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Dec 21 2012

The Gumby Gambit

Tom Bethell is a fellow traveller with the Intelligent Design creationists of the Discovery Institute; he often publishes on their website, and he’s the author of quite a few books questioning the dogma of science. He also thinks he’s a polymath: he wrote Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?, which claims that Einstein was wrong, and he also wrote The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which claims that radiation is good for you, there is no global climate change going on, Shakespeare didn’t write those plays, and evolution is bunk, among many other remarkable assertions.

He’s a gumbyesque crackpot, in other words.

His latest effort is a rant on l’affaire greenscreen in which he explains natural selection to us. Read on; you will be in awe as Mr Gumby bellows out his definitions and explanations. He gets everything absolutely backwards.

An analogous situation arises with varieties of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics. The immune varieties are suddenly “fit” and so they survive. But the word “adaptation” is misleading because the immune varieties have to appear first. They don’t “adapt,” or reshape themselves in recognition of the suddenly hostile environment. They are not like people who “adapt” to cold weather by putting on overcoats. They are like people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.

NS is not supposed to be an explanation of how we get more of something; a dark moth, for example. It’s supposed to show how the moth itself arose. And that is what the Darwinists have never been able to demonstrate; not just with moths but with anything else. That’s why I hesitate to call NS “real.” Well, I guess it is, as long as it’s defined narrowly enough.

Read that last paragraph again. It’s a marvel. Tom Bethell doesn’t have even a basic understanding of the principle of natural selection; he doesn’t even understand it as well as Darwin, who wrote it up in 1859.

Natural selection is an explanation of how we get more (or less) of something; it describes one mode of change in the frequency of a trait in a population over multiple generations. It is not about physiological adaptation, but about changes in allele frequency. That’s all biologists have claimed for the concept, ever; it’s one of the things population geneticists have lots of math to describe.

Natural selection is not an explanation for how evolutionary novelties arise in the first place. For that, we have to look at mutations and subtler enabling changes that facilitate the emergence of new phenotypes, like recombination and genetic accommodation. The idea that variation in the environment can induce appropriate changes in heritable traits of organisms is the discarded notion of Lamarckian inheritance — we don’t see evidence of that.

He gets it all completely wrong. Even more remarkably, he gets it wrong after giving a useful analogy with his overcoat example.

Yes, natural selection works exactly like “people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.” That’s Darwin’s key insight and Bethell’s key failure: natural selection isn’t about how individuals adapt, it’s about how populations adapt by winnowing out less fit individuals (those who don’t have an overcoat) and promoting the more fit individuals (those who happened to have an overcoat, and will pass it on to their children).

I really don’t understand how someone could write a whole book with chapters about evolution and not grasp that beautiful, simple, elegant idea. I suppose it’s the same way someone with no understanding of physics could write a whole book with no math in it disproving Einstein.

Isn’t it revealing, though, how the Discovery Institute promotes people like Bethell and Gauger who have no understanding of the field they aim to disprove? It’s as if the only people they can find who share their goals are all incompetents with delusions of understanding the science about as well as a reasonable high school student.

39 comments

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  1. 1
    Reginald Selkirk

    An analogous situation arises with varieties of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics. The immune varieties are suddenly “fit” and so they survive. But the word “adaptation” is misleading because the immune varieties have to appear first. They don’t “adapt,” or reshape themselves in recognition of the suddenly hostile environment. They are not like people who “adapt” to cold weather by putting on overcoats. They are like people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.

    Anyone who’s ever taken an undergraduate microbiology course can tell you this is caca. Antibiotic resistance experiments can be done, and are routinely done, using bacteria descended from a single cell.

  2. 2
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    These IDiots think that all mutations are bad, DNA replicates each time, and duplication of genes doesn’t occur. So, they can’t see what is being selected for. And after all, if something is selected, it needs a selector (just like if creation occurred, it needed a creator, never mind how the creator was created). Nothing but circular arguments based on false premises. Sounds like their religion.

  3. 3
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Gah, moar coffee. First sentence #2 should read DNA replicates perfectly each time.

  4. 4
    cartomancer

    My Brain Hurts!

  5. 5
    sundiver

    Whenever one of the Discotute twerps puts together two words about science, one of them will be wrong. ( Modified Aaron Copeland ). I mean, come the fuck ON. Doesn’t this dipshit comprehend that without taking relativity into account GPS systems would not work. Then again, dipshits like this can’t find their own assholes without a flashlight, both hands, a roadmap, GPS and a mirror.

  6. 6
    Glen Davidson

    NS is not supposed to be an explanation of how we get more of something; a dark moth, for example. It’s supposed to show how the moth itself arose.

    Uh, idiot, haven’t you heard of “survival of the fittest”? An incomplete statement, of course, but it covers your slack-jawed incomprehension at this point well enough, it’s really about the survival (more importantly, successful reproduction) of what arose. Darwin didn’t know how variations arose, we know many ways. NS works regardless.

    I guess when your whole point is to fail to comprehend science, you tend to do it fairly well–and it’s why we call them IDiots.

    Glen Davidson

  7. 7
    cjwinstead

    I don’t understand why ID still attacks “mutation and selection” as a model for adaptation. As an engineering professor, I deal with supposedly intelligent designs on a regular basis, and the use of “genetic algorithms” has been in vogue for about 20 years. Just last week I reviewed two theses that relied on a design method that is “inspired” by natural selection. When engineers face hard problems, we must acknowledge the limitations of our intelligence, and we turn to automated randomized optimization to finish the design for us. If this is required for modern design, why should it be controversial in biology?

  8. 8
    Chuck

    But the word “adaptation” is misleading because the immune varieties have to appear first.

    I would disagree in precisely the instance he talks about: bacteria under stress. When this happens, DNA replication becomes less strictly regulated, which increases the frequency of mutations, which may result in hitting upon a mutation that confers immunity to the antibiotic’s method of killing the bacteria — the “last gasp hail mary” of the microbial world. So in one sense, at least for bacteria, changes in the environment (especially lethal changes) may indirectly lead to an immunity that wasn’t present before the antibiotics came upon the scene.

  9. 9
    ChasCPeterson

    Uh, idiot, haven’t you heard of “survival of the fittest”?

    Oh, indeed he has. Bethell’s been fundamentally but professionally misunderstanding natural selection for decades. He first came to my attention when I was in highschool and saw a cover of Harper’s magazive blaring “Darwin’s Mistake”. You can read it here. “Survival of the fittest” is a tautology, y’see, and that’s why Darwin and every other biologist is Wrong! (Even at 16 yo I smelled bullshit.)

  10. 10
    Snoof

    “Survival of the fittest” is a tautology, y’see, and that’s why Darwin and every other biologist is Wrong!

    Tautologies are true! They’re not necessarily useful, but they’re still true.

    (Nevermind the fact that “survival of the fittest” is an approximation foisted on biology by the media, and not an actual description of the theory of evolution any more than “things fall down” describes Newtonian gravity.)

  11. 11
    dobbshead

    Disproving relativity is important to creationism. If the universe is 6000 years old, why can we see stars that are millions of light-years away? Relativity is wrong? Oh, ok, if you say so…

  12. 12
    Sunday Afternoon

    I suppose it’s the same way someone with no understanding of physics could write a whole book with no math in it disproving Einstein.

    In the bowels of the library at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh there were (probably still are) several boxes full of letters sent to prominent figures on the Observatory attempting to debunk Einstein on another aspect of popularly known physics in exactly the manner you describe. The most memorable red-penned comment for me was,

    “Load of rubbish. M. Longair”

    (M. Longair is Malcolm Longair, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, 1980 to 1990. Placing links in comments gives a very weird preview, so I removed it. He has a wiki page.) As a new post-grad student, finding the box gave an entertaining hour or so, never to be repeated.

  13. 13
    stanton

    I really don’t understand how someone could write a whole book with chapters about evolution and not grasp that beautiful, simple, elegant idea. I suppose it’s the same way someone with no understanding of physics could write a whole book with no math in it disproving Einstein.

    A person tends to say such paradoxically insightful, yet teeth-gnashingly stupid things when you’ve imprisoned your brain in a box made of enforced and reinforced stupidity.

  14. 14
    stanton

    Disproving relativity is important to creationism. If the universe is 6000 years old, why can we see stars that are millions of light-years away? Relativity is wrong? Oh, ok, if you say so…

    Yes, because if you don’t agree, you’ll upset Jesus, and when Jesus gets upset, PEOPLE DIE!!!

    *presses death buttons*

  15. 15
    raven

    Another data point for the Theory of Cognitive Impairment by Fundie Xianity.

    Fundie xianity usually comes as a package deal called polykookery.

    Bethell probably is an anti-vaxxer, thinks Obama is a Kenyan born, Moslem terrorist, that George Bush had a working brain, a Geocentrist, thinks the earth is 6,000 years old, that supply side economics works, that Eisenhower was a commie, and the UN is out to get him with a program called “Sustainable Development”.

  16. 16
    dobbshead

    supply side economics works

    Supply side economics totally works. Look at how rich some people got!

  17. 17
    sadunlap

    This is the single most frequent mistake that ID advocates make. They conflate “evolution,” “Natural selection,” “Darwinism,” etc. with Lamarckism. As an attack on Lamarckism, the passages quoted work reasonably well. It’s just too bad that’s not how biologists think evolution works.

    If I were to create an FAQ or teach H.S. biology, this would appear at the top of the list of concepts to get straight. (BTW, John Freshwater’s “handouts” for his biology class made this same error).

  18. 18
    grumpyoldfart

    I really don’t understand how someone could write a whole book with chapters about evolution and not grasp that beautiful, simple, elegant idea.

    When fundie churches bulk order your book even before it is published, you tell them exactly what they want to hear. Telling lies for Jesus is a big earner in the US

  19. 19
    truthspeaker

    An analogous situation arises with varieties of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics. The immune varieties are suddenly “fit” and so they survive. But the word “adaptation” is misleading because the immune varieties have to appear first. They don’t “adapt,” or reshape themselves in recognition of the suddenly hostile environment. They are not like people who “adapt” to cold weather by putting on overcoats. They are like people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.

    I love it when they get something right but think it’s a criticism of evolution.

  20. 20
    Doc Bill

    My observation over the years is that the Disco Tooters are fully aware and informed about the theory of evolution, etc, and that what is often perceived as ignorance or stupidity on their part is deliberate misrepresentation. That is, deliberate dishonesty over simple ignorance.

    The tale of the Tooters is that the theory of evolution has to be wrong, otherwise it threatens the core of their “worldview” (hate that word!). Therefore, everything they do attacks evolution in particular and science in general. They’re not out to prove anything, just sow doubt.

    Looking at the Tooter’s definition of ID: The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

    Note that it is an assertion followed by a negative argument against evolution. It’s deliberate and it’s dishonest. The Tooters are not simpletons and fools. They are very dangerous and cost the rest of us lots of time and money fighting their attacks on science education.

  21. 21
    Argle Bargle

    IDers spend much time and effort trying to bring down evolution and expend a minimal effort explaining and supporting ID/creationism. Even they know ID is not defensible.

  22. 22
    machintelligence

    Raven @ 14

    Fundie xianity usually comes as a package deal called polykookery.

    Bethell probably is an anti-vaxxer, thinks Obama is a Kenyan born, Moslem terrorist, that George Bush had a working brain, a Geocentrist, thinks the earth is 6,000 years old, that supply side economics works, that Eisenhower was a commie, and the UN is out to get him with a program called “Sustainable Development”.

    Orac over at the blog Respectful Insolence uses the charming term “woo magnetism”.

  23. 23
    Jamie

    They just REALLY don’t (want to?) understand that natural selection acts on populations rather than individuals.

  24. 24
    NitricAcid

    They’ve also never noticed that children are not identical copies of their parents.

  25. 25
    robro

    Doc Bill — I’m sure you’re right, but as you probably realize, there are large numbers of people who firmly and with conviction believe that the creation myths in Genesis describe reality. They are ignorant…of science in general, of biology, and even the bibles. Because ID supports their beliefs, they are easily manipulated by these cynical promoters of ID for profit and power.

  26. 26
    michaelbusch

    @sundiver @5:

    Just to make something clear:

    _Special_ relativity is required to understand the behavior of many systems, including every silicon semiconductor chip. That’s because many of the electrons in silicon atoms are moving, in a fuzzy quantum mechanical sense, at significant fractions of the speed of light. If that’s not good enough, you need it to explain the spectrum of vapor lamps (neon, other halogen, or mercury) and you can build a table-top accelerator to test time dilation.

    GPS systems are somewhat usual as compared to most other forms of engineering in that they require _general_ relativity to be accounted for to work. The satellites are in a very different part of Earth’s gravitational potential than we are, so time runs a slightly different rate.

    @dobbshead @11:

    Of course, even if relativity were to be disproved (or corrected in the n-th decimal place), that would be irrelevant to stellar distance calculations. We can measure the positions of objects >100,000 lightyears away directly by parallax. Then we go from the distance to the time with the knowledge that the speed of light is constant. That has been tested observationally to incredibly high precision.

    Relativity simply explains _why_ the speed of light is constant even as measured by observers moving relative to each other. It has little to do with the actual distance measurements. To deny that the universe is very old is to deny all of the observed facts, not just the theory that explains them.

    But, as Doc Bill notes, facts are not relevant to many of these people.

  27. 27
    dobbshead

    We can measure the positions of objects 100,000 lightyears away directly by parallax.

    That’s entirely true. If the universe were created as is 6000 years, we would either not be able to see the stars (because the light would not have reached us yet) or we would not observe the stars as being very far away. The two measurements cannot both be true with a young universe.

    I like the statement for the rhetorical purpose: Creationism predicts that we shouldn’t see the stars.

    Another fun example of relativity: cadmium is a solid, mercury is a liquid (Norrby, j. chem. ed., 68, 110, 1991).

  28. 28
    Lofty

    “The world explained and simplified so much you need never ever buy a satan-inspired false-science book again” This is just “educational” material (propaganda) to reinforce existing brainwashing. Totally 100% dishonest, and they know it.

  29. 29
    michaelbusch

    @dobbshead:

    Two more:

    Relativistic quantum mechanics is necessary to explain why gold is yellow and silver is white (the 5d-6s electron transition is redshifted into the visible in gold but remains in the UV for silver). The same applies to caesium as compared to rubidium.

  30. 30
    michaelbusch

    @dobbshead:

    Two more:

    Relativistic quantum mechanics is necessary to explain why gold is yellow and silver is white (the 5d-6s electron transition is redshifted into the visible in gold but remains in the UV for silver). The same applies to caesium as compared to rubidium, although the electron transition involved is different.

  31. 31
    cyberCMDR

    I bet the idea of alternate gene splicing as an evolutionary mechanism would really drive the IDiots crazy. Genes for proteins are shared across many species, but the transcribed RNA introns and some exons can be cut out before protein synthesis enabling many variations in protein expression. These variations can account for a lot of the differences observed between species, and provides a flexible way of introducing variation without significantly changing the source gene.

    In other words, the material for the overcoat is there, but may not be currently being used to make an overcoat.

  32. 32
    M can help you with that.

    @ michaelbusch –

    Relativistic quantum mechanics is necessary to explain why gold is yellow and silver is white (the 5d-6s electron transition is redshifted into the visible in gold but remains in the UV for silver).

    I feel cheated that in a year of quantum mechanics coursework (including relativistic corrections in the last quarter) we never had this pointed out. (Electron orbital shapes, sure. But the gold/silver distinction? That would have been fun to know.)

  33. 33
    David Marjanović

    I suppose it’s the same way someone with no understanding of physics could write a whole book with no math in it disproving Einstein.

    The “no math in it” part made me LOL in meatspace. Bethell must be an incredible narcissist who operates on the default assumption that everyone else is incredibly stupid! :-D

    Antibiotic resistance experiments can be done, and are routinely done, using bacteria descended from a single cell.

    Uh, yeah, mutations happen – but they aren’t caused by the presence of an antibiotic, and Bethell is stupid enough to believe that all biologists are stupid enough to believe that mutations are caused that way.

    (The effect described in comment 8 is real; but that’s different. Using sloppier DNA replication enzymes increases the probability of all mutations indiscriminately.)

    Note that it is an assertion followed by a negative argument against evolution. It’s deliberate and it’s dishonest. The Tooters are not simpletons and fools. They are very dangerous and cost the rest of us lots of time and money fighting their attacks on science education.

    The second and the third sentence don’t necessarily follow from the first. Some people probably really are that stupid.

    However, that doesn’t contradict the fourth sentence.

  34. 34
    dogfightwithdogma

    “…he’s the author of quite a few books questioning the dogma of science.” (Sorry for the quote marks but I appear to be too stupid to figure out the blockquote tag.)

    Do I misunderstand science? I was not aware that science is a dogma. If it is then I shall have to change my online name. If it is I’d certainly like to know how any one can justify calling it so. I thought that dogma was a set of opinions held as being incontrovertibly true and not requiring evidence as a condition to consider them true.

  35. 35
    Ichthyic

    Read that last paragraph again.

    no thanks, I value my brain cells too much.

  36. 36
    w00dview

    I don’t understand why the Discovery Institute thinks debunking evolution is “politically incorrect”. Does politically correct just mean “something we don’t like” to these people? Anyhoo, due to the way these fools are trying to force their dogma in science class and desperately try to wish a inconvenient theory away wouldn’t that confirm that it is evolution itself that is the real force of truly political incorrectness? Especially since accepting the evidence for it will destroy any Republican’s chance of getting ahead in politics. In the US, mealy mouthed platitudes about teaching both sides is the politically correct option. Getting behind science ain’t.

  37. 37
    John Phillips, FCD

    @dogfightwithdogma, we don’t consider it dogma but the IDiots do, hence PZ’s phrasing.

  38. 38
    dogfightwithdogma

    @John Phillips, FCD thanks for the clarification.

  39. 39
    eddavies


    We can measure the positions of objects >100,000 lightyears away directly by parallax.

    No we can’t. The best currently available observations are from the Hipparcos satellite which can measure out to about 200 parsecs (about 640 light years) so you’re exaggerating by about 150 times.

    http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/solar/hipparcos.html#c1

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