An anniversary, of sorts

Once upon a time, about two years ago, I dissected a claim by Paul Nelson that he had an objective measure of developmental complexity that he called “ontogenetic depth”. I thought it was very poor stuff: no repeatable methods, no clear description of exactly what he was measuring, and actually, it looked like he was just plucking numbers out of thin air.

Note that today is 29 March 2006. On 29 March 2004, Nelson left a comment on the post, promising to address the issues I brought up.

Quick note—I’m drafting an omnibus reply (to points raised here and in Shalizi’s commentary), with title and epigraph from a Rolling Stones song. I’ll post it tomorrow.

The next day went by. Actually, over a week went by, and on 7 April 2004 we heard from Nelson again.

I’m lecturing at the University of Maine (Orono) today, but will try to post the reply when I return to Chicago tomorrow. It’s pretty long: I think I’ll put it up at ISCID and link from here.

There was nothing on 8 April, or 9 April, or 10 April…finally, on 26 April 2004 we get this:

No, I’m still here. Maybe if you guys can give my out-of-state lectures for me [you know the design shtick, shouldn’t be too hard], I can finish this overly-long response.

We offered to give those lectures for him (wouldn’t that have been fun?) but no, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t post this long-promised reply, either. On 27 July 2004, though, he did present a poster at the Society for Developmental Biology. I was there. It didn’t answer any of those questions.

About six months later, Nelson reemerged on the comment thread. On 13 January 2005, he said:

Don’t miss this paper by Azevedo et. al in the latest (13 Jan 2005) Nature. A workable (i.e., usable) measure of ontogenetic depth, maybe.

It really is a good paper, and I wrote a bit of a summary of the analysis.

But, uh, wait a minute. Nelson promised us an explanation of his method; months later, after giving us nothing, he showed up to point to a legitimate and interesting science paper that used an interesting technique, apparently nothing like what he was doing, and thinks that’s a fair substitution? What a wonderful example of the purely parasitic nature of the Discovery Institute! No work, only promises, and the best they can do is point to the efforts of real scientists!

We’re still waiting for Paul Nelson to explain the procedure and utility of “ontogenetic depth”. A day wasn’t enough, and I can’t complain about that. A month was pushing it. A year? That’s not looking so good. At two years, we ought to just give up. I’ll be patient, though, and give the poor fellow a decade—anyone want to take any bets on whether “ontogenetic depth” is well-supported biological tool in 2014, or whether it’s nothing but a mean-spirited prod used to poke creationists on an obscure blog? (or perhaps even worse—something so obscure it has no current reference, and is found only on the little read pages of the internet archives.)


  1. wad of id says

    “I’ll get back to you later” has become ID code for “Fuck, you got me. I need to change the topic.”

  2. Torbjorn Larsson says

    It’s probably one of those irreducible complex concepts – you can’t get an explanation of the details, but must accept it wholesale on faith.

    It ties in with my new theory of ‘ontological depth’. It is a measure of the distance (in terms of term division and differentiation) between a loose idea and an adult scientific theory capable of verification and peer-review. I’m currently drafting it – await it in two years or thereabouts.

  3. speedwell says

    Milo, wad, and Torbjorn, you guys put a badly needed laugh in my system this morning. Excellent quips, thanks! :)

  4. wamba says

    “Ontogenetic Depth” is the amount Paul Nelson is in over his head!

    Check down at the stockyards, I’ll bet they know exactly what that’s about.

    Happy Anniversary!

  5. CousinoMacul says

    One of the hallmarks of quackery and pseudoscience is the misuse of scientific language so as to snow the uneducated (in science) into thinking there’s a legitimate theory there.

    So ID has

    Irreducible complexity: An organ or oraganism that cannot possibly function if you remove or alter any part of it in any way. Therefore it could not have evolved.

    Ontogenetic depth: An objective measure of developmental complexity.

    I would like to propose a few of my own

    Paleochasmic discontinuity: Gaps in the fossil record that cannot be explained by evolution because the time between them won’t allow for sufficient intermediate forms.

    Biomolecular Ovipoultricity: The biochemical analouge of the “chicken and the egg” paradox. eg.- You need nucleic acids to made proteins like Transcriptase. You need Transcriptase for nucleic acids to make proteins.

    Intrinsic exofunctionality: An organ or behavior whose function cannot be explained in terms survivable fitness, but as serving some outside purpose. Therefore it must be designed.

    This is kind of fun!

  6. Bruce says

    CousinoMacul, stop it! Jeeze, you’ve just given DI all their talking points for the year!

  7. Great White Wonder says

    Paul Nelson got a memo a few months ago from Casey Luskin informing him that “ontogenetic depth” didn’t test well in the suburbs and so the concept is being dropped.

  8. j-dog says

    You guys are all crazy! Mr. Nelson is clearly referring to Tontogenetic Death, in which Kemosabe’s Faithful Sidekick pracices safe sex, and fails to impregnate an Indian, I mean a Native American succesfully.

  9. says

    “What a wonderful example of the purely parasitic nature of the Discovery Institute!”

    Yes, I fear that one of these days they’ll just list me as one of their members or something! Thanks for bringing that post back from the archives…