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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Redeeming Haeckel

Post of the Month: December 2003


Subject:    Haeckel WAS Re: World Magazine's Daniel of 2003: Phillip Johnson
Date:       1 January 2004

Dr. Jason Gastrich wrote:
> John Wilkins wrote:
> > Dr. Jason Gastrich wrote:
> >
> >>>> You are apparently blind to the fact that an evolutionist that is
> >>>> indoctrinated with 20 years of the ToE is even less objective than
> >>>> a creationist with faith in the Bible.
> >>>
> >>> That is not a "fact." It is part of the Big Lie of creationism: that
> >>> there is a vast conspiracy to spread propaganda about evolution.
> >>> This stems from creationists' knowledge that their ideas rest on
> >>> religious belief and are unsupportable as science; therefore they
> >>> must attempt to show that their opponents are on similarly shaky
> >>> ground. This is simply dishonest, and helped convince me, after I
> >>> began to study the controversy, that creationism is fraudulent and
> >>> AiG is consciously lying.
> >>>
> >>> Once again, we see you engaging in disingenuous evasions.
> >>
> >> What was Haeckel's motive in pre-Nazi Germany? How about all of the
> >> known hoaxes throughout the years? How can you honestly say that
> >> there has been no attempts at propaganda and lies by the
> >> evolutionsts? Please.
> >
> > Haeckel's motivation for *what*, exactly? [And why the "pre-Nazi"?
> > Pretty well all German science is pre-Nazi or post-Nazi; what are you
> > trying to imply illicitly here?]
> I think you know exactly what Haeckel tried to do and I also think you know
> exactly why I said pre-Nazi Germany. Haeckel tried to deceive with
> evolution and atheism and it led to Nazi Germany.
> > Haeckel did his level best at classifying organisms; he defined and
> > predicted a lot of techniques for phylogenetic construction, he
> > observed and reported as well as he could the similarities in
> > development and structure between organisms, and overall he inspired
> > a generation of biologists.
> He didn't just do his best. He purposely lied and deceived. If you were
> me, this would be the time the atheists would start calling you a liar (or
> at least ignorant about Haeckel).
> > He had a number of failings, not unique to him, of being arrogant and
> > driven in part by his ideology (which was not anything like Darwin's
> > own philosophical views) and his German nationalism, but science is
> > not tainted by the prejudices of scientists unless they affect the
> > work, and so far as I can tell from reading Haeckel, this did not
> > happen at the observational level. His beautiful set of illustrations
> > of "the art of nature" remain classical and accurate.
> >
> > I think you are just casting about looking for slurs without the
> > slightest acquaintance with the people you are slandering, in the hope
> > that the ignorant will think you know more than you do.
> Not at all. I know what Haeckel tried to do and it was detestable and led
> to Nazi Germany.
> > If you want to engage on any of Haeckel's actual writings, I have both
> > Die Weltraetsel (Riddle of the Universe, 1911 edn) and The Evolution
> > of Man (1888 edn) at home, and I can lay my hands on just about any
> > of his works.
> >
> > Jason, you have slowly moved from a polite if uninformed creationist
> > to being a weasel. If you are the exemplar of that sort of faith, be
> > assured that as soon as anyone reads the source material you and those
> > you plagiarise cite so blithely, you are guaranteeing they will lose
> > that faith.
> On the contrary, you should hold the name calling and emotional warfare.
> Haeckel is a known deceiver and liar. Siding with him isn't helping your
> integrity.

So I was right. You can't support your claims, and refuse to look at detail and actual data. I do not think it is name calling to call someone who behaves like that in debate a weasel. It is simple description, and as someone once wrote in this forum, an aid to treatment. Get help.

So let me do the usual things you lot do when slandering the dead. Haeckel is remembered for many things you are not aware of. His science was at the time good quality, although towards the end of his long life he started to assume his opinion on any topic had the authority he brought to his science; which is a common problem with leading scientists (and not just scientists - a number of theologians fall squarely into the fish out of water class themselves, as do historians, economists, and other humans). Let us look at the things he is remembered for getting wrong.

There are, to my knowledge, a number of these.

1. The doctrine of the recapitulation of phylogenetic history in individual ontogeny (the biogenetic principle).

2. The hypothesis that developmental invagination falls into two or three layers in metazoans.

3. His idea that life formed in "primordial slime" at the bottom of the ocean through perigenesis (wave motions of energy through atoms).

4. His progressionism and political philosophy, called monism, and his German nationalism.

5. His diagram in The Evolution of Man showing the resemblances between fetuses of mammals and birds.

Now each of these has an element of truth, and the charge, often made (indeed made in his own period) that he had knowingly misrepresented data, particularly in the embryonic drawings, is hard to maintain in the face of close examination. Let us look at each item, remembering that he wrote an enormous amount, much of which is regarded as the foundation of entire disciplines.

1. Biogenetic recapitulation is partly true. Karl Ernst von Baer, before Darwin, had enunciated principles of developmental similarities in related organisms, noting that general traits and organs developed first, with the more particular traits of genera and species developing later. He drew a kind of tree showing this, which is, of course, one of the mediate sources of Darwin's idea of a phylogenetic tree.

Haeckel's mistake, discussed in Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny for those who want to learn, was to think that adult traits were developed in embryological development. But the biogenetic principle partly survives in a discipline known as phylogenetic systematics, also called cladistics, on the grounds that developmental lifecycles (from gamete to maturity) show traits in a von Baerian tree of relations, which show us as much of the history of organisms we can ever recover. So he was not entirely wrong, and given the state of play at the time (c1872), can be seen to have started things moving that were previously either nonexistent or moribund on science. His own phylogenetic trees, though, were subjective and simplistic (and inconsistent, but that's another story).

2. His classification of animals into groups corresponding to stages od mammalian development (monerula, nonnucleated cells; cytula, single nucleated cells; morula, organisms comprising a sphere of cells of the same kind and size; blastula, organisms formed by a hollow sphere of ciliated cells; and gastrula, organisms comprising invaginated blastula) is not accepted. It is a form of his biogenetic laws. However, while Haeckel did overgeneralise development, let it not be overlooked that he and his co-workers described the developmental process in some detail for a number of organisms, including Amphioxis. No shame in being wrong here.

3. Haeckel's idea of the origin of life is simply laughable, and was laughed at in his own day (although Huxley thought that sediment of dead animals dredged from the deep sea was something of this kind). It was done in sheer ignorance of physics and chemistry. Note, however, that he got his ideas from Goethe, not Darwin. This is true of the next item.

4. Haeckel's monism was a kind of positivism formed by merging Kant, Comte, Goethe and a reaction to the popular spiritualism of the day. His chapter on the soul (chap 9) in Riddle strikes me as a physicalist account of Aristotle's De Anima more than anything else. His "monism" seems to be a kind of confused thermodynamics. His treatment of Christianity is similar if memory serves to Adolph von Harnack's, and very positivistic. Overall, though, his views are just the pre-evolutionary views of others translated into evolutionary terms. They neither depend on evolutionary biology for their foundation (as they were around before evolutionary theory, and in point of fact go back to the Great Chain of Being, that neo-Platonic form of medieval Christianity) nor are required by evolutionary theory.

Granted Haeckel was in favour of an authoritative State, but so was Bismarck at the same time, and so were the Tories in Britain. But I have read a number of works on Nazi ideas, one that sticks in memory entitled "The Folkish Philosophy" or somesuch. The author claimed that the roots of Nazism go back a long way, and include Lutheran doctrine and practice more than anything else. Such "scientific" support for Nazi racism as can be found actually comes via the French sociologists such as Vacher de Lapouge (Hecht 2000, see also Voegelin 1998), as part of an anti-morality tradition that seems to have had nothing to do with evolution as such. But that either evolution or Haeckel was responsible for Nazism is false, so far as my own reading tells me, and I deny you to substantiate that claim. And even if you do, there are a couple of fallacies in play: one is post hoc ergo propter hoc - simply because Nazism follows in time Haeckel is no support for it being directly causally related; and argument from consequences - even if evolution and Haeckel did cause Nazism, that doesn't make it false. The world might, in fact, be that way. Of course, the exact same arguments are used to show that evolution leads to the exact opposite of Nazism - Socialism. I don't think this really works.

Hecht, J. M. (2000). "Vacher de Lapouge and the Rise of Nazi Science." Journal of the History of Ideas 61(2): 285-304.

Voegelin, E. (1998). The history of the race idea: from Ray to Carus. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press.

5. As far as the so-called fake embryo drawings are concerned, see Paul Myers' rebuttal of Wells: One thing I would like to note is that before photography was widely used, simplifying drawings to give the idea of what the observer was seeing down the microscope or in vivo was common - it was understood that these were teaching drawings, helping other observers with what to look for. Haeckel's points are not lost with photographs (something Wells seems uncomfortably aware of), so the issue whether or not he did oversimplify or leave out important items is really rather moot. Paul has some nice photographs elsewhere in his site - check them out.

So where are we left? You make vague assertions without references or knowledge of the person in question. You cannot show any support for your wild claims. I can not only give your claims better than you can, I can argue from the source material and secondary material against them.

Am I ashamed of Haeckel? No, I am not. I find a lot of his ideas, both scientific and political and even philosophical to be mistaken, but so what? In science (and in philosophy - I can't speak to politics), perfection is not a prerequisite from making a contribution, and we are not all required to sign off our assent to his, or anyone else's ideas, as we are in a religious context.

Your mistake is to think that history is some kind of a morality play, to be mined for supporting fables in favour of your beliefs, and to be used as a source of cautionary tales against those you disagree with. That ain't history; that's mythology. It is irrelevant to science.

So unless you can deal with the claims you make and support them from a basis of personal investigation, to merely repeat the slanders of others without any comprehension of the context of historical events in science or anything else, makes you a fool, and, if experience is a guide to your future behaviour, a weasel. Such an advertisement for truth you are...
John Wilkins
"And this is a damnable doctrine" - Charles Darwin, Autobiography

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Experimental Evolution of Complex Regulatory Networks

Post of the Month Runner-Up: December 2003


Subject:    Synthetic Biology and Intelligent Design
Date:       1 December 2003
Message-ID: bqgbeu$car$

It is a slow day pushing the mop here; students are engaged in studying for finals, and heap their trash politely in the corners.

So it seemed time to address some of Pitman's and others' more ridiculous claims about the inability of complex systems to evolve de novo. The ironic thing is not that such systems cannot evolve, but that once the basics of a regulatory network appear in metabolism the evolution of complexity likely cannot be stopped.

These findings come under the general rubric of the fields now known as 'systems biology' or 'synthetic biology' (wonderful buzz words, which is why I am now the co-director of the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology; here at Texas we leave no buzzword unused; applications by those with big brains and / or bags of cash encouraged). Now, while it is clear that Intelligent Design has so far attempted to squat, Sumo-like, in that territory previously relegated to the God of the Gaps (as others more eloquent than myself have stated), the rapid advance of these fields is making many of the gaps much smaller and more uncomfortable for the squatters.

A relatively useful case in point is the most excellent paper by Guet et al. (2002). "Combinatorial Synthesis of Genetic Networks," Science 296:1466. This paper follows up on earlier efforts in which researchers by and large attempted to 'intelligently design' new regulatory circuits that could oscillate, serve as chemical band-pass filters, communicate with one another, or otherwise exhibit a programmed phenotype. In so doing, it can be easily argued that the machinery of genetic networks is (a) modular and (b) can therefore be readily adapted by classic engineering methods. Indeed, this is in part the purpose of synthetic biology: to put biology on the same footing as, say, CMOS design (obligatory "heh, heh, heh" to all old-school organismal biologists; banging shoe on table, we will bury you).

However, what do such design efforts say about the ability of complex regulatory networks to evolve in the first place? Well, the ease with which phenotypes could be coaxed from cells that contained rationally engineered modular parts strongly argued that random associations of the modular parts should also readily lead to complex regulatory networks. Which is what Guet et al. (2002) demonstrated.

These researchers took several different promoters / operators and the repressors (lacI, lambda cI, tetR) that bound to these operators, and randomly assorted them in different combinations. This is truly the sort of 'experiment' that one can envision occurring during the course of evolution, as regulatory proteins and their binding sites moved about in genomes either through sequence evolution (of the rather short operators) or recombination.

What behaviors were observed once the modular genetic regulatory machinery was randomized and screened? Was it just a hodgepodge of useless signaling, essentially the equivalent of static or whitenoise? Not at all.

"Altogether, 5^3 = 125 different networks are possible .... [A] fourth transcriptional unit [was also added], in which the green fluorescent protein (GFP) expression was controlled by the lambda cI repressible promoter. The fluorescent signal acts as the network 'output,' whereas the levels of the two chemical inducers [lactose, for lacI and tetracycline, for tetR] were used as 'inputs' .... [We] searched the library for circuits in which the output is a binary logical function of both inducers. Examples of such 'logical circuits' are NAND, NOR, or NOT IF [Many, many examples shown in Figures 2 and 3; based on the characterizations shown, some 30 of the 125 original possibilities demonstrated coherent, complex responsivities.]"

Random mutations also figured into the evolution of some of these complex phenotypes: "We found a low level of point mutations, which, in some cases, modify the logical behavior of the networks."

For the most part, though, it was the gears and levers working together flawlessly following positional randomization that led to the interesting, emergent, and complex phenotypes. "... connectivity between different genetic elements varies from network to network so that 13 different 'topologies' can be distinguished .... [S]ingle step changes to the network connections, in which one promoter replaces another, frequently converted network operation from one logical function to another."

And then the beautiful, beautiful clincher. They say it much better than I could:

"From an evolutionary point of view, this observation suggests that ONCE A SIMPLE SET OF GENES AND CIS-REGULATORY ELEMENTS IS IN PLACE, IT SHOULD BE POSSIBLE TO JUMP FROM ONE FUNCTIONAL PHENOTYPE TO ANOTHER USING THE SAME 'TOOLKIT' OF GENES by modifying the regulatory connections. Such discontinuous changes, different from the more gradual effects driven by successive point mutations, may be achieved in evolution by natural combinatorial mechanisms like transposition, recombination, or gene duplication." (emphasis obviously mine; Science editors frown on that sort of thing)

Wow. Breathtaking. The modularity of the transcriptional, signal transduction (other papers), and other regulatory machineries made the invention of complex phenotypes unstoppable.

This is why it's sort of fun to watch the Behes of the world. It's rather like looking back at the "If man was meant to fly he'd have wings" controversy.

First there was the 747 / tornado nonsense ... then it was shown that function could readily emerge from random sequence, given fitness and replication (duh). So, Behe just retreated to a different Gap, saying that it wasn't fair (whine) because protein enzymes did all the work (his rather sad 'hedgehog on a highway' analogy). So, it was shown that randomization of nucleic acid enzymes themselves could lead to emergent function, and Behe's gap got smaller still. We'll have to wait until "Darwin's Cabinet of Horrors" is released before we can get the next pithy analogy ("molecular evolution ... is like a monkey paw with three wishes!").

Then there was the supposedly time-tested challenge that multi-protein systems could not evolve, because of the complexity of the interactions that would be involved. Except that, as we have seen, the proteins that tend to be favored in evolution over time are proteins (or circuits) that can inherently work well together (on another note: evolution of evolvability; also, think about SH2 / SH3 domains; two-component systems; G protein-coupled receptors and their attendant G proteins). Modularity of the regulatory machinery makes it sooooooo much easier to evolve new function.

Oh, don't worry, they'll just retreat to a new Gap. They always do. I'm sure Pitman will follow-up with some inane Gapology (whine, but where did the original networks come from? Answer: they evolved, based on simple nucleic acid:protein interactions, just as an evolved beta-galactosidase (ebg) regulon was shown by Barry Hall to evolve from cryptic genetic material once the regular machinery had been deleted).

But the writing is on the wall, folks. Intelligent Design has arrived on the scene just in time to be nuked by synthetic biology, which in a different world might have been called ... intelligent design (unassuming small letters), except for the fact that evolutionary engineering is still one of the most powerful tools available for generating phenotype.

And you just wait until we get going with you. Worms that live ten times longer? F*** that! I want my, I want my, I want my siRNAs!

Robble, robble, robble.


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