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Monday morning levity: Louisiana senator asks if E. coli evolve into persons


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It’s a painfully familiar scene. A Louisiana state senator (Mike Walsworth) is asking a high-school science teacher about the teaching of evolution in class. He asks if there’s any direct example of evolution that can be taught in class. In response the science teacher settles on one of the most elegant and convincing experiments in evolutionary biology – Richard Lenski’s decades-long study in which he froze selected generations of E. coli bacteria while allowing others to evolve. The differences between the evolved and original bacterial populations clearly demonstrated evolution.

At that point the good senator asks if the E. coli evolved into a person.

The senator’s quip might be regarded as a particularly startling admission of ignorance – not to mention anthropomorphism – if it weren’t one of the oldest ploys in the creationist playbook. The march of evolutionary science has left creationists very few places to hide, but one of the most common, apparently killer questions they have lobbed from these nooks is to question the difference between “microevolution” and “macroevolution”. Microevolution in which mutations in amino acids lead to gain or loss of  functions is all well and good they say (well, not all of them), but presumably there’s still no evidence of macroevolution. The skeptics refuse to be convinced unless, as the senator helpfully points out, they see an example of a bacterium directly transforming into a human being.

Until now those of us who have even the most basic understanding of science have pointed out that such a transformation would be impossible if standard evolutionary theory is well understood since it completely ignores the non-linear, branched nature of the evolutionary tree and the role of contingency in evolution, not to mention the completely solipsistic belief that man must be the pinnacle of every creature’s aspirations.

But what we should be really pointing out is how fundamentally this accusation questions not just evolution but the basic scientific method. In questioning macroevolution, the creationists are essentially questioning the whole premise of scientific understanding based on indirect evidence, a philosophy most starkly pioneered by Galileo. Most of science including atoms, the Big Bang, black holes, biochemistry and the understanding of disease, lasers and computers is derived not from direct observation of things we can all see but from indirect but foolproof evidence gained through an exceedingly accurate array of instrumental techniques and conjecturing.

So if you are really denying “macroevolution”, you should be questioning the validity of pretty much all of science. Next time a creationist denies macroevolution, we should not be hard pressed to point out that he or she is effectively denying the existence of the material universe.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. lamorpa 12:29 pm 01/21/2013

    Mike Walsworth is a good example of devolution. He’s devolved from human to sub-human moron.

    Message to Mike:

    You mistake the strength with which you feel your personal faith-based beliefs for a mistaken belief in their universal truth. You incorrectly believe only your faith is valid. It is not just hubris to foist them on others, it is bigoted, and it should disqualify you for public office in this country.

    This true statement doesn’t even begin to address how you think your faith-based beliefs make the jump over to scientific ideas. For that, you have to have let your bigotry get totally out of control.

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  2. 2. frankblank 1:12 pm 01/21/2013

    Why, yes indeed, they do evolve into persons – of the sort known as he Loosanna peckerwood.

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  3. 3. Scientifik 1:45 pm 01/21/2013

    What an idiot, and a creationist. But I repeat myself.

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  4. 4. hamo-1 2:21 pm 01/21/2013

    The ‘quip’ is a joke – but your sophistication missed it. I think what Senator Walsworth meant to say was “show me the indirect but foolproof evidence gained through an exceedingly accurate array of instrumental techniques and conjecturing that exalts evolution from theory to fact”. Ash seems to be making quite an extrapolation base on the quoted quip.

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  5. 5. jwpowless 2:53 pm 01/21/2013

    Given the geographic location of most E.coli in human bodies, I would say they most likely evolve into Republicans…

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  6. 6. lclane2 3:42 pm 01/21/2013

    An important goal of public science education is to educate high school students well enough so they don’t ask questions like this.

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  7. 7. M Tucker 6:44 pm 01/21/2013

    Walsworth is a product of the Louisiana public school system and a graudate of the University of Louisiana. He just wants to make sure that all young Louisianans get the same poor education he did.

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  8. 8. elissa 6:47 pm 01/21/2013

    Hasn’t he ever watced a George Romero movie? At the very least, Night of the Living Dead?

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  9. 9. sdtony13 8:34 pm 01/21/2013

    What an idiot. The good senator suffers from “Upper cranial rectomosis!” and needs to pull his head out!!

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  10. 10. YangHui 8:59 pm 01/21/2013

    @hamo-1: Given the specific context of the question, which is referring to a specific experiment, it seems unlikely that Walsworth is referring to showing evidence of macroevolution in general rather than unreasonably expecting to see macroevolution within a single experiment spanning less than a human lifetime.

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  11. 11. SteveLaudig 9:55 pm 01/21/2013

    If Walsworth takes advantage of modern scientific medicine techniques, and modern scientific polling techniques then his both hypocrite and a buffoon—perfect representative for his population.

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  12. 12. Laird Wilcox 10:27 pm 01/21/2013

    You have no idea why he said this. I suspect he might have been sarcastic or it was an attempt at humor, but I don’t know that for sure. I think this is jumping to conclusions.

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  13. 13. way2ec 11:55 pm 01/21/2013

    Could a human evolve from a bacteria? Well, give it a couple of billion years, and who knows. But quip or actual “question”, most creationists won’t accept billion year timelines even though they view their god as infinite. Any chance we could ask that if their god could make a human from dust (as in dust to dust, ashes to ashes), could he make a human from E. coli? to which they would say yes, he could make a human from nothing if he wanted to, and then ask that if he wanted to make a human from a single cell over a period of billions of years, would that look like evolution? I think they would answer that since their bible said six days… end of “dialog”. The hardest part for me is that even if we put God into the equation “for them”, that evolution IS the intelligent design “process” that God in his infinite wisdom chose to use to create this world, that we scientists are simply studying “His Handiwork”, there is STILL no dialog. Even pointing out their god didn’t have the Earth spinning on its axis on the first day of creation, thus we don’t need to assign 24 hours to the first days is STILL met with closed minds. When they counter that God could have done it any way he wished and we say evolution could very well be the way he wished it, they can still resort to stuff like dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith, and we’re back to the pointlessness of even trying. I wish I could use ESP and or a time machine to get a message to Galileo letting him know that while under house arrest for the rest of his life, the creationists of his time would finally come to be silenced (if not mocked), a Pope would more or less “apologize” some 300+ years later, and let him view the pictures sent back from a space craft named in his honor. Thanks SciAm for posting articles such as this one. I need to to see rational reactions to such absurdities here in the 21st century.

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  14. 14. Stylos 12:13 am 01/22/2013

    “I think what Senator Walsworth meant to say was ‘show me the indirect but foolproof evidence gained through an exceedingly accurate array of instrumental techniques and conjecturing that exalts evolution from theory to fact’.”
    I don’t think Senator Walsworth would know what that sentence means.

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  15. 15. Padgie 1:32 am 01/22/2013

    Given sufficient time and with suitable evolutionary pressures, then yes. He just needs a slightly better understanding of how it all works. He needs to know that demo in the lab that afternoon is not on.

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  16. 16. Bluestrike2 2:36 am 01/22/2013

    Careful with your last paragraph. Let’s not tar and feather the solipsists by equating the creationists with them.

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  17. 17. K Clavier 3:34 am 01/22/2013

    @ M Tucker:

    I am a product of the Louisiana school system, as is my wife. We are both graduates of the University of Louisiana (at Lafayette), in addition to the Master’s Degree she completed at Louisiana State University (in the biological sciences, no less). Guess what? We learn and understand evolution as fact in our public schools here. Now, whether a student wants to go on believing that their faith supersedes scientific theory is on them, not the school system. So please don’t be so shallow as to assume that all people of this state or any other, regardless of its geographic location (i.e. “The South”) or whether its considered a “red state”, are as ignorant as our worst examples (i.e. Mike Walsworth). I’m willing to bet there are plenty of folks around your way that hold the same beliefs as our misinformed state senator, but I won’t go so low as to denigrate where you live.

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  18. 18. nanorat 3:52 am 01/22/2013

    The problem with the senator is that he suffers from spiritual and intellectual laziness. He wants life to be wrapped up in neat little bundles, regardless of whether they are true or not. To believe in Bible fairy tales, prevents him from experiencing the real majestry of God, which includes evolution.

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  19. 19. ScampMichael 6:08 am 01/22/2013

    I do not agree with creationists but neither do I agree with the author when he says foolproof evidence. Nothing is foolproof.

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  20. 20. francispettygrove 6:25 am 01/22/2013

    Comparing the use of indirect evidence in physics with the use of indirect evidence in biology is almost as stupid as asking if E. coli can evolve into humans.

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  21. 21. mike_midwest 6:54 am 01/22/2013

    As a side point, I am not sure this experiment provides evidence for Darwin’s model of evolution. It shows change over time, evolution, but not the mechanism, natural selection. Of course the teacher was cutoff so maybe there was more to it.

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  22. 22. oldvic 7:28 am 01/22/2013

    The correct answer is: “I know only of one such instance, and I’m not going to divulge that person’s identity, Senator”.

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  23. 23. gklott 7:39 am 01/22/2013

    “One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.” Robert Heinlein, 1952

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  24. 24. alta.smit 12:00 pm 01/22/2013

    Some actually did not evolved beyond
    E coli as they are turds
    L

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  25. 25. Sgt Stedanko 12:52 pm 01/22/2013

    Ah yes… the old life springing forth from a peanut butter jar argument…..

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  26. 26. bbuckley 1:48 pm 01/22/2013

    I am most definitely not a creationist, and I am rather a fan of science, so please take the following comment with that in mind. The article here is interesting, and I appreciate the viewpoint and insight. However, the last lines are distinct non-sequiturs.

    To quote: So if you are really denying “macroevolution”, you should be questioning the validity of pretty much all of science. Next time a creationist denies macroevolution, we should not be hard pressed to point out that he or she is effectively denying the existence of the material universe.”

    This conclusion stretches the bounds of what the evidence can support twice. The first sentence is a stretch, because one can in fact quibble with part of science, or one scientific conclusion, without tossing out the rest of it. Mind you, within the context of the denial of macroevolution failing to respect a certain scientific principle that is widely in use, the conclusion is somewhat more plausible, but it is possible for one to support the thesis that indirect evidence works in some but not all cases.

    The final sentence is a doozy of a non-sequitur, though, unless one accepts the implicit assumption that science somehow creates the material universe. Many lay people tend toward this assumption in their thinking, but it is an inaccurate presentation of the work of science. Science is a human method — a reliable but also fallible method — of trying to explain and make sense of the material universe, not a causal factor in the existence of that universe.

    Thus, what does actually follow from the evidence presented is not a denial of the existence of the material universe, but rather, a denial that our current scientific understanding of the material universe is the correct one. Which is, in fact, what creationists are stating.

    Let’s leave the bad reasoning to the creationists, shall we?

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  27. 27. M Tucker 3:59 pm 01/22/2013

    K Clavier @17

    One could look up the Louisiana Science Education Act passed in 2008 to find out what is currently going on in Louisiana public education. You are correct though. I should not have insulted the education Walsworth got or the educational system that existed at one time. He had a better chance than current students. And I’m glad you and your wife are among those who did not suffer from current educational policy and curriculum. I apologize to all Louisianans for my comments earlier. I recognize that no matter what nonsense the school system now tries to pass off as education one is always capable of self education. In my previous post I didn’t mention anyone who might have moved into Louisiana after finishing their education and I didn’t mention any other state, Southern or otherwise. Please don’t give me credit for something I didn’t do. You are right though other states have passed laws similar to Louisiana’s and their children’s education is threatened. I think if you check you will discover those states that have passed laws like the Louisiana Science Education Act are also red states.

    Sure we have ‘folks around my way’ that are ignorant buffoons on the subject of evolution and the history of the Earth but I don’t know any in our State Senate trying to pass laws like the Louisiana Science Education Act. To get into that office ol’ Walsworth had to have at least a couple of folks willing to vote for him at least once. So, the number of ignorant folks down your way begins to increase. Oh look, ol’ Walsworth had been a member of the State House but term limits made it impossible for him to continue with that. Wow, a lot of Louisianans must really like to vote for ol’ Walsworth. I hate to say it but it seems like an endemic problem for a fair number of Louisianans. And again, it is not restricted to Louisiana, the South or even red states but the number of afflicted individuals seems to be concentrated in those locations.

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  28. 28. ErnestPayne 6:08 pm 01/23/2013

    Mind boggling. How does that phrase go about keeping your mouth shut?

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  29. 29. ounbbl 10:04 pm 01/23/2013

    There is a theory of all possibility. Since evolutionism claims it is proved, e-coli can evolve into a human being, given (1) long-enough time and (2) purposeless mindless intelligence is working. No evolutionist can prove it cannot be; all they can say is lampooning, political to boot. What does evolution have anything with republic or democRats? Why not socialsts, fascists, or anarchists? Eh? It is quite possible e-coli mutates into different strains to become the ancestor of each of these and other ‘labelled’ categories. The way the public eduction is becoming ideology-driven in USA, there will be more wacky ideas than mine to come along.

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  30. 30. TruthHound 2:12 am 01/24/2013

    HA ha, if the dear Senator can get past the talking snake then intellectual discussion on the process of evolution is not going to make any impression on his creationist ideas.
    You could just see he was not even listening, just waiting to land the ‘killer blow’…
    No wonder you Americans are in trouble, you trust idiots to lead you…

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  31. 31. fsschlindwein 9:58 am 01/25/2013

    The teacher should reply that some bacteria ‘evolve’ into USA senators, given a day or 2 ;-)

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  32. 32. Roseann Johnson 6:22 pm 01/26/2013

    Obviously,the Senator cares nothing about learning the scientific details of the experiment or actually listening to the science teacher’s answers. He simply is grandstanding to impress any of his constituents who are as science-ignorant as he.
    Living organisms evolve. Otherwise we wouldn’t need different flu vaccines or antibiotics.

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  33. 33. WizeHowl 6:37 am 01/30/2013

    Wow I knew you Yanks had pretty stupid Senators over there but this has to be one of the dumbest and most ignorant!

    What gets me is how do these jerks get voted in all the time? how is it that brain dead morons like him can get a position of power in your Government, I know we have some damn stupid idiots here in Australia but our voting process is different to yours, or I thought it was. I thought you guys had to vote for these idiots twice?

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  34. 34. WizeHowl 6:39 am 01/30/2013

    Wow! I knew you Yanks had pretty stupid Senators over there but this has to be one of the dumbest and most ignorant!

    What gets me is how do these jerks get voted in all the time? How is it that brain dead morons like him can get a position of power in your Government, I know we have some damn stupid idiots here in Australia just take our Prime Minister, but our voting process is different to yours, or I thought it was. I thought you guys had to vote for these idiots twice?

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