Sunday, 21 October 2012

Refuting Evan Wigg II

I have coffee, Mr Wigg's wonderful work, and the bullshit alarm is fixed after choking on the moth explanation... round two.
Genetics is not Evolution's friend
(I have decided not to bitch about the titles, we all need a little originality in our writing)
The first section of Wigg's magnum opus is devoted to genetics, possibly the area of strongest support for evolution although not according to this piece. It opens with a glossary of seven terms, one of which is totally wrong. A note to creationist writers: if you are going to attack the genetic basis of evolution, it helps to actually know what a gene is. It is not "the sequence of amino acids in the double helix of DNA". DNA is made up of linked nitrogen-containing bases. Dickhead.
Next, Wigg goes on the offensive against an unknown "amateur evolutionist": "EVOLUTION IS NOT RANDOM, FOR (probably not) THE LAST TIME. Variety is there because evolution causes random mutation, hence the variety." First things first, this unnamed pro-evolutionist has some phrasing difficulties. Evolution is indeed not random - mutation is random, but the effects of selection are not - but it does not cause random mutation, that happens randomly (the clue is in the name). Wigg makes the latter point, and then explains that evolution is a religious philosophy and therefore only as random as the person's thoughts *WEE-AH, WEE-AH* Oh good, the bullshit alarm is still working fine. Evolution through selection is a real and observable process, it is no more a religious philosophy than the theory of gravity.
Wigg's argument relies on the concept that mutation is a driving force of evolution and that if the (ridiculously provable) concept of mutation is debunked then evolution fails. Fair enough... would be nice to see some acknowledgement of the hard work of gene flow and particularly genetic drift, but we can't have everything.
We move to a history lesson, namely on the rise of genetics under Mendel (kind of, genetics really took off after the rediscovery of Mendel's work in the early part of the twentieth century) and the contemporaneous development of evolution theory by Darwin. Wigg suggests Darwins ideas on inheritence were untested and erroneous. *Wee-ah, wee-ah* Darwin hypothesised particulate factors of inheritence; untested, yes, but not erroneous; he didn't suggest his hypothesis was irrefutable, but if he'd read Mendel's work he would have had an evidential basis for inheritence. Wigg continues, suggesting Darwin was a supporter of Lamarckism and the concept of changes within the life of the parent being inherited by the offspring. He even offers a reference, nothing less than Origin, page 278. A brief glance at this passage, available for all on the internet ( shows nothing. The reference is poor, claiming to be from the 1902 6th edition, but the relevant page in the sixth edition is nothing to do with Lamarckism. Hmm... actually, the page Wigg means is page 178, that's an easy mistake, and Darwin does acknowledge that Lamarckist ideas could be correct. A point to Mr Wigg, and a round of applause. But let's not be too hasty; Darwin acknowledged that an alternative theory, at the time not disproved by an understanding of inheritence, could explain a piece of evidence. This does not mean he, in Wigg's words, "believed in the idea that variations caused by environment could be inherited". Wigg suggests that evolutionists have subtly changed that caustive agent of genetic variation to mutation from embarrassment. Bollocks, the bullshit alarm has started to smoke gently. Whatever, this monkey with a horn can replace it: *HONK*. That's fine. Science adjusts its views based on evidence; Lamarckism was wrong, and abandoned when it was shown that inheritence is genetic and that genetic material changes by mutation. It was not a cop-out, it was a correction.
Wigg seems somewhat stuck on mutation, and proceeds to describe the different types of mutation possible; fine, except he dismisses all but point mutations as being capable of changing genes (*Honk*) and claims evolutionists only care about point mutations as agents of change (*Honk*). He also confuses random assortment of chromosomes at cell division with recombination, and as such dismisses evolutionists claims of recombination as a force for change (*Honk, honk honk*). Thank you monkey, that will do. If Wigg knew what a gene was, he would understand that all forms of mutation can alter genes by changing codons and so proteins, and disrupting control elements. If he knew what recombination was, he would see that the swapping of chromosome arms is a major agent of genetic variation.
We move yet further, and return to attacking examples of evolution, specifically those boring brown birds, Darwin's finches. Wigg's description of the way environmental circumstance alters the frequency of beak alleles in the finch (he suggests that these changes happen in all the finches, it would be better expressed as just Geospinza fortis) is pretty damn good... but like so many creationists, he makes entirely the wrong conclusion, that this is merely reshuffling of existing genetic diversity and so not evolution. Evolution is the change in allele frequency in a population over time; the Galapagos finch is a good example of this. Wigg dismisses this as "not evolution" because it doesn't produce a new species; but he seems to have no grasp of the timescale required for the production of a new species, and, crucially, never attempts to define what he means by a species. Like many creationists, he equates the generation of new species to cladogenesis/speciation (the division of a group into two, with the two new groups diverging to form new species), and neglects the possible development of new species through anagenesis, where a group changes gradually over time until they are sufficiently different from their ancestor to be considered a new species.
Wigg returns to mutations, as ever, with a dissection of exactly what a mutation is. Or at least, what passes for a dissection of what a mutation is from someone who doesn't know what makes up DNA. He does well, describing the basic idea of mutation through copy errors and a failure of the error-correction process. And then he drops a bomb: "To date no evolutionist has pointed out such a mutation and if they exist they must be exceedingly rare" *HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK* Even horn-monkey could provide Mr Wigg with an example of a mutation like that. Moron. Wigg requires such a mutation to be positive, heritable and to add information to the genome. I could paper-dump again, but I offer instead MCR-1 locus mutations in the southern US pocket mouse as an example. A change in the MCR receptor in one group within an Arizona population of the mice lead to dark colouration, providing crypsis on volcanic rocks. Mutation? Check. Positive? Check. Heritable? Check. New information? What once was fawn is now black, so check. There you go Mr Wigg, an "evolutionist" has provided you with an example.
Onwards, ever onwards, and now the field of popualtion genetics is subject to Mr Wigg's deadly scrutiny. Watch it tremble. He begins by producing a paragraph of group selectionism, explaining how organisms must produce a set number of offspring to replace themselves in the population. *Wee-ah* Oh, horn-monkey has fixed the bullshit alarm. Good show. Organisms will optimise their repoductive effort to leave as much of their genetic material as possible in the next generation. R.A.Fisher is called up to the stand to suggest that high rates of positive mutation are needed to supply positive genetic material and overcome the effects of drift. Fine, Fisher said these things. We then move into some voodoo maths, cumulating in a conclusion of mutations can't be positive because the chances of the same mutation arising in multiple individuals is vanishingly small. *WEE-AH* The bullshit alarm has gone off, but there's nothing I can say; I have not got a frickin' clue what Wigg is talking about here. He seems to have jizzed some numbers onto a page and is waving it about and shouting. Wigg wraps the section up by complaining that mutations in the genome of catfish have not changed them into perch. *Wee-ah* This is another typical fallacy of creationism, the idea that evolution is some high-speed form of transmorphing one organism to another, like Harry Potter waving his wand over the catfish. Evolution is a gradual process of change of base material (e.g. the proto-catfish) into new species (e.g. all modern species of catfish) via small changes and envionmental pressures over massive periods (thousands of generations). It's not going to make a perch out of a catfish, unless some very specific circumstances occur over millions of years.
Beneficial vs. positive mutations is our next stop on the endless train ride that is this section... if Mr Wiggs managed to write a paragraph without an error in it, I'm yet to come across it. Wiggs argues that mutation can be beneficial but not positive, such as sterilisation in fruits, and that evolutionists get confused over these terms. Well yeah... because its a bullshit distinction with which evolution theory isn't concerned. Beneficial mutations of the type Wiggs discusses are human-centric uses of biology, rather than natural developments. Their place in evolution is limited to that caused by artificial selection. He continues, complaining about evolutionists getting confused with recombination. Quick check... nope, he still thinks recombination is random assortment and that mutation is only point mutation. *Honk* Horn-monkey, turn the bullshit alarm back on! He then proceeds to claim there are no acknowleged positive mutation, before giving a perfectly good example of a positive mutation causing herbicide resistance, and then trying to claim that we can't know if this was a mutation or a preexisting allele. HOW ABOUT IF WE LOOK AT THE PARENT PLANT THAT DOESN'T HAVE THE RESISTANCE OR THE MUTATION?
Endlessly we siddle on, onto the topics of Molecular Biology and Behe's Irreducible Complexity argument. Wigg makes so many errors here that my May Ball-frazzled brain is just leaking gently. First up, he claims molecular genetics does not support phylogeny; molecular genetics is now a key tool in our construction of phylogeny, Wigg's statement makes as much sense as saying bricks don't support houses. Next, he claims the long sequence repeats found within genomes cannot arise by mutation; well, no, not if you fail to grasp the concepts of recombination and meiotic fallure that produce the necesssary, as Wigg does. Wigg continues to claim that independent creation of the multitude of genomes is more parsimonious than the concept of evolution from a single ancestor, despite the existence of a highly-overworked creator that that implies. He finishes by talking about Behe's irreducible complexity concept, the idea that structures exist in extant forms that could not have been produced by intermediate forms, like a mousetrap. Wigg suggests that the cell is an example of this... I actually think the cell is a really bad example to choose, given the stunning variety of endocellular arrangements observable in extant forms from viruses to ourselves. The irreducible complexity argument is impressively bad, failing to suggest any solid examples whatsoever, and for a skilled debunking, I recommend Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable.
Just three more steps on this leg of our journey through Wiggs' torturous argument, and the next is Hox genes. Wigg suggests that Hox genes, which underlie patterning in all animal speices, present a potential mechanism for a punctuate model of evolution, as suggested by Gould. However, he then condemns Hox genes to one of Dante's circles by the words of "non-creationist" Christian Schwabe. The quote details the concept that while Hox gene mutations would be powerful enough to change phenotypes, the risk of deleterious mutation increases as the effects of the gene are widespread. No issue with that. Wigg continues with the quote afer an ellipsis: "Homeotic changes induced in Drosophila genes have led only to monstrosities, and most experimenters do not expect to see a bee arise from their Drosophila constructs.” Again, statements of fact; in fact no sane experimenter would expect to create a bee, because that is transmorphing, which is not evolution. Wigg then provides his own interpretation of the quote, suggesting that all homeotic mutations made since Schwabe's 1995 paper have only produced monstrosities, not transmorphings. But that is exactly what the studies look for; we're not trying to create bees, we're trying to learn about how patterning works! Wigg then finishes the section with some wittery religious bollocks that has about as much to do with evolution as I have to do with farming sentient peppers on Mars.
Our penultimate area is an attack on the abiliy of evolutionto predict genetic complexity. Wigg makes some vague references to the fact that genes do not map one-to-one with characteristics and that there is considerable redundancy in the genome. Wigg still doesn't know what a gene is. Wigg's points are still water off the evolution duck's back.
Finally we end this horrifically long section by looking at bent protiens, and particularly prions. From this point, Wigg suggests that protein structure has a role in gene expression within the cell. Fine; expression is a complex business, and structures of both proteins and nucleic acids are important. Wigg then makes another point that is, I think central, to the creationist's misunderstanding of science; he correctly suggests that there is a limited set of protein folds that will work, but makes a crucial misattribution. He says that because this is a limiterd set, it must be directed and cannot occur by random processes. The very nature of entropy is that only stable structures can maintain, so random processes MUST produce stable strucutres in the long run, as unstable structures will collapse. More to the point, it has precisely dick-all to do with evolutionary theory.
So, we have finally reached the end of Wigg's analysis of genetics. For someone who fails to grasp the basic ideas, he was able to write a lot... unfortunately, still nothing thus far to make me doubt evolution. Tune in next time, when Horn-monkey returns with the bullshit-alarm 2.0, to see if Wigg will succeed in his crusade...

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