a rebuttal or something?” I even scrolled back up to check.

    Then I got to the bolded non-sequitur.

    Work Time Fun?!

  19. Sophist

    I thought the Four Forces were War, Famine, Death, & Conquest

    No, I’m pretty sure the Four Forces are “Grievous Bodily Harm”, “Cruelty to Animals”, “Embarrassing Personal Problems”, and “Things Not Working Properly Even After You’ve Given Them A Good Thumping”.

  20. LRA

    “small populations”

    How could 6.7 billion people be considered a small population? How about insects? Someone already pointed out rodents. What is she thinking?

  21. KP

    Susannah, that sounds vaguely like different peaks in an adaptive landscape. See Arnold, et al. 2001. The adaptive landscape as a conceptual bridge between micro and macroevolution. Genetica 112–113: 9–32 for a relatively current review.

    or here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_landscape

    Maybe not exactly what you were asking about, but certainly a few “adaptive” states are possible, given combinations of genes creating a phenotype. An adaptive state on the landscape may not have the highest fitness (i.e., not “optimal”) but may be an adaptive state that a population or species remains at simply because the fitness cost of moving away is too high – i.e., too costly to get to the next highest peak.

    Someone more versed in this help me out here.

    (Nonetheless, I’m surprised that Gauger doesn’t refer to it, since the concept has been around since the 30s.

  22. arensb

    A while back, I was wondering about neutral drift, and wrote a program that simulated a population with two absolutely equal alleles of a gene. That is, neither allele conferred any advantage or disadvantage upon the organism, and both were equally likely to be passed on to the next generation. I was surprised to find that in smaller populations, one of the alleles will often take over. See here for more details and colorful graphs.

  23. Susannah

    Thanks, KP.

    “…certainly a few “adaptive” states are possible…”

    That’s what I was getting at. In other words, the choice isn’t necessarily between adaptive and non-adaptive, but may also include several distinct adaptive states.

  24. Freidenker

    I don’t get it. This person is extremely well-trained and is probably very talented. She goes on to describe basic concepts in evolutionary biology that isn’t quite accurate (I’m a puny undergrad and I almost imploded when I read that vertebrates have small population sizes. What? Are you sure this lady went to MIT? )

    But on the whole, after reading ALL that she said, I can’t help wondering:

    How is any of this useful for ID? Besides from being a hilariously incompetent criticism of basic evolutionary principles, I don’t see how any of this is useful for IDC at all. I know this has happened before, but are you trying to say that this trained biologist actually argues that the inability of natural selection, er, to do anything at all, really, is somehow evidence for something? Like what?

  25. Austringer Post author

    arensb,

    Yes, both genetic drift and natural selection are characterized by a loss of heterozygosity in the genome. For natural selection, the canonical expression of this is in Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. For genetic drift, the mathematical treatments of Crow and Kimura should be consulted.

    I wrote a program back in 1995 to illustrate this loss of heterozygosity due to genetic drift.

  26. a lurker

    ERV: “As far as Mz Annie herself, she got her PhD 20 years ago. She has three publications– 2 in grad school, 1 in her only post-doc.”

    Don’t knock her Abby, one MIGHT be able to get tenure at a community college with that record. That is why is why she is senior research scientist. :-)

    /No offense the many fine hard working instructors at community college.
    //Or at least no offense to hard working instructors at community college who don’t call themselves “senior research scientist.”

  27. Austringer Post author

    Susannah,

    Sir Ronald Fisher produced a calculation giving a figure for the likelihood that a new beneficial allele would be lost from a population. That gave about an 85% chance of loss in the first 15 generations, and was relatively independent of the strength of selection, IIRC.

    Small populations really do make it harder for selection to have an effect, and drift will be the more frequent mode of change, increasingly so as the effective population size decreases.

  28. Austringer Post author

    Freidenker,

    This is a simple result of a shared illogic in the religious community. It was expressed explicitly in several lawsuits: McLean v. Arkansas (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and Kitzmiller v. DASD (2005). The basic argument runs like this:

    Evolutionists commonly criticize creationists for picking faults with evolution instead of letting the creation model stand on its own merit. What they do not understand is that there are only two models of origins. If life did not evolve, then it was created. Therefore evidence against evolution is evidence for creation, and evidence against creation is evidence for evolution.

    The extent to which this erroneous mode of thinking goes contributed to Judge Jones’ comment about “breathtaking inanity” in the antievolution case that was presented to him.

    “Intelligent design” creationism still relies upon this “two model” approach, though they now often simply present a public front of wanting to pick at what they consider “weaknesses” in the evidence for evolutionary science, believing that the cultural spread of the “two model” meme will lead students to choose creation/design if evolutionary science is perceived as being less tenable. The “weaknesses”, though, are either opportunistic critiques of current research or are readily seen to be from the same ensemble of criticisms made by explicitly religious antievolutionists in the past.

    Gauger’s “cdesign propenentsists” argumentation is easily seen to fit the “two model” approach inherited from the “creation scientists”.

  29. RBH

    @24.arensb said …

    A while back, I was wondering about neutral drift, and wrote a program that simulated a population with two absolutely equal alleles of a gene. That is, neither allele conferred any advantage or disadvantage upon the organism, and both were equally likely to be passed on to the next generation. I was surprised to find that in smaller populations, one of the alleles will often take over. See here for more details and colorful graphs.

    You can also do this exercise in Avida-ED with colorful results.

  30. Jeff Eyges

    As a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard

    To me this is the saddest part of the article. It’s bad enough that secular universities are awarding PhD’s in science to creationists, but that Ivy League schools are participating in this lowering of standards is shameful. First Kurt Wise, now this woman. I mean, let’s just give Ray Comfort a doctorate in Theology while we’re at it.

  31. Austringer Post author

    With a hat tip to Dorothy Parker, you can give an antievolutionist an education, but you can’t make them think.

    The willingness to examine one’s precommitments has to come from within. Without that, they are up against Morton’s Demon.

    Thus was born the realization that there is a dangerous demon on the loose. When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell’s demon did for thermodynamics. Morton’s demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn’t looking.

    However, my conversations have made me aware that each YEC is a victim of my demon. Morton’s demon makes it possible for a person to have his own set of private facts which others are not privy to, allowing the YEC to construct a theory which is perfectly supported by the facts which the demon lets through the gate. And since these are the only facts known to the victim, he feels in his heart that he has explained everything. Indeed, the demon makes people feel morally superior and more knowledgeable than others.

    The demon makes its victim feel very comfortable as there is no contradictory data in view. The demon is better than a set of rose colored glasses. The demon’s victim does not understand why everyone else doesn’t fall down and accept the victim’s views. After all, the world is thought to be as the victim sees it and the demon doesn’t let through the gate the knowledge that others don’t see the same thing. Because of this, the victim assumes that everyone else is biased, or holding those views so that they can keep their job, or, in an even more devious attack by my demon, they think that their opponents are actually demon possessed themselves or sons of Satan. This is a devious demon!

  32. Alan

    ERV wrote: “As far as Mz Annie herself, she got her PhD 20 years ago. She has three publications– 2 in grad school, 1 in her only post-doc. She might have had a Nature paper in school (good for her), but shes a failure. She wouldnt be a scientific role model, even if she werent a Creationist.”

    Actually, if she were not a Creationist, she might have continued to do real science instead of teaching homeschooled kids. We might’ve see some more papers from her.

    As it is, at the Biologic Institute, even if she does good experiments, she will interpret them through Bible-colored glasses. That is very sad.

  33. Jen Chin

    How do you explain the white flag tails of animals of prey? They come up with excuses for deer tail flagging as being beneficial, but then how about rabbits? There is no benefit there. There is no natural selection in white flag tails. Evolution by your standards, should have weeded out those white flag tails long ago (especially in rabbits).

    Now the white flag tails can be explained by a type of intelligent design, by an overall balance design to nature.

    The lady is right guys, you just use big words. Your tongues are as doubled edged swords. They spoke of you in the bible.

    Haaaaa Haaaaaa Haaaaaa

  34. Austringer Post author

    I suppose when somebody gets a chance to study rabbit populations for the trait of the tail coloration in detail enough to determine selective pressures, we will find out. Until then, IDC is still pushing just-so stories as if that were some kind of evidence. Thanks for showing the drawbacks of pseudoscience by example.

  35. fallible

    “If three out of the four forces driving evolution are non-adaptive, then perhaps most evolutionary change is also non-adaptive, and not due to the power of natural selection.”

    Do modern “Darwinists” deny this? Seems like a big, so what. Scientists have learned stuff since Darwin.

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