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Creationist critics get their comeuppance

Thanks to SPS for the link.

Creationist critics get their comeuppance

A couple of weeks ago we reported on the work of Richard Lenski, who has spent much of the last 20 years maintaining cultures of E. coli to see how they evolve. His paper describes how one of his populations evolved the ability to metabolise citrate, something E. coli cannot do by definition.

It's one of the most dramatic examples of evolution in action ever seen, and because Lenski freezes samples of the population every 500 generations, it is possible to go back and track how the ability developed. Lenski and his team are now doing so, and hope to have a detailed history of the ability developing, mutation by mutation.

All in all we thought it was a pretty excellent piece of research, and plenty of other sites agreed: Pharyngula, for instance, devoted a lengthy post to it. However, such an unambiguous example of evolution in action was always going to bring the kooks out of the woodwork.

First up was Michael Behe, the intelligent design proponent and biochemist, who argued in his Amazon blog that Lenski's work was in fact excellent evidence for intelligent design. His argument is a variant on the usual "it's just so improbable" line: the ability to metabolise citrate required several different mutations (true), which each have a low chance of happening in a given time (true), and it may even have been necessary for them to happen in a particular order (true), therefore Darwinian evolution can't explain it. Er, no, it just means it would take evolution a little while to manage it. 20 years, as it turned out.

However, a far more amusing response came from Andrew Schlafly, the boss of Conservapedia. This, you may recall, is an alternative version of Wikipedia that aims to "correct the biases" of the original site - it has, for example, a young-Earth creationist viewpoint on evolution.

Schlafly wrote a brusque open letter to Lenski, expressing "skepticism" about his claims and demanding to see the data. Lenski replied, saying that the data were publicly available in the paper, and correcting a major misunderstanding in Schlafly's letter (he misread our article as saying there were three new proteins in the mutant culture, which we didn't say and was not the case). Schlafly wrote back, in shirty tones, demanding the data in their raw form for "independent review" - meaning that Conservapedia should be allowed to reanalyse it, without it being mucked about by corrupt evolutionist scientists. And at this point Lenski must have had enough.

His response was long and detailed. He patiently explained the science (again), pointed out (again) that all the data were available, and explained that in theory he could send them samples of the bacteria so they could test them for themselves (but that in practice this was illegal as they lacked the proper facilities). But, for me, the highlight was this marvellous putdown:

It is my impression that you seem to think we have only paper and electronic records of having seen some unusual E. coli. If we made serious errors or misrepresentations, you would surely like to find them in those records. If we did not, then - as some of your acolytes have suggested - you might assert that our records are themselves untrustworthy because, well, because you said so, I guess. But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren't very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it's not that we claim to have glimpsed "a unicorn in the garden" - we have a whole population of them living in my lab! [] And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion. []

Michael Marshall, online editorial assistant

(Should the discussion be removed from Conservapedia, Ben Goldacre has mirrored it)

Labels: evolution, life, opinion, US



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