Who do you think the brilliant minds at the Discovery Institute would recruit to review Sean Carroll’s new book, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)? Somebody with some knowledge of biology, perhaps, some faint whiff of respectable biological credentials, who might be able to actually assess (and in the DI’s case, cunningly distort) the science in the book? They’ve got so many legitimate scientists to choose from!
So of course, the duty falls on Casey Luskin’s slender, slippery, snake-like shoulders.
Oh, man, it is an awful review. It goes on for a tedious 15 pages, carps on Darwin and Darwinism 47 times, and right from the starting gate is one long whine that Carroll is preaching Darwinism as a religion (here’s a wonderfully representative example of the kind of evidence Luskin uses: Carroll ‘interestingly always capitalizes the term “Nature”‘ [emphasis in original]. Damned by a convention of the English1 language!), all in the most plodding prose. These are words that must be read in a nasal monotone for their full impact, I suspect.
The whole gemisch is a fabulous mine of creationist banalities, if only one could bear to read it. I skimmed it in short sessions punctuated with bouts of whimpering, eye drops, and obsessive hand-washing; you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t attempt a thorough dissection. You’ll have to settle for one paragraph, one tiny lump gingerly picked out of the bucket of vomit. Here, have a taste:
One type of alleged junk-DNA he discusses extensively is the “pseudogene.” Carroll’s rule of thumb is that when it comes to DNA, you “[u]se it or lose it.” Carroll gives various examples of “pseudogenes,” which he also calls “fossil genes”–claiming they are useless stretches of DNA that used to be functional genes but acquired deleterious mutations due to misuse that caused the original gene to stop working. He cites the bacterial pathogen that causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, as having 1600 functional genes and 1100 “fossil genes.” Carroll’s explanation is that it can survive with the 1100 genes “fossilized” because it acts as a parasite, living off of its hosts, and no longer needs them. Perhaps Carroll is right and M. leprae‘s “fossil genes” really are just non-functional junk. But Carroll’s “use it or lose it” rule also implies that if something has not been lost, perhaps it is still being used. Maybe the reason this bacteria species has not completely lost its “fossil genes” is because it’s still using them for something. Indeed, he recounts one pseudogene in the coelacanth, a species which, from what paleontologists can tell, has remained unchanged for 360 million years.21 Could a pseudogene remain unerased for so long if it were truly non-functional? Instead of considering this possibility, Carroll always assumes that these “fossil genes” truly have no function.
21Id. at 119, 123. Of course Darwinists would contend the Coelacanth pseudogene may be a recent change in the Coelacanth species. But we have no way of knowing that apart from assuming that it is non-functional, and therefore must be recent or it would have been lost. Given that our only hard data is the stasis of the Coelacanth species from paleontological data, perhaps that is a questionable assumption indeed.
It’s madness, I tell you. The whole thing reads like that.
Luskin loves the scare quotes. Be “prepared” to “trip” over them in almost every “sentence.” He also loves the pseudo-scholarly liberal sprinkling of footnotes2—I preserved one of them in the quote above. They’re almost always used either to point to a page in Carroll’s text (and in the example above, misleadingly—never trust a creationist’s citations), or to something he believes counters Carroll’s argument, which is usually a Regnery publication. Oh, and note the “Id.“, which I’ve rarely seen before—it’s a lawyerly convention, which might be fine in a legal brief, but after seeing them all over the place in a purported review of a science book, begin to grate. The one above references Carroll’s book, by the way, and I rather doubt that the book supports his claim.
Oh, and the science … Luskin doesn’t know any. Why they’ve got him reviewing these kinds of books is utterly baffling. It’s like having me review a text in economics or musicology — I’d have no background, no context, no understanding of the basic principles, and any attempt to explain the details would be laughable.
Luskin doesn’t understand junk DNA or pseudogenes. We know that most pseudogenes are useless junk, because we can compare them directly with functional copies in other organisms. We can see stop codons in the middle of them, or frameshift errors, or deletions or insertions. I gave an example of a pseudogene equivalent in English text here — isn’t it clear how we can look at the functional copy and the garbled copy and see the difference?
What we observe fits with what we would expect, too. If a mutation planted a stop codon in a gene, for instance, we wouldn’t expect the wreckage to magically disappear in the next generation. It would just sit there, accumulating further random changes that are not selected away, and would slowly erode away into the background noise. When Carroll says that a gene is lost, he does not mean that every last shred of its sequence is whisked away, but that it is no longer transcribed or no longer produces a transcript with any function. Luskin’s attempt to imply that the presence of any sequence, no matter how garbled, means it is still being used somehow is invalid.
What about that coelacanth story (there was a reason I put that up yesterday)? First of all, it’s nonsense to claim that coelacanth’s have been unchanged for 360 million years; for one thing, there are two extant species that diverged an estimated 5 million years ago. I’m also baffled by his odd suggestion that the only possibility is that the pseudogene was generated 360 million years ago, and that either it has retained some function or it would have been completely erased. Obviously, molecular changes in the sequence of the coelacanth’s genome have been ongoing and continuous.
And, well, the paleontological data, as well as the data on the existing coelacanth species, shows both a pattern of change and stasis. Luskin is once again exposing his profound cluelessness and unsuitability to be a competent reviewer of this book. That the DI would dip into that vast pool of talent that they have on tap and the best they could dredge up is a tyro lawyer with a demonstrated history of scientific ineptitude speaks volumes about that pool — that it’s drained and stagnant, with perhaps a few clumps of slime clinging to the muck.
1Note that I capitalized “English”. This, of course, implies that I am a reverent worshipper of a deity named English, and that this particular blog entry is a sacrament.
2I’m only using footnotes to make myself look as clever as Casey Luskin.