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PalAss Home > PalAss Newsletter > The Tainting of Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash.
The Tainting of Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash.


Maybe I was simply obtuse most of my life. Perhaps the blinkers only just now fell from my eyes. I must admit that it never had my explicit interest in the first place, too little time and too many other things to do. Maybe I had never really looked around me before I started noticing it. Sure, I had heard that there were differences between here and there, ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but you hear so much that turns out to be false. Perhaps what you need is to experience both sides. Now I have done that. Now I see. It’s real.

Two weeks ago I moved to the United States after having lived in the UK for the past two years, and in the Netherlands in the preceding 30 years. In trying to find some balance on the tightrope between career and private life, I decided to move to Davis, California, on a long-term tourist-visa, to join my girlfriend, who had recently accepted a postdoctoral position at UC Davis. The current lack of a salaried job has left me ample time to contemplate my experience of the differences between North-Western Europe and the USA. Indeed, the pizzas here are bigger, and so are most cars. Beer is more expensive here than in Amsterdam, but not Cambridge, and the magpies have yellow beaks here, not black. The weather is also certainly better than I’m used to. While friends and family back home are slowly slipping into the inevitable dimness of fall and winter, we are enjoying 30 degrees Celsius in October, and sun most days, unless the smoky clouds from nearby forest fires cast their hazy shadows. However, the difference that I was alluding to in the first paragraph is the striking contrast in the prominence of religion as an overt issue in everyday life.

America is bustling with excitement about the upcoming presidential elections. Eighteen days from now this country will have to choose between president Deficit and senator “I have a plan.” At the moment it is entirely unclear who will win, but one factor that will most certainly weigh into the equation is the religious conviction of both candidates. For example, last week a radio programme was dedicated entirely to discussing the important role of religious views in American politics, and in the third presidential debate a few days ago the moderator asked both presidential candidates about the roles that religion played in their personal lives. Bush, who less than a year ago in his inimitable wisdom stated that creationism is just another ‘theory’ for the origin of biodiversity, confided that he prayed a lot, as well he should. On the university campus many street corners are littered with billboards for a multiplicity of religious fraternities, discussion groups, and social clubs. You need never walk alone here. And this week I applied to become a volunteer docent in the Sacramento Zoo. The fourth question in the application form was: “In training we teach evolution. Would this present a problem for you?” I don’t think they are referring to the difficulty of the topic here. Yesterday, my mentor in the zoo asked me if I knew that evolution is a “sensitive subject here.” “I’ve heard rumours,” I told him. He continued: “You don’t have to dodge the issue when confronted with it, but you know, when it comes up, just let the public know that it’s your own personal view of the world, and there are evidently other opinions.” “Right, don’t worry,” I told him. I’m pretty sure that I will not get into a row when I’m out there in the zoo with my little exhibit wagon filled with pelts, skulls, feathers, photos, and other educational props. Not unless they really ask for it.

While the current state of the world is responsible for my own rapid promotion, or demotion, depending on your perspective, from agnostic to fully fledged atheist, I have no problem at all with these diverse manifestations of faith. To each their own. However, in science, the introduction of faith has always caused, and will continue to cause friction. The commotion that recently ensued after the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington published a paper that supported intelligent design (ID), is a poignant example.

Stephen Meyer’s article in the June issue of Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. (PBSW), stood out conspicuously from the other papers. Amidst articles reporting the description of new species of crustaceans and sponges, Meyer’s “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories” was sure to attract attention. And that, indeed, it did. As soon as the loyal supporters of PBSW unwrapped their copies of the new issue, things went pear-shaped. Indignant subscribers bombarded the editorial office of PBSW demanding an explanation (I want to thank Fred Schram here for supplying some juicy information for this piece). Surely this must be a joke, albeit a bad one. It was suggested that it would be wise to retract the paper. It would also be opportune for the journal to issue a formal apology to appease the outraged readers. Some subscribers threatened to resign their membership. Others actually did. The scientific newspapers Science and Nature got a scent of the action, and they issued editorials on the incident. Websites quickly filled with debates and scathing commentaries.

A sample of the adjectives and nouns that were fired off in printed and electronic commentaries betrays the strongly charged emotions of those involved in this incident. The opposing camps fired at will: ‘outrageous,’ ‘truly frightening,’ ‘rubbish,’ ‘serious damage,’ ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ ‘tactical victory,’ ‘anti-science,’ ‘thwart intellectual freedom,’ ‘inappropriate for publication,’ ‘politically incorrect!’ Who was to blame? Stephen Meyer? The editor who handled Meyer’s manuscript at PBSW, Richard von Sternberg? Didn’t Sternberg have ties to the baraminology study group, a bulwark of, mostly, young earth scientists who are severely challenged to incorporate any earthly productions older than about 10,000 years into their worldview? Were the scientific referees to blame perhaps? A scapegoat was badly needed, and if one couldn’t be found among the living, then perhaps among the dead. Who had appointed Sternberg as research associate at the National Museum of Natural History in the first place? Wasn’t it clear at the time that the blinding glow of Sternberg’s two PhDs was at least partially dulled by the sticky veneer of ID, and its connotations of non-materialistic mysticism? Who knows. The person who nominated Sternberg for his appointment is dead. Drastic measures were contemplated. Should the journal perhaps be killed after taking such a fall? Its soiled reputation might be beyond repair. Never mind that all the fuss is probably lifting the readership of this small quarterly journal, which chiefly caters to the specialist needs of taxonomic experts, to a level unprecedented in its history. When the extensive scientific fraud of Jan Hendrik Schön was discovered in 2002, a host of Schön’s fantastically fabricated papers was retracted from Science and Nature, but as far as I remember there were no suggestions to kill these beloved tabloids. Euthanasia might be too harsh a medicine. However, a thorough investigation was imperative. The learned council of the Biological Society of Washington convened a meeting. They reached a unanimous verdict. The council’s statement “deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.” In all of the 124 years of the journal’s existence something like this had never occurred. The council promised to review editorial policies.

Let’s take a deep breath, sit back in our chair, and calmly take the measure of the situation. Let me say upfront that I’m not an expert on the topic. Ever since the Jehovah’s witnesses, whom, much to my mum’s chagrin, I invited inside my parental home for coffee, failed to convince me of their creation story, I have not read any ID literature or creationist pamphlets. The reading I did for this column is intended as a one-off exception to this rule.

Since Meyer did not append an abstract to his paper, let me present a capsule review. Meyer provides a selective critique of the ability of current neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory fully to explain the origin of evolutionary novelties in general, and the evolution of the major animal body plans in particular. Meyer argues that it is highly improbable that ‘random’ variation and natural selection can lead to the evolution and functional divergence of genes and proteins. Moreover, he argues that current findings from evo-devo provide no insight into the evolution of animal phyla because most changes to genes that are important in establishing body plans are deleterious, if not fatal. According to Meyer, further attempts to explain macroevolutionary change with the help of self-organization, punctuated equilibrium, structural constraints, and generative or morphogenetic rules, or any combination thereof, are equally impotent. Meyer is puzzled. The mystery remains. But despair not, for revelation is on its way. After seventeen pages of biology, Meyer suddenly presents his epiphany: “Could the notion of purposive design help provide a more adequate explanation for the origin of organismal form generally? Are there reasons to consider design as an explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the higher taxa and their corresponding morphological novelty?” The final four pages of the article argue that, indeed, there are such reasons, and that they are compelling.

Meyer’s perspective is distinctly rare in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, which is just as well. But, really, why all the fuss in the media, on the Internet, and in the halls of academia? Should PBSW feel that its reputation is soiled beyond redemption? Should people scream “outrage!” and drop their subscriptions to the journal in a knee-jerk reflex? Could the incident really even be called a “tactical victory” of ID, as Science puts it? I think that the only harm done to science is that PBSW published a paper that is evidently slipshod science, due to a flagrant failure of the reviewing process. However unfortunate that may be, it is nothing new, and it happens to the best. As a result, the only trophy that proponents of ID can really boast about at home is that ID is promoted in a paper that should never have passed the reviewing process, as was belatedly realized by the council of PBSW. In fact, that Meyer promotes ID in his article is, I think, largely beside the point.

I will spare you a lengthy scientific response to Meyer’s arguments, but I need to qualify my conclusions a bit. If you have the energy, which I haven’t, to read a very long, very detailed rebuttal of Meyer’s paper, check out <http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000430.html>. If you want to read an equally long and detailed response, check out the webpages of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, where Meyer is director and senior fellow of the Center for Science and Culture.

In my most favourable judgment, Meyer’s paper reads like a student report. He has evidently read a lot of papers, and he has the best intentions of providing a critical discussion of his chosen topic. And, considering what he has read, he does an OK job. I would let him pass, probably with a B. However, he would not get an A or A+ because the literature that he has selected is severely biased. Many readily available papers that depart significantly from his conclusions are omitted without excuse, and the logic of his arguments is not always as tight as it should be. On the most general level, Meyer doesn’t understand the bare-bones mechanics of natural selection acting on ‘random’ variation. He concludes that there are no “functional criteria”, or “goals,” that natural selection can use to guide evolutionary change. Meyer never even mentions the struggle for survival. Organisms exhibit heritable variation in their traits, and they compete for limited resources. Those with the most favourable traits in a given situation and environment, which, of course, they may help to create through their activities in niche construction, will on average have a better chance of surviving, and on average they will leave more surviving offspring that inherit their traits, in the next generation. There you have your “goal,” Dr Meyer. Evolution is about trying to achieve maximum representation of your genes in the next generation while competing with others. No teleological connotations necessary, the language notwithstanding. But, of course, Dr Meyer really knew this all along. He explicitly accepts the power of natural selection in shaping the adaptations of organisms to their environments, and he dutifully takes the customary Galapagos finches out of their dusty box. Here Meyer seems so close to solving his own problem, but, unfortunately, he doesn’t.

Meyer doesn’t discuss adaptive landscapes, competition between organisms, or differential fitness of organisms. And in his discussions of the high improbability, if not impossibility of the evolution of organismic novelties, from genes and proteins to morphological structures, he never delves more than ankle deep into the corpus of accumulated knowledge. Because mutations of early acting genes often fatally disrupt embryonic development, he concludes that animal body plans must necessarily be locked in stone. Because experimental studies show that many amino acid changes can cause a protein to lose functionality, it must be virtually impossible to navigate protein morphospace to yield the diversity of proteins around us. And where did all the new genes and proteins that are necessary for the development of the first animals come from anyway? These, indeed, are tough questions to answer. But, they are not hopeless, as Meyer seems to imply. But in order to see that, Meyer should have studied a bit harder. The evolution of protein families would show him that structural and functional divergence of proteins is possible, and widespread. It would also show that many of the genes and proteins needed to make animals are already found outside the animals, and that many of the genes with essential roles in the development of complex bilaterians are increasingly identified in cnidarians, and even sponges. Never mind the incredible potential of altering phenotypes via regulatory evolution. Never mind redundancy, gene duplication, and functional divergence of proteins. Never mind the power of changing expression patterns of conserved developmental genes to modify morphology. Never mind that the invention of evolutionary novelties can be underpinned by genes known to be already present, and functional, in other contexts in the animal’s development. And never mind the potential for change inherent in the presence of large numbers of putative, but apparently unused, binding sites for developmental regulatory genes, throughout animal genomes. At one point Meyer concludes the insufficiency of natural selection as an evolutionary force acting on genetic variation, because not all of the phenotype is directly determined by genes. Well Dr Meyer, we have known for a very long time that organisms are rife with emergent properties above the level of the gene, and there are epigenetic factors with a role in morphogenesis as well. No surprise for any biologist. If Meyer had touched upon hierarchical selection theory here, he would see there is no real problem, or at least one much smaller than he sees. Haven’t some biologists argued that instead of acting strictly on genes, natural selection may also act on morphologies? Never mind all these important findings and ideas. You will not find any of these niceties in Meyer’s paper, and yet, he feels confident on the basis of his scanty literature review, that our current understanding of the working of evolutionary mechanisms is grossly insufficient to address in any meaningful way the problems of reconstructing animal deep history. I will not attempt to tackle Meyer’s defence of the compelling logic of ID. Suffice it to say that I disagree with his statement that “the possibility of design follows logically from a consideration of the deficiencies of neo-Darwinism and other current theories.”

I am the first to admit that we haven’t solved the problem of the origin of animal body plans yet. We’re not even close. But, there is undeniable progress. The recent advances in evo-devo and molecular phylogenetics are but two examples of how we are managing to get increasing grip on the slippery problems of deep history reconstruction. However, we have no illusions that we already understand everything. But in the spirit of Science as a way of knowing, as the late John Moore titled his enjoyable book, we have to continue searching, taking the little loose ends to pull ourselves forward. Meyer doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see these loose ends. And that is where the crux of the problem is. Rather than continuing to trust on the ability of science to make progress, as it always has, Meyer is willing to throw up his hands in bewilderment, and exclaim miraculous intervention of an intelligent designer. That’s not the spirit of science. Meyer’s paper was neither deep nor comprehensive enough to merit being called an adequate review by any standard, certainly not in view of his profound conclusions. But I’m willing to give Meyer the benefit of doubt. I think that he genuinely tried to understand the state of the art of current knowledge. He concluded it couldn’t explain the origin of animal body plans, and he proposed an alternative “explanation.” If he had indeed delivered an adequate review that concluded that certain questions will forever be beyond the grasp of science, and that ID might provide a helping hand there, then I would have no qualms. After all, that’s just metaphysics. I advise Meyer to apply his critical eye to more science, and see if his conclusion is really the only solution. He may yet see the light…

Meyer’s criticisms are a bit more taxing than the standard flimsy roadblocks that creationists have tried to erect in the way of evolutionary theory. However, so far evolutionary theory has had no problem in its unwavering march through fundamentalist blockades. No exception here. I think that Meyer’s paper shouldn’t have been published because it was an inadequate review. The blame for this lies wholly with the refereeing process, for which the editor is ultimately responsible. And here is where it gets interesting.

PBSW’s former editor, Richard M. von Sternberg, PhD., PhD., has distanced himself from the council’s statement that Meyer’s paper should not have been published (see <http://www.rsternberg.net/> for Sternberg’s defence). He defends his decision to publish Meyer’s paper because it “set forth a reasoned view,” a decision furthermore supported by the referee reports of three alleged “experts” in evolution and molecular biology. After having read Meyer’s paper, I’m baffled why the combined erudition of Sternberg’s two PhDs, one in molecular evolution and one in systems theory and theoretical biology, and the judgment of the three external experts didn’t stop the publication of Meyer’s paper. It does indeed appear that the referee reports were supportive of the paper’s publication after revisions. The decision to publish leaves no doubt that Dr Dr Sternberg is an extraordinarily open-minded guy. I wish there were more people like him.

But, wait, there is something wrong. Sternberg is not exactly a mainstream thinker. Although not supporting ID (see <http://www.apologetics.org/> for information on ID), he calls himself a “process structuralist.” Whereas proponents of ID, such as Meyer, are “agnostic regarding the source of design and ha[ve] no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text,” Sternberg adopts an intellectual position from which he contemplates the world in a general ahistorical, systems-oriented, and non-evolutionary way (not anti-evolutionary, I hasten to add). Compared to the worldviews of creationists, the necessary commitments of Meyer’s and Sternberg’s worldviews are minimal. Whereas Meyer is agnostic with respect to the character of the intelligent designer, Sternberg seems to be agnostic even with respect to the passage of time. I would not hesitate to nominate Sternberg’s outlook on life as a candidate for another juicy chapter in Michael Shermer’s delicious Why people believe weird things (1998), if only time’s arrow wouldn’t prevent me from doing this!

]But it becomes much, much weirder if we allow Sternberg to be our admission ticket into a world of extreme bravery and shocking delusion: the world of the baraminologists. Sternberg’s outlook on the world may be construed as candidly open-minded, and nothing more. But this conclusion is stretched to its limits when we meet the fellows with whom Sternberg is hanging out. Sternberg is associated with the “Baraminology Study Group,” and he is on the editorial board of their “Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group.” In many respects baraminology is phylogenetics from the dark side, the almost exact mirror image of systematic biology. It is the study of the taxonomy of “created kinds,” or “baramins.” The goal of baraminology (see <www.bryancore.org/bsg/aboutconcepts.html>) is precisely antithetical to the goal of phylogenetics in biology. Baraminologists search for the discontinuities separating independently created groups of organisms. Using terminology eerily reminiscent of cladistics, baraminologists seek to identify “the unbridgeable chasms between body plans” upon the basis of which they erect holobaramins, monobaramins, polybaramins, and apobaramins. Discontinuities are located between “forms for which there is no empirical evidence that the character-state transformations ever occurred. The mere assumption that the transformation had to occur because cladistic analysis places it at a hypothetical ancestral node does not constitute empirical evidence.” Using a range of techniques, such as Analysis of Patterns (ANOPA), baraminologists try to map out the structure of creation. This generates some wonderful, and very brave stuff, especially because the investigations are couched in terms of science, such as “tests,” and because the papers endeavour to bring biblical Scripture and the findings of science into congruence with each other. I call this “brave” because the baraminologists first dispose of virtually all hard-won insights from the historical sciences, ranging from archaeology to astronomy. They discard over 99% of geological time by compressing the Earth’s history from more than four billion years to a mere couple of thousands of years, and then use scientific reasoning to reconstruct all that happened in this shortened period. As an indication of the amusing results, let me give you some examples from the fourth issue of “Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group,” which contains the proceedings of the “Discovering the Creator” conference.

Joseph Francis, co-colleague of Sternberg on the editorial board of the journal, presented a paper documenting the benevolence of God by showing that microbes must have been created as good organisms. Their nasty pathogenic and parasitic habits must have arisen after the Fall of man from the Garden of Eden, because, expectedly, before the Fall there could have been no death and disease. In another paper, of which Francis is co-author, it is similarly argued that viruses must have performed “beneficial functions” before the Fall. Another paper struggles with the question of the implications of death before the Fall, as suggested by evolutionary theory and the fossil record. Another argues that, perhaps, animals that display “natural evil”—i.e. predators, pathogens, and parasites that kill other organisms—have two sets of genes, one for “benign morphology and behavior,” and one for “malignant morphology and behavior.” The former set of genes would then have been expressed before the Fall, while the second set of genes would only have become active after the Fall, with the origin of death and evil. This paper also includes my absolute favourite citation: “Satan et al.” And there is more. One paper is concerned with squirrel phylogeny and biogeography. It argues that, of course, squirrel biogeography must have been strongly influenced by the great Flood, since the squirrels, like all other animals, would have had to have dispersed from Ararat after the Ark landed there. I would think that if that were indeed the case, by now we would already have incontrovertible molecular phylogenetic evidence that showed that the highest volcano in Turkey is unambiguously the unique cradle for all animals. And so the papers continue.

Obviously, scientists need not worry. This is just a parallel research programme. If you don’t believe in the literal word of the Bible, then you need not be concerned with baraminology. We should hardly expect baraminologist papers infiltrating peer-reviewed science journals. You wouldn’t think so, would you? A relatively “scientific” paper, such as the one by Meyer could be excused, but the Ark of Noah? Surely such writings would never slip past our watchful eyes, would they? Unfortunately, it has already happened.

Last year, one time PhD student and research assistant of Stephen Jay Gould, Kurt Wise, presented a talk at the Seattle annual meeting of the Geological Society of America on “The evolution of the creationist perspective on the fossil Equid series.” And Wise is no liberal when it comes to the Bible. In his book Faith, form, and time: what the Bible teaches and science confirms about Creation and the age of the Universe (2002) Wise argues that biblical and scientific evidence suggests that the universe was created by God in six 24-hour days, less than 10.000 years ago. Wise, quoted in an essay by Richard Dawkins in Free Inquiry magazine a few years ago, says that even “if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism … I would still be a creationist.” Now, that is faith, not science. If such opinions receive airtime at our scientific meetings, we are inviting trouble. However, sometimes the creationists are not so easy to spot. For example, they may follow Meyer’s strategy of hiding their message, without any clue from the title or abstract of their works. For example, one of the contributors to the fourth issue of “Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group,” Paul Nelson, presented a poster at the 2004 annual meeting of the Society of Developmental Biology titled “Problems with characterizing the protostome-deuterostome ancestor.” In what is ostensibly a scientific paper, Nelson and co-author argue for the discontinuity of the ontogenies of the bilaterian phyla, and that their evolutionary divergence is not supported by any evidence, but only by the imposition of evolutionary theory.

This kind of investigation neatly answers the goals of baraminology, establishing how obviously unbridgeable the gaps between animal body plans are. However, I think that, even among scientists, there is an exaggerated sense about how different the body plans of animal phyla actually are. Without going into too much detail here, let me open a little can of worms for you. Here is a nice selection of wormy beasties, some acanthocephalans, gastrotrichs, nemerteans, platyhelminths, gnathostomulids, rotifers, nematodes, pogonophorans, and nematomorphs. Now here is a nice microscope for each one of you. Your task it to sort the worms. How many of you will say “Well, there are some smaller and some bigger ones, but Jeez, they all look alike,” and how many will say “Easy task! Evidently we are dealing here with precisely nine discontinuous types, phyla I presume, which are separated by unbridgeable gaps in organization”). Right, you get the picture. True, there are famous differences in the organization of different phyla, and if that is all that you want to see, well, that is what you will see. However, if you look in a bit more detail, there are striking similarities, homologies even, which are evident as well. Nobody claims that rotifers and gnathostomulids are members of the same phylum. But ultrastructurally, they show an amazing number of correspondences. Far from an unbridgeable gap separating them, I would argue that they share pretty similar body plans, with modifications, of course.

These incursions of faith into science are worrying. Wherever science has not yet cast its illuminating light, the supernatural or metaphysical can and will always be unwrapped by some of us, to provide an explanation. Ironically, as we push back the limits of our ignorance, and increasingly difficult problems remain to be solved, it will exactly be there where “we” will meet “them.” There is no way around it. However, what we can and must do is to battle ignorance to prevent uninvited intrusions of faith into what I think is legitimately the domain of science. As long as we live in a world where State Superintendents of middle and high schools still consider evolution to be merely “a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction,” as opined early this year by the inimitable Mrs Cox from the state of Georgia, then we have a lot of teaching to do.

And as far as accusations go, that we are intolerant of people who pursue very abstract research, with no proven connection to the material world, and seemingly immune to empirical testing, but where the sheer beauty of ideas becomes an important epistemic value, well, for them I have one answer: Edward Witten is professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

References

MEYER, S. C. 2004. The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117, 213–239.

MOORE, J. A. 1999. Science as a way of knowing. The foundations of modern biology. Harvard University Press.

SHERMER, M. 1998. Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition and other confusions of our time. W. H. Freeman

Ronald Jenner
Section of Evolution & Ecology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA



Created by Alan R.T. Spencer on the 2006-02-23. (Version 2.0)