Intelligent Design

The Schlafly-Lenski Briefwechsel

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PZ Myers at the Panda’s Thumb draws our attention to an exchange between Andrew Schlafly and Richard Lenski (the impetus for the exchange is Lenski’s work running tens of thousands of generations of E. coli to produce some interesting, or not so interesting, evolution as the case may be). Myers thinks Lenski gets the better of the exchange. I would draw your attention to Lenski’s seething contempt and ask whether it betrays strength or weakness.

31 Replies to “The Schlafly-Lenski Briefwechsel

  1. 1
    russ says:

    How many generations of Lenski offspring would it take to evolve the ability to stay cool in the face of in-you-face emails from detractors? Flying off the handle when challenged cannot possibly be a useful survival mechanism, can it?

  2. 2
    russ says:

    Oh, and if you answer my first question with an actual number, I promise not to demand the underlying data. I don’t dare.

  3. 3
    jinxmchue says:

    And I’d draw your attention to Lenski’s usage of “P.P.S.,” “P.P.P.S” and “P.P.P.P.S.” Honestly, who but preteen girls writes like that?

  4. 4
    Physicalist says:

    Seems to me that Lenski’s “contempt” betrays a whole lot of strength.

  5. 5
    Praxiteles says:

    Having read the Conservapedia talk pages, along with the letter exchange, it seems to me that Andy Schlafly came out of it the worse.

    Lenski’s first response of Schlafly’s initial letter was very polite, but it was met with a brusque response, along with implicit accusations of underhand dealings.

    Under the circumstances most people would feel entitled to blow their tops, but Lenski did not. His response was, however, quite condescending; a condescension which was understandable in the circumstances.

  6. 6
    DiEb says:

    IMO, Lenski has every right to be condescending – not only because of the letters Schlafly wrote, but because of the discussion on the corresponding conservapedia’s page.
    Furthermore, Schlafly himself seems to be quite reluctant to provide others with data and methods of his own researches…

  7. 7
    DaveScot says:

    Lenski’s second response certainly justifies the pompous arrogance of chance worshippers that the producers of Expelled mocked with the famous “Beware the Believers” video.

    Regardless, here’s a dose of cold harsh light of reality for Dr. Lenski.

    Scientific experiments must be duplicable by other researchers in order to make sure that the original experiment was not flawed or fraudulent. If the claims are important independent teams will jump on it with all due haste to duplicate and extend the work. An example most people are familiar with is the Fleischmann-Pons Cold Fusion paper. As soon as they released the paper with its rather spectacular claims many independent labs attempted to duplicate their results. The duplication attempts met with failure and Cold Fusion was mostly relegated to the pseudo-science shelf.

    It appears no one regards Lenski’s work as important enough to spend any time or effort validating through independent duplication. Until such time as it is found to be duplicable by an independent team then I’d continue to disregard the fantastic claims of significant evolution finally being caught in the act and trust the assessments of skeptics like biochemist Mike Behe that this is just a trivial adaptation of one bacterial strain to a food source that is used by a very many other bacteria.

    Nothing is really new or significant or earth-shaking in Lenski’s experiment. If it were then the so-called “competent” scientists that Lenski says he would gladly provide with the materials required for duplication would indeed be asking him for those materials. The harsh reality is that his experiment is a big yawner to others in the field who won’t waste their time and money trying to duplicate it.

  8. 8
    Larry Fafarman says:

    IMO the paper has no credibility because a principal investigator who co-authored the paper, Zachary Blount, has refused to give straight consistent answers to the following simple, basic questions about the experiment:

    (1) — whether evolution of citrate-eating (Cit+) E. coli bacteria was a goal of the experiment (a goal does not have to be a sure result), and

    (2) — whether the purpose or one of the purposes of the glucose-cycling (giving the bacteria an insufficient supply of glucose so that there would be alternating glucose feeding and glucose starvation) was to favor the evolution of citrate-eating E. coli bacteria.

    Blount’s refusal to properly answer these questions is discussed in the following article on my blog —

    http://im-from-missouri.blogsp.....odges.html

    More details concerning Blount’s refusal to properly answer these questions are in the following comment thread on Carl Zimmer’s “The Loom” blog (note particularly my most recent comments in that thread, comment #312 and earlier) —
    http://scienceblogs.com/loom/2.....lution.php

    Also, I think Andy Schlafly is wrong to request all of the raw data, because (1) copying all of the raw data to send to him would be a big job and (2) the raw data might not even be in a form that could be readily understood by someone who did not participate in the research. I agree with Richard Lenski that the citrate-eating bacteria are the best evidence supporting the paper (such as it is).

  9. 9
    bornagain77 says:

    And the 64,000 dollar question is….

    What did the “evolved” strain break to allow citrate in the membrane to the preexisting citrate utilizing ability of e-Coli?

  10. 10
    Larry Fafarman says:

    Praxiteles said (#3) —

    Under the circumstances most people would feel entitled to blow their tops, but Lenski did not. His response was, however, quite condescending; a condescension which was understandable in the circumstances.

    Richard Lenski showed excessive impatience in his second response when he said, “And I’ve spent far more time responding than you deserve. ” That’s nonsense — it only took a few minutes to write the second response. I got the same kind of treatment in response to my questions on Carl Zimmer’s blog — the idea that Zachary Blount was too busy to respond to my simple, basic questions. As the saying goes, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, then stay out of the kitchen.”

    DaveScot said (#4) —

    It appears no one regards Lenski’s work as important enough to spend any time or effort validating through independent duplication.

    It would be very difficult to exactly reproduce the entire results of the experiment because citrate-eating bacteria evolved in only one line of bacteria out of twelve in 20 years. Reproducing the “historical contingency” part of the experiment — where the citrate-eating trait could regularly evolve only in unfrozen populations older than 20,000 generations in one line — would still be a fairly big job. As I said, IMO the citrate-eating bacteria are the best evidence of the results of the experiment.

    I think that a lot of mutations may have been lost when samples of the old populations were transferred to start the next populations and that therefore the Cit+ mutations may be more common — or less unusual — than the experiment made them appear to be. At the end of each 24-hour period, only one percent of the old populations were transferred to start the next populations, and if only one, two, or just a few of the bacteria in an old population possessed a particular mutation, then it was likely that the mutation would not be transferred to the next population. I am wondering why only one percent of each population was transferred.

    To me, the most interesting part of the experiment was the “historical contingency.”

  11. 11

    bornagain makes a good prediction for the ID-side. Along the lines of “Edge of Evolution”, this advance was probably made by something breaking.

  12. 12
    DaveScot says:

    DiEb

    Lenski went WAY beyond condescending.

  13. 13
    DaveScot says:

    Larry

    Lenski kept frozen samples of the bacteria at regular intervals. Duplication and validation is done through those. That’s why he kept them.

  14. 14
    steveO says:

    I would think that Schlafly is laughing to himself and thinking he could just take hold of Lenski and give him a big ol’ kiss.

    Surely it’s a gift to a good lawyer when someone being questioned flys off the handle, makes a fool of themself, spouts nonsense and says way too much?

  15. 15
    bornagain77 says:

    Oft Topic:

    A woman is miraculously cured of terminal cancer, or as atheistic Darwinists would say, she had a spontaneous remission from a terminal condition of cancer brought about by an unscientific super-natural cause.

    Drive-By Deliverance – CBN.com

    http://www.godtube.com/view_vi.....6299b211bd

  16. 16
    Patrick says:

    bornagain makes a good prediction for the ID-side. Along the lines of “Edge of Evolution”, this advance was probably made by something breaking.

    I would think it more likely that a restoration occurred. After all, it’d be far easier to have broken a system by messing up one or several parts and then have those part(s) restored.

  17. 17
    tribune7 says:

    How does Lenski’s work contradict Behe? As far as I can see he’s practicing good science and is finding the Edge of Evolution.

  18. 18
    vjtorley says:

    tribune7:

    My sentiments exactly. Time will tell where the edge of evolution is. We should wait until more data is available, as Behe urges. I might add that I can sympathise with Lenki’s indignation, after having had his honesty and professionalism impugned by the same individual, not once but twice.

    bornagain77:

    Thanks for the video link.

  19. 19
    brembs says:

    I think Lenski should just hire a person to get one petri dish of each generation and send it to Schlafly with the bill.
    A few months work of a trained microbiologist technician, more than 30,000 petri dishes frozen and transported in a few freezers to Schlafly’s doorstep. That bill should easily stay below 20 grand, I reckon. Sequencing 30,000 E. coli genomes should also come down to under the million dollar mark soon. And for a few million more Schlafly even gets the infrastructure to make all the tests himself!
    I think he should start looking for a position in that DI lab…

  20. 20
    Larry Fafarman says:

    DaveScot (#12) —

    DiEb

    Lenski went WAY beyond condescending.

    Yes — particularly in his statement, “I’ve spent far more time responding than you deserve. ” (I discuss this statement in my comment #10)

    DaveScot (#13) —

    Larry

    Lenski kept frozen samples of the bacteria at regular intervals. Duplication and validation is done through those. That’s why he kept them.

    Yes — I know that. In fact, my comment #10 discusses this experimental methodology:

    Reproducing the “historical contingency” part of the experiment — where the citrate-eating trait could regularly evolve only in unfrozen populations older than 20,000 generations in one line — would still be a fairly big job.

    In the original experiment, apparently a “silent” (i.e., unexpressed) preliminary mutation became fixed in the line of bacteria at around 20,000 generations and the second, expressed mutation was expressed at around 31,500 generations, about five years later, so even just demonstrating the “historical contingency” in a lab could take a long time. However, as I said, IMO these mutations might be less unusual than they appeared to be in the experiment, because I think that a lot of mutations were lost because only one percent of each daily population was transferred to start the next day’s population.

  21. 21
    tribune7 says:

    I might add that I can sympathise with Lenki’s indignation, after having had his honesty and professionalism impugned by the same individual, not once but twice.

    I agree.

  22. 22
    bornagain77 says:

    Patrick,
    By whatever convoluted pathway that the e-coli utilized its preexisting citrate utilizing ability, My bottom dollar is on the fact that the citrate will be less fit in the original parent species environment when compared to parent species in that environment. I see nothing in all of Behe’s work in Edge Of Evolution to make me think that complexity will ever be gained above parent species in its native environment. Evolution, must of necessity, demonstrate, at the very least, this minimal amount of complexity generation above the parent species in its native environment to be considered viable with its grand claims of generating all life in the first place. Though you bring up a viable point in that repair to a “preexisting” state of “grand-parent” strain, could produce a false positive for evolutionists, my first impression is that this repair to a preexistent grand-parent species state would require to many steps, and would border on, if not surpass, Behe’s Edge. Genetic Entropy, by all rights, should be expected to hold in this case.

  23. 23
    bevets says:

    But how are we to know if these traits weren’t ‘potentiated’ by the Creator when He designed the bacteria thousands of years ago, such that they would eventually reveal themselves when the time was right? ~ Dr. Paley

    So, will we share the bacteria? Of course we will, with competent scientists. ~ Richard Lenski

    Paging ‘Dr. Paley’

  24. 24
    Larry Fafarman says:

    In comment #10, I said,

    At the end of each 24-hour period, only one percent of the old populations were transferred to start the next populations, and if only one, two, or just a few of the bacteria in an old population possessed a particular mutation, then it was likely that the mutation would not be transferred to the next population. I am wondering why only one percent of each population was transferred.

    I just want to add a few more thoughts.

    Because there are few generations per daily population (44,000 generations in 20 years works out to an average of only 6 generations per day), mutations in a population get little chance to propagate and hence it is especially likely that only one or just a few bacteria in a population will possess a particular mutation. Thus, there is a good chance that a mutation will be discarded because only one percent of an old population is used to start the next day’s population. It is not possible to save the whole population (otherwise the experiment would quickly run out of room) but IMO a more reasonable portion — maybe half — of the populations should be saved in order to minimize the risk of throwing out mutations.

    I suspect that the second, expressed mutation was fairly common because it was often repeated in populations descended from a frozen population of 20,000 generations or later, and I suspect that the reason why it took so long for this mutation to be expressed the first time — about 5 years (20,000th to 31,500th generations) — was that a lot of mutations were discarded when the next day’s population was started.

  25. 25
    Charlie says:

    Not that we’re voting, but I agree with tribune, DaveScot and Kike Behe on the significance of this work.

    But, and as being very pro-ID this pains me to say, I understand Lenski’s responses and find them more than justifiable.

  26. 26
    allanius says:

    From the paper:

    “It is clearly very difficult for E. coli to evolve this function. In fact, the mutation rate of the ancestral strain from Cit- to Cit+ is immeasurably low; even the upper bound is 3.6 _ 10_13 per cell generation, which is three orders of magnitude below the typical base pair mutation rate. Nevertheless, one population eventually evolved the Cit+ function, whereas all of the others remain Cit- after more than 40,000 generations.”

    Excuse the ignorance of a non-scientist, but doesn’t this show that micro-evolution is highly unlikely, even in a highly controlled environment favoring development of Cit+ E. Coli? In fact isn’t that what Lenski actually says? And isn’t there a distinct difference between Lenski’s rhetoric and what was seen in the New Scientist?

  27. 27

    Oops, sorry, you have seen it!

    I do wonder what set off Lenski…the guy went postal.

    That PZ “brass knuckles” Myers thinks Lenski is so great is not surprising, considering PZ’s instability.

  28. 28
    gpuccio says:

    My point of view:

    Lenski has probably lost his temper a little bit, but Schlafly’s attitude was totally unreasonable, so maybe Lenski is partially justified.

    We have to distinguish bewteen what Lenski says in his paper and what others(either darwinists or IDists)have said, both in the news and on the blogs, and of which Lenski is not responsible. A lot of things have been said about that paper which are simply wrong, and do not bear any connection to what is written in the paper.

    Lenski’s paper, IMO, remains interesting, but is absolutely incomplete. Lenski should try to identify the mutation or mutations which characterize the Cit+ strain. Only then we can start reasoning about mechaninsms, evolutionary meanings, and so on. The main flaw in Lenski’s paper is probably to try to jump to conslusions too early, and without having the necessary information.

    So, I think we should all wait that the mutation is identified. Most of the false beliefs of darwinian evolution are based on generic reasoning, and fail to survive as soon as one goes into details. We should not make that error again. We need details, molecular details. Only then discussions about mechanisms become clear and strict.

  29. 29
    Patrick says:

    gpuccio:

    Agreed. My first opinion of Schlafly’s behavior (and this was before Dave created this post) was that he was overreacting to Lenski’s work and making a fool of himself in the process. And Lenski is not directly responsible for the way his work is being trumpeted as the salvation of Darwinism. Which I think is hilarious, considering it appears to be a confirmation of Behe’s main thesis if anything else.

  30. 30
    Larry Fafarman says:

    Patrick said (#29) —

    My first opinion of Schlafly’s behavior (and this was before Dave created this post) was that he was overreacting to Lenski’s work and making a fool of himself in the process.

    Schlafly overreacted because the Darwinists overreacted.

    Lenski is not directly responsible for the way his work is being trumpeted as the salvation of Darwinism. Which I think is hilarious, considering it appears to be a confirmation of Behe’s main thesis if anything else.

    So far as I can see, Lenski and his colleagues have not repudiated any of the overenthusiastic responses to the study.

  31. 31
    allanius says:

    Lenski’s overreaction is worse than Schlafly’s overreaction; granted. But this is about strategy.

    Schlafly chose to badger Lenski about his results, presumably because he felt a need to respond to the Coynes of the world and outrageous claims that are being made based on the paper. Unfortunately this can come across as simple bad manners. Schlafly appears to be insinuating that Lenski is dishonest and bullying him with threats of legal action.

    We don’t know if the results Lenski reported are accurate—and we’ll never know. It will never be possible to prove that no evolution occurred, even if the same study is repeated with negative results. The best Schlafly can hope for is a Pyrrhic victory.

    We do know, however, that Lenski’s own conclusions are quite modest: “We demonstrated that the evolution of this new function was contingent on the history of the population in which it arose.” No attempt is made to use the results to support the theory of evolution per se. And except for a little self-indulgence at the end, the paper is restrained and free from tendentious polemic.

    So is it better, from a strategic point of view, to attempt to score points against Lenski through confrontation, knowing in advance that no conclusive result is possible, or can more good perhaps be done by taking up pure, sweet reason and explaining why his results can be interpreted to support ID and undermine Darwin’s narrative of effortless progression?

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