But sometimes rhetoric gets in the way of understanding. There seem to be a few (very few) Intelligent Design Creationists who genuinely want to understand the issues—even if their motive is still to push a scientific view of creationism. They pop up from time to time on the Intelligent Design Creationist websites. Andyjones seems to be one of them. (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.)
The problem is that these people are so used to referring to opponents as "Darwinists" that they have come to believe their own rhetoric. This is a problem when they're trying to understand something like junk DNA since they have steadfastly resisted learning about modern evolutionary theory and, consequently, they just don't get the concept of nonadaptive evolution. Unfortunately for them, this is the key to understanding the science behind genome evolution so they will never be able to engage in serious scientific debate about genomes.
There's a reason why horses wear blinders but there's no good reason for humans to avoid looking at things they need to see.
I'm replying to a post by andyjones (More and more) Function, the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE. That was the fourth post in an exchange between me and him. In response to his latest post, I'm working my way through five issues that Intelligent Design Creationists need to understand. So far, we've covered three of them.
Educating an Intelligent Design Creationist: Introduction
Educating an Intelligent Design Creationist: Pervasive Transcription
Educating an Intelligent Design Creationist: Rare Transcripts
Educating an Intelligent Design Creationist: The Specificity of DNA Binding Proteins
Actually there is that fourth thing I have learned: Larry does not like being called a Darwinist, or his theory Darwinian. The problem is, though, that without any Darwinian natural selection, neutral evolution would have no shape at all, so it would be rather disingenuous for a neutral evolutionist, for example, to pretend to disavow it altogether. For that reason, I think it is most truthful to continue using the term ‘Darwinist’ inclusively to describe those people. ‘Darwinist’ is an handy label, not an epithet.
This is the problem. We've discussing junk DNA and Darwinian natural selection isn't an important player in shaping large mammalian genomes. No modern evolutionary biologist "disavows" natural selection. That would be absurd. They all understand perfectly well that natural selection is an important mechanism of evolution. The best evolutionary biologists understand the modern population genetics view of natural selection—including its stochastic nature—something that Charles Dawrin never knew.
It is not "truthful" to continue to refer to all evolutionary biologists as Darwinists, especially when discussing junk DNA. This gets the Intelligent Design Creationists into all kinds of hot water when they start saying that "Darwinists" predicted junk DNA and that refuting junk DNA threatens "Darwinism." Real "Darwinists" have always been extremely skeptical about junk DNA because it doesn't fit into their adaptationist framework. If our genome really is full of junk then this is a blow to "Darwinism," not the other way around.
If the ID community is just using rhetorical tricks (i.e. lies) then that's one thing, but if people like andyjones are really trying to understand the science then they are allowing their prejudices to get in the way. The need to understand that "Darwinist" is not just a "handy label" to describe both the scientists who support junk DNA and those who oppose it.
You can't have a serious scientific debate about genomes unless you are familiar with the ideas of Michael Lynch and his book The Origins of Genome Architecture. You can't be up to speed on the latest ideas if you insist on pigeonholing everyone into the Darwinism camp. Intelligent Design Creationists need to make an effort to learn about evolutionary biology if they ever want to be taken seriously by the scientific community.1
In the scientific community, "Darwinism" is associated with adaptationism. Can you imagine how someone like Michael Lynch feels if you insist upon calling him a "Darwinist"? (A feeling I share: Why I'm Not a Darwinist2]. I'd like andyjones to read this passage from Lynch's book and see if it fits with his idea of "Darwinism" [see Michael Lynch on Adaptationism].
... the uncritical acceptance of natural selection as an explanatory force for all aspects of biodiversity (without any direct evidence) is not much different than invoking an intelligent designer (without any direct evidence). True, we have actually seen natural selection in action in a number of well-documented cases of phenotypic evolution (Endler 1986; Kingsolver et al. 2001), but it is a leap to assume that selection accounts for all evolutionary change, particularly at the molecular and cellular levels. The blind worship of natural selection is not evolutionary biology. It is arguably not even science. Natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms, and the failure to realize this is probably the most significant impediment to a fruitful integration of evolutionary theory with molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.One of the mechanism that Gould had in mind was random genetic drift of neutral alleles as clearly explained in the "Spandrels" paper that Lynch quotes. But that's not the point. The point is that "Darwinism" is a synonym for adaptationism in the eyes of many biologists. It's certainly true that Intelligent Design Creationists think that way.
It should be emphasized here that the sins of panselectionism are by no means restricted to developmental biology, but simply follow the tradition embraced by many areas of evolutionary biology itself, including paleontology and evolutionary ecology (as cogently articulated by Gould and Lewontin in 1979). The vast majority of evolutionary biologists studying morphological, physiological, and or behavioral traits almost always interpret the results in terms of adaptive mechanisms, and they are so convinced of the validity of this approach that virtually no attention is given to the null hypothesis of neutral evolution, despite the availability of methods to do so (Lande 1976; Lynch and Hill 1986; Lynch 1994). For example, in a substantial series of books addressed to the general public, Dawkins (e,g., 1976, 1986, 1996, 2004) has deftly explained a bewildering array of observations in terms of hypothetical selection scenarios. Dawkins's effort to spread the gospel of the awesome power of natural selection has been quite successful, but it has come at the expense of reference to any other mechanisms, and because more people have probably read Dawkins than Darwin, his words have in some ways been profoundly misleading. To his credit, Gould, who is also widely read by the general public, frequently railed against adaptive storytelling, but it can be difficult to understand what alternative mechanisms of evolution Gould had in mind.
Here's another comment from andyjones that illustrates the self-imposed blinders.
Aside: approaching biology with design heuristics in this way is a whole lot more interesting than approaching it from the Darwinian (I insist on using that term the normal way) point of view (especially the neutralists who assume pointlessness) which focusses so much on sequence comparison often without reference to function or functional constraints.He's never going to understand evolution as long as he thinks like that. Note that I'm not criticizing his "design heuristic" approach. I'm criticizing his naive dismissal of evolutionary theory. A dismissal that's based largely on willful ignorance.
In my discussion with andyjones I tried to show him the error of his ways. At one point he was talking about the ENCODE project and he claimed that "Darwinian theories" did not predict that 80% of the human genome would be transcribed. I tried to explain that "strict Darwinists" (i.e. adaptationists) were quite happy to learn that most of our genome might be functional.
This prompted a response from andyjones ....
By ‘Strict Darwinist’ who is ‘opposed to junk DNA’, I presume Larry means one of those naïve folks who believe in extremely high selection coefficients [tut tut and feel sorry for them]. To normal people however, ‘Darwinist’ includes anyone who believes in a strictly naturalistic, ateleological yet somehow creative evolution. That’s the core assumption of Darwin in the Origin of Species, and that is the one thing that hasn’t changed since, and is the thing that Intelligent Design takes issue with. As I pointed out above, ‘neutralists’ need Darwin’s mechanism too. Claims by Larry Moran and others that they are not Darwinists, seem a little bit pedantic and silly from where I am standing. Just saying (again).Poor andyjones. He's a prisoner of his own rhetoric. He wants desperately to have his cake and eat it too. He says that "Darwinists" predicted junk DNA and that "Darwinists" did not predict that 80% of our genome might be functional. At the same time, he claims that natural selection is really important in evolutionary theory. In fact, he insists that "'neutralists' need Darwin's mechanism too."
Educating Intelligent Design Creationists is proving to be far more difficult than I ever imagined.
1. That's clearly what they want. Or, at least, it's what some of them want. I think several of them honestly believe that they have credible scientific arguments in support of intelligent design. Problem is, they are shooting themselves in the foot whenever they talk about "Darwinism" as though it represented modern evolutionary theory.
2. You can be pretty sure that some IDiot is going to raise the objection that my use of "creationist" as in "Intelligent Design Creationist" is just as bad a sin as using "Darwinist." I covered this objection in: How Do Intelligent Design Creationists Define "Creationism"?. Post comments there if you dare.