Re: NCSE Contacts Every Living Scientist

From: Howard J. Van Till (
Date: Wed Oct 17 2001 - 11:35:09 EDT

  • Next message: Joel Peter Anderson: "Re: NCSE Contacts Every Living Scientist"

    After trying unsuccessfully to identify the agenda of the bit of sarcasm
    posted by Allen Roy, I wrote:

    >> I hesitate to admit it, but I have no idea what the point of this bit of
    >> tongue-in-cheek text is about. Please enlighten me.

    Joel Peter Anderson <> replied:

    > Have you visited the NCSE web site? Seems like this release would fit
    > right into the this list with nary a ripple...
    > 10/15/2001 - Gee Decries Discovery Institute's Misuse of Quotes
    > 10/14/2001 - Kauffman Rejects Intelligent Design
    > 10/12/2001 - Gilbert Rebukes Discovery Institute for Use of Quote
    > 10/3/2001 - Moore Corrects Discovery Institute's Poor History
    > 10/3/2001 - Discovery Institute "0 for 3" vs. Miller
    > 10/1/2001 - Coyne Exposes Discovery Institute's "old tricks"
    > 9/27/2001 - Congregational Study Guide for Evolution Series Now Available
    > 9/26/2001 - Discovery Institute Quotes Clark Out of Context
    > 9/25/2001 - Miller: A "Dying Theory" Fails Again
    > 9/17/2001 - Hanken, Pace give lesson to Wells, Behe

    HVT: So, led to expect some really slimy stuff, I visited the NCSE website.
    Here's a sample of the NCSE material to which Mr. Anderson called attention:


    National Center for Science Education
    Press release #94 10/3/2001: "0 for 3", The Discovery Institute Strikes
    by Kenneth R. Miller

    The Discovery Institute's latest attack on the PBS Evolution series provides
    a remarkable glimpse of the actual caliber of the scientific "evidence" they
    claim to have developed against Darwin. In a single paragraph in one of
    their press releases, they accused the series of having made three important
    "factual errors" in support of Darwin's theories. A close look at their
    criticisms, however, shows that it's the scholars of Discovery Institute,
    not PBS, who have just gone 0 for 3.

    Strike 1:

    "Evolution" . . . makes numerous factual errors that exaggerate the
    evidential support for Darwinism. The series asserts that the universality
    of the genetic code establishes that all organisms had a common ancestor.
    But biologists have known for well over a decade that the genetic code is
    not universal.

    Wrong. The genetic code is indeed universal. If it weren't, genetic
    engineers would not be able to swap genes between organisms as different as
    humans, insects, bacteria, and yeast and still have them work. For better or
    for worse, gene swapping does work and it works brilliantly. So, how did the
    Discovery Institute decide that the code is "not universal?" It turns out
    that in some organisms, a few of the 64 possible "words" of the genetic code
    are different. Do a few different words mean that the code is not universal?
    Only if you're willing to say that the US and Britain don't share a common
    language because elevators in the UK are called "lifts" and they spell the
    word "color" with a "u."

    It gets better. These slight differences in the code actually support the
    Darwinian concept of a universal common ancestor. This was a point made by
    Princeton University researchers Robin D. Knight, Stephen J. Freeland and
    Laura F. Landweber in an article earlier this year ("Rewiring the Keyboard:
    Evolvability of the Genetic Code," ," Nature Reviews - Genetics. 2: 49-58
    (2001)). Incredibly, the Discovery Institute, which cited this very paper in
    their "Viewer's Guide" to the PBS series, actually wrote:

    It is now clear that the genetic code is not the same in all living things,
    and that it does not provide 'powerful evidence' that all living things
    'evolved on a single tree of life.

    When Professor Laura Landweber, the senior author on this paper, read the
    Discovery Institute's analysis of differences in the genetic code, she
    minced no words. Prof. Landweber wrote:

    That is indeed a horrible misinterpretation, because it is clear,
    particularly in the tree in our paper and in others, that each nonstandard
    code is a subtle derivative of the standard genetic code and that all codes
    are derived from it.

    In plain language, when these "subtle" differences in the code are examined,
    they actually provide powerful evidence in favor of evolution. Not only was
    PBS right, but, if anything, they understated the extent to which the
    genetic code supports Darwin's theory. The status of this scientific
    "evidence" against evolution? According to Prof. Landweber, it's nothing
    more than a "horrible misinterpretation."

    Strike Two:

    Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller asserts that the "imperfect"
    wiring of the vertebrate retina proves that natural selection, not an
    intelligent designer, produced the eye. God, in Miller's opinion, wouldn't
    have done it that way. To arrange the retina as Miller thinks best, however,
    would render it inoperative.

    In the first show of the PBS series I pointed out that the light sensitive
    portions of the photoreceptor cells of the vertebrate retina are not
    positioned optimally to face the incoming light. Instead, they are placed
    beneath the neural wiring of the retina. This arrangement cannot be
    explained in terms of intelligent design, but is perfectly understandable in
    light of evolution. The vertebrate retina evolved as an outgrowth of the
    brain, and as a result its neural wiring retains its original arrangement,
    scattering the incoming light before can be sensed by the photoreceptor

    One can argue whether or not "God would have done it that way," but on one
    point there can be no dispute. The Discovery Institute is dead wrong when it
    says that the retina would be "inoperative" if it were arranged with the
    neural wiring beneath a layer of light sensing cells. How can we be so sure?
    Because that's exactly how the eyes of many mollusks are arranged. It will,
    no doubt, come as a great surprise to squid everywhere that, according to
    the Discovery Institute, their eyes don't work!

    Strike Three

    Beauty may indeed be in the "eye of the beholder," but is there any excuse
    for criticizing a statement that was never made? The third charge made by
    the Institute press release was that PBS had implied that researcher
    Dan-Eric Nilsson had written a "computer program" that simulated the
    evolution of the eye:

    The series leaves the distinct impression that a computer program has
    successfully simulated the evolution of the eye. But such a program nowhere
    exists " a fact recently verified by Professor Dan Nilsson (of Lund
    University in Sweden), the very expert that PBS interviewed about eye
    It's not at all surprising that Prof. Nilsson "verified" the non-existence
    of such a program, since the PBS series never claimed that such a program
    existed in the first place. Here are the exact words from the broadcast:

    Narrator: "At the University of Lund in Sweden, zoologist Dan-Eric Nilsson
    has developed models to show how a primitive eye-spot could evolve through
    intermediate stages to become a complex human-like eye in less than half a
    million years."

    Nilsson: "I've been interested in eye evolution for a long time, and in
    particular I've been interested in the question of how long a time it would
    take for an eye to evolve."

    Narrator: "Nilsson envisioned a sequence of stages by which a flat patch of
    light-sensitive cells on an animal's skin could evolve into a camera-type
    eye. As a first step, nature would favor any changes that made the flat
    patch more cup-like."

    Not once does the PBS program refer to or even imply the existence of a
    "computer program." Where did the "distinct impression" come from? It's
    impossible to say, and I would hope that at some point our friends in the
    Discovery Institute would explain the thought process that led them to write
    a press release complaining about a statement that was never made.

    The Discovery Institute's Box Score: 0 for 3

    The Discovery Institute has complained repeatedly that PBS, as well as
    mainstream science, has ignored powerful evidence against Darwin's theory.
    Unfortunately, when given a chance to say just what that evidence might be,
    they have consistently struck out. Those three "factual errors" in the PBS
    series? They actually come from the Discovery Institute's own "horrible
    misinterpretation" of genetic code data, their lack of knowledge of the
    mollusk eye, and their comically overactive imagination.

    Just like Darwin, and unlike the Discovery Institute, PBS got it right the
    very first time.

    Kenneth R. Miller
    Professor of Biology
    Brown University
    Providence, RI 02912


    HVT again: Now compare the content of the above NCSE Press Release with the
    "funny" one posted by Mr. Roy and approved by Mr. Anderson:

    > > 16 October 2001
    > >
    > > NCSE Contacts Every Living Scientist to Say That Discovery Institute Quoted
    > > Them Out of Context (From newswire reports)--BERKELEY, California.
    > >
    > > In a stunning, unprecedented move this week, the National Center for
    > > Science Education (NCSE), a pro-science organization based in Berkeley,
    > > contacted every living scientist on Earth to warn them that the Discovery
    > > Institute had quoted them out of context, or would soon do so. The
    > > Discovery Institute is a Seattle-based "intelligent design" think-tank that
    > > recently criticized programs such as the PBS Evolution series.
    > > <> "It took us a while to phone or e-mail every
    > > living scientist," said NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott, "but we did
    > > it. We've needed this sort of comprehensive response for some time. Now
    > > absolutely every scientist, anywhere on the planet, knows that anything the
    > > Discovery Institute writes, in the past, present, or future, is out of
    > > context." NCSE staffer Skip Evans added that the organization was still
    > > trying to contact deceased, still-unborn, and extraterrestrial scientists
    > > to obtain their condemnations as well. "We're making every effort to
    > > contact Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley, and George Gaylord Simpson," Evans
    > > said. "Yes, these dead guys are kind of hard to reach, but it's important
    > > that we try. We have to protect science." The NCSE would not elaborate
    > > on their plans to contact fetal or extraterrestrial scientists.

    Does this strike anyone as something that "would fit right into the this
    [NCSE] list with nary a ripple..."? More seriously, what sort of message
    about the Christian community is most likely to be conveyed by the 16
    October 2001 post?

    Howard Van Till

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