Happy Paul Nelson Day!


Today we celebrate the collapse of a stupid idea: Paul Nelson’s “ontogenetic depth”, which was supposed to be a concrete metric that would disprove evolution. Nelson was so confident that he had a solid angle on questioning evolution that he presented it on a poster at the Society for Developmental Biology meetings in 2004 — a poster that was so empty of substance that I asked him for his protocols, and he then waffled for years before finally admitting he had nothin’ in 2010.

Ontogenetic Depth (OD) 1.0 was — well, it would be beyond charitable to say utterly inadequate. I realized this not long after reading PZ Myers’ first wave of criticisms. As I’ll explain, however, my realization stemmed not from Myers’ specific points (most of which were either minor quibbles, or missed the mark completely), but rather from trying to apply OD 1.0 myself to the well-studied models systems of developmental biology. The OD 1.0 "metric" was no metric — measuring stick — at all. Thus, PZ’s general judgment in 2004, if not his specific criticisms, was dead accurate: "This is a poorly expressed and unusable idea."

You will notice that even while confessing that his idea was useless, he’s setting up nitpicks, and claiming that that was Ontogenetic Depth 1.0, which sucked, but wait until you see Ontogenetic Depth 2.0!

This is the 11th year of waiting for Paul Nelson to come up with that explanation of Ontogenetic Depth, either version 1.0 or 2.0 (who knows? Maybe he’s added new version numbers to his creationist vaporware!). At least we got a kind of half-assed, hand-wavey, somewhat dishonest retraction from him, which is about the best we can expect from creationists.



  1. paulnelson58 says

    Hey PZ — another anniversary rolls around. I’ll have a post at Evolution News & Views later today, marking the occasion, with open comments. You should try the exercise in the post.

  2. themadtapper says

    You should try the exercise in the post.

    Is it color by number? I do so love color by number.

  3. blf says

    Which I guess is, technically ‘after Christmas’ so carry on.

    Nah, based on the current ongoing experience, we need to count in decades. So if it’s only six years from now, it will be before the next xianmasshallucinations, counting in decades-from-now.

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    believe it or not I was thinking o this just a couple days ago. I thought the anniversary was in march and was wondering if PZ had missed it. Bad memory. next year I’ll remember it’s april.

  5. Zugswang says

    Apropos of celebrating the collapse of stupid ideas, it’s also National Beer Day in the US, commemorating the signing of the Cullen-Harrison Act.

  6. Holms says

    The video was nice in an exuberant, silly-but-owning-it way… but then HOLY SHIT STREETS OF RAGE II IN THE BACKGROUND!

  7. Aaron says

    So his post jumps right into an assumption, ” I see more clearly than ever why the origin of developmental pathways requires a cause with foresight.” and then goes on to say, “Whatever caused animal body plans to arise had to know where it (namely, the cause) was going. And the first step on that road is the hardest to take.” Forgetting, of course to say WHY there has to be something that ’caused animal body plans to arise’ or WHY he thinks there has to be a place ‘where it was going.’

    Those are some pretty big assumptions you just skip right over there Nelson. Why don’t you back up a bit and tell us why you think there is that something (presumably an entity of sorts) and why you think he has an end game before you question his building standards :P

  8. Aaron says

    Also no comments allowed on your site Nelson? While a choice, its sometimes a telling one.

  9. paulnelson58 says

    I was overruled by the ENV blog editor in Seattle on opening comments, sorry. :-( I’m just a blog contributor here in Chicago, no editorial authority. Also several hyperlinks were missing and are being added back into the file right now.

    So I’ll field comments here. Aaron: are you saying the origin of C. elegans was uncaused, or a chance event?

  10. themadtapper says

    Am I missing something, or is Paul’s amazing post today nothing but a regurgitation of the “irreducible complexity” argument? “Worms need CEICP, so CEICP must have come first. But CEICP is for making worms, so it wouldn’t have evolved in a non-worm. Checkmate evolutionists!”. Also, a lot of hand-wringing about evolutionary science not including intelligent design for “philosophical rather than evidential” reasons, of course without offering any evidential reasons it should be included.

  11. Last Embryo Standing says

    Some people seem to have teleology jamming up their brains, like the plaque that causes Alzheimers. The idea that something can arrive somewhere without anyone intending it, just can’t make it past the mental drawbridge.

  12. consciousness razor says

    I’m not sure I understand the argument. We start with some simple thing, without many of the functions or differentiations that gradually evolved with its descendents.

    Now the claim is that you need teleology in order for there to be new stuff, which wasn’t present initially? Or is that the functions the new pieces have for the organisms can’t change if the conditions do — and that’s why it has to be teleological? Or is it that this isn’t likely to happen by some metric — and that’s why it has to be teleological? Or is that we simply don’t know about every last step in the sequence from A to B to Q to P to Z, then deep into the Greek alphabet — and that’s why it has to be teleological?

    It all sounds like a lot of bullshit to me, as a non-biologist.

  13. vereverum says

    This looks like a good post to ask my question.
    I read recently an article in Science News re a study on some beetles. The writer stated that the beetle evolved the large horn to more successfully …. I thought this was sloppy writing. In my non-biologist understanding of evolution, an organism does not evolve a characteristic in order to do stuff but instead the organism does stuff because it evolved the characteristic.
    Am I correct in my thinking (in a very generic way)?

  14. Doc Bill says

    #16 Exactly right, Paul. You’re just a wee little muffin in the Disco Tute bakery. But the ENV blog editor is correct in not wanting to actually “teach the controversy” or allow “academic freedom” on the Tooter’s own website. I mean, what do they have to be afraid of, right? Better to exercise a little prudent “viewpoint discrimination” than to allow a “free and open, civil exchange of ideas.”

    Now, take your meds like a good little boy, Paul, and we’ll see you next year. Oh, BTW, Happy Anniversary!

  15. themadtapper says

    @21: Yes, basically. The mutations occur randomly, but if they produce characteristics that benefit the organism, or allow it to do things that improve its survivability, those mutant characteristics become more likely to be passed on and then refined through further selection. So beetles didn’t evolve horns to more successfully do anything. They evolved horns because the mutations that started the horn growth in the first place facilitated abilities and behaviors that improved the beetles’ survivability. It’s more complicated than that of course, but that’s the cliffnotes version.

  16. Al Dente says

    Instead of attacking evolution, I’d like to see the creationists defend creationism. Yeah, we’re all familiar with the personal ignorance, incredulity, strawman, etc. attacks on evolution that somehow never seem to bring evolution down. But I rarely if ever see creationists say “here is how goddidit explains this anomaly in evolution” or “these questions can only be answered by goddidit and here’s how.”

    Creationists think that evolution versus goddidit is a zero-sum game. If evolution loses then goddidit automatically wins. Among other things, there might be other alternatives to goddidit (no, I don’t know what those alternatives might be). Also creationists have to show that goddidit answers every question that evolution does equally well or better before goddidit can be a reasonable alternative to evolution.

    Okay, Paul, get the Discotute to start churning out papers explaining the benefits of goddidit. For that matter, start with the basics of goddidit since I doubt you’ve gotten that far in your thinking.

  17. Aaron says

    @15 paulnelson58 – I am saying you are making the claim there is a creator/editor/originator so its your job to back that up. You make the claim, you do the work. Why do you think there must be a ‘body planner’ and if your answer is some variation of irreducible complexity just go ahead and assume that my next question is to ask you to explain how your body planner was created, as that entity would be infinitely more complex than the things its creating.

  18. says

    Paul — why, for the love of Thor, can you not be bothered to do even the bare minimum amount of comparative biology when asking about the origin of the C. elegans bodyplan? Do you think C. elegans has the only possible way of building a worm? Do you think there might possibly be some relevant patterns if the development of different nematode species was mapped onto a nematode phylogeny? Do you think all animals have equally complex requirements for their bodyplans? What about cnidarians? What about sponges? What about colonial choanoflagellates? Why should anyone in science take you creationists seriously when you guys can’t be bothered to even include Evo-Devo 101 comparative biology in the pontifications you put before the public?

  19. says

    Instead of attacking evolution, I’d like to see the creationists defend creationism.

    Yes. Creationism amounts to thousands of years of “theory” with no verification at all.
    As creationists are fond of asking “how did life start?” we ought to be asking them “what is your theory of ensoulment? how do souls work? where do they come from? how do they persist?” or “how does the hand of god work? how does it avoid violation of various conservation laws?” and of course the really good one: “what’s your theory of how god creates big bangs?” If the answer to any of those is “we don’t know” then please explain how you are sure it’s the christian god that was behind these events, and not the Yoruba god or some as-yet unidentified diety?

    Trying to attack evolution doesn’t mean creationism would win by default. Screaming “you’re wrong” doesn’t mean you’re right.

  20. Gordon Davisson says

    Paul – I’d say that you’ve successfully shown that the way you’re thinking about the development of nematodes is incompatible with their having evolved, but you’ve failed to give any reason to think it’s evolution (rather than your way of thinking) that’s wrong. I’ll try to point out the major unsupported assumptions I see:

    * You claim the development of nematodes is teleological, but the only basis you seem to give for this is that the result is always the same. Water molecules always wind up with a 104.5° bond angle; does that mean this was some sort of goal? Of course not, it just means that their formation process isn’t significantly random or influenced by external factors. Depending on how you define it, I might agree that nematodes’ development is teleological, but you haven’t provided an adequate argument for it.

    * I’m not sure about this, but you also appear to be conflating teleology in the development of nematodes with teleology in their evolutionary history. Ontogeny ≠ phylogeny. In ID-friendly terms: you haven’t shown that either nematodes’ development process or body plan is independently specified, so there’s no reason to think that nematodes couldn’t have come out some completely different way.

    * Sticking with ID-friendly terminology: you appear to be assuming the CEICP (“C. elegans initial cleavage pattern”) is irreducibly complex, but you haven’t provided any basis at all for this. You talk about it having come into existence at a specific time, but I see no reason at all to think it isn’t just the current state in a long series of gradual modifications to the development process.

    * Finally, your discussion seems to assume that evolution is directional; that cell number, developmental complexity (however you define it), etc all increase monotonically. The reality is that evolution goes in pretty much all directions: various parameters go up, down, sideways, whatever. This really shouldn’t be considered surprising, since evolution is not goal-directed.

  21. paulnelson58 says

    To various:

    Nick Matzke — nematodes exhibit a wild variety of different ontogenies (see the work of Anne-Marie Felix and Einhard Schierenberg). But for the puzzle outlined in my St Denis post, that’s neither here nor there. How did the C. elegans primary cleavage pattern arise? Given the relatively high level of detailed biological knowledge we now have about C. elegans, this shouldn’t be a hard question to answer. Yet it is. Saying however that another nematode exhibits blastomeric anarchy (as some marine species do) is interesting, but strictly irrelevant. Ditto for your comments about taxa in other phyla. I live in the evo-devo literature addressing the origin of metazoan ontogenies. Biologists like Stuart Newman have bailed out of textbook evolutionary theory entirely because of its total failure to solve the problem I sketched in my ENV post. And while I love the work of Nicole King, she is nowhere close to solving the difficulty. In short, the problem I outlined isn’t going away. I’ll be back next year. See you then!

    Aaron — I infer that whatever caused the origin of the nematode body plan, and C. elegans in particular, needed foresight. If you want to argue about the existence of God, sorry, not interested.

    Gordon — you’re right, evolution isn’t goal-directed. But C. elegans development surely is. Give a wild-type zygote half a chance, and it’s heading towards the adult worm with all of its specific structures and functions. So that’s the puzzle I’d like to see solved. How does an undirected evolutionary process construct a highly goal-directed ontogeny?

    Doc Bill — make mine Ativan, 0.5 mg. But the generic, it’s cheaper.

  22. Al Dente says

    paulnelson58 @31

    you’re right, evolution isn’t goal-directed. But C. elegans development surely is. Give a wild-type zygote half a chance, and it’s heading towards the adult worm with all of its specific structures and functions. So that’s the puzzle I’d like to see solved. How does an undirected evolutionary process construct a highly goal-directed ontogeny?

    That’s not a goal. That’s what mutation and natural selection allow the organism to do. But there’s no goal involved. Goals require conscious effort to achieve specific results. Neither a nematode nor individual cells have consciousness. So there’s no goal possible. As much as you god-soaked people hate to admit it, there’s no “grand plan.” As the old saying goes: “Shit happens.”

  23. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    How did the C. elegans primary cleavage pattern arise?

    If you say your imaginary deity “poofed” it into existence, you must show conclusive physical evidence, evidence that would pass muster with scientists, magicians, and professional debunkers as being of divine, and not natural (scientifically explained), origin, for both the deity and poofery where the new species was hatched from. Should be easy-peasy for you….*snicker*

  24. Saad says

    Al Dente, #32

    Goals require conscious effort to achieve specific results.

    The conscious effort is being presumed (as in all ID arguments). Note how they word it:

    I infer that whatever caused the origin of the nematode body plan, and C. elegans in particular, needed foresight.

    They start with a vague “whatever”, but then they infer that that “whatever” needed “foresight”, something conscious beings have.

    What they really mean (almost every single time) is Jesus’ dad.

  25. sawells says

    Paul’s problem is that he infers foresight no matter what the actual evidence is. It’s a cognitive bias. Some people just can’t grasp that the answer to “why” questions lies in the past – things are this way because they _were_ that way – rather than in the future – things are this way in order for X to happen later.