Ontogenetic depth


One of the serious shortcomings of Intelligent Design is that it does nothing to provide any new or productive insights into the workings of biology. ID proponents seem to be at least vaguely aware of this failure, in that they do frequently claim to be thinking about working on a preliminary, tentative approach towards the beginnings of a potential research program (my paraphrase), but most of the effort has been directed towards political and legal enforcement of their ideas, rather than actually testing those ideas. One advantage of pursuing only legalisms is that they don’t give scientists anything to grapple. Invariably, when ID proponents do dip their toes in the scientific waters, they end up getting eaten by the sharks that lurk there.

One example: Paul Nelson, of the Discovery Institute, has been peddling a peculiar idea he calls “ontogenetic depth” as a scientific concept that emerges from Intelligent Design. To his credit, he has been presenting this idea in legitimate science venues, at the Geological Society of America and Society for Developmental Biology meetings. Note that getting on the program at these meetings is not subject to peer-review, so it is not automatically a recognition of merit that this work has been presented publicly. It is a good sign that Nelson is willing to expose his work to criticism, though.

I’m going to give it some criticism here. “Ontogenetic depth” is a developmental idea, and I’m a developmental biologist. Today I also get to play shark.

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A sloppy simulacrum of science

Go read this first rate summary of an ID meeting by one of its unsympathetic attendees. It’s genuinely bizarre. The talks by the ID proponents are frankly, complete garbage (not that the account is that blunt), which explains the message everyone got afterwards.

A few days after the meeting ended, we all received an email stating that the ID people considered the conference a private meeting, and did not want any of us to discuss it, blog it, or publish anything about it. They said they had no intention of posting anything from the conference on the Discovery Institute’s web site (the entire proceedings were recorded). They claimed they would have some announcement at the time of the publication of the edited volume of presentations, in about a year, and wanted all of us to wait until then to say anything. These actions made me aware of the extent to which the ID movement was willing to bear false witness in order to achieve its goals, and that kept me from falling prey to my empathy for the underdog.

A stealth science meeting? I’ve heard of requests to embargo discussion outside of a meeting until publication — which is reasonable, since many journals are jealous entities who demand that their submissions be virginal and unpublished anywhere else — but that’s not the case here. After reading the account, it’s clear that they’ve got no science and bad science, and really just want to control the release of information, so they can massage their PR and generate false impressions of scholarly work.

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How to organize against a creationist lecture

Got a creationist coming to your town or school? A commenter from Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education left an excellent summary of how to counter these travelin’ frauds effectively. The key is simple: recruit. Get the information out. Don’t let them come in and babble unopposed or with an audience imported from the local fundie churches — get informed people there, and the creationists will crumple easily.

Notice that this isn’t about suppressing their information (or even expelling them) — it’s shining the light of open public criticism on their shenanigans.

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Three years and counting

I was just reminded that last year at this time I announced an anniversary. In March of 2004, I critiqued this mysterious abstraction called “ontogenetic depth” that Paul Nelson, the ID creationist, proposed as a measure of developmental and evolutionary complexity, and that he was using as a pseudoscientific rationale against evolution. Unfortunately, he never explained how “ontogenetic depth” was calculated or how it was measured (perhaps he was inspired by Dembski’s “specified complexity”, another magic number that can be farted out by creationists but cannot be calculated). Nelson responded to my criticisms with a promise.

On 29 March 2004, he promised to post an explanation “tomorrow”.

On 7 April 2004, he told us “tomorrow”.

On 26 April 2004, he told us he was too busy.

On 13 January 2005, he told us to read a paper by R Azevedo instead. I rather doubt that Ricardo supports Intelligent Design creationism, or thinks his work contributes to it.

Ever since, silence.

One day has stretched into three years. I would fear that Paul Nelson has fallen into a chronosynclastic infundibulum and come unstuck in time, except that he still pops up saying the same stuff at creationist conferences. Maybe he just forgot, and this thread will remind him so that he’ll show up and post that promised explanation in a comment.


Mysterious Anonymous Wise Man supports ID!

Oh, great. Nelson is at it again. You know the DI is sweating bullets when Paul Nelson emerges to state his lugubrious ‘truths’, make his unfulfilled promises, and start citing mysterious, unnamed ‘senior scientists’ with profound insights into Intelligent Design’s promising destiny. He’s kind of the Thomas Friedman of the Discovery Institute, and just as trustworthy.

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There’s gall, there’s flaming dishonesty, and then there’s the Discovery Institute

Wow. As reported at the Panda’s Thumb, the DI is puffing up and getting pissy about a misattribution of a quote to one of their own. How dare we ‘Darwinists’ promote such blatant falsehoods!

Today there is another urban myth building up a head of steam, and being helped along by Darwinists, about Discovery Fellow Paul Nelson. Gaurdian reporter Karen Armstrong reports: ‘Great shakings and darkness are descending on Planet Earth,’ says the ID philosopher Paul Nelson, ‘but they will be overshadowed by even more amazing displays of God’s power and light.’ And yet this is pure rubbish because Nelson never said anything like this, and it turns out that Armstrong never even interviewed him. Nelson points this out in his letter to the Guardian demanding a correction.

Unfortunately for their sense of false outrage, the fact of the matter is that that wicked ‘Darwinist’, Nick Matzke, is the one who actually caught and reported the bogus quote, and called for its retraction. Matzke noted that it didn’t sound like anything Nelson would say out loud, and traced the quote back to a source that doesn’t seem to have any connection to Nelson.

Ooops. That’s what they call ‘helping along an urban myth’ over at the DI?

Note to self: if Rob Crowther is found bleeding in the street, just walk away. He seems to be one of those guys who’ll sue you if you try to give him first aid.

The Week in Review, and an open thread

Flitting about as I have lately means I’ve been missing this, that and the other thing. So here’s a quick summary.

  • Tuesday night I was at the Café Scientifique in Minneapolis, where UMM’s Timna Wyckoff gave a talk on antibiotic resistance. It was terrific! Lots of good questions throughout, and a mob of conversation afterwards. This is exactly how these events are supposed to go.
  • I missed Michael Ruse’s talk at the UM on Wednesday—I was somewhere in Wisconsin, with a dorm room packed into a car—but I have one email report that he was entertaining but extremely aggravating. Anyone else care to say more?
  • Paul Nelson gave a talk at UCI. It sounds like the usual thing we get from Nelson.
  • A new Skeptics’ Circle has crystallized.
  • There’s an I and the Bird sighting!
  • The liberals are having a carnival!

Now I’ve got a couple of finals to give, and man, I’m exhausted. Driving to Madison and back again in one day is too much for this tired old guy—we got back about midnight last night, and then I had to drag myself out of bed at 6 to finish writing one of my exams. And then tonight…more grading.

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.

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It’s not just the genes, it’s the links between them


Once upon a time, I was one of those nerds who hung around Radio Shack and played about with LEDs and resistors and capacitors; I know how to solder and I took my first old 8-bit computer apart and put it back together again with “improvements.” In grad school I was in a neuroscience department, so I know about electrodes and ground wires and FETs and amplifiers and stimulators. Here’s something else I know: those generic components in this picture don’t do much on their own. You can work out the electrical properties of each piece, but a radio or computer or stereo is much, much more than a catalog of components or a parts list.


Electronics geeks know the really fun stuff starts to happen when you assemble those components into circuits. That’s where the significant work lies and where the actual function of the device is generated—take apart your computer, your PDA, your cell phone, your digital camera and you’ll see similar elements everywhere, and the same familiar components you can find in your Mouser catalog. As miniaturization progresses, of course, more and more of that functionality is hidden away in tiny integrated circuits…but peel away the black plastic of those chips, and you again find resistors and transistors and capacitors all strung together in specific arrangements to generate specific functions.

We’re discovering the same thing about genomes.

The various genome projects have basically produced for us a complete parts list—a catalog of bits in our toolbox. That list is incredibly useful, of course, and represents an essential starting point, but how a genome produces an organism is actually a product of the interactions between genes and gene products and the cytoplasm and environment, and what we need next is an understanding of the circuitry: how Gene X expression is connected to Gene Y expression and what the two together do to Gene Z. Some scientists are suggesting that an understanding of the circuitry of the genome is going to explain some significant evolutionary phenomena, such as the Cambrian explosion and the conservation of core genetic processes.

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Orson Scott Card, Intelligent Design advocate

Echoed on the Panda's Thumb

Orson Scott Card has written a long essay defending Intelligent Design.

Oy, but it is depressing.

It’s a graceless hash, a cluttered and confusing mish-mash of poorly organized complaints about those darned wicked “Darwinists”. He lists 7 arguments. Then he repeats his list, expanding on them. Then he goes on and on, hectoring scientists about how they should behave. For a professional writer, it’s just plain bad writing—I’m struggling with how to address his arguments, but he’s written such a gluey mass of tangled ranty irrationality that it’s hard to get a handle on it. Ugly, ugly, ugly…and why do these guys all seem to think the way to defend the ideas of ID is to whine about the perfidy of all those scientists? Not once does he bring up any evidence for ID.

Card can’t discuss the evidence, because he doesn’t know or understand the evidence. That’s apparent when he begins by praising Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, and regurgitates the argument from irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity is not a problem for evolution, and Behe is a tired old fraud who hasn’t had a new idea in 15 years. That Card would be impressed with DBB says only that he doesn’t know much biology and that the depth of his thinking is remarkably shallow.

Oh, well. I’ll try the brute force approach and discuss each of Card’s arguments in turn. This will get long.

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