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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

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.

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

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