In which I propose that creationist rubbish can be turned to gold (and discuss latest creationist “publication”)

Most creationist publishing is rubbish, taking the form of religious argumentation and shamelessly inaccurate propaganda. Creationist writers on both sides of the Atlantic are almost uniformly unworthy of any scientific or scholarly attention, and the only serious question among scientists is whether and how to engage creationist tactics to limit their damaging influence on science education and literacy.

It is quite unusual, then, to see a creationist group publish a scientific paper—containing experimental data—in a peer-reviewed journal. When this happens (about once every two years), it seems worthwhile to read the paper and see whether the creationists are at least doing valid experiments.

One group of creationist researchers is toiling away in almost complete obscurity somewhere in the Seattle, Washington (US) area at a place called Biologic Institute. It appears to be a branch of the infamous Discovery Institute, which is planetary headquarters of the intellectually-defunct “intelligent design” movement. We’ll talk about this crowd from time to time, but this post is about a new paper from the Biologic Institute workers. It was published this month in the nearly-non-existent journal Bio-Complexity, just in time to bring the total number of research articles published in that journal this year to. . . one.

The paper is a very interesting glimpse into the implacable ignorance of intelligent design creationists. I think the paper works well as a very clear example of how evolution does not work, and how a scientist does not think. It’s like really bad science fiction, or like those silly simplistic childhood whodunits. Such things can be used to clearly show how the world does not work.

In the paper, the creationists (to their credit) set out to test a hypothesis, which they state clearly. They wanted to know whether a certain kind of enzyme can be converted into a slightly different kind of enzyme through mutation. They asked whether one or two mutations could cause the conversion. Their data show pretty clearly that the answer is no. (The paper is a followup on a previous report, in the same obscure journal by the same group, that asked the same question and got the same answer. In the new paper they take the experiments a bit further.)

This is some of the worst published science that I have ever seen.

1. The creationists’ case is fatally flawed in the most basic sense—it asks a silly and irrelevant question, gets a negative answer, then generalises from the answer to the whole of biology and the whole of natural history. The experiments show that one specific bacterial enzyme cannot acquire the biochemical properties of another specific (and related) bacterial enzyme by one or two mutations. Evolutionary theory does not predict that related enzymes are necessarily—or even frequently—interchangeable in this way. But even if it did, a single failure to show the phenomenon would establish nothing about whether the phenomenon can happen, or how often it can happen. For heaven’s sake, it’s just daft to even propose that the failure to turn protein A into protein B through two tiny changes means that no protein could be functionally changed in such a way. It’s like asking whether hurricanes happen by observing the sea in a single place on a single day. The logical failure is profound.

2. To expand a bit on point #1: the creationists’ hypothesis (or research question) is a straw-man version of evolutionary theory. That question is: “Are enzymes readily converted to new functions by just one or two mutations in their encoding genes?” As you can see, the creationists imply that evolutionary theory predicts that any two closely-related enzymes in existence today should be readily inter-convertible by two small changes. A biologist with merely basic understanding of protein evolution (a graduate student, for example) would know this to be inaccurate, and silly to boot. In fact, the creationists’ article could be used to explain to an undergraduate how evolution is thought to work (in the case of enzyme families) by contrasting their straw man with actual theory and knowledge.

3. The paper fails to cite a vast and growing literature of studies that show exactly what the creationists don’t want the readers to believe. I would characterize the article as profoundly misleading. (Just one example. This paper from last year, from Dan Tawfik’s group, is neither cited nor discussed. Check out the abstract or lay summary.)

There are many other problems with the paper that aren’t worth discussing. It could never have been published in a reputable journal.

So how can it be used for good?

1. I think it could actually serve to help young scientists see how seemingly subtle errors can make the difference between a scientific hypothesis (that could be right or wrong or untestable or too specific or whatever) and a steaming pile so far removed from current knowledge as to be unrecognisable as scholarship. The research question posed by the creationists can only be recognised as rubbish by reading and considering real data and current evolutionary thought. (It doesn’t take much reading in this case, and the errors aren’t that subtle, but cut me some slack.) Once the slop is revealed to be slop, it could be instructive to discuss how the creationists went wrong in their thinking.*

2. I think it could be used to help young biologists explore the current literature on protein evolution and better appreciate the state of the art in that field. This might sound like madness, but by first reading this bit of silly puffery (the authors lavishly quote themselves and comically overstate the implications of what they did) students might find it a bit easier to focus on the key principles in real protein evolution. The creationists could provide contrast, in other words.

Now that I’ve written those thoughts, I admit they sound daft. And they probably are. But there is something fascinating about the paper. It’s a grotesque mutation of real science, crudely miming the work of Dan Tawfik and Joe Thornton and many others who have made protein evolution a brilliant and promising field. The contrast is stark, but contrast can bring focus. Just a thought.

*The Discovery Institute is notorious for its anti-science propaganda. Cynics will say that the creationists know that their experiments don’t amount to anything, and that they know that the presence of some hard data and a methods section give the propaganda a whiff of scientific credibility. I prefer to consider the authors to be uninformed, careless, and mistaken.

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