Not even wrong: gibberish on multicellularity from Uncommon Descent


I mentioned in my NASA Postdoctoral Program alumni seminar that creationists really don’t like research into the origins of multicellularity:

Slide from my NPP alumni seminar.

Slide from my NPP alumni seminar.

Just as Darwin did with the vertebrate eye, Kirk took this seemingly huge gap, between single-celled and differentiated multicellular life, and broke it down into a series of relatively small changes, each of which could conceivably have been adaptive in its own right. And because of the diversity of forms in the volvocine algae, we can say something a little stronger than just “conceivably adaptive,” because most of the combinations of these traits that Kirk proposes actually exist in an extant volvocine alga. So Kirk has very effectively reduced the complexity of this transition that intelligent design creationists would have us believe is irreducible.
And this, I think, is part of the reason that creationists seem to really dislike any research into the origins of multicellularity. Because just about every time we learn something new about the evolution of multicellularity, the main creationist web sites, places like Answers in Genesis and Evolution News and Views, seem compelled to respond.*

Add Uncommon Descent to that list. A new, unsigned post there quotes extensively from the recent New Scientist article reporting on AbSciCon talks from Will Ratcliff’s lab group and mine. I’m honestly not sure what their argument is; the post seems barely coherent.

It starts off promisingly:

A philosopher used to say, beware the man of one book. Today, we might say, be cautious considering the claims of the scientist of one gene.

Fair enough, although I would suggest that we should still beware the man of one book. I would also suggest that claims about single genes should be evaluated in light of the evidence offered in their support. The post goes on to quote a passage from the New Scientist article about the multiple origins of multicellularity and the eventual rise of complex life, to which the author responds

How about making it easier? complex life such as millipedes?

Wait, what? Making what easier? What about millipedes? Can I buy a verb? I really don’t understand what they’re trying to say here.

The next New Scientist quote is the standard argument (which I’ve made myself many times) that the origins of multicellularity are difficult to study because they happened a long time ago:

But no organism is known to have made that transition in the past 200 million years, so how and why it happened is hard to study.

To which the author responds

Funny that. Just when we’d be closer to having evidence…

The more I turn this over in my head, the less sense it makes. When would we be ‘closer to having evidence’? 200 million years ago? Are evolutionary biologists to be held responsible for the lack of recent origins of multicellularity? Have we been suppressing the aspirations of unicellular organisms for two million centuries?

Finally, the post quotes a criticism of our work by my Ph.D. advisor, Rick Michod:

Neither Ratcliff’s yeast nor Herron’s algae has unequivocally crossed the critical threshold to multicellularity, which would require cells to divide labour between them, says Richard Michod of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

It’s a fair criticism, though I think cellular differentiation is too high a bar and that the potential to evolve adaptively as multicellular units is more important. Further, I think Dr. Ratcliff’s yeast have evolved a sort of cellular differentiation. The Uncommon Descent post responds

Actually, even if they did, it’s been done before, for maybe hundreds of millions of years, by the starving amoebas. The trouble is, the amoeba conglomerate always breaks up as soon as they find a food source. They really prefer unicellular life.

‘Tis the gift to be simple?

Again, I can’t extract a coherent argument from this. By ‘it’s been done before,’ I assume they mean cellular differentiation. True. It’s also been done by animals, plants, ulvophyte and chorophyte green algae, red algae, brown algae, the ciliates Sorogena and Zoothamnium, filamentous cyanobacteria… What is the argument here? Because Dictyostelium cells differentiate, snowflake yeast and cluster forming Chlamydomonas are not multicellular? And they wouldn’t be even if they evolved cellular differentiation?

Unless and until someone can explain to me what the thesis of this post is, I’m going to classify it as ‘not even wrong.’ You have to make an argument to be wrong.

*This was all before Ann Gauger’s attempt to take apart Dr. Kirk’s ’12-step’ paper, to which I responded here and here.

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