Bacterial Evolution Disproves Conservatism?


Creationists (I mean, Intelligent Designers) often cite the dictum by IDer William Dembski that non-intelligent processes cannot produce new information. From this they conclude that biological evolution is impossible. But what to do when a researcher shows bacteria evolving new capabilities?

Evidently, the right answer (pun intended) is to accuse the researcher of faking his data. Ars Technica describes the sorry effort by denizens at Conservapedia, the self-described "encyclopedia written from a conservative point of view," to attack the research of Michigan State biologist Richard Lenski and colleagues. Lenski grew thousands of generations of E. coli that normally live off of glucose. More than 30,000 generations later some developed the capacity to metabolize citrate. However, according to the savants over at Conservapedia this couldn't occur. Ars Technica explains what happened next:

Clearly, Lenski's bacteria appear to have evolved a significant new capacity. Fortunately, the residents of Conservapedia found a way out of this logical conundrum: Lenski was either misinterpreting his data, or he faked it. In an open letter to Lenski, Conservapedia's Andy Schlafly (an attorney with an engineering background) wrote, "skepticism has been expressed on Conservapedia about your claims, and the significance of your claims, that E. Coli [sic] bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study." Their solution? Show them the data: "Please post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it, and note where in the data you find justification for your conclusions."

Lenski replied, noting that the whole purpose of scientific paper is to discuss and display data and to use them to justify conclusions; the data were in the paper itself. He also pointed out he'd placed a copy of the paper on his website for those without subscriptions to PNAS. Lenski also spent some time reexplaining some of his conclusions, and pointing out errors and misconceptions in the letter he had received. This response prompted a second letter from Schlafly, suggesting he wanted to review the data underlying the data presented in the paper, and noting that the work is taxpayer funded, giving him a right to it as a taxpayer.

From here on out, standard Internet drama ensued. By the time of his next reply, Lenski had apparently read the discussion pages attached to the letters, and discovered that Schlafly hadn't actually bothered to read the paper he was demanding the data for. He has also discovered that some Conservapedia members were simply calling the whole thing a hoax, and accusing him of having engaged in research fraud. As a result, Lenski was apparently very annoyed, and his second letter is far more assertive.

Lenski again notes that the paper actually contained the relevant data, and that Schlafly's complaints suggested he wouldn't know what to do with any further data were Lenski to provide it to him.

To their credit, some Conservapediaists backed up Lenski. Ideological purity being more important than scientific accuracy, the dissenters have evidently had their accounts blocked.

If you want some really insightful discussions about biological evolution and conservatism, I highly recommend that you head over to Northern Illinois University philosopher Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism blog.

Whole Ars Technica post here.

Heads up: On July 12 at Freedomfest 2008 in Las Vegas, Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer and I will be debating Discovery Institute IDers Steve Meyer and George Gilder on the question, "Is there scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature?"

P.S. I tried linking to relevant items over at Conservapedia and couldn't get through.

Hat tip to C. Oliver.