Responding to John Wise's Table Pounding at Southern Methodist University - Evolution News & Views

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Responding to John Wise's Table Pounding at Southern Methodist University

There's an old saying in the law that goes like this: When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the facts are not on your side, pound the table. If the responses to Discovery Institute's recent conference at Southern Methodist University (SMU) are any indication, the facts are not on the side of anti-ID faculty at SMU.

To be more precise, SMU biology lecturer John Wise wrote a letter to the SMU Daily, co-authored with SMU anthropology professor Ronald Wetherington, which made no less than 8 express or implied accusations of "dishonesty" against Discovery Institute.*** In 7 instances they claimed ID is pseudoscience or religion.*** Quite a feat for an under-700 word op-ed. His online response is no different. I wouldn't want to be Dr. Wise's table.

To be fair, Dr. Wise does attempt to pound some facts in his response. For example, his online responses to ID include quotes from Michael Behe. But some of these are invented quotes. In one case, which will be discussed in a forthcoming blog, Dr. Wise himself appears to have been the sole originator and sole user of an invented quote he attributes to Behe.

Regardless, nearly all of Dr. Wise's substantive arguments have been rebutted long ago by ID proponents. This is in large part because many of Dr. Wise's arguments appear borrowed from Ken Miller, or even Wikipedia. But before I provide a brief list of some of Dr. Wise's errors and mistakes (with links to responses), try this exercise for fun: Contrast Dr. Wise's table-pounding (see his letter or his online response) with some of our prior responses to Dr. Wise or Dr. Wetherington from the past couple years.

While their writings are liberally sprinkled with ad hominem attacks like "dishonesty" or "deception," etc., you won't find those words anywhere in our responses to them. Our rebuttals take the high road, employing objective scientific discussions devoid of personal attacks. Collectively they cite to dozens of sources in the mainstream scientific literature.

At the end of the day, however, table-pounding is only a likely indicator of who is right. To make a final determination, we must undertake an investigation of the evidence. Below is a brief discussion of 14 assorted errors in Dr. Wise's online rebuttal to Discovery Institute's recent "4 Nails in the Coffin" event at SMU. This decidedly non-exhaustive list of errors is sorted into three categories: errors of science (9), errors of law (1), and errors of table-pounding (4).

Part I: Errors of Science

Error 1: Missing Fossils from his "list of the different fish-amphibian transitions"
Dr. Wise name-drops a series of 9 fossils allegedly showing "fish-amphibian transitions." He lists the fossils in chronological order. However, his list has a major omission: it's missing any mention of tetrapod tracks at 397 Ma, found before any of the other fossils in the list which are supposed potential ancestors of modern tetrapods. As Philippe Janvier and Gaël Clément put it in Nature, these tracks "lob a grenade" into common wisdom about tetrapod evolution. Or, as Henry Gee put it, these tracks, first reported in January, 2010, imply that "an enormous evolutionary void has opened beneath our feet." For details, see:

Error 2: Discovery Institute Has Never Asserted "there are no transitional intermediates"
Dr. Wise claims that Discovery Institute would "assert that there are no transitional intermediates between forms or species." He provides no quote from anyone at Discovery Institute actually saying anything like that. In contrast, some Discovery Institute fellows, such as Michael Behe, accept common ancestry. While transitional fossils are rare and many overhyped intermediate fossils are of dubious significance, no one would say that there is not a single transitional intermediate fossil known from the fossil record. For details, see:

Error 3: Overstating the Molecular Evidence for Common Ancestry
In response to Discovery Institute's non-existent claim that "there are no transitional intermediates," Dr. Wise states "there is an enormous amount of scientific evidence in addition to the fossil record that supports 'common descent'." He then cites "commonalities as the common genetic code," "the huge number of related protein families," and "the relatedness of whole genomes (including those of humans and our closest ancestors)" which supposedly "reveal this common ancestry where ever it is looked for."

Given that Neanderthals are not thought to be our ancestors (they're thought to be an offshoot of the line that led to modern humans, or perhaps a sub-race that interbred with modern humans), it's unclear what "whole genomes" of our "closest ancestors" have been sequenced or studied by scientists. Charitably assuming that Dr. Wise meant to say "closest relatives," here are rebuttals to these points:

Error 4: Wrongly Claiming the Type III Secretory System means "Irreducible Complexity Fails" in the Flagellum
Dr. Wise claims that "irreducible complexity fails" due to the existence of the Type III Secretory System ("T3SS"). As this long-refuted objection goes, because the T3SS contains about 10 proteins also found in the flagellum, the flagellum is not irreducibly complex. In fact, this is not the correct test of irreducible complexity. Pro-ID scientists like Michael Behe or Scott Minnich properly test irreducible complexity by assessing the plausibility of the entire functional system to assemble in a step-wise fashion, even if sub-parts can have functions outside of the final system. What is more, phylogenetic data indicate the T3SS was not a precursor to the flagellum, and genetic knockout experiments (the proper way of testing irreducible complexity) have shown the flagellum is in fact irreducibly complex. For more information, see:

Error 5: Discovery Institute Embraces the Fact that Antibiotic / Antiviral Drug Resistance are Observed Natural Phenomena
In another example of Dr. Wise fighting against non-existent arguments from Discovery Institute, he apparently thinks that by citing antibiotic resistance or antiviral drug resistance that he is somehow responding to something we said. He thus oddly states:

I would like to point out to the Discovery Institute employees that the HIV virus, left unchecked can mutate every nucleotide in its genome in a single patient, generating every single mutation and huge numbers of multiple mutations every day.
Perhaps Dr. Wise should read Michael Behe's book The Edge of Evolution, where he would quickly learn that ID proponents fully acknowledge that viruses like HIV readily undergo all sorts of mutations--with little evidence that new functions can evolve. In fact, Behe gladly cites HIV evolution since it shows that even when Darwinian evolution is given its best shot, its creative powers are limited.

Wise also wrongly suggests that Discovery Institute thinks antibiotic resistance is medically unimportant. He calls our position "irresponsible" because supposedly "If all scientists held such a position, thousands, if not millions of people will die." Apparently Dr. Wise is not aware that ID proponents readily acknowledge that the evolution antibiotic resistance is a real--and dangerous--natural phenomenon. We also observe that it shows little about the ability of evolution to produce new complex biological features. In fact, medical researchers rely on the fact that there are limits to evolution to create antibiotic and antiviral drug cocktails that can stop resistant strains from evolving. For discussions of the actual ID perspective on antibiotic or antiviral drug resistance, see:

Error 6: Overstating the Length of the Cambrian Explosion
Dr. Wise must get nervous when he hears that essentially all of the major living animal phyla appear in 5-10 million years in the fossil record, because he feels compelled to state that "We have, therefore, a period of at least 25 million years and likely even longer for the animal body form radiations to have occurred," elsewhere alluding to a 50 million year "fuse" for the Cambrian explosion. The problem for Dr. Wise is that leading authorities (who are not pro-ID) have stated that the Cambrian explosion took place in only 5-10 million years. For details, see:

Error 7: Misrepresenting Behe's Arguments on the Blood Clotting Cascade
Dr. Wise takes the Ken Miller approach to irreducible complexity and the blood clotting cascade, misquoting Behe's arguments on this matter. Wise thus argues "Whales and dolphins lack Factor XII and their blood still clots. Irreducible complexity fails" and "Eliminate the whole contact pathway in Puffer fish (Factors XII & XIIa and XI & XIa) and their blood still clots. Irreducible complexity fails." The problem is that Wise quotes Behe out-of-context, since Behe expressly stated in Darwin's Black Box that he did not include the intrinsic initiation pathway of the blood clotting cascade (to which Factors XI, XIa, XII, and XIIa all belong) in the irreducible core of the system.

In Darwin's Black Box, Behe only argues for irreducible complexity for the components after the "fork" in the blood clotting cascade. Behe makes this unmistakably clear, writing: "Leaving aside the system before the fork in the pathway, where some details are less well known, the blood-clotting system fits the definition of irreducible complexity." Since Factors XI, XIa, XII, and XIIa all come before the fork, Wise's arguments don't touch Behe's argument. For detailed rebuttals to Miller's identical misquote-based error, see:

Error 8: Behe Didn't Say Dover Immunology Papers Were "Not 'Good Enough'"
Again copying errors from Ken Miller (and Judge Jones), Wise attacks Behe personally stating that "Behe when confronted by the brilliant lawyer for Kitzmiller et al. in the Dover Trial loses credibility as a scientist: 'Professor Behe was presented with fifty- eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not 'good enough.' (23:19 (Behe))."

As has been discussed many times before, Behe never said those papers were "not 'good enough'" and in fact Judge Jones copied this misquote of Behe's testimony from an ACLU brief. Instead, Behe actually said "These articles are excellent articles I assume. However, they do not address the question that I am posing. So it's not that they aren't good enough. It's simply that they are addressed to a different subject." For details, see:

Error 9: Wrongly Presuming Alu Sequences are Genetic Junk
Like many ID-critics before him, Dr. Wise is so eager to refute ID using junk DNA that he wrongly presumed that non-coding DNA was functionless. In particular, he cites Alu sequences as evidence that "Biological organisms are not intelligently designed; they are cobbled together". He writes:

The human genome (our DNA) is composed of 3 billion bases of DNA arranged in specific sequence. About half of this DNA is from the replication of a parasitic transposon called the AluI repeat sequence. Reviewing Meyer's Signature of the Cell, Francisco Ayala notes that the human genome contains ~25,000 genes and "about one million virtually identical Alu sequences that are each three-hundred letters (nucleotides) long"
Dr. Wise must be unaware of Dr. Richard Sternberg's devastating responses to Ayala which show clear evidence of function for Alu sequences. Not only is there direct evidence of function for Alu sequences due to conserved signals in the sequences, but the signals are conserved in a way that conflicts with the standard mammalian phylogeny. For details, see:For a few papers reporting function for Alu sequences, see:
  • Ling-Ling Chen, Joshua N DeCerbo and Gordon G Carmichael, "Alu element-mediated gene silencing," The EMBO Journal (2008), 1-12
  • Galit Lev-Maor, Rotem Sorek, Noam Shomron, Gil Ast, "The Birth of an Alternatively Spliced Exon: 3' Splice-Site Selection in Alu Exons," Science, Vol. 300:1288-1291 (May 23, 2003).
  • Wojciech Makalowski, "Not Junk After All," Science, Vol. 300(5623) (May 23, 2003).
Regarding the last citation, consider this discussion of function for Alu sequences and how neo-Darwinian thinking has hindered investigation of function for them. Note that when it says "evolution," it just means Alu sequences are found to serve functions which can then be preserved by selection:
Early DNA association studies showed that the human genome is full of repeated segments, such as Alu elements, that are repeated hundreds of thousands of times ( 2). The vast majority of a mammalian genome does not code for proteins. So, the question is, "Why do we need so much DNA?" Most researchers have assumed that repetitive DNA elements do not have any function: They are simply useless, selfish DNA sequences that proliferate in our genome, making as many copies as possible. The late Sozumu Ohno coined the term "junk DNA" to describe these repetitive elements. On page 1288 of this issue, Lev-Maor and colleagues ( 3) take junk DNA to new heights with their analysis of how Alu elements in the introns of human genes end up in the coding exons, and in so doing influence evolution.

Although catchy, the term "junk DNA" for many years repelled mainstream researchers from studying noncoding DNA. Who, except a small number of genomic clochards, would like to dig through genomic garbage? However, in science as in normal life, there are some clochards who, at the risk of being ridiculed, explore unpopular territories. Because of them, the view of junk DNA, especially repetitive elements, began to change in the early 1990s. Now, more and more biologists regard repetitive elements as a genomic treasure.

What's most amusing about this section is that Wise claims that ID is falsified by examples of so-called "cobbled together, non-sensible evolutionary design." Yet he recommends resources which claim ID is not testable, such as the NAS's 1999 Science and Creationism booklet which says intelligent design (and other views) are "not science because they are not testable by the methods of science." So which is it? Is ID untestable, or is it testable and false? The reality is that ID is falsifiable, just not in all the ways that Dr. Wise thinks it is, and it has passed many tests.

Part II: Errors of Law

Error 10: Uncritically Recommending the Dover Ruling
Dr. Wise uncritically cites the Dover ruling as if it is an inerrant treatment of the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design, writing:

Intelligent Design is not science and uses deceptive tactics to promote its acceptance. See Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education. See here for Judge Jones' fascinating, occasionally humorous, occasionally bitingly sarcastic and easy to read decision.
Of course Discovery Institute has never supported or defended some of the underhanded actions taken by the Dover area school board. But readers who would like to read our rebuttals to the Dover ruling's attacks on ID might wish to read:
Those sources discuss that just some of the problems in Judge Jones' Kitzmiller ruling include the fact that the decision:
  • Employed a false definition of ID that presumed that ID requires "supernatural creation" -- a position refuted during the trial by ID proponents who testified in court;
  • Ignored the positive case for ID and falsely claimed that ID proponents make their case solely by arguing against evolution;
  • Ignored and denied the existence of pro-ID peer-reviewed scientific publications that were in fact testified about in his own courtroom;
  • Ignored and denied the existence of pro-ID scientific research and data that was in fact testified about in his own courtroom;
  • Overstepped the bounds of the judiciary and engaged in judicial activism by declaring that ID had been refuted when in fact the judge was presented with credible scientific witnesses and publications on both sides showing evidence of a scientific debate;
  • Used poor philosophy of science by presuming that being wrong precludes being scientific;
  • Dangerously stifled scientific advance by taking the level of support for a theory as a measure of whether an idea is scientific;
  • Adopted an unfair double-standard of legal analysis where religious implications, beliefs, and motives count against ID but never against Darwinism;
  • Violated a fundamental cardinal rule of constitutional law by declaring a religious belief to be false from the bench of a U.S. government court;
  • Engaged in much judicial activism by presuming that it is permissible for a federal judge to define science, settle controversial social questions, settle controversial scientific questions, settle issues for parties outside of the case at hand so that his ruling would be "a primer" for people "someplace else," and declare certain religious beliefs to be false.

Part III: Errors of Table-Pounding

Error 11: Darwin's Dilemma Doesn't Misrepresent James Valentine
Dr. Wise posts a statement by James Valentine, a UC Berkeley paleontologist who is interviewed in the film Darwin's Dilemma. In the statement, Valentine makes it clear that he is not pro-ID, and disagrees with the film's pro-ID conclusions. Dr. Wise claims that the film "misrepresented" Valentine's views.

But if one reads Dr. Valentine's statement carefully, he does not actually officially accuse the film of any wrongdoing--he only gives a wishy-washy conditional warning starting using the word "if...". So does the film misrepresent Valentine's views? In fact Darwin's Dilemma, never claims nor suggests that Dr. Valentine is pro-ID. There is nothing in the film that contradicts Valentine's description of his own views in the statement posted by Dr. Wise. The film merely portrays Valentine as an expert on the Cambrian fossil record, and does not try to construe Valentine's views in any other way. For details, see:

Error 12: The IDEA Center Does Not Require IDEA Club Presidents to have Any Religious Affiliation
Dr. Wise's online response claims that "The IDEA Center requires its club presidents to be Christian." That's an odd claim since the IDEA Center has not had any requirements about the religious beliefs of club leaders for over 4 years. As the IDEA Center website has long-stated "There are no requirements regarding the religious beliefs of IDEA Club leaders or founders. (Indeed, there are currently IDEA Club leaders who are not Christians.)" Even if Dr. Wise was right on this point, it is irrelevant to whether ID is science. For details, see:

Error 13: Stephen Meyer is not "co-founder" of Discovery Institute
Dr. Wise claims that Stephen Meyer is "Discovery Institute co-founder." This claim has a chronological problem, since Dr. Meyer did not even join Discovery Institute until the mid-1990s, a few years after it was founded. This error may appear trivial, but what it shows is that Dr. Wise is uncritically copying information from Wikipedia, which inaccurately claims Meyer "helped found the Discovery Institute (DI)." Is Wikipedia where Dr. Wise gets his information about ID?

As an aside, Dr. Wise attacks Discovery Institute for allegedly not saying who the designer is, but then contradicts himself by attacking Steve Meyer for saying he believes the designer is God. Wise can't have it both ways. For details on this fallacious objection, see:

Error 14: Scraping the Bottom of the Rhetorical Barrel by Citing the "Wedge Document"
No anti-ID screed would be complete without mention of the so-called "Wedge Document." It is here that Dr. Wise did not fail to disappoint, citing and quoting from the "Wedge Document." Discovery Institute has responded to this non-argument many times before. For details, see:

***: Breakdown of Dr Wise's Letter to SMU Daily:

Express accusations of "Dishonest": 3
Other accusations of dishonesty ("doubt that the Institute sincerely..." / "pass themselves off" / "not interested in honest debate" / "a concerted effort to distort the truth" / "propaganda exercise"): 5
Total accusations of dishonesty: 8

"not engaged in legitimate scientific enquiry" / "fringe" / Pseudoscience: 4
ID is "religion": 3
Total attempts to marginalize ID with pseudoscience or religion labels: 7