Wednesday, October 7, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part twenty-five: Irreducible complexity evolved in the laboratory.

TL;DR version: ATTN Creatards & IDiots: Science wins at everything forever. Even disproving your own unnecessary-to-disprove bullshit.

I can't stop smiling. There are victories, there are triumphs, and then there is the work done with Escherichia coli by Dr. Richard Lenski and his team of bacterium-wranglin' heroes. This was brought to my attention by Silver Garou, who in turn got it from Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (chapter five, "Before Our Very Eyes"), in case you've got the book and want to play along at home.

This is pretty much what happened: Team Lenski put twelve as-identical-as-possible strains of E. coli each in its own test tube, then put less-than-a-day's-worth of glucose in each tube and let them sit overnight (in a shaking incubator, to keep them warm and mixed). The following day, a small sample of each "ancestral tube" was used to seed a "descendant tube" and the ancestral tube was frozen. Lather, rinse, and repeat every single day since 1988. I mean, holy balls, these docs are tough!

Dr. Dawkins carefully explains all the relevant bits which lead to one inescapable conclusion: E. coli, in Team Lenski's lab, evolved completely de novo two separate mutations which allow for the digestion of citrate. Each of these mutations amounts to a distinct step in the metabolic pathway, and neither "does anything" of interest without the other. In fact, what Team Lenski has discovered (thanks in large part to the beyond-Herculean efforts of one Zachary Blount) is that these two mutations were produced independently and thousands of generations apart.

The alert reader will notice that this is irreducible complexity. The Good Doctor's words here surpass me both in clarity and brevity, so I shall give him the stage:
There is a comic sequel to this triumphant tale of scientific endeavour. Creationists hate it. Not only does it show evolution in action; not only does it show new information entering genomes without the intervention of a designer, which is something they have all been told to deny is possible ('told to' because most of them don't understand what 'information' means [ask one of them to distinguish data, information, and knowledge, if you doubt this - D]); not only does it demonstrate the power of natural selection to put together combinations of genes that, by the naive calculations so beloved of creationists, should be tantamount to impossible; it also undermines their central dogma of 'irreducible complexity.' So it is no wonder they are disconcerted by the Lenski research, and eager to find fault with it.
Dawkins goes on to explain that Andrew Schlafly of Conservapedia has been making a stink about this (of course!), and PZ Myers lays out the whole sordid tale right here.

OK, time to talk myself down a bit. This is, at the end of the day, just another (rather large) nail in the goddamned coffin. I mean, people to this day deny that Elvis is dead or that the Holocaust ever happened, but they've been appropriately sidelined as the brainless twits they are, and this is another step in that process. Creationism/ID has been dead for years, the caricature of a cadaver trotted out by Ham, Gish, and Comfort at regular intervals for a viewing and a reading, no more a scientific account than a funeral sermon is a life. Perhaps now we can give it a proper burial. Or an improper one, for that matter. I don't care either way, so long as the ghoulish monstrosity is left as far behind us as we can manage.

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