That Wells guy gets smacked around a bit

One of the few papers any of the Discovery Institute frauds have managed to get published was a bit of fluff by Jonathan Wells, who made a strange argument that centrioles generate a “polar ejection force” — his rationale was that they looked like turbines. Then he made a sloppy connection to ID by claiming that since turbines are designed, and he made his inference about their function because of that resemblance, the design hypothesis is therefore useful.

Ian Musgrave dissected Wells a while back, but now we have another worthy deconstruction: Stephen Matheson reviews the paper. He seems … unimpressed.


  1. Pyre says

    Those galactic cores emitting jets look like turbines, too. Function follows form, right?

    Must be the same “polar ejection force” — and equally proof of Intelligent Design.

    So much for astrophysics!

  2. H. Humbert says

    Stephen Matheson’s review was awesome. I loved this sentence: “For me, it’s a struggle to find words that adequately communicate the failure of this article to achieve any scientific respect.” The only serious question remaining in regards to ID is when will they give it up as a lost cause?

  3. Pyre says

    “The only serious question remaining in regards to ID is when will they give it up as a lost cause?”

    Never. When it becomes too publicly and officially discredit under this name, they will simply relabel it again, as they did before. (“Creationism” → “Intelligent Design” → ….)

  4. says

    As a non-scientist, I’m sure I’m missing something. But, even supposing that Wells’s idea had been sound and centrioles do spin round like miniature turbines, thereby generating the polar ejection force, how would that support the notion of “intelligent design”? Was Wells expecting that centrioles would actually have the word “Turbo” in chrome letters on their sides, and a label saying “Another Fine Product of Go^H^H^H the Designer”?

  5. says

    I wanted to comment on Matheson’s review directly, but you have to become a member of something to post a comment at his place, and that’s not cool with me.

    What a beautiful piece of analysis. Anyone can just call Wells an idiot, and in all honesty that should be enough, but it takes real knowledge and discipline to take something so silly and dissect it so coolly, giving it the benefit of the doubt all the way through the point where you clearly and calmly show why it’s utter lunacy. Wells gets the nasty words he deserves, but only at the end once they’ve really been earned – the lost art of building to a climax.

    I, for one, am happy the ID-ists are willing to make testable predictions. I’ve thought for a long time that the ID hypothesis really could do that, in spite of everything, and proponents have just been trying to avoid it. Which makes sense, because here they made a clear prediction and it was flatly wrong. This way ID can be either conclusively invalidated, or forced to revise itself to become closer and closer to reality (e.g. there is a Designer, but He works through evolution) until the God-gap is so small that there’d be no reason to worship anything that fits in it. If re-proving modern science to them step by step is what it takes to bring the fundamentalists into the 21st century, I think that’s a good opportunity and we should take it even if it seems like it shouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world.

  6. Chris says

    Let me see if Im understanding what Well’s is saying correctly. Wells uses an analogy to explain a biological system, which I think other scientists have used analogies to help lay people like myself understand biological systems/functions. Is Wells saying that these analogies prove ID (or at least his own)?

  7. Sigmund says

    What Wells is saying is that certain biological systems look very similar to machines. All the machines we see around us have been designed by an intelligent agent (humans). Therefore if you can detect a molecular machine within the cell it is evidence for intelligent design in nature.
    Sadly, probably more than 50% of the US population regularly fall for this kind of fallacious argument. Even if we ignore the fact that the theory of evolution provides a perfectly good explanation for the appearance of design in nature we still haven’t proven the existence of a third party designer.
    If we say that all complex designed machines have man as a designer then surely the discovery of design in nature should suggest that the identity of the great intelligent designer himself is none other than man (the only proven intelligent designer we know). The logic (!?!) of the ID argument simply points towards a time traveling human designer, not a deity.

  8. SEF says

    I don’t really believe in a polar “wind” as such anyway. It’s not as though the cell is empty. It’s full of water and larger molecules. So, naturally, as the chromosomes are dragged / motored (whatever) to opposite ends, the material in the way has to get out of the way and has to end up back in the space formerly occupied by the chromosomes. Hence it has to flow past them. Drag any floaty thing through water (eg a handkerchief held at the centre) and you’ll see its unrestrained ends pushed inwards as they lag behind.

    Meanwhile, the way microtubules work (one of my favourite bits from cell biology!) is by tubulin removing itself from one end and “running” round to join the other. Rather like the way logs are thought to have been used as rollers to move big stones – with the disused roller at the rear being brought to the front each time. So that’s another lot of material which could be flowing in the correct direction to affect the arms of the chromosomes.

  9. negentropyeater says

    The problem with ID is, in my view very, very simple :


    let’s go back to the premise and suggested method of ID, and analyse it in a excluvisely rational way, absent of any religious considerations.

    I will show that the problem with ID lies in the underlying method that they are suggesting, and not in the premise.

    The premise of ID is : “are there elements of nature that can only be explained as the work of a designer ?”, or, in the case of life on earth, biomolecular sub-elements, or -machine-

    The method of ID is : “to answer this question we must identify patterns or, in the case of life on earth, biomolecular sub-elements, or -machines- , that show evidence of the work of a designer”.

    For any analysis of the sort, it is therefore necessary to assume that it is a possibility that there are, indeed, some aspects of nature that have been designed. This is equivallent, teleologically to an agnostic position. The a priori answer to the question :
    “are there biological machines (machine being defined as an ensemble of molecular bio-elements) in nature that have been designed ?”

    can only be, “hmmm, maybe, but let’s find out and see if the method suggested by Intelligent Design could develop into a fully fledged scientific programme.”

    The method, is to “identify patterns that show evidence of the work of a designer”, but isn’t that equivallent to “identifying elements, or patterns of nature that cannot have evolved through the known historical theories of naure”. In other words, it means “finding things that we cannot explain today ?”

    But isn’ that what science is all about ? Explaining things we can’t explain yet..

    I will argue that ID is nothing more than an attempt at reframing all historical sciences, ie those that concern specifficaly “what has happened in the past ?” as a more religious tollerant eandeavour. But what they do not understand IS that science is, per definition, religious agnostic. It is because of personal choices, not wanting to deal with the contradictions, that many scientists choose atheism. Others consider that those contradictions motivate them, and there are and have been and will be many highly succesful theist scientists. It doesn’t matter for science whether there is or there isn’t a God.

    Intelligent design is all historical Sciences, as a whole, in other words, just a “more religious tollerant science”. Just a word, nohing more than a word. The method doesn’t exist, it is a mirage…

    How many times does this have to be repeated,… and explained ?

    Guys, please let me know what you think ?

  10. says

    Aw, and here I was, hoping for sympathetic science to replace sympathetic magic.

    What? My irony is showing? Oh, sorry. How embarrassing. I’ll tuck it in right away.

  11. Boo says

    As a non-scientist, I’m sure I’m missing something. But, even supposing that Wells’s idea had been sound and centrioles do spin round like miniature turbines, thereby generating the polar ejection force, how would that support the notion of “intelligent design”?

    It’s simple, you just have to think like an Underpants Gnome:

    Step 1: Centrioles act like turbines.

    Step 2: ?????

    Step 3: Intelligent Design!

  12. David Marjanović, OM says

    Centrioles are cylindrical. Turbines are cylindrical. Praised be the Designer.

    Is that how Wells argues, or what have I missed?

  13. David Marjanović, OM says

    Centrioles are cylindrical. Turbines are cylindrical. Praised be the Designer.

    Is that how Wells argues, or what have I missed?

  14. Schmeer says

    “This way ID can be either conclusively invalidated, or forced to revise itself to become closer and closer to reality (e.g. there is a Designer, but He works through evolution) ”

    That’s what they call Liberal theology. I love it when theists take baby steps toward abandoning dogma. We start with ID and move on to theistic evolution, next step: Evolution, baby!

    I know a few people that I’ve been try to help make those steps. Now they agree that morality doesn’t come from religion, evolution is real and masturbation is not so bad (a rather important one).

  15. gex says

    What a poor analogy. Human design often mimics what is found in nature. To think that something found in nature that is similar to something we design PROVES design is asinine.

  16. windy says

    But what they do not understand IS that science is, per definition, religious agnostic. It is because of personal choices, not wanting to deal with the contradictions, that many scientists choose atheism.

    Slight gripe with this description – scientists choose atheism because they don’t want to deal with the contradictions? Or am I parsing the sentence in a way you didn’t intend?

  17. says

    Hey, PZ, thanks for the link! I’m a cytoskeleton guy so I had to get that one out of my system.

    To Epistaxis: I’m sorry about that “members-only” commenting policy. I don’t remember actually setting it that way, and I’ve just changed it. Maybe I’ll get more comments now. Thanks for the kind words.

    To SEF: the existence of a polar ejection force, whether you “believe” in it or not, is undisputed and is not accounted for by the viscosity of the cytoplasm. As my post explains, it’s largely if not completely due to the action of motor proteins. What I didn’t explain is the function of those motors or the force they generate. The answer is that during mitosis the chromosomes are also subjected to a force that pushes them toward the cell center, and for good reason. The alignment of the chromosomes in the center, at metaphase, is critical for the equal partitioning of genetic material. The polar ejection force is, then, a continued exertion of a force that was acting just before anaphase. And your model of tubulin “running” to the growing end of a microtubule is wholly inaccurate. There is no such phenomenon, and therefore no reason to postulate a “flow” created as a result.

  18. gex says

    I might add that an equally valid analogy is that human beings played the role of nature and natural selection in the design of the turbine. I’d imagine that it wasn’t just designed from a blank drafting board directly to the modern form. I bet there was a lot of trial and error, a sort of selection so to speak, involved in getting to the current design.

  19. says

    Actually, the idea of looking at apparent design (‘methinks it looks like a turbine’) is an interesting strategy that can be completely uncoupled from the question of whether there is a Designer in the sense that IDevotees covet. Leaves can be thought of us as solar collectors, stacks of thylakoids (grana) within chloroplasts resemble electrical transformers and of course ATP synthase really is a miniature motor, etc.

    With that in mind, the suggestion that the unusual geometry of centrioles (barrel-shaped assemblies of microtubules, at right angles to one another) might have some relation to the function to which they are put is an interesting one. It’s just that the conclusion to purposefulness does not follow, especially since it is well-known that similar arrangements of the same components (basal bodies) may be found elsewhere in the same cell, doing something else. In all probability, whatever unique function centrioles might demonstrate in animals, it was achieved by coopting previous achievements in apparent ‘design’, what Vrba called an ‘exaptation’. In other words, achieved through evolution.

  20. Tulse says

    Man, it’s like lolcreationists:

    Centriolez iz turbinez! Goddidit! kthxbai!

    Flajellum iz designed! i’m in yur skoolz, infecting yur edumacashun!

  21. says

    Yes, similarities between our machines and nature’s is evidence for the Designer. Trouble is, dissimilarites between our machines and nature’s is also evidence for the Designer. Denyse O’Leary:

    They have discovered something that natural philosophers have always known: Life forms, even simple ones, are not like machines.

    Life forms pursue goals generated from within themselves. The difference between your computer and the fly buzzing around your computer is not merely that the fly is vastly more complex than your computer.

    A much more important difference is that the fly does not need you to tell it how to be a fly. Your computer, by contrast, has no internal motives or goals and will do nothing you don’t ask for…

    [bolding added]

    So there you are, anything and everything about life is ipso facto evidence for a designer. If life is found to be machinelike, then you have to close your eyes to such glaring evidence in order not to believe in the Designer. If life is found not to be machinelike, well, that’s even better, since, for instance, we couldn’t make ‘flies with free will,’ as O’Leary’s source was claiming is the case (by using a very broad definition of “free will”).

    Of course Wells’ nonsense “prediction” wasn’t entailed by ID, since ID “predicts” no similarities or dissimilarities. ID is all “duh, I not understand that, must be magic.”

    Glen D

  22. Pyre says

    And many cells look like rubber balls (of various shapes and degrees of squishiness), proving they were designed!

    An the human skeleton looks just like the plastic model skeletons you can buy in science catalogs! Proof!!!

    Or look at the human body overall… now look at the Visible Man / Visible Woman kits… what more proof of Design do you need???!

  23. negentropyeater says


    maybe this explains a bit better what I wanted to say concerning your point >

    When one looks at the achievements of Science, so far, in explaining the world, and the areas where there are still big question marks, one can look at it from two different, and in my view, perfectly acceptable perspectives:

    The big question marks, I would say, are :

    Why are the laws of nature what they are ? Is there a natural explanation ?
    – Is there a natural theory that explains the constants of nature, can we reduce the numbers of free parameters to less, will a theory of quantum gravity show that the Big Bang was a purely natural phenomena ?
    – How did the first live replicators come about on this planet. Again, does it have purely natural explanation ? In others words, is life a purely emergent property of matter and energy ?
    – Is consciousness a purely emergent property of matter and energy ?

    How many future nobel prizes will be won in trying to answer these questions ? LOTS !!!!

    Philosophically, one can also ask the more general question, does what we know and do not know today indicate that the God hypothesis is justified ?

    From an Atheist perspective :
    there are still big question marks, but science has so far, always found natural explanations for the unexplained, so I believe that it will find natural explanations for all the above mentionned problems, so no, I do not see evidence that supports the God hypothesis. I do not see a need to make this hypothesis and it just complicates matters.

    From a Theist perspective :
    there are still big question marks, and science will continue to find explanations for the unexplained. When I look at the unexplained as a whole (and not of course, the individual problems which does not make sense as I also believe that there are some fundamental aspects of nature that we do not know, as of yet, and for which one will find natural explanations), I cannot decide, in a purely rational way, if there is, or not, a God. But then, why do I want to believe that there is a God ? Does this have, also, a purely rational explanation, or is there something more ? Isn’t that, the indication, for me, that there is a God ? Everytime I strip myself truly from any religious prejudice, why do I still want to see the universe that way ? As you can see, the Theist perspective makes things more complicated. The Atheist looks at this and says to himself, Why complicate things

    Please note, that, by definition, the Atheist believes that there is a perfectly rational and natural explanation for the fact that the Theist feels this need to believe in God. In most cases, he is right because a lot is based on ignorance. But believe me, I have met true Theists that have an extremely precise and detailed understanding of Science and I could not find any rational explanation, and certainly not ignorance.

    This has been for me, the solution to the Christopher Hitchens Gambit : give me one example that, an Atheist can’t do, that a Theist can do :
    “to feel the need to believe in God, even when nothing justifies it ”

    An Atheist, does not believe in God, therefore believes that the need to believe in God has always a rational explanation. The theist sees it the other way around. There is always a Biais, one way, or another.

    Tell me what you think …
    (hopefully I won’t get cruxified by neither camp immediately)

  24. clheiny says

    No no wait. Polar Ejection Force is really a bunch of biological comic-book superheroes! There’s the twins Mitosis and Meiosis, the hotshot pilot/mechanic Telomere Ace, the strongman Mike O’Chondria, and a couple of others whose names elude me right now. And of course there’s a comic sidekick mascot, a squid who is actually smarter than any of the protagonists, but hides it pretty well.

    It’s all pretty formulaic (though I do think the twins are fairly hot). At the climactic battle of every story, they shout “Polar Ejection Force! Recombine!” and cross over their arms, calling out things like “Power of ATP!” (that’s Mike O.) and unify (if you can call it that) into two superheros that each have slightly differing powers that might (or might not) help it survive better in the upcoming combat with Galactus or whoever.

    The end of every episode has them (or at least the portion of the team that survived to reproduce the original heroes again) back at their secret base (the Nucleus), relaxing in the Gene Pool, sipping beers, playing catch with the squid mascot, making jokes about their recent adventure, and receiving some foreshadowing message/object/whatever regarding the next episode.

  25. Tulse says

    negentropyeater, the argument you present is missing a crucial assumption, namely, that if we humans can’t produce a naturalistic explanation for the origin of physical laws/constants/life/consciousness, that mean that these didn’t arise naturally. And that assumption is, in my view, totally unjustified.

    There is no guarantee that the universe has to be explicable to our cognitive system — it presumably isn’t to the cognitive system of a dog, or a spider, so why should we necessarily be any different? But just because a spider may not be able to generate a theory of how moths fly doesn’t mean that moth flight isn’t the result of natural physical laws. Likewise, it may very well be that the items you identify have thoroughly natural origins which, because of human cognitive limitations, are inaccessible to us. To assume that if we can’t explain it it must be supernatural is purely an assumption, a premise in the argument, and not a conclusion.

    In any case, if aspects of the natural world are inexplicable, it is no help at all to postulate further inexplicable entities to account for those aspects. And that’s all God is, just another inexplicable entity (pretty much by definition). The theist position explains nothing, it just adds complications.

  26. Sigmund says

    Hitchens challenge is different – give an example of a GOOD moral action that a theist can do but an atheist cannot.

  27. says

    I am always amazed at people brining up this stupid idea of something looking designed. That is 100% a cultural argument, based on what you believe looks designed.

    2000 years ago, this would not have looked designed, because no one knew what a turbine was (this is of course null because no one knew what a cell was, but for the point of this argument it doesn’t matter).

    10,000 years ago, you could have written the bible out in any language in the sand, and it would not have looked designed, it would have looked like a bunch of squiggles (no one had writing at this point).

    Because something looks designed, does not mean it is!

  28. negentropyeater says


    perfectly correct, but it is exactly for the reasons you explain, ie why justify this hypothesis, even when there is no reason, and more when it complicates rather than explain, that the theist asks himself, so, @why do I still want to see the world that way …


  29. SEF says

    is not accounted for by the viscosity of the cytoplasm

    Not just viscosity since, as I pointed out, it all has to rotate round to occupy the space formerly occupied by the chromosomes and get out of the way of where they are ending up. Meanwhile, there would have to be viscosity in order for you to have a polar wind at all! So you are hoist with your own petard there.

    And your model of tubulin “running” to the growing end of a microtubule is wholly inaccurate.

    Untrue. It’s what was being observed in labs back when I was doing cell biology. Eg “Molecular Biology Of The Cell” (Alberts, Bray, Lewis, Raff, Roberts, Watson) at p576 (in my copy) – although they call it “treadmilling”.

  30. Sven DiMIlo says

    IANACP (cell physiologist), but my understanding of chromosome movement in anaphase is that kinetechore kinesins are walking along spindle microtubules toward the poles, producing the force that (in combination with cytoplasm viscocity) causes the chromosome arms to lag behind the moving kinetochore. Microtubules are disassembled behind the kinetochore and lengthened at the poles, so even if “treadmilling” occured, tubulin would be moving in the wrong direction to account for the arm-lag and the appearance of this polar ejection force. As for treadmilling, I am unaware of any mechanism that could cause directed movement of tubulin monomers, other than net directional movement by diffusion from an area of disassembly (and consequent high tubulin-monomer concentration) toward areas of assembly (and consequent low free-monomer concentration).
    I would appreciate being corrected in any of these specifics by more knowledgable readers.
    Also a terminology question: Can we refer to a “centrosome” even where there are no centrioles?

  31. YetAnotherKevin says

    Tulse, I’m totally going to steal that. Of course, I will have to correct your spelling of “im” and “ur”.

  32. SEF says

    PS I think what I object to most is the term “polar ejection force” for something which has to be a rotating flow. The cell is a closed system in that respect. The poles have to be pulling in just as much material as they are ejecting (matter is not being created at the poles and neither is it being destroyed at the centre!) but you (or the original namers) are only caring about one portion of the flow. There really does have to be a flow of material sneaking back the other way, round the outside perhaps, ready to be sucked in and ejected all over again (with the inevitable turbine model).

  33. says

    Your facts are straight, and your explanations are perfect. SEF doesn’t even get that if his tubulin flow model were correct, the chromosomes would be bent the other way. Poor SEF: s/he has a model, and s/he’s sticking to it, no matter how the actual data turn out. Gosh, that sounds kind of familiar…

  34. says

    As for treadmilling, I am unaware of any mechanism that could cause directed movement of tubulin monomers

    I have a proposal for such a mechanism which is tied to a hypothesis regarding centriole structure/function, but which is absent the implied ID agenda referenced in this thread. It is entirely too long and off-topic to be dropped here, however. Interested parties can contact me at my blog above…SH

  35. Pyre says

    P.S.   Didn’t anyone ever wonder why Fermat couldn’t:
          a) use several page margins in succession?
          b) use a flyleaf of the book?
          c) attach a separate sheet of paper?

  36. says


    OK, that was funny. Just for the record, though, I was serious about sharing the idea with those interested, but I’m not so serious about the idea that I could ever be a crackpot about it. It’s just an idea.

  37. SEF says

    doesn’t even get that if his tubulin flow model were correct, the chromosomes would be bent the other way.

    Untrue again.

    1. Just because the chromosomes are climbing the spindles (of which I was already aware) doesn’t mean that the tubulin isn’t also being cranked up. That’s something which would have to be demonstrated separately since they are not a mutually exclusive things. The one does not preclude the other.

    2. Even with the spindles being disassembled at the centre before migration is finished, that still doesn’t mean the free tubulin would need to get to the poles. The spindles would have to be incomplete at the poles for that to be necessary. It’s more likely to stay where it is unless the cellular flow directs it around.

    3. In the extreme and counter-productive situation of the spindles going the other way, as you pretend I’m proposing in your strawman version of things, the tubulin still wouldn’t be blowing the ends of the chromosomes the other way because there isn’t room for it, what with the chromosomes already going that way and all! It’s that issue of matter not being created or destroyed on a cellular level (nor a vacuum being created) again. Just from the geometry of the situation, there’s more scope for the tubulin to go around than through. But since that’s your proposition and not mine anyway …

    Poor SEF: s/he has a model, and s/he’s sticking to it, no matter how the actual data turn out.

    Still untrue. For someone imagining themselves to have all the data, you’ve notably failed to show it. But would that be requiring too high a standard of you though, when you evidently prefer to tell multiple untruths (including about what I’ve said, about your own position and about whether I care about the data) and hope to get away by hollowly scoffing instead? You are the one acting more like a creationist in that respect.

    So where is your data on the actual tubulin distribution and movement during the process? I don’t deny there might be some. I just note that you have made no attempt to provide it, apparently preferring to make dishonest and defamatory attacks on me instead. Not really very scientific of you.

  38. SEF says

    I was serious about sharing the idea with those interested

    I’m interested – but probably not enough to start joining other blogs (with all the hassle that typically entails). It can take me long enough to get back to a conversation as it is when I have other things to do!

    NB Perhaps you could find a research student somewhere to prod into investigating it.

  39. says

    You’re way too much for me. In light of your mastery of cytoskeletal dynamics, I think you should work your ideas into a manuscript and submit it for publication. Try this journal first — I reckon you have a good shot there.

  40. SEF says

    Since Steve Matheson isn’t being forthcoming with any actual research data (perhaps Prof. Steve Steve would be more use!) I thought I’d have a quick look for myself at what the research world had been up to since my day.

    It’s somewhat disturbing how high in the Google list the DI comes. However, ignoring them as the worthless waste of space-time they are already known to be, I decided the top PubMed link was a better bet. They weren’t ignoring viscosity when investigating what could be causing the appearance of a polar ejection force on the chromosomes. They seem to have concluded that one possibility is that the chromosome arms are being buffeted by tubulin trying to grow more microtubules as well as from the mini-motors. I don’t have the access privileges to view the whole paper though.

    Since that was only 2001, there might well be something more (eg in the related links given on the right – but the details of those papers still wouldn’t be available to normal users). The next 2 Google links were devoid of useful content and broken respectively (at least to me, though other people’s access rights and security settings may give different results). Then it was time to get ready to catch the repeat of The Sky At Night I’d previously missed.

  41. Pyre says

    Sigmund @ 26:

    Hitchens challenge is different – give an example of a GOOD moral action that a theist can do but an atheist cannot.

    Uhhhh, that was intentionally funny, right?

    Not just the redundancy, but the inherent circularity, of “GOOD moral action”? Not just that an action which is “moral” is presumably also “GOOD”, but that each moral system is “GOOD” in its own view, so adding “GOOD” to that sentence does nothing whatsoever to resolve any argument between differing moral systems?

    As you’ve posed the question, the answer is immediately obvious: worshipping a god, and therefore imposing that god’s commandments (for instance, His commandment to worship Him) upon other people, are examples of “GOOD moral actions that a theist can do but an atheist cannot” — in the view of that theist’s moral system.

    Whatever the atheist’s moral system might have to say about the “goodness” of such actions, the theist may not listen…

    … which sums up the present state of American politics.

  42. says

    I think the argument is this:

    Cells contain things that we’d ordinarily regard as being manufactured/designed.
    Those nasty atheistic biologists are resisting the obvious conclusion, namely that they are. Look at me as I point it out!

    Again, a thicket of stupidity and errors, but we already know that bit.