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PZ Myers and Abbie Smith – An Hour of No Cursing!

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PZ Myers and Abbie Smith have an hour-long video conference here. A few surprising things, not the least of which is neither of them thought to bolster their points with the cussing that characterizes their blogs.

Anyhow, the first 15 minutes they talk about epigenetics, the Altenberg 16 conference, Susan Mazur, and try to downplay the Altenberg theme that evolutionary biology is in a vast state of disarray. Abbie lets us know how little she understands epigenetics and is evidently still laboring under the outdated Dawkins era notion that genes and proteins are everything. PZ, who is more up on the subject, looks a bit aghast after Abbie describes her understanding of epigenetics. If Abbie had been one of us he’d have called her an idiot but since she’s on his side he gently tried to correct her, saying his students have the same misunderstandings and it’s difficult to teach. Abbie rudely interrupts over and over as PZ attempts to explain. Several epigenetic mechanisms were discussed. One that wasn’t touched on, remarkably, was RNA in the cytoplasm. When a cell divides the cytoplasm of the mother is divided up among the daughter(s) and the vast, complex assortment of RNA molecules which participate in and control a huge number of cellular processes (more roles for RNA are constantly being discovered) is inherited by the daughter. Ostensibly this process of dividing up the cytoplasm along with copying the DNA goes back in an unbroken line of cells for billions of years… but I digress.

The next 8 minutes focuses on the 20 year long Lenski experiment with E.coli. PZ at this point reveals how little he knows about E.coli mistakenly saying that it is characterized by its inability to metabolize citrate while many other microorganisms can. To be fair that’s sort of true. Unlike many other microorganisms E.coli can’t metabolize citrate in the presence of oxygen (aerobic) so that’s one of the tests you make to help identify it. That’s a convenient test because it can be done on a petri dish in room air. The part he left out is that E.coli can metabolize citrate anaerobically. It has everything it needs to do the job except a cell wall transport protein (a shuttle that ferries a citrate molecule from outside the cell to the inside called citrate permease) that functions in an aerobic environment. Getting the citrate molecule across the cell wall in the presence of oxygen is the only hurdle the organism had to overcome. The rest of the process is hugely complex and all the necessary pieces for it are already there. The most amazing thing about Lenski’s experiment is how long it took for his original culture to find the few mutations necessary to get citrate molecules across the cell wall. When the exact sequence of mutations is ascertained I’ll bet dollars against donuts it falls well within Behe’s “Edge of Evolution”. Lenski is going to end up providing yet another confirmation for Behe’s predictions in EoE. Mark my words. But I digress again.

The next 7 minutes is about the life of grad students. PZ teaches at an undergrad university so he’s curious if things are still the same – low pay, long hours, etc. Abbie says it is with an exception that the vast majority of biology students are now female while the professors are all male. I’m not sure how new that is. When I took Human Anatomy and Physiology in college in 1979 there were 25 students in the class and I was the only guy if you don’t count the professor. To be quite honest it was possibly the most enjoyable class I ever took. All those young women and me the only young man – plus I was the best student who always had the answers when the prof asked a question. That’s as close to what it must be like to be a prince with a harem as I’ll ever experience! But I digress once again.

The last half hour is creationist bashing. Science pretty much left the building at that point. This is an improvement however. Usually these people spend about 75% of their time whining about creationist this and creationist that. They’ve got creationists-on-the-brain. It reminds me of one of my dogs with his ball. He always has it close, carries it around everywhere, always wanting someone to play fetch or catch. Nothing much new there either.

One thing I did find interesting at the very end was PZ still being clueless about specified complexity. He uses a beach full of sand as an example in complexity. All those grains of sand in a very complex unique pattern but all placed there by storms and tides and other chaotic processes. Yes PZ, the sand on a beach is exceedingly complex. What you don’t seem to grok is that it has no specification. It doesn’t have component parts that function together in a machine that performs some specific task. There are no abstract codes in a pile of sand like there is in a strand of DNA. There is no ribosome translating those codes into instructions for assembling a protein. There is nothing like that in a pile of sand. There is no specification. Maybe pictures will help him:

Complex unspecified sand
sand dunes

Complex specified sand
sand sculpture

What part of that don’t you understand, PZ?

Another surprise was that PZ and Abbie both think our little blog at Uncommon Descent is the most popular “creationist” blog on the web. I’m flattered but I don’t know if that’s true. However, they try to play it down by saying it’s dwarfed by their blogs and is really insignificant in comparison. That is probably both true and false. True in the sense that the traffic is scads lower but not true in the sense of insignificance. They wouldn’t have much to talk about on their blogs if you take away their obsession over intelligent design (like my dog with his ball) and they get much of their source material from us. We seem to have overwhelming significance in that respect and we don’t get the traffic because they reproduce it on their own blogs. We still get the eyeballs on our material just not direct from the source. If it wasn’t for scientists like PZ and scientist wannabees like Abbie Smith there’s a good chance we indeed would not be noticed. Thanks PZ and Abbie. We don’t know what we’d do without you!

Hi Dave, I am glad you addresed the specification issue. I discussed "Beach Complexity" vs "Sandcastle Complexity" at my website recently. Causal agents at level #1 (picture #1) cannot produce level #2 (picture #2) structures. "There are no abstract codes in a pile of sand like there is in a strand of DNA. There is no ribosome translating those codes into instructions for assembling a protein." There is also no error checking in a pile of sand and I am given to understand that both DNA and RNA employ error checking. William Brookfield
As animated as she was I was thinking it was an amphetamine of some sort. Yeah I guess you're right. She did seem a little hyped up. Myers, by contrast, appeared to have taken a valium. Hmmmm.... I concur. :D F2XL
Seemed like Abbie took a Midol before the conversation. As animated as she was I was thinking it was an amphetamine of some sort. Myers, by contrast, appeared to have taken a valium. DaveScot
I checked out blog traffic with Alexa and scienceblogs.com has an aggregate traffic rating around 8,000 (meaning there are 7,999 blogs with more traffic). UD is ranked about 220,000 but I wonder what it would be if we too were aggregated along with all the major pro-ID blogs. AnswersInGenesis.org is the biggest one of those I found ranked at 28,000. Panda's Thumb, our classic rival, is ranked at 140,000. I suspect scienceblogs.com rating is mostly the result of Pharyngula being one of the blogs inside the science blog domain. Pharyngula's high traffic certainly isn't because Myers is renowned for scientific prowess. Myers is an undistinguished associate professor in an undergraduate cow-town satellite campus of a state university in a state with a small population and small economic output. He's built up traffic almost soley by becoming a rallying point for atheists who can't get enough of his constant, gratuitous religion bashing. I mean let's be real here. No science post he ever made could come close to the traffic garnered by his science-free antics in desecrating a communion wafer. To be fair, Answers In Genesis gets most of its traffic by promotion of religion. I think the only reason it isn't ranked much higher is that religionists congregate in the physical world to share assurances and beliefs. I mean you can't swing a dead cat anywhere in the world without hitting a church of some sort. Contrast this with atheists who, at best, have regular local gatherings of just a handful of people even in cities with a million or more people. Atheists have practically nowhere else to turn for mutual reinforcement of their beliefs other than internet websites like Pharyngula and Dawkins.net (ranked #20,000). Panda's Thumb, which usually avoids outright religion bashing due to 40% of U.S. scientists being self-identified moderate Christians, is really still our loyal opposition and while they are ahead of us in traffic ranking they aren't ahead by a whole lot. DaveScot
Seemed like Abbie took a Midol before the conversation. F2XL
Fortunately, there is very little federal funding for paleontology. Most - by far - of US life science funding is through the National Institutes of Health, which, true to its name, focuses on human medical issues. Daniel King
Nice smackdown, I enjoyed this entry, DaveScot. William Wallace
Dave, I have yet to see any evidence of practical contributions to society from evolutionary theory--apart from using microevolutionary concepts. Conversely, I think we've seen biology and possibly medicine delayed for years because of evolutionary theory (e.g., junk DNA and vestigial organ assumptions). I think these points really need to be pressed. The reason is, that any counterresponse will have to be in a philosophical or sociological realm... People who tend to hold truly naturalistic perspectives try to hide their worldviews under the guise of science. This might help bring out the truth a little. parapraxis
“I mean really, who gives a flip if whales came from hippos or birds from dinosaurs or what have you. Ancient history. Interesting in a academic way but otherwise useless.” I ask myself this question all the freaking time. How exactly are the discovery of these “transitional” fossils benefiting science? People are obviously interested in historical science and the OOL, but other than that I struggle to figure out how these inferences are useful. Sheesh, today I made the mistake of asking what exactly determines a “transitional” jawbone from that of a human or ape jawbone, and I was accused of not being fit to be a mother.... "She's a liar, a fool, and a danger to hers and others' children. She is not fit to be a mother. Good grief, these people take their theory seriously. I better always remain anonymous or I may find social services banging on my front door insisting that I’m not fit to raise my kids because I question the “fact” that they are the byproduct of a lucky little blob that arose from primordial sludge. FtK
"I saw that and my jaw dropped. Here Hitchens writes a best seller about atheism yet he is so clueless about evolution that the thinks blind salamanders are a good example of evolution." I thought the same thing. He seems to indicate that he thought he was really on to something and ran it past Dawkins for feedback. He simply cannot be that dense, can he? Is he completely ignorant of the fact that Darwinists use these ridiculous examples of loss of information all the time? And, why they do, I have no idea. Like Casey said in an article he wrote today... "Hitchens, Dawkins and Carroll can have all the evidence they want that the neo-Darwinian mechanism can mess things up, turn genes off, and cause "loss-of-function." No one on any side of this debate doubts that random mutations are quite good at destroying complex features. Us folks on the ID side suspect that random mutation and natural selection aren’t good at doing very much more than that. And the constant citations by Darwinists of "loss of function" examples as alleged refutations of ID only strengthens our argument. Meanwhile, ID proponents seek to explain a far more interesting aspect of biological history: the origin of new complex biological features. Despite his quotation of Michael Shermer on the evolution of the eye, Hitchens has yet to do that." FtK
russ, I saw that and my jaw dropped. Here Hitchens writes a best seller about atheism yet he is so clueless about evolution that the thinks blind salamanders are a good example of evolution. Does Hitchens have any concept of "information loss"? Jehu
Daniel Abbie is at least doing work I respect with practical benefit. Evolutinary biology is a waste of time beyond the so-called "microevolutionary" level in my opinion. You need to know some basics such as how recombination works and how simple random mutations that result in antibiotic resistance and genetic diseases work but beyond that evolution works so slowly (if indeed it works at all in creating novel complexity) there's no practical benefit. The study of living tissue in species or genera that are never going to change in radical ways in centuries or even millenia is where all the practical goodies are waiting to be found. I mean really, who gives a flip if whales came from hippos or birds from dinosaurs or what have you. Ancient history. Interesting in a academic way but otherwise useless. Why waste the talent on impractical things when we have so much to do in more productive areas of research? I suppose if someone can fairly call me a science-stopper it's really confined to just a few sub-disciplines that hold just about zero promise of producing anything of practical benefit. DaveScot
Dave, I think Abbie's busy enough as a graduate student (although she seems to have a lot of free time to blog). PZ, on the other hand, is clearly insufficiently challenged by his day job. Daniel King
Daniel Common sense probably won't tell YOU much about evolution because you think it's the result of a random dance of molecules. However, common sense is used a lot in engineering and if you look at celluar machinery as something which was engineered by a mind it tells you a lot. Many of the same solutions that we invent have analogs in the machinery of life from aerodynamics of bird wings to the base-4 serial encoding of genes to the ribosome which reads copies of genes like a paper tape through an older computer and translates the instructions to pick & place different amino acids building them into complex parts with function and fit in at least 5 dimensions (3-spatial plus 2 electrostatic) just like factory robots work. The next big thing the bumbling buffoons of accidental causation are going to discover is that 3 billion base pairs of DNA isn't anywhere near enough to specify the construction of a human being complete with hard-wired autonomous operating system, exquisite sensory apparatus, instincts, a neural network that learns as it goes and models reality at levels we can only dream about with our current information processing systems, and etcetera. That you can't specify a system of that complexity in that little storage space is a matter of experience and common sense in engineering. Mark my words, there is at least a magnitude (I'd guess several orders) more heritable information in epigenetic form than in genetic form. The genome is little more than a really well organized and cross referenced component library which is why we share 99% of those components with chimps and 50% with bananas. And it's also why all we really know about why a horse is a horse and not a fly is because the horse's mother was a horse. It might interest you to know that when nuclear transfers are done between different species development (until it aborts at an early stage) proceeds along the lines of the organism that produced the enucleated egg not the organism from which the nucleus was obtained. The Altenberg 16 are just beginning to realize how vast is the scope of epigenetic information. Aside for ERV since I know she'll read this: No, Abbie, I don't think epigenetics are magic but I will remind you of one Arthur C. Clarke's three laws of prediction: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A simple bacteria isn't sufficiently advanced anymore but a complete human being still is. And shame on you for not reading Venter's biography. I think the Venter Institute is the single most important company in the world as far as potential for delivering technology that can change the way we live more than anything else in history including fire and agriculture. The engineering opportunities in being able to program bacteria to build whatever we want with atomic accuracy, just using materials and sources of energy they already use (think of extremophiles), is mind boggling. Venter's on the fast track towards that goal. So my view I guess, just because as a technologist I recognize technology in the machinery of life, it's a real science stopper. Yeah right. Now get busy. I didn't spend 25 years making networked computers into cheap household appliances so you can squander your time bashing creationists. I did it so you can process, correlate, and share the growing mountain of information needed to reverse-engineer the simplest cells (plus the money was really really good and it was fun too). Read Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation" when you get a chance. That's a roadmap to nanotechnlogy written over 20 years ago. A globe spanning hypertext network was one step along the way. The next step is what Venter is doing. DaveScot
off topic: Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins offer blindness of subterranean salamanders as evidence of Darwinism: http://www.slate.com/id/2195683/
Whereas the likelihood that the post-ocular blindness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to constitute a near certainty.
"Most people don’t believe in Darwinism and don’t have any anxiety over their unbelief. Commons sense and everyday experience constantly reaffirms them." That's true, for sure. Common sense tells us nothing about evolution. And it never will. Daniel King
Great post Dave. There is a reason they get higher traffic over at their blogs. They need a constant "fix" to suppress the anxiety caused by lingering doubts about atheism. Most people don't believe in Darwinism and don't have any anxiety over their unbelief. Commons sense and everyday experience constantly reaffirms them. As Alferd Russel Wallace, who discovered natural selection before Darwin, once wrote "There are laws of nature but they are purposeful. Everywhere we look we are confronted by power and intelligence." Jehu
By the way, PZ and Abbie both agree that if we played the tape of life all over again, we would get a different result. That is consistent with Darwinism, neo-Darwinism, the modern evolutionary symthesis, and its newest manifestation, whatever that turns out to be. That is because if Darwinism means anything, it means UNGUIDED and UNPROGRAMMED macro evolution. StephenB
Dave, this is a great post. Few there are who know their subject well enough to frame the issue, provide essential details, and leave the clutter behind. In this case, even your digressions are more edifying than your adversaries' arguments. StephenB
Yeah, PZ's blog emphasizes what I point out in my post of: Some Psychological Aspects of Atheism--Part II. They think anyone who believes in intelligent design or God are idiots. He's very immature and an eliteist. parapraxis
Great post, Dave. tribune7
Thoroughly enjoyed this post, Dave. Thanks... FtK
Abbie says it is with an exception that the vast majority of biology students are now female while the professors are all male. Typo? Thanks. russ
That’s as close to what it must be like to be a prince with a harem as I’ll ever experience! But I digress once again. - LOL - LOL - That was real good Dave. Gave me a good laugh this morning. bornagain77

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