I just watched Paul Nelson, fellow of the Discovery Institute and young-earth creationist, baldly lie about the views of W. Ford Doolittle, onTVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. We don't usually watch the show, but we happened to click into it while looking for something else, to see Paikin interviewing none other than Jerry Coyne, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, and sometime critic of creationism and its offspring Intelligent Design. We only caught the final few minutes of the interview, with Coyne giving a good overview about evolution and the evidence -- fossils, mol-bio, bio-geography, isotope dating, etc. Following this was a panel debate in which the participants were Coyne; Denis Lamoureux (professor of science and religion at U. of Alberta); James Robert Brown (a philosophy prof from U of T) and Paul Nelson.
Obviously, we had to watch this, the way some people have to watch pro wrestling.
Actually, we didn't watch the whole thing, but the fun started right away, with Nelson reacting to something Coyne had said in the previous interview segment about common ancestry, to wit: that Doolittle (a Canadian -- note the appeal to the audience's national pride), who has recently been elected as a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences (note the build-up of the prestige of the authority he's about to (mis)quote) is on record as saying that the traditional evolutionary "tree of life" was a pattern imposed on the data, and that it is not true that all life comes from a common ancestor.
[KeanuReeves]Whoa[/KeanuReeves]. Doolittle denies common descent? That's certainly what Nelson seems to be saying (and no doubt what he expected the TV audience to take away).
Well, once you've been in this fight for a while, you get so you can smell a selective citation from a mile off. Since my laptop pretty much lives by my easy chair, it took me all of a minute to get the straight goods on Doolittle. First clue is his university homepage, which reveals his research area as the evolution of genomes, particularly trying to unravel the early history of single-celled critters -- organisms that are known to swap genes promiscuously. This Google hit, where Doolittle expands at some length about his views, clinches it -- this isn't about Darwin being all wrong, there's no evidence for evolution, we aren't descended from apes, yadda yadda. It's just that, when you get down to the smallest organisms -- the bacteria and archea -- which also probably means getting back to the earliest ones (since something like that undoubtedly came long before us big multi-cellular hulks), sorting out the relationships is complicated by their habit of swapping genes -- "lateral transfer" as it's called. In fact, it's not even clear what it means to to say that B is descended from A in such a situation. This graphic shows Doolittle's revised "tree of life" (compare to the more traditional iconography). Note that all he's done (not that it's a minor change, if you're in that field) is to replace the strict branching pattern of descent with a network that branches and rejoins. But note also that the revision is entirely confined to the prokaryotes -- the Eukarya (which includes just about everything you can see without a microscope, including us) looks strictly branching. All the really "important" (ie. from our perspective - or the area where the evo/cre debate usually takes place, like human descent from apes) is left alone. The metazoa just don't do lateral transfer (or not so much, anyway) -- and even if they did, we'd still be descended from something else.
Do you think Nelson knows what Doolittle's real views are? (Almost certainly)
Do you think Nelson was just trying to raise a technical point for the sake of informing the TV audience of the fascination of biology? (If you do, I have this bridge for sale....)
Or was he just trying the familiar creationist line of "Big-shot scientist doubts some aspect of the current view of evolution, therefore our pseudoscientific ideologically-motivated views deserve a respectful hearing".
I can't recall the details of the conversation, but Coyne didn't let Nelson get away with it, nor with much else that he said. Philosopher Brown, an atheist, also got in a few good licks. Nelson yammered about molecular machines and how we have no idea how the first cell could have originated, and the only reason Coyne insisted on a naturalistic origin of life was because of his materialist philosophy. Coyne was having none of it: he was interested in the evidence, and naturalism is good because it works -- saying "God did it" every time we don't understand something has never lead to any new knowledge -- after all, it is within living memory that we didn't know that the Sun was powered by fusion. Should the astrophysicists have just given up and gone to church?
Lamoureux, an evangelical Christian who describes himself as an "evolutionary creationist", said some solid things about science, but then spoiled it by giving Coyne an altar call.
But Nelson just lied his head off the whole damn time.
(Podcasts of the interview and debate available here).